After a weekend back home in Los Angeles celebrating Chinese New Year, skiing, and spending time with my mom, on my phone at LAX, I found myself drowned (yet again) in the torrent of history with news of the immigration ban, protests at airports, apparent protests by mobility services of protests at airports, and on and on. Just over a week into the Trump presidency, I found myself scrambling (yet again) to achieve personal moral clarity in a sea of liberal and conservative righteousness, and tonight, a day later, mulling over these topics with two close friends over dinner and tea, I reaffirmed (yet again) the importance of my “intellectual honesty” project as the most effective path forward (at least more impactful than protesting at an airport). And essentially I am holding myself (yet again) to the goal of making this vague project concept explicit as soon as possible, for me and for everyone I interact with.
So despite being in the middle of a busy workweek, I will do my best to summarize what I mean by an “intellectual honesty” project, and hopefully get constructive feedback to help refine these ideas into a future formal work.
We live in human societies that have reached a level of complexity, relative to the dawn of humanity, such that we require increasingly sophisticated tools to support and sustain our collective well-being. Those tools range from technological systems (like energy and mobility) to knowledge systems (like language and science) to economic and political systems (like capitalism and governance). Of the last category, governance, arguably the most important tool we’ve invented is policy, aka rules of law, which theoretically are institutionalizations of good ideas. But given that there is always some amount of subjectivity in how we evaluate what a “good idea” is (i.e. we don’t agree on our value systems, our value systems may change over time), then we have a supplementary tool called politics which allows us to decide who creates policy. In our representative democracy, our political disagreements boil down to differences in those value systems.
I believe our value systems, aka our systems of evaluating right and wrong, have two distinct components. One is our fundamental subjective goals, aka the values themselves. The other is our methodology of interpreting objective information, aka analyzing our reality in relation to those values. Both components feature a variety of possible outcomes. For example, we can have different values across various spectra, like selfishness vs. selflessness, equality of opportunity vs. equality of outcome. But we can also employ very different means of understanding our reality, from righteous dogma to painstaking empiricism and reason.
Given the framework described above, I would evaluate our current political climate in the following way. It is clear that the “left” and “right” have different centers of gravity on the spectra mentioned above, but it is less clear that both the “left” and “right” have similar vulnerability and susceptibility to dogmatic and biased thinking over reason. Both Democrats and Republicans are equally capable of distorting facts, intentionally and unintentionally. One key example of flawed reasoning is confirmation bias, aka tribalism, which we inherited from our early humanity and contributes to the increasing polarization and distortion of our modern politics.
I find myself in a purgatory of sorts, in which my greatest concern is for the degradation of empirical reasoning, which I believe is the best method humans have to navigate reality. To this end, I am critical of righteousness and poor heuristics on both sides of the political spectrum, and would like to reel the majority of people back to a more nuanced and critical employment of reason which should tend to lead to a convergence on centrist and moderate policies. This is the heart of my conception of “intellectual honesty” and is fundamental apolitical. But at the same time, my personal value system, though not fully realized, is based on a subjective goal of “maximizing universal well-being”, which is ideologically left of center. As a result, my essential worldview is liberal, but my individual policy views may be liberal or conservative on a case-by-case basis, and my typical reaction to an immediate political issue is, more often than not: “Need more information”. In other words, if you and I both identify as liberals, we may be comrades in the overall war but fighting very different battles on the ground.
I’ve love to hear your thoughts and criticisms of this first passage. Later this week: a breakdown of my personal value system, conceptualized as a journey through a dungeon of chambers and keys.