Sunday, May 10, 2020

Totalitarianism & The Lesser Evil

- At times of crisis, we should turn our minds to what is most important. I suppose.
- What's important to me is this order to 'shelter at home,' the quarantine of the sick with the healthy, executive orders from mayors and governors taking something close to total control of our lives.
- And you are wondering what to think of it.
- Yes. It seems to have come out of nowhere. I understand the reasons given, some of them are good, but something is wrong with the calculation itself, the reasoning involved. It feels wrong to me. Help me out with this.
- There is a close relationship between totalitarianism and compromise.
- Isn't that a contradiction? Total means going all out, no compromise.
- If you are willing to use any means to achieve an end, you are right. But if you consider some means bad in themselves, there you have a compromise. The willingness to consider doing anything, which is totalitarianism, when you add an awareness that some of those means are bad, gets you compromise.
- A lesser evil argument.
- Yes. But the totalitarian, in addition to having no conscience, no awareness of doing something wrong, also is choosing a wrong world; while someone compromising is choosing a world somewhat less wrong than it could be. But they have the same way of thinking. Totalitarianism: (1) An end that is completely laid out, known in advance, believed to be wholly good. (2) Anything may be used as means to achieve it. Compromise: (1) Less bad world, known in advance. (2) Means to achieve it as little bad as possible. The calculations of end justifying the means arguments, another name for choosing the lesser evil, are very likely to be wrong, or even if not, and you managed to achieve the world planned, inconsequential:
Every fifty or hundred years in recent history a revolutionary crises occurs, where the rich take more and more from the poor until the poor feel they have nothing much left to lose. After the revolutionary attempt, the poor recover some resources, and the cycle starts over again. There are also smaller cycles of boom and bust in financial speculation, and larger cycles of rise and fall of empires, where having robbed the world the leaders rob or in wars express disregard for the lives of the led of their own country, and even larger cycles are claimed, where wealthy civilization is followed by dark ages followed by a renaissance.*
If the end is uncertain, also uncertain is whether violent, lesser evil means can lead to any but the worst worlds. If you are a killer you are unfit for an imagined, cooperative utopia. Not a problem if the end you seek is inherently violent - thus the attraction to totalitarianism, which we just saw is of the same form of thought. In times of crisis you might wake up to yourself, to a sense of guilty complicity, and to escape from yourself you become susceptible to the propaganda of totalitarianism, as again, it is of the same form of thought as compromise. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt writes:
In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true ... Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.
- The flexibility in allowed means shows totalitarianism is a type of means to end thinking.
- Yes. What would you say is the opposite to this type of thinking, opposite to bad means justified by good ends?
- Creative thinking.
- And how would you characterize creative thinking?
- I don't know. The opposite to the kind of thinking that locked down our country.
- Opposite to lesser evil arguments. Opposite to having a fixed, clearly visualized goal achieved by compromise.
- Yes. Exactly.
- Perhaps as we are living through an epidemic we should consider something Shakespeare wrote about the plague at a time he was living through it and was doing some of his best writing:
They say miracles are past; and we have our philosophical persons, to make modern and familiar, things supernatural and causeless. Hence is it that we make trifles of terrors, ensconcing ourselves into seeming knowledge, when we should submit ourselves to an unknown fear.
Do you see what I'm getting at?
- He's calling for an open world.
- As we can look back, immersing ourselves in a remembered love, we can look ahead to a world that is opened up by kindness, in contrast to the closed, defined world of totalitarianism and means justifying end argument.
- And he's calling for submitting ourselves to the unknown.
- And thereby doing our best work, if we are lucky enough to do as Shakespeare did, working in the midst of a plague ourselves, by paying attention, practical attention, careful study of the unknown. Our means chosen are experimental, not part of an advance calculation. We try out what to do, we judge those means better that make the world more kind.
- Kindness is not a particular arrangement of the things in the world, but a relation between people that opens up the world to the infinite. Infinite are the ways to elicit love, are the practices experimented with adding to each other in possibility. Time slows down for us, the more events crowd our lives. Imagining in our lives an infinite number of events, time stops for us.
- Experiments, experimental practices are infinite in number, and like the measure of time can be stopped, the end aimed for using them - kindness - is also infinite.
- There are no matters of degree involved here. A choice between two absolutely opposed ways of thinking. Choosing the lesser evil you suggest by your behavior totalitarianism to others and stand the risk of advancing into totalitarianism yourself.

Further Reading
Means & Ends