Zhuangzi, Emotions, and the Good Life

Are intense emotions a necessary part of a good life? This seems a partly normative, partly psychological question. I’m interested in hearing what others think about it.

In a recent article in Asian Philosophy I take some preliminary steps toward understanding and partly defending a Zhuangist stance on emotion, which I dub the “Virtuoso View.” (A precis of the article can be found here.) I characterize this view roughly as follows:

“Virtuosos,” or persons of 德 (power, virtuosity), accept the inevitable without experiencing intense emotions. They nurture an inner state of calm and ease, without consciously attending to their own welfare. This state enables them to attend fully to their circumstances and competently handle matters at hand. Such people are not utterly emotionless: they experience a general sense of ease or peace, and they retain affective commitments to the welfare of their parents, for example. But they are free from strong, disruptive emotions, whether pleasant, positive ones such as joy or unpleasant, negative ones such as sorrow. The virtuoso’s heart remains “empty,” and he achieves “release” from things. Virtuosos liberate themselves by shifting the focus of agency to what they can control. They achieve a form of flexible, responsive agency that is independent of contingent factors, in that it focuses on “wandering” (遊) through the world by fluidly adapting to and “riding along with things” (乘物).

In the article, I emphasize the connections between this stance on emotion and what I see as a distinctive Zhuangist conception of flourishing agency. I suggest that the Zhuangist view of (virtuosity, power) is exemplified by the intelligent, adaptive, responsive activity manifested in the expert performance of skills. Such high-performance activities, I propose, are particular instantiations of the Zhuangist conception of a flourishing life—a life of and wandering. The best kind of life, according to this eudaimonistic ideal, is one in which the agent constantly maintains a version of the “high-performance state” that obtains during such activity—to do so is just to employ in wandering. Typically, a constitutive element of high-performance activity is the sort of affective state the Virtuoso View describes. For the Zhuangist, such a life of represents the fullest expression of our natural capacities as human beings. The flourishing exercise of —the fullest application of our powers of agency—requires that we “dwell in the flow,” in such a way that our emotional ties to “external things” are always provisional, transitory, and easily released.

One natural line of objection to these views is that emotions may have a crucial place in a  good life. Some emotions—such as pleasure or joy—may have intrinsic value. A life without them might thus be less good than one in which they occur with some regularity. Or emotions such as joy and grief may be justified responses to value, and their absence might signal a lack of proper appreciation of value. If emotions are necessary to appreciate value, then the Zhuangist view I develop may advocate a life that is less good, at least in some respects, than one in which we regularly experience certain emotions.

Among the potential responses to this set of objections, an advocate of the Zhuangist view might argue that intense emotions are not indispensable to appreciating value, as we can thoroughly appreciate the value of something without feeling strong emotions about it. Indeed, it’s normal for us to continue to appreciate the value of things or events, whether positive or negative, long after our initial emotional response to them has faded and we have recovered affective equilibrium. A Zhuangist might also argue that the Virtuoso View amounts to exchanging certain familiar affective experiences—such as the four intense emotions of joy, anger, grief, and pleasure—for more sophisticated affective experiences that are of greater value, as when, in a story in Book 21, Laozi claims that by identifying with the Dào-totality and the cosmic process of transformation, achieving affective equanimity, and “letting the heart wander in the beginning of things,” he has experienced “ultimate beauty and ultimate happiness.”

Two points I don’t make in the published article are that the various passages on emotion in the Zhuangzi need not imply that the Virtuoso View will be suitable for, attainable by, or attractive to everyone. People may have different and justifiably follow different dào. Moreover, like many eudaimonistic views, the Zhuangist ideal of the good life I depict may risk falling into a narrow “essentialism”: perhaps it picks out a genuinely distinctive, important, yet narrow feature of human agency but then untenably inflates this into the crux of its conception of human flourishing.

My question for discussion, then, is this: Are intense emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure (喜怒哀樂)—the four typically mentioned in the Zhuangzi—an indispensable part of the good life? Can an agent live a flourishing, well-rounded life without them, or while experiencing them only rarely and briefly? I find these provocative questions and see no easy, knockdown arguments for or against a Zhuangist stance.

12 replies on “Zhuangzi, Emotions, and the Good Life”

  1. Hi Chris; what an excellent post and question! I guess my personal answer to your question is, yes intense emotions are indispensably a part of the good life. But that’s not because they’re intrinsically valuable. Joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure — particularly the first three — are responses to things that also signify important attachments within a life. Immense sorrow comes at the loss of something of immense value to us. Joy, anger, and if you mean intense pleasure, are all part of a psychology that cares about things. So, the question really comes down to: “Is caring about things indispensable to a good life?” and the answer to that seems easy to me. I can think personally of the events that brought on exactly those emotions in my own life and it seems like if I had not reacted with intensity of those feelings, there would have been something wrong with me (psychologically) or with my life (eudaimonistically?).

    The interesting thing about the virtuoso life a la the Zhuangzi, I suspect, is that there is actually something intense that is substituted, some kind of intense enjoyment of the virtuosity. My suspicions are based on my own brief experiences of virtuoso-like performance (e.g. turning a leaping double-play in softball, making a perfect no-look pass in basketball — you know, the sort of lowbrow stuff that Zhuangzi would love). It’s not just fun, it’s intensely fun. So, I wonder what you think the Zhuangzi has against intense emotion, aside from its intensity — if my suspicions are right about Zhuangzian virtuosity. Of course, they might be wrong, and then we’d be back to your original question.

  2. We would not have a motivation to live without strong emotional or hedonistic attachments, but I think that it’s important to make distinction between having an attachment and being able to intellectualize our emotions away from them so that we can more objectively assess situations and serve our interests in them.

    Dan Dennett and some evolutionary biologists have demonstrated that pleasures are evolutionary adaptations, and that our hard-wiring tricks us into thinking that the object contains the properties that the subject interprets as pleasurable. It’s not that things are pleasurable because they have “pleasurable qualities,” but that we’ve adapted such that the things with certain survival-ensuring qualities (sugar, water, reproductive success, etc.) also have a circuitry to reward and reinforce behaviors to seek the things that produce them.

    Many of our incentive structures are built into our anatomy, and our emotions may very well serve these ends. This includes grief and empathy, which may actually serve to reattach severed social connections upon certain losses, despite how insultingly reductionist it may feel to people as they experience them.

    In fact, this may extend so far that it defines every sense of “skillfullness,” because the minimal exertion of energy for maximum gain is relevant to genetic selection.

    I agree that “the big three” Daoist classics’ (Laozi, Zhuangzi, and Liezi) claim that the sage will maximize an efficiency in meeting one’s ends, and they all see that strong emotions are prone to tamper with that efficiency. That’s best exemplified in the Zhuangzi here: http://ctext.org/zhuangzi/full-understanding-of-life?searchu=cock&searchmode=showall#n2846

    Psychological and economic studies are concurring with findings that stressors, including direct incentives (eustressors), negatively affect performance. Zhuangzi and others may have been on the ball with this one.

    My problem with the eudaimonistic element that you mention is that skills may be irrelevant to the quality of the life that one leads. Plenty of reactionary oafs stumble into greatness, while hyper-rational people with incredible skills led atrocious lives. I can’t really comment further until I know how you would assess a whole life rather than the actions within it.

    This is secondary, but I am a huge proponent of the narrower essentialist take on pre-Qin classics, and I recently wrote an article about Laozi to that effect.

  3. A

    For what it’s worth, here are some different versions of the question: Does the morally (or egoistically) best life to luck onto involve intense episodes? Does the life that’s morally (or egoistically) most reasonable to aim for tend to involve intense episodes? Is it most moral (or egoistically prudent) to aim specifically at the having or at the avoidance of intense episodes, or not at either?

    I think the function of the phrase ‘the good life’ is to elide those kinds of question, and I’m ambivalent about doing so. On all (?) of them I agree completely with Manyul’s comment #1 above in favor of a life involving intense episodes.

    Analects 7.37: 子曰:“君子坦蕩蕩,小人長戚戚.”
    The Master said, “The gentleman is easy of mind, while the small man is always full of anxiety.” [Lau]

    That does seem true as a broad generalization. The better person has a better-developed sensibility and so less often finds herself torn, uncertain, or surprised. But I would guess that a well-developed sensibility for any particular situation involves some emotional investment in risky particulars, such as particular people, who might die or otherwise disappoint one’s investment.

    Maybe people who are exceptionally well-endowed or well-trained, spiritually, can invest adequately in particulars while not losing emotional track of the risks, so to speak; remaining emotionally prepared for changes. Maybe for that reason the smooth virtuoso is the ideal. But here the distinction between the moral and egoistic questions may come into play. Arguably the greater our endowments, the greater our moral responsibility, so that even the greatest soul will be putting herself “out there”; while if one’s own interest or net pleasure were the only thing at stake, there might be a smooth balance to be found. Or perhaps an egoist can’t find a smooth balance after all, because essential organs of perceptive sensibility may be concern and respect for others, putting oneself in others’ shoes, etc.


    Chris, alas, I don’t have easy access to the most recent year of Asian Philosophy, so I have seen only your summaries. Still I’d like to raise some questions about the simplified argument from the Zhuangzi that you present in your précis. Here it is; I’ve added numbers.

    1) Dé 德 is our Nature-given capacity to exercise agency in navigating Dào 道. As human beings, we have a fundamental, instinctive inclination to employ dé, or exert our capacity for agency.
    2) Once we recognize the limits to our efficacy, we see that adopting certain kinds of aims and commitments tends to frustrate this inclination.
    3) We will enjoy a more fulfilling life if we reorient ourselves toward aims and commitments that offer a greater chance of success.
    4) But success in pursuing any particular aim or commitment is contingent on “external things” (外物) over which we have no control (無奈).
    5) Only a wholly “internal” project—one not contingent on anything “external”—can enable us to transcend contingency, ensuring that success lies entirely in our power.
    6) But there is only one such project: the higher-order project of the practice of dé 德 itself—or, identically, the project of “wandering” (遊).

    Questions and worries (for the worries, I wonder whether the Zhuangzi suggests replies):

    To (3): As Manyul’s example of the pass suggests, the pleasure of agency would seem offhand to be precisely the pleasure of doing what isn’t perfectly easy, i.e. isn’t perfectly guaranteed to succeed.

    In (4), for ‘particular’ should we just read ‘external’, or is there a view that all particular aims are external? Is there a view that all external aims are particular? Is there a view that the project of the practice of of dé 德 itself is not particular?

    To (4): It seems obvious that we have some control over external things. Is the Zhuangzi confused about this?

    To (5): It seems obvious also that we do not have full control over “internal” things, such as particular inclinations, character, or future decisions. The idea that we could come to have such complete control seems highly speculative at best, though I grant that an argument from heroic cases or one’s own experience would certainly be relevant.

    To (6): Why would this be the only project that meets the test? (For example, consider the project of staying alive. This would seem to meet the test necessarily better, but obviously far worse than the project of not staying alive.)

    Also I do not grasp the overall form of the argument. I wonder whether any of the following ideas is operative in it:

    (a) Our well-being consists in maximally fulfilling our inclinations, or else in minimizing our unfulfilled inclinations.

    (b) The desire for agency is so much stronger than our other inclinations that it is the one whose satisfaction matters most for the calculus.

    (c) Unlike all other inclinations, the desire for agency is ineliminable, so that the way to minimize non-fulfilled inclinations is to fulfill this one and drop the others.

    (d) Unlike all other inclinations, the desire for agency is a fundamental desire, so that the only potential value to us of the objects any other inclinations is that their pursuit is a way to exercise agency.

    If (d) is an assumption in the argument, then I wonder about the distinction between an untrained person whose inclination to play basketball is a way to pursue the exercise of agency, and a virtuoso whose desire to exercise agency is currently being realized in basketball. According to (d), the mistake of the untrained person is not that she has independent inclinations, but that there is a mistake in her derivation of that desire from her desire to exercise agency. Is the Zhuangzi intellectualist in that way?

  4. Hi Chris et al,

    “Are intense emotions such as joy, anger, sorrow, and pleasure (喜怒哀樂)— the four typically mentioned in the Zhuangzi—an indispensable part of the good life? Can an agent live a flourishing, well-rounded life without them, or while experiencing them only rarely and briefly?”
    — Well, “well-rounded” is a subjective judgement. I think its obvious that someone can experience these intense emotions and still live a miserable life. I don’t believe they are necessary. They can add some colour, of course. You might want to check out Joel Kupperman’s great little book Six Myths About the Good Life: Thinking About What Has Value, if you haven’t already. He’s such a ‘well-rounded’ and careful thinker. (He’s also written a paper on Zhuangzi and emotions found in Kjellberg’s and Ivanhoe’s Essays on Skepticism, Relativism, and Ethics in the Zhuangzi.

    Re: “I suggest that the Zhuangist view of dé (virtuosity, power) is exemplified by the intelligent, adaptive, responsive activity manifested in the expert performance of skills. Such high-performance activities, I propose, are particular instantiations of the Zhuangist conception of a flourishing life—a life of dé and wandering.”
    — I think the skilled performers might exemplify the inner calm that is De (excellence) for Zhuangzi, but I don’t believe any of the stories credit them with De. The useless Aitai Tuo, however, is. It seems to me your conception of Zhuangist De is missing the “charismatic” aspect; the ability to have a positive influence on others. Likewise, I find your claim : “Dé 德 is our Nature-given capacity to exercise agency in navigating Dào 道. As human beings, we have a fundamental, instinctive inclination to employ dé, or exert our capacity for agency” to be dubious.

    Regarding content from your precis…

    ““Virtuosos,” or persons of dé 德, accept the inevitable without experiencing intense emotions. They nurture an inner state of calm and ease, without consciously attending to their own welfare. This state enables them to attend fully to their circumstances and competently handle matters at hand. Such people are not utterly emotionless: they experience a general sense of ease or peace, and they retain affective commitments to the welfare of their parents, for example. But they are free from strong, disruptive emotions, whether pleasant, positive ones such as joy or unpleasant, negative ones such as sorrow. The virtuoso’s heart remains “empty,” and he achieves “release” from things.”
    — I think this is well-said Chris.

    “We will enjoy a more fulfilling life if we reorient ourselves toward aims and commitments that offer a greater chance of success.”
    — I’m not sure about this. Your “core project” of equanimity and choosing a course that can never be completed or eliminated, is this really the fullest expression of our natural human capacities? I wonder.

    “Several major objections can be raised against the Virtuoso View. The first and most fundamental one is that a life without deep emotional commitments might be one in which we fail to exert agency at all. As Heidegger shows, some form of affective commitment is integral to the sort of intentionality characteristic of human agency. The reply is that the Virtuoso View does not advocate abandoning all commitments to particular projects. It advocates that our fundamental commitment be to the higher-order project of wandering (遊), or the life of dé 德. To wander is not to remain motionless; nor is it merely to “drift” (浮).”
    — I’m with you, but I’m not sure about the use of the word “fundamental” here. I assume there to be some emotional commitment to a life of De and wandering: Zhuangzi finds it enjoyable. As for drifting (浮), is this not a word the Zhuangzi links with Wandering (遊)?

    “A critic might object that these dual moments are incompatible or that they make genuine commitment to particular projects impossible. I contend in response that the conflict between the two moments is not a defect of the Virtuoso View, but essential to a fully human way of life. To fail to find a balance between the engaged and wandering moments—and thus exert our ability to engage in Zhuangist wandering—is simply to fail to develop our cognitive and affective capacities adequately and to fail to acknowledge reality.”
    — “essential to a fully human way of life”? To fail to find this balance, to me, means to fail to adapt one’s cognitive and affective capacities to reality. Adapt = develop?

    “the Virtuoso View exchanges certain familiar affective experiences for other, more sophisticated affective experiences that are of greater value.”
    — This sounds right, although I think “are valued more highly” is better than “are of greater value.”

    “Heidegger and Nagel, I believe, are correct to contend that in the fullest realization of human agency, the contrasting dimensions of engagement and wandering operate simultaneously.”
    — As does Zhuangzi, in the story of the zookeeper and his monkeys and his “double walk” (Liangxing 兩行).

  5. My thanks to everyone for the lively discussion. My apologies for taking some time to come back to this thread. I can’t address all the points raised in these thoughtful comments, but I’ll say a few words about selected issues.

    One problem with the original post is that it’s a brief excerpt from a longer paper in which I address many of the interpretive points and objections raised above. An adequate response, especially to Bill’s and Scott’s detailed comments, would require posting the whole paper here. I can’t do that, but I’m happy to send a copy to anyone who wants one.

    Manyul and Joshua raise objections to the Zhuangist view similar to those I consider in the paper. One is that emotions arise from caring about things of value. An agent who lacks emotions seems not to care about such things and thus arguably lives an impoverished life. I think Zhuangist writers are challenging this commonsense view of the relations between emotion and value, by suggesting that we can value things yet “dwell in the flow” and let go of them with minimal emotional disturbance when it is time. I think there’s a complex interplay between psychological and normative considerations here. If it is psychologically impossible, or impractical, to value things without feeling strong emotions about them, then the Zhuangist position is normatively hard to defend. But if it is psychologically feasible to value things while maintaining emotional equanimity, then the Zhuangist ideal might be justifiable (for some agents, at least). In the paper, I suggest that Zhuangists might be right about this, because sometimes we do seem to value things without feeling intense emotions about them. An interesting area to look at would be the implications for this thesis of the sort of biological and neurological research that Joshua alludes to.

    I think Manyul’s right—and I say something similar in the paper—that the Zhuangzi offers an alternative emotional payoff to replace conventional emotions. One part of this is the positive emotional experience of virtuoso activity, to which Manyul calls attention. Another probably arises through identifying with and understanding one’s place in the Great Dao. This may involve awe, a sense of security or peace, a kind of cognitive satisfaction, and a form of religious rapture, among other possible elements.

    What does the Zhuangzi have against emotion, Manyul asks? In the paper, I identify several reasons for the Zhuangist position, including that emotions disrupt our health, interfere with our capacity for virtuoso activity, and signal a failure to grasp reality.

    Bill’s right, of course, that the phrase “the good life” elides lots of potentially important distinctions. In this case, the vagueness was intentional, as I wanted to invite others to offer alternative conceptions of the good life, or at least the role of emotion in it. To be a bit more precise, I think the Zhuangist ideal of a good life is neither moral nor egoistic, as philosophers typically use those terms today. It’s eudaimonistic, in the sense that it offers a picture of a life that goes well, in ways that overlap but aren’t equivalent to moral or egoistic criteria. It’s a life of full dé in which one follows dào well.

    The line of reasoning I offered leading to the Zhuangist view on emotion isn’t intended as an argument as much as a conjecture about how the writers of these texts may have arrived at their position. A fundamental concern for them is to escape “contingency” or “dependency” (待), and thus achieve a form of autonomy or freedom and control over what happens to us. The admittedly vague Chinese internal/external 內/外 distinction is one way they refer to what we can control as opposed to what we can’t (it refers to other things as well). The implication is probably that we can develop mastery over some (not all) “internal” things, such as our attitudes and intentions. Things “outside” of us, by contrast, “can’t be taken for certain” (外物不可必).

    The “higher-order project” of exercising dé just is, in effect the project of living as well as we can, given our circumstances. “Well” here has teleological and aesthetic components, involving a Zhuangist conception of psychophysical health and of employing our talents and capacities to the fullest. (A desire for agency has no place in the picture.)

    Scott’s right that this particular paper does not present a thorough account of Zhuangist dé. That’s not really the aim, and I agree important things are left out. I do think there’s a connection between the conception of dé we find in Book 5, “Signs of Full Dé,” and the account of agency I try to develop, as detailed in this paper and a previous one (“Wandering the Way”). But Scott’s right that the account of dé I’m working with is partly conjectural, drawing on a range of remarks throughout Daoist texts about the relation between dé and dào.

  6. Hi Chris and all, thanks for raising this interesting issue. A couple of thoughts in a different direction.

    I notice a tendency in students to defend having emotions, and strong emotions in particular, when teaching Indian philosophy, which includes some views that suggest an even greater level of detachment than in Zhuangzi. I tend to attribute this idea that strong feelings are good in themselves as a kind of residual Romanticist/expressivist view that’s filtered into contemporary culture. If this is valid at all, it’s hardly surprising that Zhuangzi would have a different view.

    Considering some recent psychological work on happiness, and I’m thinking of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on flow, could Zhuangzi just have been wrong about the connection between high-performance activity and freedom from strong emotions? The kind of focus on highly skilled performance is exactly what Csikszentmihalyi found tends to led to strong positive feelings: he mentions “exhilaration” and a “deep sense of enjoyment” specifically. What might have led Zhuangzi to think otherwise? I don’t know if Csikszentmihalyi’s research extended beyond American or Western European subjects, and it would be interesting if there’s cultural variation. Maybe there was something about China in Zhuangzi’s time where skilled performance was connected with equanimity, and in contemporary American culture (at least) that has changed?

    • Just a note. In Zhuangzi 3, Cook Ding feels “satisfaction” (man 滿) when he looks at his finished handiwork. This is the same feeling of satisfaction that the legendary sage-ruler Shun commended Yu on not succumbing to: “Yu was not self-satisfied (bu ziman 不自滿).” (Yu was also not boastful 伐 or arrogant 矜) Of course, it could simply be a matter of degree, in which case the wisdom would that it is acceptable and appropriate to feel a moderate amount of pride and satisfaction when we succeed at something, but do not go to extremes. For Zhuangzi, this would be equivalent to his preference for having nothing enter into and disturb our inner sanctum – Lingfu 靈府, Tianfu 天府 – within our heart 心. (Man 滿 appears many times in the Zhuangzi, but I haven’t attempted to check its meaning there.) I imagine that by definition, an “intense emotion” does reach (emanate from?) our deepest self.

      Stuff happens.
      We feel some emotions.
      They pass.

      If they don’t pass and linger instead, they are a hindrance, a burden, baggage. This is true whether the emotions are “positive” like jubilance or “negative” like grief or anger. I suspect positive emotions are less of a danger for us. (The Dalai Lama has said much about this topic. See esp. Destructive Emotions with Daniel Goleman and others.)

  7. Thanks for the read. I had questions and some relevant references.

    In one passage, you wrote this: “Emotional responses to things can be modified in two ways, either by changing one’s general references or approvals or by changing what one sees as ‘the same’ or ‘different’, whether in particular instances or in general.” This is in line with some research that I have heard about this topic. http://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_asks_why_are_we_happy.html. Gilbert, however, is arguing that we are actually intensifying our emotional happiness as an ad hoc response to limited choices. It’s emotional compensation, not a distancing of emotional affect.

    Gilbert’s challenge would relate like this: Would Wang Tai say that he would be just as happy without his foot if he actually had an option to keep it?

    I found another difficulty with Zhuangzi in general when I read about attaining this “Virtuoso View” state, and that is namely how he assumes that we’re going to distinguish achieving it from failing to achieve it. That concerns me for this reason (I should mention that this reason helped to move me to Yangism from Daoism years ago.). If we’re going to reach an equanimity and not fret ourselves over the fates of our lives, why would we even care whether we harmed our bodies or had emotional outbursts at all? In these cases, it seems equally contrived and unnatural to human nature to contain one’s emotions in this sort of higher-order pursuit of 德, and it seems that our natural attitudes don’t require higher-order controls or guiding principles on them. If Zhuangzi shares that view, then how can a life of emotional disturbance and its ill effects be any less of 人之道 than the way human social life happens to be, combativeness, distress, and all?

    I side with the criticism that we abandon agency in the sort of “wandering” that Zhuangzi outlines, and that if it is a higher-order activity which can still contain pursuits and objectives, then we can’t really know that we’re wandering until the trip ends and we haven’t reached any predetermined destination. However, that assumes that, at some level, people are occupied with the lifelong “desination,” not the little ones between the big ends (birth and death, I guess). To use your map analogy, it isn’t properly “wandering” unless we don’t bother with any paths on a map, because a “good wanderer” wouldn’t even care where he was. How can the Virtuoso View overcome the more apparent intuition that we are naturally goal-oriented and motivated to directed action?

    Finally, you mentioned this in your notes: “[41] Moreover, according to Zhuangist skepticism, we lack sufficient grounds to justify any claim to know what is ‘finally’ or ‘ultimately’ (guoˇ 果) of value, and we have good grounds for thinking there are a plurality of contextually justifiable values available to us (see Fraser, 2009). Hence we cannot justify total emotional investment in any particular thing or project.” Does this include investment in the project of achieving his own vision of virtue (德)? After all, if such a way were so innate and natural, why would he bother with advocating certain intentional and agential attitudes?

  8. Just another thought…
    I was reading Russell Blackford’s blog and thought of Zhuangzi and this thread when I read: “He says that he has some sympathy for “militant” atheism but he likes to leave open the possibility that he is wrong. Well, sure – there is a possibility that I am wrong about all sorts of things, but that doesn’t mean I can’t feel strongly about them. There’s a theoretical possibility that it would be better to enact laws drastically restricting abortion rights, criminalising homosexuality, abolishing the mechanisms of the welfare state, and who knows what else. There is always the theoretical possibility that I’m wrong – that I’m missing something – but I’d be opposing those laws vigorously. We could never feel strongly about, or passionately oppose, anything if it required first ruling out all theoretical possibility that we are wrong.”

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