Column on How Not to Treat Ideas
How Not to Treat Ideas
Tibor R. Machan
The philosophical school I consider most sensible sees ideas as the means by which human beings gain understanding of reality. Ideas are what helps us navigate reality so we can live successfully. Which is why so much effort has been spent on developing, criticizing and analyzing ideas throughout human history, especially in the academy, not just in the sciences but in matters of public concern.
But in the modern age a good many thinkers have come to believe that ideas are actually expressions of passions or interests, brought about so as to promote the satisfaction of desires. Or, in other words, that they are simply ideology.
This attitude appeared to be what lay behind a question some journalists on TV were asking about Ron Paul. On a round table television program I was watching recently, several of journalists were discussing results from the various primaries and caucuses, and some of them asked, “What is Ron Paul after? What does he want? What is driving him?” This in part because, well, he isn’t very likely to win. And the answer that Ron Paul is actually interested in figuring things out and then teaching people something–for example about the US Constitution, about the Federal Reserve system, about the nature of money–just kept being overlooked. No, Paul has to have an agenda of some sort, like wanting to be a vice-presidential candidate, like getting appointed to some federal department, etc. Just advancing and defending certain ideas so as to promote understanding on the part of the electorate seems to be unfathomable to these journalists. There has to be an angle!
Here is one main source of the widespread cynicism about American politics. People look at candidates and office holders as always being out for something–power, wealth, fame, and the like. Wanting to be correct about political matters seems not to matter. Getting it right about the Fed or the US Constitution–that is, truth–is passe. Why?
There is also that related way of dealing with people’s opinions and ideas, namely, by explaining them away as having been caused by one’s upbringing. The often heard question, “Where is he or she coming from?” indicates this approach. When you hold that economic stimulus is folly or helpful, it doesn’t matter whether the idea is true; just explain it either linking it to the person’s special interest or background. Concern yourself with what put the idea in the mind. (Which implies, of course, that the answer to that question will also be treated as having been caused by someone’s background, history, or upbringing, ad infinitum!)
All of this may indicate why so many people in public life don’t really argue about the merits of ideas or positions on various issues but focus, instead, on the motivations and character of those advancing the ideas. And to undermine those ideas, then, will not require better ideas, sound criticism and so forth but, instead, the calling into question of the motivations and character of whoever defends them. Never mind if an idea has merit, ask, instead, what explains that someone holds it and is the motivation benign. Besmirching the thinker is what works, not criticizing what he or she thinks! So as to impugn Ron Paul’s or Mitt Romney’s or Newt Gingrich’s position, link it to some kind of questionable motive. He holds his foreign policy views because he has loyalties to certain foreign countries since his parents or associates were born there! He opposes the Federal Reserve Bank because he hates bankers who help his adversaries, not because the ideas are right and those who oppose them are, well, wrong.
I received an unsolicited email the other day that questioned President Obama’s loyalty to the United States of America, claiming, instead, that he is working for Kenya! I couldn’t resist replying that it doesn’t matter to me if he came from the moon or Mars, what matters is whether he has good ideas on public affairs. Immediately I got a reply saying well it should matter to me if I care about where this country is going.
This kind of reasoning bothers me not only because it commits the informal genetic fallacy, which questions ideas not because of their flaws but because of their origins, but also because I have been subject to similar dismissal of my own thinking: “You come from Communist Hungary, right? So obviously you would think this or that.”
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