By Jay Hansen
In honor of In the Reddest.com’s one year anniversary, I thought I’d take some time to sit down and explain the very core principles of my beliefs and rationale. I first sought to find a few guiding tenants that drive my logical processes all the way back in High School. The more educated I became, the finer they were defined. So far, they’ve managed to guide me fairly well, if I may say so. In a matter of speaking, these rules are almost a “meta-ideology,” as I’ve come to identify them. At first, with the limited, still largely “inside-the-box” thinking I had as a High School student, I thought of it as defining the rules of my religion. As the years passed, though, I learned it was greater than a religion, as these rules could easily be applied to people of any religion and still allow them to worship and belief that religion while still maintaining adherence to logic, science, and the realm of reality. I call this set of beliefs Rationalism. I’m not as arrogant to believe that I’m the first to come up with such rules, that they are entirely infallible, or that application of this means of thinking to the entire world is in the realm of possibility. Despite this, as I believed and still do when I first made this website, everything has to have a beginning somewhere, and even a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. Perhaps, by sharing this ideology with the world, someday, the world can reciprocate and begin living their lives by these rules that I find to be the best possible ones we can to build the best possible world for everyone.
The Laws of Rationalism
Rationalism is guided by four laws. These four laws (and sub-laws in bold) are the “meta” aspect of the ideology, as these three laws could be applied to any of the world’s religions or any personal ideology to help focus on what is necessary to better it.
- The Law of Knowledge and Belief – There is a big difference between “knowing” something and “believing” something. Especially here in America, we often fail to respect, or even observe, the difference. We know that which can be proven through some logical means such as the scientific method or human reasoning. Our beliefs, on the other hand, do not need such logical proof or consistency. This is because belief operates in the world of the infinite, or that which can’t be proven or disproven, such as the existence of gods, an afterlife, a soul, and so on. Knowledge operates in the world of the finite, also known as reality. We know for a fact that this world (by which I mean realm of existence in general, and not literally planet Earth) exists because we live in it right now. It is the only world that can be proven to exist, because we cannot prove the existence of an afterlife like heaven or hell through the finite means of knowledge that must be used in this world. Given that, this world must take precedent over all others, and knowledge must always take precedent over belief.
This is why our governments must be secular. Governments determine how to build up and care for the people of this world, the world of the finite, which is operated by knowledge and not belief. One example of what happens when belief takes precedent over knowledge is brought to us by our very own Senator Inhofe. Back in March, Inhofe said that global warming can’t exist because humans don’t have the power to influence the planet’s climate, which only God is powerful enough to control. Or consider Congressman John Shimkus, who says we shouldn’t worry about global warming because an excerpt of the bible that says God would never destroy the world after the flood in the story of Noah’s Ark. These are examples of people putting belief ahead of knowledge, because neither of them can prove that God exists, nor that they know what its will or demands are. What can be proven is that global climate change is real (click here for a simplified source); we have knowledge that says as much. Therefore, our knowledge of global climate change must be put ahead of any beliefs that may indicate otherwise, as Senator Inhofe and Congressman Shimkus, among many others, are doing. Saying that global climate change, or any issue, isn’t real or not of our concern because of what God said is literally no better than saying we don’t have to worry about it because Superman or The Doctor will save us, and yet we have Senators and Congressman, God damn elected officials, sincerely submitting such ideas as credible reasoning.
This rule is most important at the level of government. Any law or decision that affects people other than yourself cannot be dictated by belief, because not all people share the same belief as you. This allows governments, be they federal, state, or local, to better protect all people equally without favoring or oppressing particular beliefs, while at the same time still gives people the freedom to live their individual lives as they wish. In other words, if someone wants to live their life in complete celibacy, attend church every Sunday, not eat pork or shell fish, or otherwise live their lives in particular ways because the individual in question believes it’s God’s will or some other form of higher calling to live in such a way, then they have the freedom to do so. For example, if a Jehovah’s Witness does not believe in blood transfusions, they have the right to decline one as the decision only affects them, even if it means they will grow gravely ill or even die, despite the fact that this holds belief above knowledge. Since the decision to deny a transfusion only affected the life of the person making it, it is an exception. What the same person does not hold the right to, however, is to tell someone else they cannot have a blood transfusion because of their own personal beliefs. Doing so allows us to maximize personal freedom, which I will address further in the third rule.
As long as any decision about how to live one’s life does not affect anyone outside of one’s self, he or she has the freedom to believe whatever they want of the infinite. Only that which can be proven, that which we know, may dictate decisions we make beyond our own lives. This encompasses every decision made by any government or governing body.
- People may believe whatever they want when it comes to matters of the infinite – Technically, this one need not be specified given the last rule and the next, but I feel it’s an important enough of a distinction that needs to be made. Belief is often based in emotion, after all, so emphasizing rules about it is more important. Just because a conflicting belief to one’s own exists does not mean one’s belief is in any way invalidated or false. For example, Christians believe in one, all powerful god. Pagans believe in many gods of varying power. Just because the pagan’s conflicting polytheistic belief exists does not mean that the Christian’s belief in God is false, and visa versa (existence of the Christian belief in God does not invalidate pagan belief). That’s what’s so wonderful about belief; it doesn’t need logic. Two completely contradictory beliefs can exist simultaneously without either belief being wrong. This maximizes freedom by allowing people to hold whatever religions or spiritual beliefs they wish without having to worry about “competing” with others. Too often in history, especially in the West, people have viewed contradictory belief systems as degrading or insulting to their own, and found it necessary to destroy such conflicting belief either by conversion or violent eradication and warfare. There is no need to destroy or harm conflicting beliefs in order to maintain your own. So long as all the tenants of the first rule are maintained, that knowledge is held above belief at all times, people have the freedom to believe whatever they want (and even then, there is the above exception exemplified by Jehovah’s Witnesses and blood transfusions – it only affects the person in question and no one else, so they may do whatever they want with their life, even if in the eyes of others it is shameful or wasteful).
- All people are entitled to a life with as much freedom, and as many rights, protections, opportunities, and liberties as they can possibly have without intruding upon those of others. This really says it all. People deserve the freedom to be and do whatever they want. That is, until one’s pursuit of happiness encounters that of another person. Your freedom end where other’s begin. For example, if there is someone you want to romantically pursue, you have all the right in the world to do so. If you find out you have competition, however, this rule does not give you right to murder that competition. Murdering them would deprive them all their freedom and rights (not to mention life). A less extreme example would be if you pursue someone with extreme aggression, that person holds the right to get a restraining order on you (among other possible lengths) for the sake of protecting herself, her freedom, her rights, and her life. Violation of this rule can lead to one’s own freedoms being taken away for the sake of both protecting society from and rehabilitating the one ultimately responsible for the violation (i.e. jail).
This rule is so important because it is, in essence, a single rule that encompasses a vast majority of all laws ever written. From Hammurabi’s Code and the Ten Commandments to the US Constitution and rulings of the United Nations, most of it is about defining the limits of human action and freedom for the sake of building a better society. At the same time though, this is also the rule’s flaw; it’s so general that human reasoning and debate is a necessity in each individual circumstance. In reality though, that’s a very good thing, as it forces people to not have “zero tolerance” policies and to not think in terms of black and white. It forces people to actually use human reasoning in each unique circumstance or discussion.
A hot topic recently after the tragedy in Colorado is that of gun control, and it’s an excellent demonstration of the vagueness of this law. Obviously, the first solution that would come to most people’s minds to prevent further massacres is to outlaw certain forms of weaponry, primarily assault weapons. Under President Clinton, we had a ban on such weapons and high-capacity magazines, and many states have similar strict gun control. Naturally, in states where assault weapons are banned and gun control is much stricter, gun violence is considerably lower. This is one of the most obvious things in the world, but you still might not know it because there’s so much propaganda on the issue. You certainly wouldn’t know that if you listen to those politicians that are bribed by gun manufacturers and the mindless media that repeats their talking points like robots.
The problem is, as conservatives will argue, is that banning these weapons infringes on people’s right to own a gun, or “right to bare arms” as it is written in the constitution. At the same time though, the wide, easy access to such lethal weapons that serve no purpose other than to kill, specifically other humans as assault weapons are, inarguably puts all of society at greater risk of gun violence, and thus, unnecessary death. Insofar that we’re talking about owning an assault weapon, yes, such gun control laws would get rid of some people’s rights. Technically speaking, by this conservative definition, our laws “violate” people’s “rights” to kill someone they believe has wronged them somehow because we decided that society would be better off if honor killings were illegal. So sometimes we must get rid of certain “rights” to protect freedom for everyone. The question we must ask to determine this is does the benefit of such a right outweigh the cost? For a “right” to be a justifiable one, the benefit of a right must outweigh the cost. For most issues we traditionally consider “rights” such as the right to vote or the right to speak out it’s no question – the benefit definitely outweighs any negative costs that may be associated with them. Sure, people may say insensitive or stupid things from time to time, but it’s still their right so long as it does not directly cause the harm of (violate the freedom of) another person. On the other hand, consider voter ID laws recently imposed in many states across the country. They are supposedly to combat voter fraud, but will disenfranchise thousands of voters unable to obtain the required ID to vote, denying them of the fundamental right in a democracy. Some states have voter fraud rates as low as .0002%, and others only have one recorded attempt at voter fraud in the past 143 years. So ask yourself; does the benefit outweigh the gain? Voter fraud is clearly a non-issue in the United States it’s so infinitesimally small. When you factor in how many people will be denied right to vote because of such laws, the cost of it greatly outweighs any possible gains, meaning this policy is actually a detriment to society and violates the third law of rationalism by violating people’s freedom unnecessarily.
Many times laws are created in an effort to make a society with more freedom for as many people as possible, even if a very minor few people have some rights taken away in the process in the name of bettering society. Gun control is one such example. By limiting access to highly dangerous weapons, we will lower the gun violence rate, providing people fair protection under the law and better guaranteeing their freedom. The Affordable Care Act, however, is an even better example of such legislation. While yes, the law will mandate people to buy health insurance, which could be construed as a violation of personal freedom to some. The law requires this so that we all contribute to the pool of money paying for medical costs for everyone. This puts more money into the system from which we will all withdraw from some day, while at the same time subsidizing the cost of purchasing such insurance to make sure people are not financially harmed by this mandate. It may violate freedom to a very minor few both wealthy and stingy enough to not want to contribute to the health care system and instead pay their medical bills out of pocket, but in reality it provides more freedom and protections for everyone without unreasonably violating freedom. Think of it as a “net gain” of freedom for all of society, even if some individuals claim it’s a personal loss for them.
As I’ve thoroughly elaborated upon, this rule is extremely important to Rationalism and my thought process as a whole. I’d even go as far as to say it’s my chief guiding principle when it comes to politics. I must make note though that this law does not just apply to the political arena or the levels of governments, but rather how we live our own lives, and the decisions we make from day to day. If I take X action, will that violate someone else’s freedom in Y way? One of the best philosophical tools I’ve studied on how to find the answer to that question is the Veil of Ignorance, developed by John Rawls. I may be taking my own liberties with his theory (it has been several years since I studied it), but simply put it’s used to determine if a decision you make, particularly in politics and law, in any way is oppressive towards, or violates the freedom of (and thus this rule) any particular person or people. Basically when considering if something is “fair” and abides by this rule of not interfering with the freedom of others, one must “place themselves” behind the veil of ignorance. What this does is it prevents you from knowing anything about yourself. This way you don’t know if you’re black or white, Christian or Muslim, fat or skinny, gay or straight, handicapped or not, or anything else. From behind the veil, without knowing any of these things, you can’t unfairly favor your own communities, cultures, or self, as you will be incentivized for your own well being to not harm or violate the freedom of anyone since you don’t know who or what you are. All you know from behind that veil is that you are human and are capable of using reasoning. From that alone, you must determine everything else. The veil of ignorance is particularly helpful for adhering to this rule, as it both protects as much freedom, rights, liberties, protections, and opportunities for as many people as possible and removes all possibility for prejudice on the grounds of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any other social label.
- Rationalism’s meaning of life. I hate to sound overly grandiose, but really that’s what this rule is. From a purely logical standpoint, as the finite world of reality would require in accordance with the first rule, I have determined there are two purposes for life; to enjoy it, and to build a better world and improve the quality of life for everyone. It is through making the world a better place we create new medicine and technology, capable of propelling us forward as a race. We also build governments that, in the grander scheme of history, have grown ever more efficient at representing and serving the needs of people as means of protecting them from the forces of nature as well as certain people among us that brazenly disregard our law and commonwealth. Compassion is the best way to describe this purpose for life; do everything you can to make the world a better place than it was when you entered it for all people. If we keep doing that generation after generation, then there is truly no limit to what humans can accomplish; discovering the deeper workings of quantum mechanics and astrophysics, stretching out to the heavens and expanding beyond our own planet, and developing new technologies and medicine to give humans more years to fulfill the second purpose of life, enjoying it. Many people, operating out of belief rather than knowledge, claim that we all must be concerned with our eternal selves, and preoccupy our daily decisions with the thoughts of what is to happen to us after we die. As stated in the first rule, however, the only world that is guaranteed to exist is this one, and all of our time is tragically limited. When we each are gone as individuals, the universe will carry merrily on without us. The time we have then, is meant to be spent in happiness; not mourning the brevity of it, not planning for what happens in the next life, not telling people how to get in favor with our personal god or deity. The pursuit of happiness and compassion to make life better for everyone else, is the purpose for all life, and is protected by the previous rules of Rationalism. Think of how good your life is now – all the little things we may all too often take for granted in our day to day lives – and imagine how great it would be if every person we met, every person in power, every person in the government, every person in the whole world, actually had the compassion to make everyone’s life better within their scope of power, and put the needs of the people in this world ahead of whatever illogical beliefs they may hold. Imagine what humanity could accomplish if our greatest hindrance, the greedy, self-important, careless people with all too much power in society, was no longer an issue. Perhaps most importantly, imagine just how much more happiness everyone would have if this were true. In that way, the pursuit of happiness is largely dependent upon how compassionate we are for one another as people.
When it gets down to it, these two purposes of life are also at the absolute core of disagreements between progressives and conservatives. Of course, by conservatives, I mean real conservatives, which almost exclusively consist of libertarians in American politics, as the word “conservative” has been tragically hijacked by corporatists and crony capitalists. Consider the typically “left” positions on the issues; compassion is almost always the key element. Social programs for the needy, gun control to reduce violence, universal health care, gay rights, protecting labor and other forms of the oppressed “little guy” whatever the context may be, and so on. Compare that to the typically “right” positions on the issues; more power to individual property owners, as little government as possible, which reduces protections for citizens, deregulation to grant more freedom to individuals despite greater possibility of damage to society, no social programs for the needy, no protections for minorities from oppression such as discrimination based on race or sexual orientation, and so on. The left, progressive policies are often highly focused on compassion, whereas the right, libertarian policies are all about the personal pursuit of happiness, and removing anything in the way of that, even if it’s a government that has put limitations in place for the sake of protecting the freedom for all citizens equally and fairly. Of course, this dichotomy isn’t quite a fair one, as the extreme end of compassion would be Communism; a society wherein the total assets and worth of a society is collected and divided out equally among all people regardless of how productive or valuable they may be. Ultimate compassion, just like ultimate, unregulated individual freedom to pursue happiness, is highly flawed. Like all things in life, we must find balance between compassion and the pursuit of happiness. We can’t live our entire lives for other people, but we also can’t live life entirely for ourselves. Progressives like me aim to find that balance. In a society where so much stock is put in personal liberty and freedom, especially these days, focusing on compassion is almost always the better course to take. As I elaborated above, our ability to pursue happiness is directly connected to how compassionate we all are as individuals, especially when operating from behind the veil of ignorance as detailed in the third law. Without compassion, we cannot have the freedom to pursue happiness in such a way that all of humanity can benefit. So when in doubt, I’ve personally always felt it’s better to err on the side of compassion, of prodigality, than of my own personal pursuit of happiness. I do so to foster a society of compassion, because you never know when the universe will return it to you. Just imagine how fast it would be returned to you if everyone, every single person, actually felt and acted the same?
Thank you so much for reading. Inthereddest.com is turning one year old Thursday, August 26th. I greatly value every single one of my readers, as few as there may be right now. Just like when it comes to spreading compassion in this world, I spread my own political message and ideas just one person at a time. Just as I said when I created this website, and as I said at the beginning of this article, even a journey of a thousand miles begins with but a single step. I’ve been taking steps for a whole year now, and hopefully I’m starting to get somewhere.