This little essay forms the last few paragraphs of “Clear and Present Thinking”, my free-to-the-world logic book. Let me know what you think of the argument here, before I send it to the printers. -Bren
Why is there so much conflict, fear, and hate in the world? Why can’t people just get over it and be friends? These are, of course, among of the oldest and most difficult of moral questions. There are hundreds of answers, and none of those answers were easily discovered. It might be that there’s just not enough of the good things in life for everyone to have as much as they want. So as people discover this they end up distrusting each other, and they compete with each other to get as much of those things as they can. Or so Thomas Hobbes argued. It might be that most people cannot stand the presence of others whose thinking and reasoning is radically different from their own, as David Hume once claimed. Perhaps it is as Plato said, that as people grow accustomed to pleasures and luxury goods, so they eventually become unable to restrain their appetites. Therefore, like “a city with a fever”, they turn to their neighbours, to take by stealth, or even steal by force, what they think they need to satisfy their feverish demands. Or, it might be that some people are just naturally, inexplicably evil. “Some men just want to watch the world burn,” as Alfred said to Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight (2008), although that answer always seemed to me too superficial, too quick, and too easy. People have reasons for doing things – reasons that are irrational, faulty, silly, or perhaps demonstrably insane – but they have their reasons, nonetheless.
Let’s re-phrase the question a little bit. What must people do to have at least a chance, even if only a small one, to get along with each other? That I think I can answer: we have to talk to each other. There is a logical disjunction between speaking and hating; there’s a gulf as wide as the ocean between dialogue and murder. You might want to ‘send a message’ to someone (as the euphemism goes) by beating him up, or depriving him of his rights or his dignity, or even by killing him. But the recipient of that kind of message is never in a position to hear it: the very means of delivery itself logically ensures that. Think of old Lucretius here, who taught us to have no fear of death because “While one lives one does not die; when one dies there is no one there for death to claim; thus death never reaches you.” In the same way, a message whose means of delivery kills the recipient finds no one at the point of delivery able to receive the message at all. It’s almost the same for a message delivered by shouting, threatening, bullying, stealing, hating, or any other oppressive act short of killing. The message whose means of delivery oppresses the recipient quickly finds no recipient with ears to hear.
But if we talk to each other, without threats, without violence, and without oppression, we acknowledge each other’s humanity. This is because to speak to someone is to assume that the other person can hear and understand what you are saying, and to assume that the other person is capable of responding to you. That ability to understand and respond, so it seems to me, is an important part of what it is to be human. Even to criticize and to disagree with someone is still to treat that person as a human being with a mind of her own. (Thus to disagree with someone is not the same as to silence that person. But I digress.) While we are speaking to each other, we might also be confronting, competing, distrusting, negotiating, manipulating, dominating, or even lying to each other. But we are not killing each other. And that, it seems to me, is no small thing. It introduces a moral dimension into the very structure of logic itself. This moral dimension appears on a scale of intensity: the less fear and hate there is in our dialogue with each other, the more humanity there is. And if talking to each other does not guarantee that we will get along with each other, at least it opens that possibility. And that is something which violence and the threat of violence cannot do.
This textbook was written during the volunteer hours of its contributors, and financially supported by volunteering donors. I hope that all of them believe, as I do, that a world in which people can think and speak rationally is a better world. I’ve made this textbook available to the world for free, to everyone, in the hope that it will help people understand each other, solve their problems, and get along with each other.
Now, go ahead and examine the argument I’ve just laid before you in these few lines, and decide for yourself if it’s sound. Notice that even if you decide that it is unsound, we will be speaking to each other and not killing each other… and there it is.