Being Political and Being Good

Should you be political?

I ask this at the end of a long and semi-coherent train of thought originally begun by reading about this mis-titled news story. Some people have synthesised a genome from scratch, and successfully implanted it into a bacterium. It’s being reported as the first ‘synthetic organism’ but that seems to be an over-statement; nevertheless, a synthetic genome is a major step, a big deal.

I noticed as I was reflecting on these events that my mind kept volunteering questions about the effects this would have – who would control its application? What were the risks? How would property rights be applied to genomes? Would this allow our capitalist overlords to more effectively exploit us? Etc. Before long, my initial, positive, reaction had been swamped in a wash of hedged bets, qualified emotions, and a generally gloomy and grim outlook.

These are questions worth considering, but you can’t consider every question it’s worth considering. Why was I asking these ones? If you have very radical (i.e. anti-status-quo) views about politics, and you see every event in terms of politics, there’s a risk of just despairing of everything.

But there’s no reason to privilege that way of thinking about this synthetic genome. The point is not whether it’s politically good or bad, the point is that it’s awesome. It’s awesome and inspiring that we can do this – that we animals have become able to reproduce without using our own DNA. As far as I know, this is a first in the animal kingdom. And that’s exciting.

The thing is, I’m an anxious sort of person: I’m liable to obsess over whether I’m doing the right thing, usually to the exclusion of actually doing the right thing. And for quite a while, I felt that I ought to ‘be political’.

‘Being political’, obviously, is a rather nebulous term, but it was a nebulous feeling. In particular, though, I felt that I ought to be ‘politically active’. I have no problem being ‘politically thoughtful’, as this blog attests – but that’s because politics interests me, intellectually. Being ‘active’ – ‘doing’ something, or even worse ‘making a difference’ – is something else entirely – marches, petitions, campaigning, letter-writing, etc. etc.

I’ve had to deliberately convince myself that this isn’t actually the case. There’s no particular obligation to engage in politics per se, no reason why it’s a better activity than many others.

I want to distinguish that from whether there are compelling reasons to be ethical – I think there are, indeed it’s kind of the definition of ‘ethical’. And sometimes there are things which we have good ethical reason to do, and which we have to think politically to recognise. Eating a vegan diet, I think, is an example of this; charitable use of wealth is probably another.

But the reason to do those things is (roughly speaking) that they can be reliably expected to do significant good, or prevent significant harm, while involving comparatively little cost.

Now, it might be that political action is a good way to make the world a better place – but so are most of the things we do. For example, going out for drinks with friends conduces significantly to the greatest good of the greatest number. Providing people with valued services as part of a job does the same, as does playing enjoyable games. And these have the advantage of relatively certainty – whereas many forms of political action will end up having very little, or even a negative, effect.

Of course, those other things are done for personal advantage, for ‘selfish’ motives. One might think (and subconsciously, I suspect, I did/do think) that political activism is morally superior because its motives are ‘altruistic’ rather than ‘selfish’. Which is, of course, bullshit. The motives that lead people to political activity, like those that lead them to a career or a relationship, are largely impossible to meaningfully classify as ‘self-interested’ or ‘other-interested’. That dichotomy is mainly useful for shaming children and Kantian moral philosophy.

Anyway. The point, directed mainly by me at myself, is that although there may be many specific, circumstantial reasons to take political action, and for many people it may be a natural way to relate oneself to others, there’s no general reason in the abstract why political action is more worth doing that anything else that’s fun and rewarding. And there’s no abstract reason to think more about politics than any other interesting and profound topic.

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