Ethical Autodidacticism

Learning is a skill. It is, in my opninion, the single most important skill a person can acquire. Without it, one is forever constrained by one’s culture and peer group and the narratives that form around them. A person who has not learned to self-educate has little hope of adapting to a constantly and radically changing world, or of forming nuanced views that do anything more than parrot the ideas, morals, ethics, and reasoning modes that one is already disposed to.

Autoditacticism (teaching oneself) does, unfortunately, have a common failure mode. The better one gets at learning for oneself, the more one is prone to only selecting courses of study that are likely to agree with what one already knows. Intelligent, well-educated people are supremely good at deceiving themselves into thinknig they are better informed than they are, and even better at filtering the information they receive so that they never risk having to radically alter their thinking or opinions.

If you are (or wish to become) a serious autodidact and enjoy a life filled with learning, you must push past this natrual inclination in two distinct (but complementary) ways.

First, you owe it to yourself to read (and understand) the views and concerns of people who you consider your idealogical enemies. For example, you cannot consider yourself an informed Keynsian without a solid grasp of Austrian school economics. You cannot consider yourself an informed Communist or Socialist without understanding market systems.

Second, you must endeavor to fully understand the failure modes of your own pet ideologies, both as articulated by your adversaries and as articulated by your own people. If you consider yourself a capitalist or a free marketeer, but aren’t familiar with the problems of merchantilism, oligarchy, and rent-seeking, you’re not much of a free marketeer. If you’re a social democrat, but blind to the problems of regulatory capture, perverse incentives, and monetary gamesmanship, you’re not much of a social democrat.

Keeping these two ethics firmly in mind, and factoring them into your studies, puts you at risk of having to change, nuance, and extend your views. It may even put you at risk of switching sides in a battle you care deeply about. But it is the only way to stay honest.

Always seek out criticism of your position, and school yourself well in the values and vocabularies of those who disagree with you, and you will find your learning-filled life more satisfying, and more enriching. You’ll find yourself far better prepared to argue your case and effect positive change in the world, whether on large scales or small. And, best of all, you’ll find that you more easily acquire friends whose views differ from yours, but whose values and integrity you can trust. And that kind of richness is one of the finest things in life.

Submitted for what it’s worth.

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  1. Hear hear! I will add that if you don’t know anything about religions, you are not much of an atheist. And vice versa.

    Good post, sir. It needed saying.

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