The tyranny of certainty: and how to avoid it

The tyranny of certainty: and how to avoid it

Splendid lecture by Andrew Sullivan on the scepticism of Michael Oakeshott. Quote:

“Oakeshott’s conservatism, his defense of liberal civil society, liberal constitutionalism — of what many people today would call conservatism but which strictly speaking is a brand of liberalism — was based not on the notion that there are some rights of man that we can know for sure, let alone truths that are self-evident. It wasn’t based upon the notion that a free society generates more wealth or power. It was simply based upon the notion of the limits of human understanding.

This radical defense of liberalism on the ground of skepticism can be described in a certain basic way, which is that we cannot know. As an empirical matter, as a practical matter, human beings do not know the consequence of their actions. They cannot see the future. Their information and data, based on what has happened in the past, is extremely limited. We operate constantly, as human beings, in a fog–a mental, intellectual, psychological fog. This is our reality.

This fog extends not simply to abstract conceptions of what is true or not–which Oakeshott never fully abandoned, but gradually came to relinquish in his interests–but practically speaking as well. How do we know that what we’re going to do is produce the results we want? How do we know that a certain policy is going to bring about the consequences it is designed to bring about? How do we know, when we start a war, where we will end up in that war?

This skepticism leads Oakeshott to two very basic ideas. One is because no one–no one–has the right to certainty, we should do all that we can to prevent anyone with that certainty from running our lives. What this means is that you keep the principles of certainty out of politics. He was thinking, as Montaigne was thinking at that time, of theocracy. Montaigne lived in the time of the wars of religion, and tried everything he could both to uphold the existing norms of Christianity while quietly, bravely, interestingly, fascinatingly dissenting.

Oakeshott’s defense of a small government, therefore, is not based on what traditionally conservatives believe it to be based upon. It’s based upon the lack of knowledge of any group of people in knowing what on earth they’re doing. Keep the government small so it can do as little damage as possible. Whenever certainty arises in public debate, question it, suspect it, doubt it. And alongside this, a form of government, a form of statesmanship, of politicking, which deeply understands the limits of its own knowledge, which moves forward with a sense of judgment, not certainty; by prudence, not conviction….”

In a strange way there are some parallels between Oakeshott’s philosophical approach and the end-to-end design philosophy of the Net’s architecture. And an appropriate humility towards the future on the part of its designers, who knew that they could not know what people would use the thing for in the future.