The more serious a problem, the more seriously should people think about it. Alas, one increasingly runs into people who are not only incapable of serious thought but also ignorant of what it is.
First, let’s agree on what serious thought isn’t. It is, for example, distinct from a feeling. No expression of a thought can start with the words “I feel”. A feeling doesn’t require any substantiation; a thought, before it’s regarded as such, does.
Neither is a thought identical to an opinion, for the same reason. An opinion may be introduced by “I feel…” or “I think…”, but unless it can withstand a rigorous intellectual test, it falls short of being a thought.
Especially relevant to serious discourse is the realisation that a thought also differs from a fancy. Such discourse has room for both dreams and thoughts, but a grown-up thinker will never confuse the two, though a child may.
Some dreams are less fanciful, while still not qualifying as thoughts. Wouldn’t it be nice, for example, if no one in the world were poor or ill?
A child might give this matter what he thinks is a thought, but a grown-up won’t. He’ll know that such an end is so divorced from any possible means of achieving it that he’ll dismiss the notion out of hand.
However, a serious person might say that, while the words ‘no one’ brand this notion as a pie in the sky, there’s a kernel of a thought in it. For it’s possible to make sure that fewer people in the world are poor or ill.
Would this be desirable? Of course. Would it be achievable? Definitely, for it was done before at times and in places. The embryo of a thought has thus been created, and it can be gestated to maturity by adding ‘how’ to ‘what’.
The means are essential to any end, but they are different from it. The desired end may be general and idealistic, but the means must be rational and realistic. Otherwise they can destroy the embryo of a thought with the brutality of a back-alley abortionist.
All this is elementary, yet many people – including some who run countries – are incapable of such rudimentary logic. They conflate ends and means to a point where the two merge into a seemingly indivisible entity.
Since most people are jealous of the few thoughts they have, they often claim that those who disagree with the means reject the ends. If the ends tend to be noble, then such naysayers are at best ignoble. They can be despised, perhaps even hated. But they don’t rate a serious debate.
You might think I’m describing a rare case of inadequacy. However, this is our modern political discourse in a nutshell, characterised as it is by much wing-flapping and spittle-sputtering, but little thought worthy of the name.
Take any oft-debated issue at random, say the NHS. Anyone arguing it’s a bad idea will be floored by a rhetorical punch. Don’t you want all people to have good medical care, you heartless bastard you?
This is the sleight of hand I mentioned: the irate imbecile identifies the end with the means. For it’s possible to be passionate about good medical care for all while still rejecting full nationalisation as the best way of providing it.
I’m not talking here about the merits of the debate, only about the quality of the thought that goes into it. The quality is abysmal.
Any issue will do as an illustration. Do you agree, asks a non-thinker, that the gap between the rich and the poor should be smaller? Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I do. Then what?
Well, then you must be in favour of taking more money from the rich and giving it to the poor. This isn’t fantasy land, but arguments one hears every day from politicians around the world, with much of the grateful audience nodding agreement.
Yet these aren’t thoughts, but infantile rants. For in theory the supposedly objectionable gap can be closed from either end: by making the poor richer or the rich poorer. In practice, however, only the first method works. The second one has produced economic disasters everywhere it has been tried.
Any other examples? Take free trade. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if goods were made cheaper by abandoning tariffs and duties? Yes, it would.
However, someone who’d rather pay a little more for his claret than live in a country whose sovereignty is dissolved in a foul-smelling melting pot isn’t an enemy of free trade. He has simply weighed the means against the end and found the balance unsatisfactory.
Or don’t you want people to breathe cleaner air? I do – a reply that isn’t compromised by my certainty that the means proposed to that end would deliver no tangible ecological benefit, while producing a tangible economic disaster.
i’m not arguing any particular issue. I’m only pointing out how childish most people’s thinking is on such matters.
And it’s ‘most people’ who decide such matters in conditions of universal suffrage. They do so by readily falling prey to demagogic slogans put forth by self-serving politicians.
This raises too many questions about the nature of democracy to answer, indeed to ask, in a short article. I’ve tried to do so in a book or two but, lest I be accused of crass commercialism, I shan’t mention the titles.