Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Equal is as Equal Does

with 3 comments

Well, we’re now on the third day of the new computer, and things are definitely better.  I actually got a big whacking hunk of work done this morning without yelling at the keyboard even once.  And nobody on earth sympathizes with the fact that I really did love WordPerfect, even if nobody else on the planet did.  So I’ve got WORD now. I seem to be getting used to it.

In the meantime, John O came back from vacation and sent me an e-mail, and in it he said a very interesting thing:  whenever we treat people as equal in one way, we automatically treat them as not equal in another.
 I was originally trying to work my way around to what I think is the fundamental difference between the French and the English Enlightenments, which begins with the fact that the French Enlightenment speaks in the language of ideals while the English speaks in the language of practicalities.
The usual complaint about the English Enlightenment is that it is too small.  It doesn’t give men and women something larger than themselves to dedicate themselves to.  There is, in short, no nobility in it, only the grubby every day smallness of everyday living.
When I was younger and heard people say this, I would get very impatient.  For whatever reason, I am not a person who needs to feel called by some Greater Purpose.  I do have commitments I put before my own immediate self interest, but they are commitments that I tend to think of as necessary to my Enlightened self interest.
By that I mean that I understand that devotion to country is necessary for me tohave anything else I may want, as is devotion to family, so I tend to put them “before” myself, but only if you think of thinking of “myself” as thinking of myself only in terms of what’s practical in the next half minute.
If you think of “self interest” in the long run, you’re almost forced to think of it as dependent on a whole line of other loyalties.
There is also the problem I have with the entire concept of finding something “bigger than oneself” to dedicate oneself to.  There’s something about appeals of that nature that always feel to me something like a con game, and a con game with a nasty undertow. 
Too much of the history of calls to “something bigger than ourselves” have been calls to shut down our brains and follow blindly and obediently into a muck of violence and fanatacism.
I’m also a big fan of the idea that “the perfect is the enemy of the good,” that is, that by insisting that only perfection is possible, what you end up doing is getting nothing done, or worse than nothing done.  Whereas, by being willing to get on with it, even if it’s not perfect, you almost always end up with something.
I could probably count two dozen people I’ve known over the years who never got a book published because they could never get past page three because it just wasn’t perfect.
The fact is, however, that many people do feel the need to be called to something bigger than themselves, and in that sense the French Enlightenment has it all over the English in appeal to at least a certain kind of person.
The English Enlightenment says:  we know these things about human beings.  Because we know them, we can construct a society that will work with the problems of selfishness and greed, rather than against them, in order to produce a society that maximizes happiness and minimizes pain.
This society will not be perfect.  It will not completely eliminate poverty or ugliness or bigotry or hatred or pain.  It will, however, make these things less practical than they have been, and therefore there will be less of them.  We will have to settle for less than perfect, but for the vast majority of us, this will give us more comfort and happiness than we could ever have gotten otherwise.
The French Enlightenment says:  evil is evil, and there must never be any compromise with evil.  We will dig it out, root and branch.  Men are created by their societies, not by nature and not by God.  We will change society so radically that we will change the very nature of human beings.  There will be no more poverty, no more misery, no more ugliness, no more pain.  Everything will be changed, and heaven will be here for us on earth.
I’m simplifying and exaggerating here for effect, but this is the general appeal of the two movements, and the reason why they really were two movements, and not just two branches of one movement, as they’re often treated.
It’s also the reason why the vocabulary causes such a problem.  Both movements declare as their starting point that “all men are created equal.”  They’re just defining “equal” differently.
But the issue, for me, is how we can better sell the English Enlightenment, because one thing is sure enough in history:  the perfect really is the enemy of the good, and every attempt to construct the perfect society has ended with the Terror, one way or the other.
It’s the small-scale approach of the English Enlightenment that seems to produce functional, prosperous societies.
It does not,  however, produce “equality” in the material sense.
Which brings us to another question–how much equality in the material sense do we need to feel morally right about the world we’ve made? 
Well, I’m blthering now, and I’ve done something odd to this program that means it’s probably going to come out in huge letters and in bold.
So I think I’ll go somewhere and finish my tea.

Written by janeh

July 1st, 2010 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Equal is as Equal Does'

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  1. I was completely devoted to WP for years. I loved the reveal codes, and the equation editor was suprisingly good, even back then. But I got a new job and my employer insisted I use only MS products. It hardly seemed worth the expense to keep up WP at home, and it was getting more like Word with each revision, so I switched to Open Office for home use.

    Word 2003 or 2007? I recently was switched to 2007. I’ve found solutions on the Internet to Word’s tendency to shut down the whole program when you close the final document and the accompanying Outlook’s refusal to print out calendars like it used to.

    I hate software ‘improvements’.

    I’m more inclined by temperament to the ‘good enough’ approach, although I don’t mind aspirations to perfection as long as it’s accepted that perfection will never be acheived. I am certainly aware that a lot of evil has been done in the name of achieving a perfect – and even a more perfect – human society.

    I think being part of something greater than oneself is very important to a lot of human beings, but it doesn’t always imply political or religious actions, and can be channelled into narrower and even useful channels. Many people with children seem to be aware that by raising their children and seeing their grandchildren born, they are part of something greater than themselves, and that is surely beneficial so long as it does not become so obsessive as to lead the person to attach rival children, or live through their own. Some get so attached to their work – even work that is not by any stretch of the imagination world-changing – that it seems to have much the same function in their lives. I remember one retired person of this sort saying regretfully how hard it was to accept that once you’d left your job, you were not just forgotten, but the innovations and procedures you were most proud of developing were discarded and forgotten. That’s surely because at one point he identified with something greater than himself – his employer.

    I tend to take a bit of a minimalist approach to the question of how much material equality is necessary. I know that most people want more. And it doesn’t take much to inspire envy. Someone once complained to me that you could always tell which students were on social assistance; they always had new school textbooks. Children of working parents bought second-hand, or used their older sibling’s books.

    And yet, some of those children with the new books came from homes in such disarray and poverty that they didn’t always get to eat regularly. So why would someone envy them their new books?

    I’ve said in RL (although I don’t think it’s been received well) that we don’t have much poverty in my city. This is where the difference between relative and absolute poverty comes in handy – what I mean, of course, is that just about everyone has or can get enough to eat and a roof over their head, even those who don’t because of their mental illnesses or active addictions. We don’t have people starving in the street; we do have people suffering on the street for reasons that can’t be fixed by the offer of a bed and a meal. If we want material equality, it’s all very well to squabble about those who have a roof and food and whether they should have the same books and computers and clothing for their children that richer families provide. Bit there’s another group of people out there who are unequal in a different way.


    1 Jul 10 at 10:11 am

  2. I agree withthe original post, but with two hedges.

    First, it’s important to remember that even philosophy has limits. Does anyone else remember PAINT YOUR WAGON? The indignant miner complaining that the bigamous Mormon “Has got two of what I ain’t got none of!” didn’t need to read a philosophe at any remove to feel that way, any more than he needed to read Adam Smith to dislike claim jumpers. Not all massacres or constitutional clauses stem from well-written essays.

    Second, at some point the excuses wear thin. About the third time the rampant idealists du jour put political prisoners on a ship and sink it, or declare toddlers and babes in arms enemies of the state, it becomes a predictable consequence of the revolution, and the revolutionary has to be judged accordingly. In the aftermath of the Paris Commune of 1870-71, a General Gallifet gave orders especially to shoot gray-headed communards. They were old enough to remember 1848-49, he said, and should have known better.

    All of which is to say I have too much regard for William of Occam to attribute actions to philosophy and education which may be explained by the usual human run of envy, pride and lust for power. Admitedly, prime causes must necessarily be multiplied sometimes.

    But not often.


    1 Jul 10 at 9:47 pm

  3. You do not have WORD. You have Open Office Writer. You will be able to save it into a Microsoft Word document when you need to send it to your publisher – don’t worry. It’s just much, much easier to give you Open Office than to find your Word Perfect license key to use with our Word Perfect disk – if we can even find either one of those!


    2 Jul 10 at 3:28 pm

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