How, Not What, Do You Think?

With Seven Practice Questions
How do you know what you know? Did you discover it by thinking, or were you simply told?

As I work my way through the excellent essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, by Isaiah Berlin, I am experiencing anew a particular delight , common in my grade school years, of registering how the critical, skeptical, rational mind approaches a question. I am thrilled (which is exactly the correct word) to observe and follow Berlin thinking his way through complex questions about the nature of liberty, more than I am by any conclusions drawn. 

I distinctly remember this feeling when very young; when I was first learning how to think, and not merely what to think. So much of my formal education, even at the college level, consisted in being told what, and not how, to think. (But that’s another topic).

It is a rare treat to discover a writer or speaker with the mental and psychological discipline to use his mind when approaching a question, and not be used by it. One who employs his mental faculties to see a problem the way one utilizes a magnifying glass, or a microscope, or an MRI machine. Neither the glass, the scope, nor the imaging machine impose preference upon the subject matter. They simply observe it, (but at increasingly higher resolution, depth, and granularity of detail). 

Too often, presuppositional prejudices in the mind are a blinding filter, canceling some of the information needed for the fullest view. When the search for evidence supporting a pet theory or ideological point of view usurps the place of pure truth as the ultimate pursuit of inquiry, the resulting conclusions are always suspect. Berlin’s treatment of the subject of Liberty doesn’t fall prey to petty bias. It is an exemplary reminder of how bifurcated issues should be approached by the intellectually honest.

Here is a particularly thought-provoking quote from the essay: 

”[From the standpoint of Liberty,] ‘Pagan self-assertion’ is as worthy as ‘Christian self-denial’ All errors which [a man] is likely to commit against advice and warning, are far outweighed by the evil of allowing others to constrain him to what they deem his good.”

Some statements are worth reading at least twice. (The bracketed words are mine, for context). Go ahead. I’ll wait.

Can you deduce what Berlin is asserting? He is not saying that Paganism is as worthy as Christianity. He is making no comparative argument about their respective virtues at all. He is referencing the respective practitioners solely in terms of their equal use of liberty in choosing to act for themselves without outside interference or coercion. Their respective liberty to choose their own path is equal. He is making no claims regarding the comparative value of what they choose.

For many readers, seeing the terms ‘Pagan’ and ‘Christian’ in such proximal juxtaposition, will cloud the mind with prejudice so that the the point being addressed is missed entirely. And for some readers, the juxtaposition may reveal a different type of prejudice. That only those practicing socially, culturally, religiously approved liberties, should be allowed to do so; while those believing or acting contrary to the mainstream view must have their choices curtailed by restrictive laws to protect them from harming themselves, or polluting the mainstream.

What do you think about the following questions? Remember – What you think is determined by How you think – so try to imagine your mind as a magnifying glass looking at each question afresh just to see all that is there to be discovered.

  1. Is it better to A) erect a barricade of laws – out of benevolence – to prevent a man from committing errors that my harm himself, thus prohibiting him the liberty to do so, or B) allow the man liberty to commit errors and suffer the natural consequences? 
  2. Which is the greater evil to the man in question? 
  3. What are the ramifications of either course? 
    1. What if the potential self-harm has the possibility of becoming public harm?
    2. Is this the most clearly revealed dividing line between private and public acts?
  4. How far-reaching might the ripples of consequence extend for either choice? 
  5. How large – or how intrusive – a barricade of restriction might be needed if A is selected?

These questions and their answers are central to freedom. They form the heart, not only of Libertarian political philosophy, but circulate throughout both Conservative and Liberal ideologies. We all seem to share the idea that there is something wrong with allowing another to determine what is good for us, and then by force of law to constrain us to their, and not our own, ”choice”. Such an enforced ”choice” is no choice at all, in any normal sense of the word. Stop to think how many laws and policies have just this element of intrusive interference as their foundation. 

These are things to think about, Dear Reader. These ideas make up the substance of the great questions of morality; and as politics is merely a branch, or social outworking of moral philosophy, we owe it to ourselves to get it right. And to do so, we will need to stop listening so intently to those voices on either side telling us what to think, rediscover the inward joys of how to think, and then get busy with it.

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