By Elliot Temple
Originally Posted to the Beginning of Infinity List on 23 July 2011

To live in human society, one must cooperate with other people.

Even the recluse buys groceries, clothes, perhaps tools. He interacts with stores, even if little else. He trades, because trade is hugely mutually beneficial. Engaging in some trade can dramatically raise one's standard of living from abject poverty to first world comfort.

Cooperation is hard. Good intentions are not enough. Good ideas are required.

People make mistakes all the time. This can make cooperation fail. It can lead to fighting.

Not fighting with people makes life much better.

Some types of cooperation, such as buying items in stores, have become common sense. Everyone in our culture learns how to do them. They now appear simple and easy to us. Regular people are able successfully to do them thousands of times without fighting.

They aren't actually inherently easy. We're just good at them.

Some types of cooperation, such as marriage, fail frequently. When methods of interacting with other people do not work, they should be changed.

Many excuses have been made for fighting. Even wars for conquest have been defended and justified.

Fighting is fundamentally bad because it is irrational. If two or more people disagree about something, fighting is not a way to find out the truth of the matter.

If people disagree about who should rule an area of land, or anything else, shooting at each other cannot discover what's best.

When disagreements are settled by force then truth does not govern the outcome, instead brute force decides. Fighting is the "might makes right" approach.

Everyone should always want to figure out the truth, which is best for everyone, and do that.

It is never necessary to sacrifice, or hurt anyone else, in order to solve one's problems. Rational men do not have fundamental conflicts of interest which require them to fight each other. Cooperating is always possible.

The name of the rational way of thinking which has brought peace and prosperity to Western civilization is liberalism.

Liberalism is the political philosophy of freedom, individualism, capitalism, world peace, cooperation, voluntary action, tolerance, diversity, reason, global free trade, and social harmony. Liberalism opposes fighting and unreason.

Liberalism has never been thoroughly understood by most of its supporters. A lot of people live in a pretty liberal way, but couldn't explain it very well.

Even most philosophers who try to explain liberalism haven't done a very good job. They make mistakes. It's difficult.

The truth is never obvious or easy. When an idea seems obvious, that just means one already learned most of it in the past. Most of the ideas people think are obvious are the ideas which our culture teaches to everyone and does not question.

Like all ideas, liberalism isn't obvious. It's pretty hard. Hard does not mean unpleasant. It means it is easy to make mistakes and there is a lot of stuff to learn.

Common sense cultural knowledge helps people live in a liberal way, but it is not perfect. It contains mistakes and it leaves things out. Understanding liberal ideas is valuable in order to help deal with those mistakes and omissions.

As long as one's knowledge isn't causing problems, then it's good enough for now. But when problems are encountered, then better knowledge is desirable because it can help deal with more issues.

Understanding liberalism well can help us be adaptable and let us cope with unexpected situations. If we understand general principles, we can apply them to problems ourselves to get answers, instead of needing to know the answers in advance from our culture.

There are no good objections to liberalism itself. There are no compelling arguments for war against peace, or for fighting instead of cooperating. There is nothing known to be wrong with free trade, freedom, and voluntary action.

Often, people object to specific liberal ideas, such as school vouchers. Or they advocate something anti-liberal like restricting the freedom to smoke. Prohibition is another example. A major reason this happens is that people on both sides do not understand how these specific issues relate to liberalism in general.

School vouchers are a liberal reform because they help give people more freedom to choose a school, and they are more tolerant of people who are dissatisfied with their assigned school.

People object to smoking because it can cause cancer. Smoking is often a mistake. They focus on this without realizing that restricting freedom is not a wise way to deal with mistakes. Restricting freedom does not persuade anyone of better ideas, or teach them how to use better judgment.

Prohibition was similar. People decided alcohol was a mistake, and then they decided to ban it. But banning mistakes is not the way to make a better world. Freedom, including the freedom to criticize mistakes, is how a better world is achieved.

People usually don't like to say it out loud, but they may still wonder: what's so good about freedom? What do people need multiple options for? All but one of the options are worse than the best choice. Freedom is freedom to make mistakes.

Many people think that freedom is good because they and their friends like being free. They like strawberries too. But they don't want too many strawberries, and will trade some for raspberries. So, too, they may think that some freedom is enough, and sometimes freedom should be traded for other nice things.

What's so great about freedom? The key fact is: when people think something is a mistake, they might themselves be mistaken. What's needed is a system that allows for unlimited progress. Don't just stop after a few ideas are figured out and base society on those ideas. Allow for continual improvement.

All good ideas that are improvements start off as minority opinions which most people think are mistakes. First, one single person thinks of it. It takes a while to spread. And because it contradicts what many people think they know, they disagree with it.

If we ban everything that most people think is a mistake, we will be banning not only a lot of bad ideas but also the brilliant new ideas that could improve the world.

If freedom is restricted, some of the most valuable freedoms are some of the first to be lost, because only a small minority of people use them. Freedom to have popular ideas is never in danger, but the unlimited freedom to have unpopular ideas sometimes is.

Cutting edge ideas are always unpopular before they become more widely known. And the ones that improve on deeply cherished traditions are offensive to some people.

Freedom means everyone can try out the ideas they think are best. It means they can disagree with each other. It means tolerating diverse ways of life. It means a person only gives up an idea when he decides it is mistaken, not because someone else orders him to.

Freedom means freedom to use one's mind and judgment.

It's not rational for a person to change his mind unless he understands why the new idea is better than the old one. If I think someone is making a mistake, and I want him to change his mind, the rational thing for me to do is to explain to him a better idea, and why it is better.

If I try to explain to someone why an idea is better, but he doesn't think my explanation is correct, then he should not change his mind. It might be his fault for not understanding. But it also might be my fault for not explaining well enough.

Or maybe he has the better idea, but he isn't explaining it to me well enough, or I'm not understanding it well enough. It could I who is mistaken. When people or ideas disagree, there is no simple way to assign blame or automatically know the truth.

When I try to persuade someone, but he is not persuaded, that does not mean he's a bad person who should be forced. It means that more knowledge is needed. We should either try more or, if we don't find that productive, then we could leave each other alone and go make progress in other ways.

There is a fundamental symmetry when people disagree. I disagree with him. And he disagrees with me. Freedom means that each person can think for himself. Restrictions on freedom always mean that some disagreements are approached by using force against one side without explaining to them (to their satisfaction) why they are mistaken.

Force is the opposite of persuasion. Persuasion is a method of approaching disagreements which is capable of discovering mistakes, correcting mistakes, and improving knowledge. Force is not.

As _The Beginning of Infinity_ by David Deutsch points out in chapter 10, knowledge is created by persuasion. "HERMES: Suppose I were to tell you that all knowledge comes from persuasion." Force opposes perusasion. Thus, force is an opposite to knowledge creation, and freedom a requirement of knowledge creation.

When alcohol is banned, policemen with guns will use force to stop people. A lot of the time the threat of force is enough. People don't want guns pointed at them, so they try to obey. Threatening force isn't more rational than using force. It's dealing with disagreement in a non-truth-seeking way.

Obedience is not rational. What's rational is to use one's mind to try to find the truth and to improve on mistakes. Threatening people who do not obey, or who disagree, hampers progress.

Liberalism, by promoting freedom, tolerance, peace, cooperation, voluntary action, and so on, is the rational political philosophy. It is the political philosophy with deep connections to epistemology.

(Read more of Elliot Temple's writing at Fallible Ideas)