The Contrarian Heroes

Peter Thiel has launched his foundation — The Thiel Foundation — which seeks to "defend and promote freedom in all its dimensions: political, personal, and economic."

In his essay for the Oslo Forum, Thiel writes, "Like explorers or inventors, the first one to stand up for the truth faces the biggest challenge, but creates a model for the second and third, who benefit from his example. The world needs more refuseniks, rejectionists, resisters, gadflies, doubters, critics, objectors, muckrakers, and prisoners of conscience."

He goes on to talk about the "contrarian heroes" who stand up against violence:

In human rights, a conceptual breakthrough generally involves no new knowledge, but rather the rigorous application of a principle we already knew. Libertarians talk of the nonaggression axiom, Christians of the golden rule, Hindus and Buddhists of ahimsa; and this commandment to love others is written on the heart.

Some societies suppress sympathy for the other more or less entirely. More advanced societies typically honor this principle loudly but narrowly. Contrarians who apply it have discovered and exposed the evil of slavery; conscription; persecution of speech, belief, and worship; collective guilt; war; and torture. And they’ve frequently been rewarded for their discoveries with a spot on the list of victims.

Contrarians have also discovered that these evils are driven by common temptations—tribalism or utilitarianism—and entail a common expedient, violence.

8 comments on “The Contrarian Heroes
  • >Contrarians have also discovered that these evils are driven by common temptations—tribalism or utilitarianism—and entail a common expedient, violence

    Is utilitarianism a driver of violence? (This is an honest question, I really don’t know).

    Uzbekistan’s crackdown on human rights defenders, Stalin’s purges, and persecution of political dissidents in general seems more authoritarian than utilitarian.

    Maybe you could argue that there could be some nearly perfect society with lots of happy people in which a few dissidents threaten to ruin everything. In that case, you could argue, the utility-maximizing thing to do might be to snuff out the problem. Is such a society plausible? (evidently, it’s unstable)

    If it’s meant that radically socialist states are sometimes founded on utilitarian ideals, and that such states often end up cracking down on human rights, I would argue that such states are a poor implementation of utilitarianism.

    I haven’t seen any utilitarian philosophers advocating violence toward dissidents. Are they failing to follow their theories to their violent conclusions, or is the “common temptation” of utilitarianism not really a driver of evil?

  • @Ted S:

    Utilitarianism is about efficiency; what most benefits the masses or what most benefits the rulers/guys with guns. It’s not a strict calculus so much as it is a convenient excuse.

    See the Katyn massacre, the internment of Japanese-Americans, the whole of the war on drugs, the 20th-century slaughtering of the Jews (as opposed to the tribally-driven pre-19th-century persecutions), black slavery, the Communist-driven purges of China or the USSR, the Chinese takeover of Tibet, every Marxist-driven South American revolution, etc.

  • I’ve usually seen utilitarianism with an -ism refer to the moral philosophy. (as opposed to “utilitarian” which can often means efficient/pragmatic)

    I guess it’s a little ambiguous as to whether the essay is attacking the moral philosophy, or more narrowly attacking expedient state violence. If it’s the latter I’m totally on board.

  • I was struck by this passage in Thiel’s essay:

    “Contrarians stay centered for the same reasons they see so clearly—because rigorous application of fundamental principles aligns thinking with feeling, creating a clear picture of the world that explains how it ought to work, how it does work, and our place in it. Once you achieve a clear and true picture, apparent contradictions fall away. The right road is still steep and treacherous, but at last it’s clearly marked.”

    I agree with these sentiments since they apply to all contrarians of goodwill who are handsome and true, but I fear they apply just as well to those ultimate contrarians, the clear-eyed slaves of Allah who flew airliners into the World Trade Center.

    Attendees of the Oslo Forum will stand up for the truth and human dignity, but electing a poet-intellectual like Václav Havel as president is still unimaginable here, a place whose heartland is a virtual fundamentalist theocracy where biological evolution is still controversial.

    Sadly, staging our own velvet revolution to expand political, personal, and economic freedom is impossible in this land of corporate hegemony– a place where lobbyists join representative government in unholy matrimony and jointly sodomize the rightful constituents daily.

    The world does need more refuseniks, rejectionists, resisters, gadflies, doubters, critics, objectors, muckrakers, and prisoners of conscience, but recruiting them by example to fight injustice is like dismantling the Tower of Babel one brick at a time.

    Look at how the Republican Party seems to have found its latest public relations model in the fearsome God of Genesis, who dazzled his constituents with showy diversions and baffled them with bullshit.

    Where is that consummate skeptic and supreme contrarian Lucifer when you need him?

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