As a curative to the worst aspects of arguing on the internet, I’ve developed a simple heuristic when I start getting my ire up—asking the question:
What would have to be true for this person to do/say what they are and not be stupid and/or evil?
The implicit premises here are deeply inspired by Spinoza’s Ethics. In Part III, Of the Affects, Spinoza lays out his typology for a new ethical language. It’s a palette, with three primary colors: desire, defined as an appetite + awareness of one’s appetite, joy, which is the increase one one’s power of acting, and sadness, which is the diminishment of the same.
Joy and sadness are both passions, by which Spinoza means phenomena we encounter which we only understand partially, and therefore understand inadequately. Adequate knowledge would be knowledge that proceeds from cause to effect with no remainder, so to the extent that the effects are not fully understood from their causes they are understood inadequately.
There are some subtle implications to this typology. For one, there is no such thing as a ‘negative’ amount of a power of acting; death is the failure to preserve one’s essence and organization, but anything shy of that involves some measure of power. Secondly, joy and sadness are both movements; Spinoza quite explicitly argues that if one were perfect and remained perfect, they would experience no joy (using his definition above), since their power of acting remains constant and neither increases nor diminishes.
Conspicuously absent from these are notions of good or evil, and this is intentional. Good and evil are not meaningful conceptions independent of an agent or agents for whom they increase or decrease their ability to see their desires fulfilled and their organization preserved.
Here, then, we gain the tools for a kind of radical empathy, and the heuristic I gave at the beginning makes more sense: we can ask of anyone what they believe will see their organization (their physical body, their family, their nation, etc.) preserved and their desires fulfilled. Because their beliefs are inadequate, there are often confusions between correlations and causation, or simply about facts of the world. When people engage in abhorrent actions or express abhorrent beliefs, we can uncover the hidden logic behind these actions and statements, and occasionally even find ways to engage.
The small child who insists “I’m not tired” after missing their nap isn’t stupid, although they do hold an incorrect belief that less sleep, rather than more, will improve their state of affairs. The terrorist isn’t evil, but does have desires that they believe will be best fulfilled by the deployment of violence. The parent withholding medical treatment from their child isn’t evil, although their understanding of what will contribute to their child’s welfare is deeply confused. And so on.
This is where an improvement of understanding contributes to improving our lot. First, by better understanding our own desires, we can more effectively realize them, and not chase after arbitrary correlations. By improving our beliefs, we can more accurately model the world and take actions with a stronger likelihood of achieving our desired ends. By taking the time to understand others, even when their desires conflict with our own and their beliefs are incorrect, we can amend our own behavior to circumvent or confront them in a precise and targeted way, or find otherwise improbable opportunities for collaboration.
A good example of this is presented in Maggie Koerth-Baker’s book, Before The Lights Go Out, about green energy and the U.S. energy grid. She cites examples of political conservatives getting on board with green energy when the issue is framed in alignment with their espoused values (fiscal responsibility, defense, autonomy, stewardship) instead of in a deliberately provocative way where some can be made to feel joy by shaming conservatives and blaming them for recalcitrance. Even when true, this is not an effective strategy for collaboration, and unless one somehow holds enough power to act unilaterally, this sort of bridge-building will always be necessary.
Finally, as this process iterates over itself, we start to see the emergence of many of the traditional liberal values: we begin to see that our own desires and the preservation of ourselves can be better achieved when we put in place institutions and folkways that enable others to do the same. The meta-good, here, is a bias for increasing one’s own power of action by building structures and patterns that increase other’s powers of action. This is an ecological argument, and while it won’t be true for every situation or agent (as there may be competing ‘basins of attraction’ that have a stronger draw), probabilistically and in aggregate Spinoza’s argument for freedom and mutual benefit, derived from the simple tools of self-preservation, desire, and joy still attracts.