Why Doubt Matters
That small thought is at once the most obvious thing in the world and a paralysing source of self-doubt. Intelligent, compassionate people believe in a big state and intelligent compassionate people believe in a small state. The world tears itself up over sex, over politics and over God. And yet here I am, standing in the midst of all the messiness thinking that I have some clue as to what the right answers could be. Is that arrogance? How in a world racked with doubt can any of us be sure we’re right?
That’s a question tackled by a man called Gerry Cohen in one of the most honest books of political philosophy I’ve ever read. He believes strongly in social equality, but then again of course he would. Born to communist parents and raised in a socialist enclave in Canada on a diet of Karl Marx and talk of revolution, it’s no surprise that he held on to his belief in government as a means for making society equal. Sure his views constantly evolved, became less radical and more attuned to the realities of the world, but his core, his guiding principle, that stayed the same.
Armed with the knowledge of his own biography and the thousands of tiny incidents that formed him and shaped his beliefs, he asks how he can trust in their truth, knowing how they were made. A magician never gets to experience that momentary suspension of disbelief that delights his audience. He knows how the tricks are done and never deceives himself into believing his own show. Can someone who knows themselves well, ever trust the beliefs that have grown inside of them?
Someone who witnesses the breakdown of a marriage and the marring of two lives won’t want the government to pay couples to stay together. Someone who grew up never knowing their father might. Someone who flees genocide and makes a life in another country might support foreign intervention. Someone who loses their only son in a foreign war might not.
These issues aren’t cut and dry. The emotional and psychological catalysts for our belief are scattered throughout our biographies and often imperceptible. We give reasons, sure. But are they the foundation for what we think or do they come after? The rational face on what wasn’t put in place by reason. Cohen doesn’t quite find a way of settling his fear, but in the process he produces an inspiring work of analytic philosophy and political history that finds fault with the society we live in now, the kind of place which promises one kind of equality and delivers another.
I can’t promise you he’s right. But he’s intelligent and compassionate and that’s one place to start.