Friday, June 10, 2011

The best is the enemy of the good

To: Boris V.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: The Best is the Enemy of the Good
Date: 10 December 2002 14:02

Dear Boris,

Thank you for your e-mail of 2 December, with your first essay for the Associate program, '"The Best is the Enemy of the Good". Critically discuss this statement.' I will discuss your essay first, then respond to your e-mail.

I liked the title, and the idea behind it. I fully agree with you that there is an interesting distinction to be drawn between criticism of utopian thinking and conservatism.

However, from what you said, I did not gain a strong enough sense of what it is to be a conservative, or a utopian, or a critic of utopianism. This is where much of the 'meat' of this essay, as an essay in political philosophy should lie. The more convincing you make your picture of conservatism or utopianism, the more compelling will be the argument which rejects both alternatives and finds a middle way.

At the beginning of your essay, and again at the end, you refer to Frege's theory of sense and reference as a way of approaching the disputed meaning of the proverb, 'the best is the enemy of the good'. I feel that this confuses the issue, however. The different senses in which the terms 'best' and 'good' might be taken are not like the different Fregean 'modes of presentation' of the object which we variously refer to as 'Venus', 'the morning star', 'the evening star'. The statement 'Venus is nearer to the sun than Mars' expresses the same truth as, 'The morning star is nearer to the sun than Mars' but would be disputed by someone who did not know realize that 'the morning star' refers to Venus. That is what shows that the two statements have different senses, in Fregean terminology, despite the fact that the first statement is true if and only if the second statement is true. In the case of 'best' and 'good', by contrast, we are talking about non-equivalent statements. Thus, for someone taking the middle way, 'The best is the enemy of the good' is false, when understood in the way a conservative understands it, but true when taken in the preferred sense.

In many cases, it is true that the ambiguity of a proverb is to be valued precisely because it is true in more than one sense. But that is not the case you are making.

In 'Twilight of the Idol's Nietzsche talks about 'the Good' and 'the True' as 'the last fumes of evaporating reality' (in my English translation). An essential part of his hostility to the idea of 'the Best' is a hostility to making ourselves slaves of empty abstractions. The 'improvers of mankind' have turned their eyes heavenwards when they should have looked at man, and what is good for man. So it is not true that Nietzsche is against all improvers. On the contrary, he sees himself as the 'physician of culture', fighting against the drift towards decadence and nihilism. He is against the false utopian ideas that would reduce humanity to a herd of docile animals (the connection between 'improving' a human being, and improving a dog or a horse). But equally, he believes that there is something better than the present state of affairs, a possible world where noble values will once again flourish. Christianity made men worse than they might have been, worse by comparison with the Greeks of antiquity. What we may question about Nietzsche, however, is his assumption that our present 'sick' condition can only be remedied by rejecting all ideas of political equality.

You enlist Voltaire and Leibniz on the side of those who believe that we can make the future better, but who are against utopian improvers. I found the connection rather tenuous, in both cases.

When Leibniz says that 'God does nothing out of order' the implication - or, at least, what Voltaire seems to understood him to be saying - is that there is no point in striving to make things better because however things turn out is God's will. We may think things are pretty bad and much in need of improvement, but that is only because we do not appreciate the subtle complexity. This makes it sound as if our attempts at improving the lot of mankind are based on ignorance. However, there is room for a less conservative view consistent with Leibniz, which holds that it is exceedingly difficult, but not impossible, to know which actions will lead to improvement (after all, not knowing God's will, we can only carry on regardless). This does indeed make Leibniz sound very much like his arch-critic Voltaire. We have the best chance of success if we concentrate on improving things that are close to us, 'cultivating our garden', trying to live good lives and contribute to the state as responsible citizens.

I fully agreed with the points you develop in your section 5. However, I would have liked to have seen more along these lines (what I referred to above as the 'meat' of your argument). We cannot anticipate the future with any confidence, we cannot impose change from outside. What do those things imply? What must an 'open' society in Popper's sense be like? Those are the questions that the reader will be asking.

Again, much more needs to be said about what is valuable in conservatism (the preservation of a sense of identity and continuity with the past) and how these ideals can be nurtured in a society that accepts that there are things that urgently need to be changed.

So, yes, the proverb is ambiguous. The challenge is to find the sense in which the proverb is true and most profound - the sense in which we should allow it to guide our actions.

All the best,

Geoffrey