My political philosophy these days begins with this optimistic suggestion: the people of the world should act in the confidence that if we work together there is more than enough wealth and opportunity for everybody to have a good life. Greed and sectarian interest may once have been justified by the argument that there was not enough for everyone to share, but that is certainly no longer true — now it is true that provided we overcome greed and sectarian interest and cooperate in a spirit of tolerance and fairness, there is plenty for everyone. We cannot afford billionaires and gross (eg, 10,000 to 1) disparities of income distribution, but neither do we have to impose a dead hand of socialism on the world in which everyone is treated like identical units in a uniform society. We can have diversity of culture and freedom of opinion, provided that people agree to be tolerant of diversity, to share with others, to respect the opinions of others, and not to resort to violence. This is to say that people can have the important things that they need for freedom and happiness, but they cannot have everything, and they cannot have freedom and happiness if others are excluded.
The feeling that life is a struggle and that to become a winner someone else has to be a loser is one of the chief obstacles to freedom and happiness in modern life. There are several combative and irrational notions that we have to abandon if we are to be free and happy, such as the idea that one religion or one philosopy is superior to all others, that one group of people is superior to others, that growth in the population can continue indefinitely, that growth in the use of natural resources can continue indefinitely, or that growth in inequality of wealth can continue without creating unhappiness. We also have to acknowledge that, despite the capitalist fiction so popular with some Americans, no-one makes it alone.
Certain ideas that are already well-known have to become central to the way we live our lives. We have to embrace the concept that any situation is capable of improvement. We must act as if all human lives matter. We have to agree that making life better depends on knowledge and understanding, which are always improving and developing through experimentation, study and observation. We have to recognise that we only have one world in which to live and therefore must live within it together in a sustainable way. Finally we need to realise that the key to happiness is not the things that we own but the good relationships we have with each other.
We need to become ameliorists: people who are optimistic about the great opportunities available to humanity, and who are prepared to work for the common good. Ameliorists aim to live and work in ways that improve their own lives in ways that simultaneously improve the lives of others. Ameliorists seek win:win outcomes. Ameliorists don’t ‘fight’ for good; they work for good, cooperate for good and strive not to do harm.
Ameliorists are not doctrinaire. They do not believe that an idea is right because it is old, nor do they believe that an idea is right because it is new. They are sceptical about beliefs, preferring to look at the evidence of what is working well and what is not. To overcome a bad situation, they are prepared to experiment with a range of solutions. They do not pick solutions to reinforce their worldview: they are prepared to change their minds when the evidence suggests that the solution to a problem is not what they imagined.
According to the ameliorist point of view, there are many political and religious ideas that we are better off without. Many religions include a doctrine that the truth has already been fully revealed and that moral knowledge cannot be improved: this is demonstrably untrue, and is such an impediment to the amelioration of society that it has to be opposed. In general, systems that codify an inflexible approach to knowledge have to be discouraged. There are a lot of “isms” that interfere with the ameliorist approach, and if ameliorism becomes too definite and definitive, it will defeat itself.
Therefore, this text is not intended to be the last word on anything. It is a start that can be developed and improved.
The missing ingredients in politics are often common ground and goodwill. There is no real debate when opponents establish no common ground — there is only irreconcilable disagreement and the ill-feeling that leads to war. Goodwill is wishing for a good outcome, not just for yourself, but for your opponents. Holding an optimistic assessment of human possibilities seems to me to be the essential foundation: if this is our common ground, then acting with goodwill to all becomes the rational choice.