Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Moral is the Practical

A reader--who often does not agree with me--has suggested that I consider the practicality of the ideas I advocate. This is, in essence, a very good suggestion, and it is what I intend to write about more frequently in the future. In the meantime, the suggestion raises an issue worth comment.

Though the reader did not explicitly say so, he implied a dichotomy between theory and practice. This false dichotomy can be traced back to Plato (and perhaps before). It takes form in numerous ways, but each asserts an inherent conflict between the intellectual and the physical, that is, between the mind and the body. And, no matter its form, the physical is always regarded as crass and inferior.Whether it is art versus business, or love versus sex, or reason versus emotions, the physical is regarded as tainted.

This view holds that man's mind is at constant war with his body, that his mind can contemplate the ideal while his body must deal with the practical necessities of life of earth. While the mind can identify what is right, the body must do what is practical. Man can pursue eternal bliss by renouncing this world, or he can seek happiness here on earth. He can save his soul, or he can enjoy life.

As Ayn Rand put it, man is neither a ghost nor a zombie. He is neither a disembodied spirit nor a mindless corpse. He is a being of mind and body, and the purpose of his mind is to identify those actions his body should take. The purpose of the mind is to identify what is practical.

(Of course, what one regards as practical depends upon what one wishes to practice. If one wishes to rule over others then permitting individuals to act on their own judgment is not practical. But this is a different issue.)

To claim that an idea is good in theory but will not work in practice is a gross contradiction. By what standard does one conclude that an idea is good in theory? If a theory does not work in practice, it is not a very good theory.

Each individual has a moral right to live and act according to his own rational judgment, so long as he respects the mutual rights of others. In practice, this means that he may not use force or fraud against others--he may not compel them to act contrary to their own judgment--just as they may not use force or fraud against him.

Many claim that, while this sounds good in theory, it won't work in practice. They argue that many necessities, such as roads and education, would not exist if left entirely to the discretion of individuals. Consequently, government coercion must be used to force individuals to do their "fair share," to place the good of the "community" above their own interests. And they then proceed to ignore the abundance of evidence--such as crowded roads and an educational system that does not educate--that demonstrates that such coercive measures are a failure, i.e., are not practical.

Coercion is impractical because it is immoral. Coercion does not "work" in practice because it is wrong in theory. There is no dichotomy between the moral and the practical.


Mr. Moderate said...

When I mentioned good theory versus practicality, I was thinking of situations where your theory may be perfectly sound but impractical because you have to deal with other people. Those other people are often maddeningly difficult to convince that your ideas are worth listening to. This is not your fault, and does not imply that there are flaws in your theory, rather it recognizes the fact that you can't always achieve your goals by yourself. You need help from others. It may take 50 steps to achieve something that is crystal clear to you.

You might be surprised at how often I agree with the heart of your arguments. My opposition is usually based on practicality and the fact we live in a messy world. More competition in utilities would be great, but until we can transmit electricity and water without physical infrastructure, the chances of getting more power lines and water mains is vanishingly small. Remember, competition in telephony wasn't practical until cellular phones became common and cheap. I suspect we will see competition in electricity before we see it in water.

Brian Phillips said...

Mr. Moderate,
First, I appreciate your comments more than I might indicate.

I agree that it can be difficult to get others to listen, let alone agree. Contrary to those who think that we can regulate our way to prosperity, I understand that the mind can't be forced. All I can do is offer my arguments and leave it to each individual to judge for himself.

I also agree that the world is messy. But that mess has been created by the ideas that dominate our culture. It isn't something that is inherent in mankind. It can be changed, and it is my goal to do what I can to help facilitate that change.

As you note, at one time true competition in phone service was regarded as impractical until technology made it so. Technological development is a result of freedom. We cannot begin to imagine what ideas and developments would occur in a free society. Free of government regulations, entrepreneurs would find ways to deliver the values we desire, including water and electricity.