By Gary M. Galles
In America, people who were once admired or held up as inspirational are now torn down (literally, in the case of statues) as too flawed in one way or another to deserve our respect or emulation. But demanding “purity” in the eye of the beholder before being willing to even consider any wisdom someone might offer can be a terrible waste.
Rejecting an insight because of words or acts unrelated to it or that do not disprove it is an error —treating an ad hominem attack as sufficient criteria for judging the quality of logic— with serious consequences.
For instance, that approach can put much of the wisdom of America’s founders “off-limits,” even though their shortcomings do not reject their insights into the importance of liberty and the corollary need to curb government.
Restricting oneself to the insights of those you view as ideologically “pure” enough can offer important endorsement to the power of a valid insight. Those who have earned reputations for correctly recognizing and acting on principles provide a degree of insurance against potential mistakes. Yet a true statement is true even when the source is “impure,” while falsehoods do not become true when stated by good men.
Camus’s Inspiring Defense of Liberty
To illustrate, someone can have a valid objection to something as wrong without having an adequate conception of what is right or of what would best correct the wrong in view. If so, your disagreement with their broader understanding or “solution” does not justify ignoring the truths they recognized. This is frequent in considerations of justice—people can often recognize when an injustice is imposed on them, but their preferred “solutions” often impose injustices on others.
One practical consequence is that we can learn from and be inspired by victims and opponents of abuse and tyranny without endorsing what we consider misguided “solutions.”
From the perspective of liberty, a good example would be Albert Camus, the 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature, whose birthday is November 7. And since he is not American, there may be enough less ideological heat involved to have a reasoned discussion about him.
One can easily take issue with or be unconvinced by Camus’s existentialism or his conclusion that everything comes back to absurdity. One can also object to his brief membership in the Communist Party, his personal infidelities, etc. But his defense of liberty against tyranny in World War II and its aftermath was inspirational. For instance:
- “The real passion of the twentieth century is servitude.”
- “Political utopias justified in advance any enterprises whatever.”
- “The welfare of the people…has always been the alibi of tyrants…giving the servants of tyranny a good conscience.”
- “The tyrannies of today…no longer admit of silence or neutrality… I am against.”
- “The only conception of freedom I can have is that of the prisoner or the individual in the midst of the state. The only one I know is freedom of thought and action.”
- “Absolute domination by the law does not represent liberty, but without law there is no freedom.”
- “Freedom is not a gift received from the State.”
- “Freedom is not a reward or a decoration…It’s a long distance race, quite solitary and very exhausting.”
- “Freedom is nothing else but a chance to get better, whereas enslavement is a certainty of the worse.”
- “Liberty ultimately seems to me, for societies and for individuals…the supreme good that governs all others.”
- “Is it possible…to reject injustice without ceasing to acclaim the nature of man and the beauty of the world? Our answer is yes.”
- “We have to live and let live in order to create what we are.”
- “The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world. It cannot, under any circumstances, be to reduce or suppress that freedom.”
- “Without giving up anything on the plane of justice, yield nothing on the plane of freedom.”
- “More and more, when faced with the world of men, the only reaction is one of individualism. Man alone is an end unto himself.”
There are things about Albert Camus I take issue with. But it would be a shame to lose his wisdom and inspiration because of differences unrelated to their validity.
With time and energy both scarce, paying attention to those we have learned to consistently expect insight from makes a great deal of sense. It increases the chances that the time will be well spent. It expands our insights. But we cannot stop there. We can also learn from and be inspired by those who are fellow travelers only in part.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. His recent books include Faulty Premises, Faulty Policies (2014) and Apostle of Peace (2013). He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.