Essay VII: The Necessity and Dangers of Thinking Big

...which attempts to pull together some of the main themes of the preceding six essays and to point out the dangers of overes­timating the importance of politics in the lives of men.

  1. We must use high-level abstractions merely in order to survive in our complex society.
  2. But "thinking big" all the time is particularly dangerous for the social scientist because it inclines him to forget about people, to deper­sonalize his subject matter, and to overestimate the importance of politics.
  3. Deception, of self or others, is involved when people speak of love for "humanity", which is a very high level abstraction.
  4. We should never expect too much of politics, which can make the good life possible but can never make it inevitable.


Paul deLespinasse

"I love mankind... it's people I can't stand."

Linus Van Pelt; Peanuts

"Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."

Daniel Burnham

In this concluding essay a partial synthesis of the concepts developed so far is attempted within the framework of a theme which is worth looking into on its own merits. This theme is suggested by a little dialogue between two characters in a novel by Robert Heinlein:1

She: "Well, I still say it's a damn shame to risk him in such a business."

He: "Public custodians must not permit themselves the luxury of personal sentimentality, Martha. They have to take the long view."

She: "Hmmm... There is something a little terrifying about a man with too long a view."

There can be no doubt of the necessity of thinking big. It is necessary to use general categories and high abstractions merely in order to think at all about the complex universe and society in which we live. For many purposes, the details are not important. For the purpose of running a life insurance company, it does not matter which purchasers of its policies will live less than the average number of years and which will live more; the coldly impersonal actuarial tables are meaningful only in dealing with a large statistical universe, in dealing with large numbers of people-they are a fully legitimate form of "thinking big." The fact that no two snowflakes are the same does not have the slightest importance for the snowplow operator.

The broad perspective taken by political leaders, who must deal with large numbers of people, is a legitimate and a necessary one. We even pay homage, in saluting the value of a "government of laws and not of men," to the desirability of impersonality in governmental dealings with individuals. Similar cases, it is thought, should be treated similarly, without regard for the personal connections of the individuals involved. The high officials of a government think big, and it is a very good thing indeed that they do so. In a world in which the side effects of individual actions may aggregate to cause disasters, it is important that somebody be concerned with the overall picture of things. It is important that somebody in the Federal Aviation Agency, for example, can feel satisfaction if fatalities from plane accidents are cut from 1.5 to "only" 1.1 persons per 400,000,000 passenger-miles and can work to try to make air travel still safer. But because political leaders must think big and be concerned with the general welfare, the state must take a rather distinctive approach to morality. As Morgenthau has pointed out: "The individual may say for himself: Fiat justitia, pereat mundus [do justice even if it de­stroys the whole world]; the state has no right to say so in the name of those who are in its care. Both individual and state must judge political action by universal moral principles, such as that of lib­erty. Yet while the individual has a moral right to sacrifice him­self in defense of such a moral principle, the state has no moral right to let its moral disapprobation of the infringement of liberty get in the way of successful political action, itself inspired by the moral principle of national survival. There can be no political morality without prudence, that is, without consideration of the political consequences of seemingly moral action."2

Thinking big is necessary and desirable; it is also dangerous in the same way that medicine which is beneficial when properly used can be deadly under other circumstances. We find an intolerable paradox today when we look at the social sciences; their subject matter basic­ally as Essay I tried to show-is people, and yet students of the subject are all too apt to get into a depersonalized frame of mind. One social scientist even goes so far as to tell us that "we do not need to take individuals into account; indeed we may disregard human beings entirely."3 The most horrifying thing about statements like this is that some people can take them seriously; evidently there is a great temptation to forget about the basic element of the subject matter of the social sciences.

This temptation may be related to an apparent general tendency to depersonalization in the modern world which has been widely dis­cussed. People have protested being "converted" to numbers by electronic computers, students have denounced the demoralizing atmos­phere of the large universities,, irate citizens have even united in Anti-Digit-Dialing leagues to resist the trend. Jacques Barzun thinks there may be a connection between this depersonalization and the frame of mind associated with industrialization: "Thus we are told by an authority on public health," he says, "that the mottling of teeth to be expected from flourides affects from 10 to 20 percent of the users, which is a rather insignificant public health problem,' Or again, that the disease carried by pigeons causes only four deaths a year in Greater New York: out of eight million, a negligible loss. This bland indifference is linked/' continues Barzun, "with the industrial sense of the replaceability of parts and the ready supply of raw materials. How absurd in this frame of mind seems the old notion of each human life as a responsible pilgrimage."4

Temptation to think in a completely depersonalized manner may partly be a sign of the times, but it probably also is a danger in­herently associated with employment of the necessary and legitimate tools of the social scientist's trade. Let us return to Barzun for his comments on this: "Abstraction", he says, "is indispensable but need not be ever-present. The modern use is obsessive, bound up as it is with science and business, with the democratic way and the sta­tistical life, with the exhaustion of language and art and the peculiar make-believe of institutions. Abstraction in itself is nothing more than a pulling away of certain features of experience so as to remember and use them more readily. We abstract every time we ignore the parti­cular thing to find ways of combining or comparing it with others. ...Like metaphors, abstractions must be fashioned with skill and with sensitivity to their use and possible abuse. ...It is by abstraction, as we saw, that ‘man is an animal'; certain features in each group make the likeness plausible and possibly useful. But as the example shows, every classification threatens: it either omits the individual or forces him into a mold. And the risk is great that with familiarity the abstraction will be taken for the real thing. This is what has happened in our times on a monumental scale. As the main strategem of science, abstraction tempts us daily first to conceal and then to forget what we are dealing with. Through the door of abstraction we enter a world of constructs, of ‘models', simulations of life, where we walk as in a dream, with heavy yet effortless steps. ...The urge to forget differences and neglect residues is very strong. The warrant for doing so is that science thrives by it.... But in the lived life, as against science, the gap between concrete and abstract is like a pit we have digged for our undoing. Words betray us: when ‘mind' or ‘spirit'-abstract enough, heaven knows-become ‘libido' or ‘social trend, the already abstract, thing turns into the abstract no­thing. Any connection with the person is submerged and lost. By slipshod extension, abstraction becomes a lie."5

No one, of course, can deny the usefulness of statistics, but it is noteworthy that almost anything can sound very depressing if it is reduced to statistics. Such is certainly the case with the follow­ing statement once made by Paul Goodman: "What are the present goals of the philosophers of leisure, for instance the National Recreation Association? And now imagine those goals achieved. There would be a hundred million adults who have cultured hobbies to occupy their spare time: some expert on the flute, some with do-it-yourself kits, some good at chess and go, some square dancing, some camping out and en­joying nature, and all playing various athletic games. Leaf through the entire catalogue of the National Recreation Association, take all the items together, apply them to one hundred million adults-and there is the picture, ...Now even if all these people were indeed getting deep personal satisfaction from these activities, this is a dismaying picture. It. doesn't add up to anything. It isn't important. There is no ethical necessity in it, no standard. One cannot waste a hundred million people that way."6 Although Goodman often has something worthwhile to say, we must regard this statement as the veriest non­sense. If people are finding satisfaction in doing what they wish, why should it "add up" to anything? We have seen that when things add up, when they aggregate, all too often a catastrophe results. One suspects that Goodman may have his wires crossed, that he may falsely be assuming that public life is more important than private life, that the Gesellschaft is more fundamental to a satisfactory life than the Gemeinschaft. He seems to want what people do as a whole to be a means to some other end (whatever it is that things should "add up" to), rather than to have what they do be satisfying in itself. In a word, Goodman is succumbing to the dangers of thinking big by assuming that what happens in the large picture is ultimately more important than what happens at the personal level. One would not be surprised if he were to come out in favor of a crusade...

W. A, Orton has commented on the dangers of behavior based on pre­mises similar to those which can be inferred from Goodman's statement, and we would do well to heed the warnings "Once you start working backward from abstractly conceived ends to the policies and problems of actuality", he says, "there is no telling to what enormities your logic may drive you. Rationalism of the a priori type always ends by being inhumane and antidemocratic,, because it can see nothing in the folkways and traditions of ordinary people except obscurantism. They get in the way of the ideal scheme, and that becomes a sufficient excuse for impersonal harshness and well-intentioned brutality."7 There are indeed dangers in thinking big.

Thinking big is necessary and desirable-but not all the time. In order to keep a sense of proportion, we need to devote a fair amount of our time to "thinking little." Please note that this does not con­stitute an endorsement of little thinking; our planet clearly could stand more thinking rather than less. But we must be no less concerned with the quality of our thinking than we are with its quantity.

We need to remember what lies behind the abstractions whose use we find so necessary and convenient. As Bishop Richard Emrich has said, "In an age of vast organization, stupendous budgets, and great impersonal forces, it is easy to forget that human character and honor must always stand at the center of our concern. ...History reveals that most calamities and disasters are caused by the vices, arrogance and stupidity of human [Individuals]..."8

We need also to remember that politics is basically a Gesellschaft, a pattern of I-it relations, a means to more important ends. Politics provides the framework of stability and security within which the per­sonal life of the individual-among-friends is possible. But politics does not and, if the present analysis is valid, cannot make the good life inevitable. Leaders who assert or imply the contrary should be given, as someone once unkindly remarked of Mr. Nixon, our undivided suspicion. Some people still could and would be miserable even in the best of all possible societies, and the Declaration of Independence wisely recognizes this fact in its demand, not for happiness, but for the liberty to pursue happiness. Politics, like the heart, must be regarded as vital, but not as all-important, if we are to keep things in perspective.

Finally, we need to remember that in large scale human relations justice and not love is probably the ultimate value (although, as the above paragraph indicates, large scale relations are not themselves ultimate), and that people claiming to love humanity in general (rather than respecting it) are probably deceiving themselves if they are not indeed lying. A parable along these lines is to be found in Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov. Father Zosima is speaking: "It's just the same story as a doctor once told me", says Zosima. "He was a man getting on in years, and undoubtedly clever. He spoke as frankly as you, though in jest, in sorrowful jest. ‘I love humanity', he said, ‘but I wonder at myself. The more I love humanity in general, the less I love man in particular, that is, as separate individuals. In my dreams', he said, ‘I have often come to making enthusiastic schemes for the service of humanity, and perhaps might actually have faced crucifixion if it had been suddenly necessary; and yet I am incapable of living in the same room with any one for two days together, as I know by experience. As soon as anyone is near me, his personality disturbs my self-importance and restricts my freedom. In twenty-four hours I begin to hate the best of men: one because he's too long over his dinner; another because he has a cold and keeps on blowing his nose. I become hostile to people the moment they come close to me. But it has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity in general.'"9

If we remember these things, that discrete individuals lie be­hind the highest social abstractions, that politics is only a means to more important ends, and that justice rather than love is probably the appropriate goal for such large scale relations as politics, then it may be possible to study political science-social ethics and still keep a sense of proportion. We cannot hope for more than this, but we can ill afford to settle for less.

  1. Robert A. Heinlein, Beyond This Horizon (New York, 1960), p. 63.
  2. Hans Morgenthau, The Decline of Democratic Politics (Chicago, 1962), pp. 108-109.
  3. Leslie A. White, "Individuality and Individualism: A Culturological Interpretation", in Gordon Mills (Ed.), Innocence and Power; Individualism in Twentieth Century America (Austin,1965), p. 14.
  4. Jacques Barzun, Science: The Glorious Entertainment (New York, 1964), p. 45.
  5. Ibid., p. 271-272 .
  6. Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York, 1960), pp. 234-235.
  7. W. A. Orton, The Liberal Tradition (New Haven, 1945), p. 27.
  8. Detroit News, January 17, 1965.
  9. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (New York, 1949), p. 40.