Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Yin and the Yang: An Approach to Publicizing Broadly Libertarian Ideas

I had an idea today for a new way that one might go about spreading some of our (well, at least my) ideas to the public. The idea is to use the familiar imagine of the Taijitu -- the yin yang symbol -- to offer a nuanced articulation of difficult concepts that sometimes end up being articulated sloppily with other approaches. The concept of yin yang is that mutually opposing forces can be seen as interconnected and even as interdependent, so that each gives form and substance to the other. I can immediately think of two examples of how this approach would be useful:

Unity and Separateness

On one hand, we need unity in order to have things like property rights, right-of-way conventions, procedural rules, and arguably collectivized programs where burden-sharing is important to us. On the other hand, we need separateness in order to plan and lead our own separate lives according to our own values and goals. But sometimes our best successes as communities come from living and letting live, and sometimes our best successes as individuals come from putting aside our own interests and being good neighbors. When we understand unity in the light of separateness, and separateness in the light of unity, we can achieve each more fully than we could if we pursued either on its own.

Knowledge and Ignorance

We know a tremendous amount about the world in which we live, and our knowledge can enable us to do wonderful things. But one of the most important things that we know is just how ignorant we are. A little bit of knowledge can be an extremely dangerous thing, and sometimes the wisest action is to admit that we not know for sure what would be best. Sometimes when we allow for an open-ended result, we find out that we end up with something better than we would have been able to design ourselves.

These are just two examples, and both are clearly in need of development. But I'm finding this way of thinking to be very satisfying and elegant; you pose two seemingly conflicting values against each other and show how each helps give the other its shape. And I think that as a vehicle for getting people to think about complicated philosophical issues that are integral to the advancement of liberty (like the knowledge problem, reasonable pluralism, the separateness of persons, the nirvana fallacy, etc.), it might be helpful to use this tool to explain things in a way that can resonate with anyone. Plus, I think it opens the door for a libertarianism or liberalism that is softer, more understanding, and more reflective than the kinds of views that so often come from our camp. Leave it to the notoriously wishy-washy, hand-wavy guy to come up with something like this...but I like it.


Michael said...

Do you mean something like Roderick Long's "golden mean" approach?

"A little bit of knowledge can be an extremely dangerous thing, and sometimes the wisest action is to admit that we not know for sure what would be best."

I've been toying with this idea that people who are not experts in a field should be agnostic, i.e. not hold strong opinions. Just imagine if this happened with political philosophy!

Danny Shahar said...

Is Roderick's "Golden Mean" the same as the Greeks'? It would be his style... If so, I wouldn't want to categorically deny the connection, but I would be a little cautious of the potential for people to misuse the idea for an argumentum ad temperantiam. The ying-yang approach, I think, is more clear about the fact that there are multiple distinct considerations, rather than the problem arising from taking an extreme position on a continuum.

As for the idea that people should be agnostic, I think that's pretty reasonable. I'd caution against an overly restrictive conception of what it would take to be an "expert," but it does seem pretty fair to think that if you haven't had the opportunity to form a really rigorous opinion, you probably shouldn't be shouting at people. It would sure be nice if more people thought that way...

Michael said...

What do you think about Chris Sciaberra's dialectical approach:

"A thinker who employs a dialectical method embraces neither a pole nor the middle of a duality of extremes. … He or she presents an integrated alternative that examines the premises at the base of an opposition as a means to its transcendence. [The dialectical thinker] does not literally construct a synthesis out of the debris of false alternatives [but rather] aims to transcend the limitations that … traditional dichotomies embody." (quoted here, p.50)

Or is that still focusing too much on dichotomies, while you're focusing more on polychotomies?

Danny Shahar said...

I think the dialectical approach is extremely useful in doing philosophy, and I think you can probably see examples of me using it all over this blog. But in this post, I was trying to offer a framework for how people could explain ideas to lay-people who aren't familiar with them, rather than proposing a method for conducting philosophical analysis.

The approach I sketched here is built around the idea that people can get a subtler, more nuanced view of things if they see their ideas as a balanced response to multiple important considerations rather than as a single, consistent spelling out of the demands of reason. The approaches don't have to be built on different ideas: surely the advocate of the former approach would want to say that there is a reasonable way to balance the different considerations, and so in that way, the former approach is not fundamentally different from the latter. But I think that if people see how ideas are built on a balancing act, they will be less likely to fall into a lot of the traps that I think many (if not most) libertarians have fallen into at one point or another, where their thinking becomes one-dimensional and closed to new and possibly significant considerations.

Jeff said...

I love the Yin and Yang analogy. It will help my explain my libertarian philosophy when discussing local issues like emergency services and roads.


Danny Shahar said...

Thanks, Jeff! I'm really glad this helped!

Roselyn said...

I found a great deal of useful material here!

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