I’m going to do something different in my blog today: I’m going to open up completely into my heart and soul and say what I really believe. My blogs usually offer political, economic, and sometimes social or psychological analysis, but rarely do I get into my deepest personal beliefs. In part, it’s because in many ways I’m outside the norm of my culture and society. But it also stems from my approach to discussion and dialogue.
To begin, I’m a perspectivist and a pragmatist. That means I view the world as offering a variety of different perspectives or interpretations of reality, none of which can be posited as absolutely true. However, as a pragmatist I recognize one has to “make one’s call” and act in the world, even if there is no way to know which actions are right. Moreover, pragmatism for me is social; I am not alone in the world, I must take into account others. I choose to try to find common ground with people and compromises ‘we both can live with,’ rather than adamantly and vehemently fight to try to promote my perspective.
To some, that’s a weakness, a lack of principle. If I hold something as true, then shouldn’t I stand by it no matter what, refusing to compromise? Indeed, isn’t it noble to stand by ones’ beliefs regardless of what the world says? That’s where perspectivism kicks in — I know that the perspective of another should be treated with as much respect as my perspective. Thus I can hold principles but compromise them for the sake of building a community or dealing with others. I’m a fallible human with imperfect knowledge; it would be vanity for me to assume that somehow my views are superior to all others.
The natural reaction to that is for people to mistake it for nihilism, and assert that this makes me unable to stand against things like murder and rape. Not at all. Choosing when to compromise on principles, and what principles to compromise is a practical matter, one where I have to weigh the situation and make my best call. In general, if my principles coalesce with those of the society around me, I feel comfortable promoting those social values. We as a society believe murder, rape, and theft are wrong, and I’ll operate to try to stop or prevent such acts as much as I am able to. When society is less clear — is taxation theft, is abortion or warfare murder, etc. — I’m less willing to simply act without regard to the perspective of others. That doesn’t mean I don’t have a strong view, only that I have a sense of humility about my viewpoint — I may be wrong, I shouldn’t impose my beliefs on others. Finally, when I have to choose to directly engage in or not engage in acts that reflect my own moral principles, I will choose to stick with my moral beliefs and act on them. I will hold myself to my moral principles, even if I don’t believe I have the right to do so with others.
So here goes: I believe mistreatment of other humans is wrong, humans are ends themselves, not means to an end. I believe that life is primarily spiritual rather than material. I believe humans are essentially part of a unified whole, even if we experience reality differently (from different perspectives). Therefore I believe that any act I take against or for another is the equivalent of someone doing that act against or for myself. I believe that reality flows in response to our thoughts and beliefs, and this gives us an essential responsibility for our lives, even if it seems we are the victims of fates unseen. Moreover, I believe we are eternal spiritual creatures, whose learning and choosing spans numerous lifetimes and kinds of existence. Therefore I have an abiding faith that whatever happens will happen for the best, given the choices people have made, and there is always hope for improvement and the healing of wounds caused by poor choices. Choice is our point of power, it is how we shape who and what we and our worlds are. I believe the key to all of this is love and forgiveness; no force in the world is more powerful. They are each part of the same essential force: grace. A state of grace is a deep understanding that love and forgiveness are two sides of the same coin, reflecting recognition of the inner unity of humanity.
Whew, I’m weird, aren’t I? Now, I could try to promote these beliefs as truth, persuade others, and use this blog to try to convince people that our world is not at all like we experience it. But luckily I was born with a reasonably logical mind, and I realize very clearly that I am basing my beliefs on my subjective reflection on life, my emotions, and the various things I have read and heard over the years. It is subjective. It feels right to me, life seems to work for me when I live close to these beliefs, I have problems when I start losing myself in the world of appearances and forget these beliefs.
In other words, if other people have different subjective reactions to life than I, they have absolutely no reason to share my beliefs. Just as a hard core Marxist materialist cannot demand I share her assumptions about reality and the nature of life, I cannot demand she share mine. And, in fact, most people don’t share my beliefs, so I have to be especially modest about any claims that my beliefs are accurate. I don’t know. They work for me, but I could be deluded. I’m OK with that, and that certainly keeps me from being dogmatic on most issues — this world could just be a meaningless materialist accident with spiritual beliefs relics of a past before we discovered science and rational thought.
What does this mean practically? Well, for example: if I followed my beliefs completely I would want to abolish the military, react to violence by doing as one wise man counseled ‘turning the other cheek,’ and respond to hate from enemies with love. Yet I teach World Politics, US Foreign Policy, and next semester a class on “War and Peace.” If I dogmatically took my beliefs into those venues, I’d be a rotten, intolerant teacher. Most people believe war is often necessary, that real enemies are out there, and we need to be strong to have peace. I have to be able to do justice to those perspectives, and spend very little time on the religious-spiritual-pacifist line of thought, because it’s not very common, and it comes from unprovable beliefs about the world. I actually think my perspectivism helps my teaching; I can persausively give the realist, Marxian, neo-liberal or any other perspective because I try to approach them on their own terms, not through the lenses of my beliefs. In fact, when I make policy recommendations as I did in “A New Foreign Policy,” I call for a smaller military focused on counter-terrorism, trying to figure out a way to compromise my core beliefs with ideas of others in society on what kinds of policies we should undertake.
But, one might ask, is that sincere? If I really would prefer no military, shouldn’t I argue for that? My response is that I have to take into account that my belief may be wrong, and therefore when arguing about public policy and actions taken by society, I have to adapt my beliefs to those around me — to compromise. Now, if I were drafted and given a gun and told to kill, I think I would accept being killed before I would choose to kill. Many people do make that choice. (There are more complicated scenarios when I’m not sure how I would respond, to be sure, especially if my family was involved). In other words, there is a difference between what I do to play my role in building a society, which is pragmatic compromise guided by principles I hold true but can’t prove true, and my own individual choices on the acts I undertake.
This also shows the limits of compromise. I will compromise on shared policies which do not require me to act directly against my moral beliefs. I’ll pay taxes I know will be used for things I think are wrong. But paying taxes itself is not against my moral beliefs, so I’m willing to do that. To those who look for a formula, or a logical conundrum of when I should or should not act, I have go back to my pragmatism. Ultimately there is no clear formula to when compromise is best, in each instance I make my best call.
So, what am I thankful for? I’m thankful right now that I can state what I think, and hopefully understanding people, even if they have a perspective very different than my own about life, can accept that I have my point of view, and engage in conversation and dialogue. I am thankful that I have so many friends and colleagues with different perspectives than mine, but with whom I can debate and discuss without it becoming some kind of personal conflict. I’m thankful for life, whatever its nature. Happy Thanksgiving!