Hi everyone,

I haven't posted any really good, old-fashioned "right wing" anti-environmental ideology lately <grin>, and what with the end of the semester and all, I just thought it would be fun to spend a nice sunny day inside on the computer and consume a whole bunch of electrons for a change.

This morning another poster brought up the subject of "old extreme right wingers," and presumably by extension that means that he himself is an "old extreme left winger."  Logical, eh?  Unless in fact there is something in the middle between old extreme "right wingers" and old extreme "left wingers."  Anyway . . . .

A 1985 article by Joseph Epstein appeared in the New York Times Magazine titled, "True Virtue."  In that article, Epstein himself raises the issue of "right" versus "left" (mind you, these are not terms I myself favor.  I think these terms normally are pretty much devoid of meaning, most of the time.  IMHO).  What Epstein says about "right" and "left," however, I find pretty interesting.  Epstein writes:

"Disagree with someone on the right and he is likely to think you obtuse, wrong, foolish, a dope.  Disagree with someone on the left and he is more likely to think you selfish, a sell-out, insensitive, possibly evil" (p. 95, cite below).

I think Epstein's comment is pretty much on the mark, prescient even, and relevant to contemporary environmental debate.

Thomas Sowell is a self-proclaimed critic of the "left" (and presumably by extension, he is on the "right"?), and he has written a very interesting book called The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy  (NY, Basic Books: 1995).  Although I don't agree with much of his politics, I think Sowell's philosophical and sociological analysis of "the vision of the anointed" is very powerful.  Ultimately his thesis is that "self-congratulation" is *not* a sound basis for policy.

Allow me to share a few snippets of Sowell's book.

Sowell writes:

        "Even when issues of public policy are discussed in the outward form of an argument, often the conclusions reached are predetermined by the assumptions and definitions inherent in a particular vision of social processes.  Different visions, of course, have different assumptions, so it is not uncommon for people who follow different visions to find themselves in opposition to one another across a vast spectrum of unrelated issues, in such disparate fields as law, foreign policy, the environment, racial policy, military defense, education, and many others.  To a remarkable extent, however, empirical evidence is neither sought beforehand nor consulted after a policy has been instituted.  Facts may be marshalled for a position already taken, but that is very different from systematically testing opposing theories by evidence.  Momentous questions are dealt with essentially as conflicts of visions.

        "The focus here will be on one particular vision--the vision prevailing among the intellectual and political elite of our time.  What is important about that vision are not only its particular assumptions and their corollaries, but also the fact that it is a *prevailing* vision [emph. orig.]--which means that its assumptions are so much taken for granted by so many people, including so-called 'thinking people,' that neither those assumptions nor their corollaries are generally confronted with demands for empirical evidence.  Indeed, empirical evidence itself may be viewed as suspect, insofar as it is inconsistent with that vision.

        "Discordant evidence may be dismissed as isolated anomalies, or as something tendentiously selected by opponents, or it may be explained away ad hoc by a theory having no empirical support whatever--except that this ad hoc theory is able to sustain itself and gain acceptance because it is consistent with the overall vision.  Examples of such tactics . . . [are] numerous . . . .  What must first be considered are the reasons behind such tactics, why it is so necessary to believe in a particular vision that evidence of its incorrectness is ignored, suppressed, or discredited--ultimately, why one's quest is not for reality but for a vision.  What does the vision offer that reality does not offer?

        "What a vision may offer, and what the prevailing vision of our time emphatically does offer, is a special state of grace for those who believe in it.  Those who accept this vision are deemed to be not merely factually correct but morally on a higher plane.  Put differently, those who disagree with the prevailing vision are seen as being not merely in error, but in sin.  For those who have this vision of the world, the anointed and the benighted do not argue on the same moral plane or play by the same rules of logic and evidence.  The benighted must be made 'aware,' to have their 'consciousness raised,' and the wistful hope is held out that they will 'grow.' Should the benighted prove recalcitrant, however, then their 'mean-spiritedness' must be fought and the 'real reasons' behind their arguments and actions exposed.  While verbal fashions change, this basic picture of the differential rectitude of the anointed and the benighted has not changed fundamentally in at least two hundred years" (pp. 1-3).

Jim here:  I know that this "snippet" is starting to get a bit on the long side, but if anyone is still with me here, I'd like to include one or two more paragraphs, and possibly these might serve as an impetus to discussion about environmental ethics here on the list.  With the list's indulgence, then . . .

Sowell continues:

        "The contemporary anointed and those who follow them make much of their 'compassion' for the less fortunate, their 'concern' for the environment, and their being 'anti-war,' for example--as if these were characteristics which distinguish them from people with opposite views on public policy.  The very idea that such an opponent of the prevailing vision as Milton Friedman, for example, has just as much compassion for the poor and the disadvantaged, that he is just as much appalled by pollution, or as horrified by the sufferings and slaughter imposed by war on millions of innocent men, women, and children--such an idea would be a very discordant note in the vision of the anointed.  If such an idea were fully accepted, this would mean that opposing arguments on social policy were arguments about methods, probabilities, and empirical evidence--with compassion, caring, and the like being common features on both sides, thus cancelling out and disappearing from the debate.  That clearly is not the vision of the anointed.  One reason for the preservation and insulation of a vision is that it has become inextricably intertwined with the egos of those who believe it.  Despite Hamlet's warning against self-flattery ["Lay not that flattering unction to your soul"], the vision of the anointed is not simply a vision of the world and its functioning in a causal sense, but is also a vision of themselves and of their moral role in that world.  *It is a vision of differential rectitude * [emph. orig.].  It is not a vision of the tragedy of the human condition: Problems exist because others are not as wise or as virtuous as the anointed.

        "The great ideological crusades of twentieth-century intellectuals have ranged across the most disparate fields--from the eugenics movement of the early decades of the century to the environmentalism of the later decades, not to mention the welfare state, socialism, communism, Keynesian economics, and medical, nuclear, and automotive safety.  What all these highly disparate crusades have in common is their moral exaltation of the anointed above others, who are to have their very different views nullified and superseded by the views of the anointed, imposed by the power of government.  Despite the great variety of issues in a series of crusading movements among the intelligentsia during the twentieth century, several key elements have been common to most of them:

        "1.  Assertions of a great danger to the whole society, a danger to which the masses of people are oblivious.
        "2.  An urgent need for action to avert impending catastrophe.
        "3.  A need for the government to drastically curtail the dangerous behavior of the many, in response to the prescient conclusions of the few.
        "4. A disdainful dismissal of arguments to the contrary as either uninformed, irresponsible, or motivated by some unworthy purposes.

        "Specific arguments on particular issues [are addressed throughout the book]. . . .  What is remarkable is how few arguments are really engaged in, and how many subsitutes for arguments there are.  These substitutes for arguments are, almost by definition, more available to adherents of the prevailing vision, whose assumptions are so widely accepted as to permit conclusions based on those assumptions to pass muster without further scrutiny" (pp. 4-6).

Jim here again:

Anyway, that's probably enough of that.  I don't have much at the moment for commentary but offer this up as "grist for the list."  It is interesting to speculate, however, whether there is any alternative to being either "right wing" or "left wing" . . .  "centrist," perhaps?

And taking that speculation a bit further, if such an alternative DID exist, and if one wanted to be a well-informed "centrist," wouldn't that person need to draw from materials, evidence, and arguments generated by "right" as well as from the "left"?  By hypothesis, of course.  <grin>

Perhaps Joseph Epstein was hinting at this possibility in his discussion of "true virtue."

Jim T.

the Epstein cite:
Epstein, Joseph.  "True Virtue," New York Times Magazine, November 24, 1985, p. 95; quoted in Sowell 1995, p. 4.