Conservatism, Elections, and the Kantian Chasm

October 27, 2012 § 19 Comments

The conservative disposition is to not rock the boat: things could be worse, and often enough efforts to make things better actually backfire and make things worse.  In general this is a pretty wise and commonsense disposition to have.

Beyond simple incomprehension and outright refusal to grant manifest premises, the most common objection I get to my voting arguments is that if enough people did as I do the bad guys would win.   Sure, the abstract Kantian idea that you should act as you think everyone should act is nice in theory.  But the reality is that things can get worse, and we will never get to the point where everyone refuses to endorse evil.   If we manage to achieve relevance at all, we’ll just get to the point where the moral “idealists” become a large enough body of conscientious objectors that the bad guys will take over completely.  We’ll fall into the Kantian chasm:

Kantian Khasm

There are several problems with this view.

In the first place, as I’ve argued before, reality is not linear.  The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse, contains a bad premise.  That “all else equal” works reasonably well in a very narrow range of engineering problems does not imply that it is a useful model of human society. “All else equal” is one of those assumptions that will turn on you and eat you alive once things start to get even marginally complex.

In the second place, reality is not static.   In case you haven’t noticed, for anyone defending traditional morality things aren’t getting better, they are getting worse.   It makes no sense to defend the hill you are standing on when it is sinking into an ocean of nihilistic hedonism, aided and abetted by the very people whose team you support.  The hill we are standing on is one where our society has committed mass murder of the innocent on a literally unprecedented scale.  The Nazis and the Communists have nothing on us when it comes to raw body count, and we’ve explored areas of depravity that it never occurred to them to explore.   It isn’t the conscientious objector who refuses to endorse the lesser evil and the liberal consensus that forces it upon us who is admitting defeat and surrendering.   That modern conservatives have decided to live under their own Treaty of Versailles is an admission of abject surrender, dhimmitude under the nihilist-hedonist  caliphate.

In the third place, another aspect of the conservative disposition is realism: to face reality as it is actually given to us, and to defend what is good in it without becoming enslaved to some theoretical ideology.  It is this third tendency that makes it worth the bother to even talk to conservatives.  But I think the biggest problem is that, ironically, conservatives have failed to face the full extent of our political reality.   Adopting a semi-Kantian idea that despite our individual lack of influence we should idealistically act as pragmatists is not rational.

The cloak of prosperity has hidden the bodies far enough out of sight that we don’t have to really face them, and the band plays on.

§ 19 Responses to Conservatism, Elections, and the Kantian Chasm

  • Mark P Shea says:

    A Kreitzbergian chart! What’s not to love?

  • Tom paints with a nerdtastic matlabarrific brush. I just draw PowerPoint cartoons.

  • William Luse says:

    Was this provoked by my comment to your previous post? In case it was, you’ll note I did not disagree with you. It was just a poorly veiled counsel to admit the consequence of doing as you do – the bad guys will always win. I think you ought to be willing to say it outright. It is a conclusion this post, with its bounty of links to other posts, does nothing to invalidate. (If that was your purpose; frankly, I’m not sure what your purpose was.) It “faces reality.” That doesn’t mean that doing as you do is wrong. In this particular election, I hope it’s not, because I’m doing it too. I do, however, with some modification, subscribe to “The idea that if enough people did as I do, all else equal, things would get worse.” The modification is that things “might” get worse. Or they might get moderately better while still remaining very bad. In either case, not voting is not the cause of the badness. It is caused by bad people voting for bad candidates. My problem is with the people; yours seems to be with voting itself. And you could be right about that, certainly at this moment in history. What Little Johnny needs to know is that not voting will not change anything, as neither will voting. The bad guys are always going to win because there are too many of them. Maybe the point ought to be that winning isn’t important, except insofar as one does not gamble away his soul on a vote that has infinitely less chance of winning anything than a little round ball on a roulette wheel in Vegas.

  • Bill:
    Was this provoked by my comment to your previous post?

    No, I don’t understand your POV to be the Kantian Chasm.

    I was planning on posting this for a while; actually I would have liked to do a much better job polishing the prose before posting it, but things are too busy in the real world and I wouldn’t get to it before election day if I were to play the perfectionist.

    It was just a poorly veiled counsel to admit the consequence of doing as you do – the bad guys will always win.

    That isn’t a consequence of doing as I do. That is a consequence of the circumstances we are in, and there isn’t anything I can do about it, at least in the short term.

    Even if something comes of the efforts of conscientious objectors in the long term (generations), that is the work of Providence not me.

    It is caused by bad people voting for bad candidates. My problem is with the people; yours seems to be with voting itself.

    Both/and, not either/or. Lex orandi, lex credendi.

    What Little Johnny needs to know is that not voting will not change anything, as neither will voting.

    I don’t agree, at least as a possibility. Continuing down the path we are going will not alter our course in a better direction; that is for sure. Conscientious objection will change the course of LJ’s life, in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle. This will also change the people around LJ. From such small sparks great bonfires are born, though that is in the hands of Providence.

    I do think that people vote in order to feel powerful: to feel like they have a say, when in fact they do not have a say. Taking the long view is hard. Being objective about our powerlessness is hard. It requires us to accept that in real life, things often get worse before they get better. In real life, we don’t know the course that things are going to take. We don’t know whether, even if things ultimately get better, we are going to die before we see it. This is hard, but it is reality. Providence is reality; Man pulling the levers of the big machine to create the future he envisions is not. We all learn this before we die: some sooner, some later, but all of us by the very end.

  • William Luse says:

    Now those last two paragraphs were better than the post.

    “Conscientious objection will change the course of LJ’s life, in ways sometimes subtle and sometimes less subtle. ”

    Yes, his first duty is to his own soul, not that of the polity. By “not change anything” I meant those ‘outcome dependent’ results you talk about.

    You last paragraph is really what I mean by ‘the bad guys will always win.’ Sure, providence can work a great miracle. Absent that, the above applies. I don’t expect to see it in my lifetime. I would be happy to be wrong.

  • Bill:
    Yes, his first duty is to his own soul, not that of the polity.

    I would suggest that the two are not in conflict. The common good is not a big aggregation of people compromising their salvation.

  • Tom K. says:

    I hadn’t heard the term “Kantian chasm” before. It’s a useful expression for capturing a major objection to doing something other than what 47-53% of voting Americans will do.

    And I like the way the graphic subtly suggests that the day everyone does what Zippy does will be like Christmas.

    But Zippy’s points about the problems with the linear model are well taken. The model ignores the facts that a) you can’t get there from here; and b) if you do, there won’t be there anymore.

    At best, there may be a reasonable model for the local gradient. But that, I suspect, would be more for information purposes than for prudential reasoning; I myself don’t buy the “but what if everyone did it” rule of thumb for throwing out a line of moral reasoning.

  • I hadn’t heard the term “Kantian chasm” before.

    I came up with it myself, or remembered it from somewhere I can’t possibly identify. A quick “incognito window” Google puts this post at the top of the search results.

  • Tom K. says:

    Of course, now you’ve got me wondering how you could even model a local gradient. One assumption we can probably throw out right away is that all the change will come from the lesser evil side, as though only people who lean Republican are unhappy with the party they vote for.

  • Tom K. says:

    Also, a question for another post: How does your “pinch of incense to liberal bunkum” work with something like a state initiative to define marriage to mean “marriage”?

  • Tom:
    How does your “pinch of incense to liberal bunkum” work with something like a state initiative to define marriage to mean “marriage”?

    Initiatives and referenda are like a very large legislative body. Because of the scale, it literally cannot be a pragmatic decision: it is still mass-market democracy, not a board of directors.

    By voting on one of them a person is endorsing both the legitimacy of the question it answers and the process for answering it. I don’t think that is entirely unproblematic.

  • TMLutas says:

    In politics, it is possible to fill in the kantian chasm by simply moving up the chain. It’s reasonable that you can get a few buddies to vote with you inside an electoral district in order to elect a decent committeeman. Literally, that is the lowest elective office in the country. Do that enough and you can shift over to a new order in town affairs without worrying overmuch about the chasm because you’ve got working majorities in both parties dedicated to jumping the chasm. Do the same on successive higher levels and again, the Kantian chasm just isn’t an issue that is particularly difficult at each step.

    You have to remember that the above graph is absurdly simplified. There are, in reality, over 89,000 of them. That’s how many governments exist in the USA. Fix the smallest and you have simultaneously partially fixed every government that shares that smallest government’s territory, thus partially filling in their Kantian gaps at no cost. Keep on filling in those gaps by education and competitive elections where education does not suffice and you can, step by step, get through all 89k+ governments of the US, the last being the federal government. That’s for a durable fix. If you’ve fixed a majority of the governments you might be able to start seeing improvements at higher levels even before you bring your actual attention to reforming these higher governments.

    Try to ignore those 89k+ governments and only try to fix the feds and you have a disaster and faux wise people pulling on their beards and bemoaning the impossibility of fixing the system. There is no system. There is a collective made up of the actions of each of the governments in the US that just looks like a system if you don’t do much to look under the hood and view reality, or at least read the law.

  • […] Catholic: A chad never left hanging; Conservatism, Elections, and the Kantian Chasm; Matthew 18:3; Licensed to Gripe; Reconciled to the King; Three cheers for the lesser evil!; Saint […]

  • johnmcg says:

    Juilan Sanchez has an interesting response to the Kantian argument here: http://www.juliansanchez.com/2012/10/31/third-parties-and-the-moral-logic-of-voting/

  • johnmcg says:

    Of course, those 89k governments are also made up of hundreds of millions of individual souls, many of which need reforming if they are going to be parts of a truly just government. Perhaps that’s where our efforts should be trained, starting with our own.

  • At least more people over time are starting to look at elections more realistically, as complex game-theoretic mass market contests rather than just as a “pick the outcome you like best” exercise. More sunshine is better.

  • […] If enough people do like you do, the bad guys will win! […]

  • […] bulk of the population to the legitimacy of the liberal governing consensus. The latter produces regular political faux-conflict-for-show which keeps the Overton window narrow, with just enough room for self-styled outsiders who think […]

  • […] I imagine that Zmirak is not alone in his attitude.  Folks who have decided to light the pinch of incense and cheer for their favorite team in the most important sportsball contest ever  probably are very invested in the idea that everyone should do what they are doing. […]

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