Moderatism? pt 2 Also Lightning

The best arguments (I’ve come up with) in favor of moderation are A. humans are imperfect, so let’s be careful, and B. Let’s avoid holiness spirals. The best argument against it is that sometimes moderatism doesn’t work, either.

But we haven’t defined what moderatism is.

People are generally moderates for four reasons:

  1. They are not very bright, and so cannot understand political or economic arguments well enough to decide whether, say, global warming is real or the budget needs to be balanced, so they don’t.
  2. They are bright enough to evaluate arguments, but they aren’t interested. Economics bores them. So they don’t bother.
  3. They can evaluate arguments and they care, but their opinions don’t slot neatly into “left” or “right”–for example, they may believe simultaneously in fiscal conservatism and gay marriage.
  4. They just like the status quo.

The last group bugs the crap out of me.

There are lots of people who say they want something–say, an end to global warming, or more pie–but won’t actually do anything in support of their goals, like buy a more fuel efficient car or fruit filling. There are also a lot of people who say that they want something–libertarianism, say–but then claim not to want to end up at the logical end of the libertarian road. (Pot smokers who don’t want free association, I’m looking at you.) Plenty of people who supported the Russian Revolution merely wanted to end that awful war with Germany and redistribute some of the land and wealth, not starve millions of Ukrainians to death and turn the whole country into a communist nightmare, but that’s what the revolution got them.

Claiming you want a moderate outcome while supporting an approach that leads somewhere very different is the height of either dishonesty or idiocy.

But back to our question, I think we can define a “moderate” as:

  1. Someone who takes a position between two extremes, (consciously or unconsciously,) often trying to promote consensus;
  2. Someone who wants to preserve the status-quo;
  3. Someone who wants to move in a particular direction, but doesn’t embrace their philosophy’s extreme end.

It would probably amuse most readers of this blog to know that I think of myself as a “moderate.” After all, I hold a lot of ideas that are well outside the American mainstream. But my goals–long-term stability, health, and economic well-being for myself, my friends, family, and the country at large–are pretty normal. I think most people want these things.

But I don’t think continuing the status quo is getting us stability, health, prosperity, etc. The status quo could certainly be worse–I could be on fire right now. But the general trends are not good and have not been good for a long time, and I see neither the traditional “liberal” nor “conservative” solutions as providing a better direction–which is why I am willing to consider some radically new (or old) ideas. (Besides, “moderate” is much easier to explain to strangers than, “I think democracy is deeply flawed.”)

Let’s call this “meta-moderatism”–perhaps we should distinguish here between moderatism of means and moderatism of goals.

Just as holiness spirals only work if you’re actually spiraling into holiness, so consensus only works if you capture actual wisdom.

I think Scott Alexander (of Slate Star Codex) is the most famous principled moderate I know of, though perhaps principled neutralist is a better description–he tries to be meta-consistent in his principles and give his opponents the benefit of the doubt in order to actually understand why they believe what they do–because “moderate” seems vaguely inaccurate to describe any polyamorist.

It occurs to me that democracy seems inclined toward moderatism of means, simply because any candidate has to get a majority (or plurality) of people to vote for them.


… You know what? I’m bored. I’m going to research rare forms of lightning.

St. Elmo's fire
St. Elmo’s fire (see also this awesome picture of red sprites.)

(This case actually caused by snow and wind, not a thunderstorm!)

ball lightning
ball lightning


red sprites and elf lightning
red sprites and elf lightning
red sprites and elf lightning
red sprites and elf lightning–good explanation of the phenomenon

Should it be “elf lightning” or “lightning elves”?

red sprite and elf lightning
red sprite and elf lightning, photo taken from space


(same source as the previous picture.)

19 thoughts on “Moderatism? pt 2 Also Lightning

      • Even then its the stronger partner leading the weak

        When you look at ww2,( a European war the usa should not have been involved in) most of the upper level chain of command problems were centered around consensus building. Ike excelled at that stuff but at the same time we let the British drive some questionable decisions ( also complelty aware of the advantages of hindsight etc)

        A better example for your point would have been George Washington ; )


  1. Part of the problem is that our language makes moderation impossible. Conservatives ought to be inherently moderate, but any resistance to disorder, since the enlightenment, has registered as reactionary. I’m not sure how well acquainted you are with Moldbug and D&D, but his short essay about dungeons and dragons alignment is clarifying on this issue. Knowledge seems to be a stand-in for wisdom for most folks, but our complicated linguistic labels, and knowledge and mastery over them, is a severe impediment to understanding this issue.

    Also, lightning is pretty cool.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lightning is cool. :)
      I have read Moldbug’s D&D essay. It doesn’t stand very well on its own, but I think I understand what he is getting at. To use a second, childish metaphor, if we consider Pinkie Pie (sorry, small children have been watching cartoons today,) as “chaotic good” in D&D terms, sure, Pinkie and the show’s creators consider Pinkie good. But actually chaotic behavior (as opposed to mere cheerfulness) is destructive. Taken literally, chaos in your food supply chain => famine.

      I think Conservatives basically are moderate by personality, though tribalism in US politics gets all mixed up to produce odd results.


  2. Lightning *is* pretty cool.

    I think there is a fifth, and IMO the biggest, reason why people are moderate: they want to get along. Most people dislike confrontations and like to be liked, at least not hated. We are taught to avoid friction and, when friction arises, to smooth things out. It’s understandable – societies that learn to avoid and resolve conflicts are more likely to survive.

    When people say they are moderate, they are putting themselves in the group with the largest plurality (usually), and numbers confer both safety and a veneer of reasonableness. Also, by avoiding a hard stance, moderates are saying to both extremes – hey I get you. It’s a form of trying to be popular. And most people love being popular.

    Moderates end up being far less principled than the extremes, but most people don’t care about being principled. Most people don’t even really think much about what their principles are.

    I do admire people who are brave enough to take a strong stance. At the same time, I don’t really begrudge moderates, if they are true moderates. But there are a lot of phony moderates out there. I’m willing to endure a bit more social friction for the sake of greater transparency.


    • Good points. People do, indeed, like being liked.
      The lack of consistent principles in most people makes me despair a bit. I’d like to believe that people can rationally discuss things and come to some sort of sensible conclusion about the best way to run things, but instead we just seem to get people picking a side and then defending whatever makes them sound good to their side.
      Glad you liked the lightning.


  3. Your image labelled ball lightning is not ball lightning. I suspect it is an ordinary return stroke with some odd geometry or perspective. It resembles no account of ball lightning I’ve read or my experience the one time I saw it.


  4. I avoid calling myself a moderate for some of the same reasons I avoid calling myself agnostic, even if I am to some extent–people seem to assume it just means I’m open to being proselytized. Adding to that, a lot of people I know personally who call themselves “moderate” are basically left wing progressives who aren’t quite ready to put the old guard up against the wall… Figuratively, at least. I don’t think I know anyone who’d literally shoot anyone, but I know plenty who will lash out verbally if I so much as play devil’s advocate with non-left views… (Which has, naturally, taught me to keep my thoughts to myself, which lets me take less moderate views… I’m not sure how many of the right-wing views I really believe, and how many I just think about because I enjoy the mental image of shocking people I know… Even if I never share…)

    And, yes, cool lightning pics. My 4-year-old went through a thunderstorm obsession phase this summer, though she insists that the flashes are thunder and the noise is lightning. I come from a long line of contrarians.


    • It does depend a lot on whom you’re talking to. Leftists sometimes react badly to moderates–just look at how the media treated Ken bone. With such people, it’s usually easier to just let them assume I agree with them.


      • I’ve definitely come to realize it’s best to let people assume I’m one of them. One thing that gets me still is the need I see in so many to have anyone they like agree with them, and either shove obvious differences of opinion shoved down the memory hole, or else convince themselves that they never actually liked the person. Of course, I’ve also started to realize some of my paranoia, at least regarding friends and acquaintances, really is in my head. Things I let slip that in my head would be big tells don’t register to them, or conversations that linger in my memory were just another vigorous debate with a random person to them. I think the most useful thing I learned for getting to a better place was that politics is in some way largely genetic (I think it’s more complicated than the studies I’ve seen, but nonetheless….) so I can remind myself I’m incredibly unlikely to really change minds, which allows me a certain inner peace. Or maybe I’m just excusing poor rhetorical skill. Whatever.


      • I have a pair of friends who’ve been trying to change each other’s minds on politics for years, and it still hasn’t worked. I don’t know why they still go at it, or why they haven’t written each other off as totally evil, yet here they are, still trying.

        On some level, I think politics is like sports. People can say, “my team is better than your team” for years and it doesn’t really matter, so long as you don’t trash the stadium.

        I’ve lost enough friends over things I’ve said that I thought were reasonable at the time that I think being cautious is reasonable, but I’ve also learned that much paranoia and stress comes from trying to be something I’m not, or to be friends with people who really don’t like me. I can be quiet for the sake of politeness when the situation calls for it, and I can seek out friends whom I actually like and get along with (not the same as “agree with on everything,” of course,) when I want to.


      • I think there’s a large element of cognitive dissonance, at least for my experiences. I’ve gotten statements of “You’re too nice to be …” or “If more … were like you, I wouldn’t mind …” (And, of course, big glaring irony of some of these people using that last statement, given how it sounds if you replaced “…” with most racial, sexual, or religious categories…)

        One thought I’ve had is, to the extent that there’s evidence of a genetic basis for political leanings, there is more than a simple binary–sure, most people seem to end up as “basically conservative” or “basically liberal”, but if you dropped one of those “basically conservative” people into a liberal upbringing, would they still end up conservative, or would they go along with their family and community and become a liberal? I know two young women who strike me as very similar–they got into the same top school, were involved in the same niche activity, and they even looked similar, despite being, presumably, unrelated–but, one had come from the rural midwest, and the other had come from an inner suburb in a northeast academic city (but I hear it’s not much of a college town). The one from the rural midwest (and very conservative background) was soon sounding like a SJW stereotype, with the typical vocabulary and all, while the one from the northeast became a big Ann Coulter fan and, well, pretty much became the opposite. (I didn’t see her become overtly religious at any point, and I’ve noticed that left-wing types seem more annoyed that I’m not religious, since they could fit me nicely into one of their mental categories if I were a traditional Catholic or Southern Baptist or whatever…) Anyhow…


      • I wonder that as well. For example, thee seems to be a strong regional push to identify certain ways–I’ve known people with fairly liberal personalities who hailed from the South and were proud conservatives because they saw “liberals” as “those people from up north.” Likewise, a lot of people I know from SJW or north-east circles seem actually very conservative by personality, but think “conservatives are those people from down south who hate gays and go to church.”

        Most people are just normal, fairly moderate, with a slight personality tendency one way or another or some stuff they say because everyone around them agrees with it. I look at a vast tract of suburban houses in Houston or Chicago, Maryland or LA, and think, “Are these people actually different from each other in any significant way?” Most people are just invested in the status quo (whatever that happens to be in their area) and don’t care at all for “consistent principles” or logic or whatever.

        It’s been really kind of shocking watching people who were vocally in favor of peace with the Soviets in 1980 talk about how we need to go to war to stop that Mad Brute, Putin. Or the Sierra Club abandoning its anti-population growth position to come out in favor of increased immigration. (Whaaa?)


  5. “…I think there is a fifth, and IMO the biggest, reason why people are moderate: they want to get along. Most people dislike confrontations and like to be liked, at least not hated…”

    I believe you are exactly correct.

    In my case I’m a moderate it’s everyone else that’s an extremist.


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