Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Are you Tragic or Utopian?

“One of the curious things about political opinions is how often the same people line up on opposite sides of different issues,” begins Thomas Sowell’s book, A Conflict of Visions. What causes such sharp and well-defined faultlines between liberals and conservatives? It is a common question, and I was reminded of it moments ago by a post on a libertarian blog, The Examined Life. Its author postulated that conservatives believe in “the fallibility of humans”, and all their attitudes flow accordingly.

Sowell’s argument was a more sophisticated version of this, and was summed up beautifully by Steven Pinker in his brilliant book, The Blank Slate. Sowell had argued that there were two “visions” of nature, which he called the Constrained Vision and Unconstrained Vision, and Pinker called the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision. Pinker wrote:

In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. “Mortal things suit mortals best,” wrote Pindar; “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” wrote Kant. The Tragic Vision is associated with Hobbes, Burke, Smith, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, the jurist Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., the economists Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, the philosophers Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper, and the legal scholar Richard Posner.

In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’; I dream things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” The quotation is often attributed to the icon of 1960s liberalism, Robert F Kennedy, but it was originally penned by the Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw (who also wrote, “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough”). The Utopian Vision is also associated with Rousseau, Godwin, Condorcet, Thomas Paine, the jurist Earl Warren, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith, and to a lesser extent the political philosopher Ronald Dworkin. [Emphasis in the original.]

Needless to say, conservatives believe in the Tragic Vision while liberals believe in the Utopian Vision. Pinker says that these beliefs are hard-wired in us, “not … because attitudes are synthesised directly from DNA but because they come naturally to people with different temperaments”. He continues, “When it comes to attitudes that are heritable, people react more quickly and emotionally, are less likely to change their minds, and are more attracted to like-minded people.”

Isn’t that true?

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