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Universals: The Other Political Spectrum

Many political debates center on the idea of a political spectrum.

Ayn Rand argued that left wants to control how you think but not how you behave, whereas the right wants to control how you behave but not how you think.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a darling of the left, argued that people are inherently good (the noble savage) and are corrupted by society. Thomas Hobbes, a darling of the right, argued that people are inherently bad (life is nasty, brutish, and short) and that the iron fist of government is required to prevent chaos.

The left trusts government to produce the best outcomes, such as promoting fairness and reducing income inequality. The right trusts the free market to allocate resources fairly and efficiently, with the understanding that equal opportunity isn’t designed to produce equal outcomes.

There are more examples, but you get the idea.

Explaining the political spectrum is like pornography: we can’t always define it, but we know it when we see it. People on the left and the right tend to accept worldviews that include a web of interconnected beliefs, from abortion to guns. Most people believe their views are grounded in rational thought, but the truth is many of our political beliefs are grounded in intuition, emotion, and personality.

The first step on the path to political philosophy is to transcend our own intuitions, emotions, and personality to understand how the whole system works, to understand the why, as a basis for developing a chain of rational arguments.

Here at Spy Mindset, rather than parse the debate with current narratives, we prefer to change how people think. As such, we should consider the philosophical debate between nominalism on the left and realism on the right: the problem of universals.

The problem of universals can be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. Both were realists that proposed different solutions to the problem, which are still debated today. In short, universals are qualities or relations found in two or more entities.

For example, if we say two charities are doing “good” work, does the “goodness” refer to something independent from or identical within the two charities (realism)? Or is it merely a label of convenience to facilitate communication (nominalism)?

Nominalism is the view that only particulars exist, not universals. Realism is the view that universals exist, either independently of (Plato) or within (Aristotle) the particulars that instantiate them.

Let’s see if defining the two positions gives us any insights about the political spectrum.

For nominalism, the world is nothing more than the material world that we perceive, constantly changing, with people and society adapting along the way for survival. With this bottom-up view of the world, universals do not exist, moral claims about right and wrong have no objective foundation, and political systems are designed (at best) to find common ground or (at worst) for one group to have power over others.

This view aligns with the left or Marxism.

For realism, the material world exists and changes, but it was designed by an eternal creator that provides a foundation for universals and morals. With this top-down view of the world, our challenge is to discover truth and align our behavior. Moral systems might seem difficult or oppressive, but they are designed to help us grow and mature.

This view aligns with the right or the monotheistic religions.

Contra the left, people, societies, and cultures do change, but this doesn’t mean objective truth doesn’t exist or that everything is grounded in power. Contra the right, some things have stood the test of time and appear to align with natural law, but this doesn’t mean they are objectively true and should never change.

Hume was correct that we can’t derive an “ought” from an “is” based on pure empiricism, as the left might say, but he was wrong to claim that pure empiricism is a viable philosophy, as the right would say. Anyone who injects moral claims into a debate tacitly accepts a degree of realism over nominalism.

Most important, nominalism and realism can coexist. For example, defining men as having an XY chromosome and women as having a YY chromosome is scientifically true and consistent with realism. However, we can also argue that male and female gender roles have a more fluid social context that change over time, which is consistent with nominalism.

As peer-reviewed studies have shown, some important patterns of behavior are grounded in genetic differences between men and women, not on social conditioning. As Jordan Peterson says, women like people and men like things. However, this shouldn’t be used to pressure individuals to align with these bell curve tendencies. Society benefits from female engineers and male nurses, but there will never be a scenario in which a man gives birth to a baby.

For this reason, we should identify as individuals, not as group members.

In other words, the left and the right often talk past each other because they make different assumptions about the problem of universals.

Aristotle’s solution merits attention: for cases when realism applies, we should treat all individuals as being in varying degrees of actualizing a potential. We should all be courageous, because we all possess the potential to be courageous, but courage is a virtue that requires discipline and repetition over time within a social context.

We should all have the courage to challenge our assumptions.

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