Earlier this week, Paul Ryan proposed a federal budget that, among other things, would repeal the health care act passed in 2011 (“Obamacare”) and balance the budget, mainly through spending cuts, by 2023. The reaction to this proposal was varied, mostly critical, and often enough within the bounds of civility. One of Ryan’s fellow congressmen, however, went beyond criticism of the bill, bluntly accusing him of sinister motives: “He wants poor people who get sick not be able to see a doctor … He wants them to die.”
Alan Grayson has pronounced judgments like this before, and has gained celebrity among some progressives who see his frankness as moral clarity. In the world of such extreme partisans–and they are not found only on the left–there is good, and there is evil, and when views conflict, the first cannot compromise with the second.
This Manichaean worldview is bigger than politics, of course. When I spent two years in Oregon on a religious mission, I was unhappy to discover that many people I talked to believed that the world, and most people in it, are generally bad. The world seemed to them so full of selfishness and violence that there was no way it could belong to benevolent beings. Almost always, however, these people I talked to didn’t describe themselves as bad. In their hearts, they wanted everyone to be better off. If there was a button to be pressed that would end human suffering, they would of course push it, and gladly.
The really odd thing is that these people I talked to also didn’t describe others they knew as bad. If it came to examples, they usually had to resort to vague groups of people (racists, wealthy bankers, abortion doctors, etc.), or else to public figures they had never met. Somehow in their experiences with others, they had only rarely come across one of this majority of people who apparently were evil. I’ve done the thought experiment myself–in the last week, I can’t think of anyone I’ve talked to who I would say is evil. Even in the last month, no one comes to mind. I have to go back quite a while to be able to think of someone whose heart was really hateful, and who consciously did evil things, knowing they were wrong. Even when I think of those I know who have done very morally questionable, or even criminal, things, I can’t call them evil. They’ve made serious mistakes, but they want to be good.
I don’t know how much of the world thinks that humanity is generally bad. But if I could generalize what I’ve talked about to people in general, it’s that we give a much greater benefit of the doubt to those we have met in person than to those we haven’t. It seems that when looking at the world in general, we tend to see it in utilitarian terms. In other words, if a politician or a large business does something harmful, or offers a political opinion that could have harmful effects, then we start to think of that person or group of people as bad; intentions and context don’t matter very much. But when looking at people within our personal social sphere, our mindset seems to change to one that is more virtue-based and context-sensitive. Of course your friend isn’t a bad person because his views on gay marriage, immigration or health care are different from yours. You disagree on some things, but you know you have a lot of common moral ground.
This is where politics comes back in. I think one reason politics are so divisive is that they are distant from us. Politicians aren’t friends or family; we’ve never sat down at a meal with them, or taken a class with them, or called them to ask a favor. So they can just be “talking heads” with opinions–and if they hold the wrong opinions, then they’re probably bad people. Mass media has allowed us to know about people we don’t know. Our intuitive, sympathetic side can’t make it through the impersonal screen and so our Manichaean, utilitarian, well-intentioned but destructive side takes over.
I don’t think very many people really think that humanity is bad. People may say they believe it in their moments of hyper-rationalist philosophizing, but I don’t think they do. Our conscious reasoning doesn’t very often overpower the truth that lies deeper, in our intuitions, in the parts of our mind that actually determine how we act. The people around us are good people who want the best for themselves, their family and everyone else. But like us, they’re fallible, they don’t understand everything, and so disagreements are inevitable. What a tragedy it would be to spend our time questioning their motives, convicting them of the same crime of ignorance that we commit.