Brooks: "…Moderates tend to embrace certain ideas: The truth is plural. There is no one correct answer to the big political questions. Instead, politics is usually a tension between two or more views, each of which possesses a piece of the truth."
This is mostly true, but it’s also misleading. To begin with, although it is doubtful that “the truth” can ever be known, we can aspire to both knowledge (the best picture we can construct of the world and everything in it) and wisdom (practical guidelines for being and acting in the world). Both knowledge and wisdom change over time as we refine our understandings of the (ever-elusive) truth. Still, there can be a single best interpretation of the reality we perceive or of the probable consequences of our actions, even if that interpretation isn’t the whole story and we can’t agree on what it is. The “best view” of the Grand Canyon is not the only view or the only good view. The fact that it is debatable which view is the best does not mean there isn’t one.
It is more accurate to say, with Isaiah Berlin, that it is a truth—it is a true statement—that the universe of good things, of things having value, is diversely constituted. There are many goods. Moreover, as Berlin went on to argue, there is no single correct way for individuals to rank different goods even for themselves. We change. Circumstances change. What is best for you or me today may not be best for you or me tomorrow.
It does not follow, though, from the observation that goods are plural or that we cannot proclaim a permanent ordering of their relative values that anything whatsoever is good. There still might be, Berlin concedes, a single correct view of what constitutes the set or universe of good things. Moreover, within that universe some things generally might be better than others—it’s just that we can’t decide what’s best in particular situations without knowing all the relevant facts.
Nor did Berlin claim we cannot, as a community, make a rationally justifiable decision about how to rank goods when they conflict (again, in a particular set of circumstances). He did not claim, in other words, that there is no single, correct moral conclusion that we might reach through our moral thinking.
Because goods—things having value—are plural, we often face difficult choices between them, both individually and collectively. Moderation is an attitude or stance that rests on the recognition that neither as individuals nor as communities and societies can we rank goods in a way we are certain will definitely lead to the best consequences.
This does not mean, however, that we cannot reason together in an effort to arrive at a single, best answer to the question of which good or goods should take priority in a given situation of conflict. It is possible to arrive at a sound judgment about what is good or bad, right or wrong, better or best. In order to arrive at such a judgment, we are obliged to achieve maximum empathy for those whose ranking of goods differs from our own and to take fully into account their needs, concerns, goals, hopes and aspirations, etc. The product of our deliberations together will not be the truth, but it can be the objectively best way to resolve the conflict.
I would add that a problem with the idea of moderation is the suggestion that it involves compromise or splitting the difference. In Aristotle’s discussion of the mean, he argues for achieving a balance between good things and the consequences of pursuing a good thing to an extreme. Thus, thrift is good when practiced in moderation, but not when taken to the degree where it becomes miserliness or stinginess. Nor does the principle of the mean apply to factual questions about what the way the world is or what makes it so. We do not split the difference between the view that the world is flat and the view that it is round and agree to describe it as shaped like an arc. The principle of the mean applies only to virtuous actions that are susceptible being turned into vices.
Yet even when it comes to action, moderation is not always the highest good. Moderation and compromise were sought for more than half a century concerning the issue of slavery. In the end, the immoderate response of violent force was needed to break the institution of slavery. After the war, Reconstruction failed largely because the white population of the North lost interest in the well-being of former slaves and allowed Southern states to construct the apparatus of Jim Crow that continued until the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s, and which refuses even today to stay fully dead. Brooks is mistaken, therefore, to contend that we must seek “truth before justice.” Yes, we must ascertain the facts to the best of our ability. But the truth is elusive and knowledge is provisional. Sometimes, we must act even when we do not have all the correct information it would be ideal to have. Some things have been around long enough for us to say with a high degree of confidence are not good, and that there really is no room for debate in the matter.
A sound judgment about what is morally right, ethically best, and democratically achievable is usually the highest good to which we can and should aspire. It is a precondition for determining the relative good of everything else. That there are initially—before we enter into a dialogical and deliberative process of working toward it—multiple, apparently incommensurable views about what conclusion we can or will reach does not mean we must be “moderate” in the sense of compromising on the desirability of achieving such a judgment.