Separate Cages

It startles me how differently people can see things. We all like to flatter ourselves that our opinions are guided by naught but sweet reason, but we overlook that reasoning is in general terms simply a manufacturing process, and like all such processes its output depends sensitively upon its input. That input, however, depends in turn upon a constellation of evaluative judgments, unquestioned assumptions, intuitions, and cultural preferences that vary across so many dimensions, and which are sensitive to perturbation by so many contingent influences, that in fact, although the machinery of reason itself may function similarly in us all, the finished product may vary enormously among people who seem outwardly to be as similar as two peas in a pod.

For example, we have the vexatious war in Iraq. I, for reasons that for the sake of brevity and focus I won’t rehearse here, considered there to be adequate moral and strategic justification for our undertaking a military action to depose Saddam Hussein. (I was not alone in this, a fact I mention only to illustrate that this conclusion was not uniquely aberrant on my part.) Like most people who felt this way, I had no doubt of victory, but was of course concerned that the subsequent occupation would be a tricky business, and had ample reason to worry that the statesmen at the helm — the subtlety of whose mentation I had reason to doubt — might make a considerable mess of things. This indeed has turned out to be the case, as readers will likely be aware, and now we are engaged in a great national debate as to whether we should cut our losses and leave, or hang in for the long haul. Reasonable people may differ, and do.

There are those, however, who not only think we shouldn’t have gone in in the first place, but who actually hope that the situation deteriorates further, on the theory that bad means should not lead to good ends. I have one very close friend in particular, a man of truly exceptional intelligence and unimpeachable honor, who feels this way, and I am, frankly, baffled, though I realize that there are many others on the Left who share his sentiment. My friend and I have argued the matter to bitter exhaustion for four years now, utterly unproductively, and I have on one recent occasion even gone so far as to make (not to my credit) ad hominem assaults upon his moral architecture — for which I now feel painful remorse, as he is a good friend and a good man, and his underlying ethical rectitude should never have been in doubt.

So why do I mention this? Simply to grouse about the seemingly unalterable fact that no matter how obviously correct our worldview (and the reasoned opinions we derive from it) may seem, the truth is that everyone you pass on the street is, in a very literal sense, in a world of his own. The situation is scarcely different from a roomful of people all asleep and dreaming. The degree to which the subjective underpinnings of our thinking can vary is something we rarely take into account, and so we call each other’s reason into question. But that isn’t the problem at all.

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