Friday, May 27, 2005

A Thousand Acts of Courage and Compassion: Some Thoughts on Cooperation

One of my readers--"i"--made some excellent points about the difference between compromise and cooperation. In particular, "i" reminded me how productive and hopeful cooperation can be for democratic practices. Rather than assume from the outset that our differences and disagreements are irreconcilible, we enter into discussions "open" and ready to actually discuss and educate others and ourselves about how to think about the political issues challenging us. If we think of democratic discussions as opportunities to actually discover the truth (in J.S. Mill's view of truth seeking in On Liberty), then our orientation to debate would be quite different: we would enter into them relishing the opportunity to learn by letting the best argument(s) win.

The only way that we can actually have such democratic conversations--in my mind--is if we presuppose that we are fundamentally capable of cooperation. We can acknowledge that we arrive at our views differently via different life experiences, access to information, and exposure to counter-arguments. And yet, we don't see the difference of opinion as insurmountable--as a "non-starter" (to use some good jargon). We have "faith" in our ability to listen and learn from others, which would entice us to seek out those who disagree with us to "test out" our own positions. Cooperation, nonetheless, requires some "animal faith" in human beings (that is for you "i"). Namely, we need to trust that humans are thoughtful, inquisitive, reasonable and communal creatures.

Another important ingredient necessary for cooperation is to subordinate the acquisition of "power" to truth seeking [remind me to spend some time talking about what I mean by truth in another blog]. This criterion is hard to fulfill. In a conversation with the public relations officer of Planned Parenthood (PPFA) in Central Pennsylvania today, I had a painful reckoning with the sad state of our democracy. I met with him to discuss how I can volunteer my services to PPFA this summer, and we ended up discussing the reality of not only Pennsylvania politics, but national politics as well. My mouth dropped when he explained gerrymandering to me. I finally realized why my Political Science students are so different from my Philosophy students: they are simply more jaded. It turns out that legislative districting is so rigged that we have little hope in electing new leaders to Congress (or elsewhere). Apparently, there are only 30 House Seats where either a Democrat or a Republican can win. When you combine that knowledge with some observations about how the Republican leadership works, then your hopes of the power of democracy can be seriously jeopardized. Things are fixed. Only a god can save us now!

As long as our "representatives" care more about amassing power, and less about listening to us, we are damned. We are beholden to power hungry politicians whose appetite for power has convinced them of their infallibility. And, as far as I am concerned, convincing yourself that you are infallible is deadly to a cooperative democratic process. Mill writes:

"We can never be sure that the opinion we are endeavouring to stifle is a false opinion; and if we were sure, stifling it would be an evil still. First the opinion which it is attempted to suppress by authority may possibly be true. Those who desire to suppress it, of course deny its truth; but they are not infallible. They have no authority to decide the question for all mankind, and exclude every other person from the means of judging. To refuse a hearing to an opinion, because they are sure that it is false, is to assume that their certainty is the same thing as absolute certainty. All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility."

Connie Bruck profiles John McCain (certainly a real burr to the Republican Leadership at the moment) in this week's New Yorker (May 30, 2005: "McCain's Party"). In discussing his experiences as a POW, Bruck reports the following:

"As a young man, he said, he had thought that all glory was self-glory, and that he was so strong he could achieve whatever he wanted; but he learned in prison that he was dependent on others. There he was the recipient of a thousand acts of courage and compassion and love . . ." (my emphasis).

I mention this passage from Bruck's article to point out how odd we are about the concept of cooperation. This passage points out yet another aspect of cooperation: the acknowledgement of how important dependence on others is for weathering the vicissitudes of life. My deepest fear is that an ideologue, who preaches competition and denounces cooperation as "socialism" (or worse yet "fascism"), will read McCain's description and romanticize the sacrifice and compassion that fellow POWs show each other, while dismissing the general insight of his comments: that we are fundamentally dependent on each other.

Every day, every minute, every second nameless and faceless individuals make courageous and compassionate sacrifices for their fellow human beings. They choose to cooperate. And, I would venture to say that it is far more advantageous to the human animal to cooperate than to compete to win.