Stupid and Stingy: How the Left and Right See Each Other

by | Jan 6, 2011

The Left “explains” the Right’s attachment to its ideas as being due to stupidity. The Right “explains” the Left’s attachment to its ideas as being due to personal evil. Example of Leftist “explanations” of the Right: at a party, shortly after the failure of American soldiers to turn up weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, […]

The Left “explains” the Right’s attachment to its ideas as being due to stupidity. The Right “explains” the Left’s attachment to its ideas as being due to personal evil.

Example of Leftist “explanations” of the Right: at a party, shortly after the failure of American soldiers to turn up weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a voluble leftist was declaiming on how Bush lied to us about the WMD. I asked him, “If Bush knew there were no WMD in Iraq, why would he order an invasion, knowing that no WMD would be found and his lie be exposed?” The man turned beet red and answered in a thunderous voice: “Because he’s a MORON!”

Example of Rightist “explanations” of the Left: a letter to the editor in today’s Wall Street. Here’s the relevant part: “The well-documented lack of giving by many tax-the-rich advocates is entirely intuitive. Their solution is for the government to take from the rich and give to the poor. This allows liberals who do not consider themselves rich to wash their hands of any responsibility to help others financially.”

So “liberals” advocate welfare laws as a means of being stingy.

You see the blindness of both sides: neither side grasps that their politics is the product of their ideas, of what they believe to be true and right. So one side says its opponents are too stupid to see the true, and the other side says its opponents are too corrupt to do what’s self-evidently right. Neither side has any clue that political ideas are held for reasons (good reasons or bad reasons), and that their opponents hold a different philosophy.

Not seeing the intellectual, philosophical causes of political positions, both sides ascribe deviation from their own conclusions to personal failings–stupidity or immorality. They regard their own philosophic base as self-evident, as if philosophic truths were intrinsic in reality, available to the “intellectual intuition” of anyone who is not a moron and is not trying to evade them.

There are two reasons I can see for this intrinsicist attitude. The first is a relatively innocent one: philosophic premises are formed early in childhood before one may be conscious of reaching them.

Since philosophy applies to every aspect of human existence, to every concrete, the conclusions get integrated and automatized during one’s growing up. There is a crucial distinction between the automatized and the automatic. The automatic is what is the given. It is those physiologically based processes, like perception, which are genetically determined and develop without choice or control.

Digestion is automatic; sneezing is automatic; seeing is automatic. The automatized, in contrast, is that which one makes into something like the automatic by explicit or implicit choice. The ability to walk is not automatic but automatized; so is the ability to type; so are one’s philosophic premises.

But there is little or no introspective difference between the automatic and the automatized. Once something, like the ability to type, is automatized, it feels effortless and as if the ability had always been there. Thus one’s philosophic conclusions, automatized in childhood, feel just like seeing–as something self-evident, as the given.

So in holding that one’s philosophic opponents can’t or won’t see the self-evident, the innocent error is a failure of introspection: these people don’t recall how they reached their own conclusions. Indeed, they don’t even recognize them as being conclusions. Why is altruism the good? “Come on, it’s obvious.”

The non-innocent error is second-handerism. The vast majority of people form their philosophic premises unknowingly, un-self-consciously, uncritically, by conforming to what’s around them. This is, of course, a failure of independence. Even otherwise independent thinkers, such as the better scientists, succumb to philosophic conformity. Why? Because it’s hard. It’s not hard the way calculus is hard: it requires holding a vast context, keeping to the hierarchy, and not being able to look up answers in the back of the book. When you get a calculus problem wrong, the contradiction can show up very directly. When you get a philosophic problem wrong, the contradiction still shows up, but not directly, not immediately, and not with the force of perception.

You might wonder whether I’m doing what the Right does: explaining disagreement by personal immorality–only, in my case, referring to the immoral way that people arrive at and cling to their philosophic premises. Ultimately, no I’m not. That’s because conformity cannot be the fundamental explanation. First, we have to explain why a particular view is out there to be conformed to. If most people’s ideas on morality are absorbed from what Mommy told them, the question arises: why did Mommy tell them what she did? You say she got it from her Mommy? Okay, whence the first Mommy? And that takes us back to the role of the professional intellectual, and, behind him, the philosopher.

The bottom line is that intellectuals–the opinion-makers–became convinced, rationally or irrationally, by the arguments fed them by the philosophers. And the philosophers became convinced, rationally or irrationally, by the arguments given them by more original philosophers.

The basic reason why people think as they do in politics today is the strength (or trickiness) of the arguments of the most original and deepest of the post-Renaissance philosophers: Immanuel Kant. On hearing and following (approximately) Kant’s reasoning, there are only three possible responses: agreement, disagreement but without being able to refute Kant’s arguments, disagreement combined with the ability to refute his arguments.

The first response has been in the majority. Most intellectuals do actually believe that perception distorts, that reason cannot know reality “as it really is,” that morality demands sacrifice, and that egoism is subjectivism. The intellectuals don’t just mouth these things as catch-phrases, they have premised their life’s work on these disastrous notions. They think that these things have been proved, or at least that those higher up in the philosophic pecking order know a proof of them.

Now consider the minority who know there is something very wrong with some or all of these ideas, but are unable to refute them. What are they to do? They have virtually no chance of an academic career. You can’t secure a teaching position on the strength of “I disagree with every basic idea you people hold, but I can’t argue against them.” So the minority of non-Kantians are excluded from the academic world, and, largely, from the whole intellectual arena–because they can’t answer Kant’s arguments.

What about the third possibility: those who disagree with Kant and can refute him, can defend reason and egoism? That’s a minority of one: Ayn Rand.

Except that, thanks to Ayn Rand, there are now a growing legion of New Intellectuals to carry on and extend her anti-Kantian revolution.

Dr. Binswanger, a longtime associate of Ayn Rand, is an professor of philosophy at the Objectivist Academic Center of the Ayn Rand Institute. He is the author of How We Know: Epistemology on an Objectivist Foundation and is the creator of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z. Dr. Binswanger blogs at HBLetter.com (HBL)--an email list for Objectivists for discussing philosophic and cultural issues. A free trial is available at: HBLetter.com.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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