Abstractions and Algebra — Necessary Curricula for Life

In my last blog post I talked about the U.S. and other bills of rights. I recapped how the United States’ founding fathers chose to include a list of explicit rights rather than rely on the implicit assumption of liberty to ensure citizens’ freedom and protection against incursions from the government. In doing so, I argued, the government chose to endorse the narrower of the two conceptions of liberty, because to articulate certain specific rights is to imply that rights need to be written into law ought to be protected, whereas to refuse to write down specific rights implies that they are too numerous and too intricate to be adequately covered by the written word. The former offers a limited view of freedom, whereas the latter’s view of freedom knows no set bounds.

I think the concerns that drove the founding fathers to include a Bill of Rights were reasonable; however, I do ultimately think the decision to include a Bill of Rights was a mistake because it was bound, eventually, to give rise to a number of increasingly difficult problems. While this is an incredibly complex issue that has spawned a deluge of writing on my part (most of which, you may thank your stars, is not included in this blog), I think several of the more important long-term effects of the founding fathers’ endorsement of explicit rights are simple enough to explain in the space of a blog. So that’s what I’m going to do for the next one or two (or three or four) installments.

Before I do, however, I think it is important to make something clear.

It is in the nature of many of the issues this blog takes on that their solution requires a certain amount of abstraction, and by this I mean the breaking down of things from their real-world manifestations to the ideas behind them. Philosophizing.

I am well aware that many people are generally averse to this process and think it a pointless waste of time. Some few people, like me, find it infinitely fascinating and can choose to spend their spare time writing about it without feeling tortured (though even for a person as naturally inclined to philosophy as me it feels tortuous more often than you’d think). But many people find it, like math, to be tiresome, boring, and ultimately irrelevant to “real life.”

I think those people are deceiving themselves in both cases.

Let’s take math first, then view philosophy by analogy. Now, it is true that you can survive – maybe even thrive – without knowledge of mathematics on the level of high school algebra (which is where a great deal of the complaining comes in, because it is there that the study of math is mandatory). Because of this, many people argue that higher levels of math are not actually necessary and accordingly should not be part of the required curriculum for high school students, especially those who do not envision themselves working in a math-related field.

However reasonable this may seem on the surface, the “abstract” mathematical phenomena you learn about in algebra – compound interest, unit conversion, exponential growth patterns, etc. — have real, relevant and powerful impacts on our everyday lives. There is a saying among bankers that goes, “Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.” Ask any expert in finance or – closer to home – college student still paying off student or home loans ten years down the road and they can tell you the same.

What does this mean? It means our understanding of mathematics matters, because if we fully understood the process and power of compound interest, many of us would never agree to mortgages or student loans with what seemed like innocuous interest rates. Or we would have chosen the ten-year repayment plan instead of the twenty-five year and saved ourselves tens of thousands of dollars. Or we would have invested, rather than spent, our money, or vice-versa. Our understanding of the seemingly abstract concepts presented to us in high school algebra affects every single person among us with great and constant force.

How do we come to understand concepts like compounded interest? Only by studying mathematics to a degree beyond the intuitive and elementary level. As taxing and arduous as it may seem, and as much as the career we envision in journalism or teaching or management may seem unaffected by the concepts we learn in algebra or calculus, I cannot agree with the many people who say these subjects should not be required. They should be required, because they have a real and relevant impact on our lives. The understanding of them is necessary for us to make good, informed decisions and, in so doing, to live well.

Exactly the same thing is true of abstract thought, whether it goes by the name “theory” or “philosophy.” It may not seem on the surface to impact our every day lives, just as high school algebra does not always seem to affect us. But the truth is that our conceptions of justice, rights, liberty, equality – all of these and the other abstract and high-minded words philosophers use by the dozens – affect our real lives. They affect the way we vote, the way we speak, the way we treat our neighbors, the way we handle stress, our propensity to empathize and forgive, and really every other aspect of our moral decision-making.

I think this matters. In fact, I think our “moral decision-making” is the aspect of life that matters most. I think a lot of the seemingly inexplicable day to day atrocities we see – solders and vigilantes killing innocents on a daily basis in Palestine; mothers neglecting children at home while they pursue their own entertainments; fathers refusing to send home child support payments; people picketing the funerals of people they never knew with signs full of hate – are the direct result of a failure to honestly examine our own opinions, our own lives.

The refusal to think abstractly affects our civic behavior as well. Instead of actively resisting the things we oppose and advocating the things we support, our underestimation of our own power – an understanding which stems from an incomplete understanding of the forces that shape the world – causes us to give up, holding as we do the false belief that we are powerless. In actuality, every action you take matters, both as an example to the many you do not realize are watching and as an actual tangible contribution to things that actually do change the world – elections, markets, interest groups, community projects, and the simple fact of taking part in the Great Conversation. In the words of Margaret Mead, we should “[n]ever underestimate the power of a small group of committed people to change the world. In fact, it is the only thing that ever has.”

If we do not think deeply about life, we will never realize this because we will never be able to see beyond the immediate effects of our actions. It will never dawn on us that change is slow, and that a vote spent in a lost election may still have effects in the next dozen. We will never understand that while our massive week-long protest in the street resulted in no change, if we keep protesting for months – if we risk our jobs, or physical abuse, or jailing – then things still might change. We will never reach this point, because we will never have come to understand the true price of change.

The results of our actions are not usually immediate nor even proximal. We may not even see the effects of our actions in the space of our lives. Yet some goals of humanity that are the most worthy require us to act in a way that requires continual sacrifice with no immediate or even assured reward. How are we ever to realize this truth with the clarity and surety it takes to live that life of sacrifice if we have not delved deep into our thoughts and looked beyond the immediate, the tangible, the obvious?

Let me tie this into the discussion of rights, and why I chose to insert this defense of philosophy into the midd of it. I did so because it may be the first instinct of some readers to shrug off this discussion of “explicit vs. implicit” rights as abstract and arbitrary, ultimately meaningless to anybody outside the ivory towers of airy philosophers and self-important academics.

It is my sincerest wish to disabuse of this belief anyone who holds it.

Rights are some of the things we – all of us, those who live in cloud-borne towers of ivory and those who live in brick-and-mortar one-stories alike – cherish most. The freedom to hold whatever opinions we come to believe, and to espouse those opinions without fear of prison or torture; the ability to choose our leaders and therefore our laws; the freedom to practice the religion we love – these things, even if we take them for granted (and we do), are treasures that cut to the very core of what it means to live a meaningful and fulfilling life.

How, I ask you, can we protect these things if we do not understand what it is we are trying to protect? And how can we even decide what to protect if we cannot explain why it is so valuable? How can we promote justice if we cannot even define what justice is? How can we expect to elect representatives who will lead us to a better future if we have never imagined, specifically, what a better future ought to look like? We will never be able to, because we will have no real direction, in the first place, and even if by accident we should find ourselves on the right path we will be easily turned from it by charlatans hawking false wares that dazzle the eye and flatter the ego. The only sure defense against this is clarity of thought and steadfastness of ideals, and these only come from intensive introspection and concerted thought.

This necessity is not unique to political life. In fact, it affects everything we find important and meaningful. How, for example, can you raise a child to be wise, kind and good if you have no well-formed ideas of what it truly means to be wise, or kind, or good? Or how can you expect people to forgive others for their mistakes if they have never introspected enough to realize that we all make mistakes, and forgiveness is the only rational way to deal with those made by others? How, again, can you expect people not to cut you off on the way to work, if they have not gone to the intellectual trouble of putting themselves in your position through the deliberate practice of empathy?

As much as I love writing and love philosophy, it is not always easy to wrangle all these scattered conceptions floating around in my mind and organize them into words, sentences, paragraphs, and themes. Sometimes it is very hard, and many times I would rather play video games than sit down and force myself to work. This difficulty was for a long time sufficient to keep me from even trying for years, though I felt I should.

But I have started this blog now, at the age of 29 and after many years of ambivalence, because I think these ideas matter, and finally my sense of responsibility – all our responsibility, really – to contribute to the world’s pool of ideas outweighed my fear of the process.

One of the great strengths of the free democratic state is the large, dynamic swirl of ideas that is generated by the constant intermixture of opinions and perspectives constantly pouring forth from the uninhibited mouths of the people. It is this free flow of ideas, more than the wisdom or benevolence of mass rule (always dubious) or the efficiency of collective decision-making and representative government, that gives liberalism its power. It is constantly shifting and always capable of change, which is precisely what a world peopled by our transient, creative and unpredictable species requires.

This is why I write in this blog: because I think sharing ideas matters. I think sharing these ideas matters. If I write something I think doesn’t matter (and believe me, there is plenty of that filling up pages of my journals and gigabytes of my hard drive space) I’ll either keep it to myself or share it in some other place. If something is impracticably abstract, or needlessly speculative, or unduly nitpicky, I’ll leave it on the pages of those dusty journals and ever-filling hard drives.

But this is the place for the things that matter, even if they seem abstract.

Lately, specifically, I have been thinking that the way we think about rights matters – not in some vague way that has no real bearing on our lives, but in a real, tangible and vital way. In my next blog entry, which will either appear later today or (more likely) tomorrow, I’m going to tell you why. It has to do with the relationship between a right and an ideal. Stay tuned.

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