On Moderation

Something my late friend, the philosopher Maite Ezcurdia used to always stress was that extreme positions are always the most stable, while moderate positions are always more attractive, but unstable. What I take this to mean is that extreme positions are more internally coherent, but have contra-intuitive consequences. This means that they show more abstract epistemic virtues, but are lacking at the more concrete level. Moderate positions, on the other hand, are very hard to develop into coherent, solid positions. Every time one tries to develop one’s intuitions about concrete cases, the abstract hypothesis one postulates move one’s position towards one of the two extremes.

Most, if not all, philosophical issues can be stated as questions about the relation between between two concepts, substances, etc, for example, mind and matter, particular and universal, truth and falsity, reason and experience, freedom and determination, being and nothingness, form and content, content and context, etc. These questions generate a series of positions which show the same basic pattern represented in the Aristotelian square of oppositions, as illustrated in the following image, where extreme positions A and E (top left and top right corners of the square) correspond to universal hypotheses, while moderate positions I and O (bottom left and bottom right of the square) correspond to the existential ones.

The two extremes positions, even if inconsistent to each other form a pseudo dilemma, so they do not directly challenge each other. Most debates occur in the relations of (at least prima facie) contradiction between a moderate and an opposing extreme position, corresponding to the diagonals of the square . But the relations between all corners of the square are all contentious. As I had already mentioned, moderate positions might slip into extreme versions, and ideally, we would like moderate positions to be more than compatible with each other.

[Image description: A square with four corners marked in big blue dots with diagonal lines also drawn. Counter-clockwise from the top left corner, the corners are labelled as “Extreme A”, “Moderate I”, “Moderate O”, “Extreme E”. The line connecting thew two top corners is marked with the legend “pseudo-dilemma”. The diagonal lines are marked as “standard debates”. The two parallel vertical lines uniting the top and bottom corners are marked with the legend “risk of slipping into” written from bottom to top. The line connecting thew two bottom corners is marked with the legend “ideal moderate combination”. ]

We can identify this structure in different philosophical issues from different branches of philosophy, like metaphysics and political philosophy, and relate this research with the recent work I have done on conciliatory positions in philosophy, in order to distinguish between moderate and conciliatory positions.

The starting position, the prime matter from which philosophical issues of this sort emerge is diversity: diversity of substances, categories, explanatory factors, metaphysical grounds, opinions, experiences, identities, customs, values, intuitions, etc. Extreme positions regarding diversity hold that the differences behind diversity are irreconciliable, and thus the only two stable options are to either universalize one (substance, ground, tradition, value, etc.) over the others, so that diversity is rejected as illusory or as something to be erased, eliminated, or to keep each one (substance, ground, tradition, value, etc.) radically separated from the others in a state of total autonomy but also total isolation.

This debate is as old as Western philosophy at least: from the ancient debate between Stoics and Alexander the Great (Brock 2015) to the debate between Malcom X and Reverend king during the XXth Century (Terry 2021).

In a recent tweet chain, Rochelle DuFord wrote:

“…we cannot build a good society without conflict. We cannot build any society without it. Democratic life is very hard and conflict is part of how that difficulty is expressed. Not all conflict is meaningful in the sense that it is over something real. Some conflict is just for psychological satisfaction. Some conflict is over something very real at stake. Figuring out the difference is not always easy. But dismissals of conflict play into liberal or authoritarian tendencies. Liberals want to characterize all conflict as simply about psychological satisfaction—this forestalls the possibility that something real is at stake and makes it easy to dismiss any disagreement.— Authoritarians want to eliminate conflict through annihilation, expulsion, or exclusion.  A democratic society would take on the hard task of doing neither of these things and movements for a better world should strive to fulfill that democratic function.”

Du Ford 2022

DuFord’s critical moderate position regarding conflict, between liberal and authoritarian extremes can serve as a good example to illustrate the above scheme.

For DuFord, the question under discussion is how much conflict can be integrated into a democratic society. The universally quantified answers are either all of it, or none of it; liberals tend towards the first radical option, while authoritarians’ tendencies move in the very opposite direction. A moderate liberal position, therefore, would hold that at least some conflict ought to be expected in a healthy democratic society, while the opposite moderate position would hold the analogous existential claim, i.e., that some conflicts are not to be expected.

In order to harness these two existential claims into a genuinely moderate option, it is not enough to say that some do and some don’t, it is also necessary to say which ones do and which ones do not. In this regards, DuFord’s proposal is to distinguish between meaningful conflict and psychological conflict. Meaningful conflict is conflict about something real, and thus is inexpugnable from democratic life. It can be neither dismissed, as liberals would want, nor aninihilated, as authoritarians would like. That it cannot be dismissed makes the position moderately authoritarian, so to speak, and that it cannot be aninihilated, makes it moderately liberal. Merely psychological conflict, in contrast, can be either dismissed or annihilated without much risk to democratic life. 

But, of course, the schema underlies debates in all other areas of philosophy as well. Consider the debate between materialism and idealism. Here, the logical form of each corner of the square become even more clear and explicit: At the extremes, materialism and idealism both take everything to consist of matter and consciousness (or something else ultimately “mental”) respectively, while a moderate materialism would hold that matter exists independently of what is mental, and a moderate idealism would hold that there are irreducible mental phenomena. Thus, it is clear that moderate positions are not much but the negation of their extreme opposites, and that they are compatible with all other corners of the square. 

When I was in graduate school, I recall hearing “One starts as a materialist, then one becomes a dualist, then a panpsychist, and one ends up as an idealist”. I don’t know where this comes from, but I think the idea was something like this. First, one is impressed by the successes of science, endorsing materialism about everything and so about the mind. Second, one is moved by problem of consciousness to see a gap between physics and consciousness, thereby endorsing dualism, where both matter and consciousness are fundamental. Third, one is moved by the inscrutability of matter to realize that science reveals at most the structure of matter and not its underlying na- ture, and to speculate that this nature may involve consciousness, thereby endorsing panpsychism. Fourth, one comes to think that there is little reason to believe in anything beyond consciousness and that the physical world is wholly constituted by consciousness, thereby endorsing idealism.

Chalmers 2019

This way of thinking of debates also allows us to understand why moderate positions seem to easily slip into more extreme positions. The basic idea is that existential claims are, on the one hand, easier to prove, but more difficult to properly ground. They are easier to prove because all you need is a single counter-example. But it is one thing to show that something is an exception than to show why. In contrast, extreme positions can be easily developed out of our more general intuitions. For what is there behind extreme materialism or idealism, separatism or integration, but abstract intuitions about reality, community, etc.? Explanations tend to generalize themselves and this is what makes moderate positions hard to stabilize.

As we have seen in DuFord’s example, in order to have a strong moderate position, it is not enough to give counter-examples to the extreme positions one opposes, one needs to give and ground proper general criteria. It is not enough to say that not any conflict can be consistent with democratic life or that not any conflict is inconsistent with it, one has to say which ones do and which ones do not and why.

References:

Barceló, Axel. “Conciliatory strategies in philosophy”, Philosophical Compass. https://doi.org/10.1111/phc3.12809

Brock, Gillian. “cosmopolitanism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 8 Jul. 2015, https://www.britannica.com/topic/cosmopolitanism-philosophy. Accessed 28 December 2021.

Chalmers, David (2019) Idealism and the Mind-Body Problem

Du Ford, Rochelle (2022) https://twitter.com/rochellehd/status/1481706022607675394

Terry, Brandon M. “What Dignity Demands”, The New York Review, March 11, 2021.

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