Time Heals All Wounds.. And Then Kills the Patient
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Tue Jan 10 18:47:29 2012

I am an admirer of useful tensions in politics. Machiavelli's analysis of the topic helped lead to the notion of a balance of powers in the US Government (one of its most successful philosophical foundations). Machiavelli's tensioned governmental analysis was a bit different; he identified the monarch, the nobles, and the commoners as the interests, the monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy as their pure forms, and referenced the socratic notion of political corruption in identifying six actual forms of those governments, a positive and negative version of each. Machiavelli suggested combining them, noting that each has intrinsic flaws that may doom a nation but if they can be structurally bound into one government these flaws may be mitigated at the cost of introducing smaller flaws. The founders of the US reportedly took this to heart (just as much as unfortunately a number of bad national leaders have studied only Machiavelli's virtu and not his full analysis).

One of the more interesting tensions in political philosophy extends all the way into popular philosophy, touching on conservativism and liberalism as well as the realpolitic-to-idealism spectrum. This is the tension between pragmatic-and-often-traditional approaches to problems and more principled ones. Put one way, it's "how much do we dare to dream?". Both extremes are problematic. People can come up with very pretty notions that appeal to a subset of the people that would not actually work, leading to either massive regressions in the form of society (e.g. "police should not exist because there's no way they will not be abusive") or to stagnant injustice. There's also a tension between things that will presumably never work and things we can't transition to quickly.

A lot of this comes down to matters of judgement, which is surprisingly dependent on age. As a general pattern, youth tend to be more idealist (they don't yet really understand human nature, appreciate variety in perspectives, or feel the weight of tradition), and old folk tend to be more stasis-oriented (they're used to it, they have more to lose if society falls apart, and they'll be less impacted by injustices they've already managed over their life). Youth often experiment with very impractical philosophies (or philosophies that have consequences they can't foresee), old folk often reject anything but the most timid change.

I feel this tension very strongly. I am very proud of many of the aspects of civilisation, I am concerned about the ability of unwise change leading to regressions in our civilising and enriching mission, and I feel society must be protected. However, I also feel that we have a number of systemic injustices in our society, that we squander human potential and perpetuate misery, and that we allow things that are about as close a notion to evil as a moral relativist like me would conceptually permit. We have the responsibility not to drop the torch because of excessive risk, but we also have a responsibility to keep improving so human potential is better met. The status quo is not good enough, but if we fall it's a very long way down we might slip.

I am happy to criticise excessively idealist movements whose ideas would never work, and to criticise people who visionlessly accept the waste of the status quo. We need both commitments and both aversions to do the right thing.