Neutrality and Indoctrination

There is No Such Thing

I will be discussing how “neutrality” informs our biases, especially our idea of “indoctrination”, as we try to parse out our modern understandings of this concept. Before delving into neutralism’s place in political liberalism and modernity, we need to understand what it *is*. Then we can understand why “indoctrination” does not mean what most think it means.

The Metaphysics of Neutrality

Effectively, I make the claim that there is no such thing as a metaphysically neutral event. That “doing nothing” is just a colloquial phrase that in itself is a category error because you actually cannot do nothing). By examining this misunderstanding, we will gain greater insight into political theory and ethics.

I note:

There is a peculiar notion in the English language: the concept of “doing nothing”. Clearly this is a category error: one cannot do nothing. The concept of doing means performing an action and nothing is not an action. But clearly we mean something when we say we are “not doing anything”. There is some social standard by which we differentiate between “things that are worthy of being called action” and “things which aren’t actually ‘doing’ anything”. See the difference between reading a book and lying on the couch mindlessly channel surfing on the television.


Clearly, when we are doing “nothing” we ARE doing something. Even if that thing is not as physically active as other activities.

and finally,

Your state (position in space, energy levels, etc) does not change through time. And yet, by not doing anything (remaining “neutral”, aka not changing your state) you actually do have effects on the world.

I’d like to add some more thoughts in relation to the “change through time” idea I brought up in that final quote, and how it relies to being “neutral”. In most cases, the concept of neutrality is tied up with the concept of the active vs passive as well as the idea of saying “I have not affected anything”. And therein lies the problem: Many people are blind to the realization that the rejection of “making a decision” is actually making a decision (a decision to reject! - metadecisions whoaaaaaa).

I’d like to discuss this in a roundabout manner. This may seem off-topic, but bear with me!

Recently I reread David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and felt that his critiques of causation presented an interesting way of thinking about neutrality in ethics and politics. Let’s take a look at an example:

I strike a billiards ball with a cue. That billiards ball strikes another, and that second ball begins to move. What did I just witness? Certainly upon studying the events one can say you “witnessed” the conservation of energy, but did you actually see the conservation of energy? Is the conservation of energy a real corporeal being/thing or is it a rational connection we infer based on observations of real things?

To understand this, let’s get a better grasp on what we actually saw:

From time T~1~ to time T~contact~, we see me moving the cue to make contact with the first billiards ball. From time T~contact~ to time T~contact2~, we see the first billiards ball moving and the second billiards ball is still. From time T~contact2~ to some unspecified time T~2~, we see the second billiards ball moving until it comes to a rest.

Now, we can make this more accurate and complex by adding in all the times for when I stop moving the cue, when the first ball stops moving, when the balls are accelerating and start decelerating, etc. But this gives us the general idea. What we actually are witnessing, are different “states” of the three objects between different periods of time. We then infer the relationship between these objects (and just like in any empirical or scientific field, we must observe the conjunctions many many times for our inferences to be “accurate”).

Applying These Lessons to Ethics

So I know you’re all probably wondering: What the hell does this have to do with neutrality, especially in the ethical sense that these posts seem to be focusing on?

Well, what this means is that when you “do nothing” what you are doing is allowing for a specific state to follow in time after your decision. To say “I’m doing nothing” is not to say “I am not affecting the world” but rather to say “I am allowing the temporal state that would exist absent me altering some element of it, to exist”. When applied to ethics, this means that there are consequences of “doing nothing”. And due to the nature of the world, there is no such thing as something that is “victimless”. Furthermore, if one cannot “do nothing” then one cannot be neutral, and so indoctrination no longer means what it claims to mean. Let us examine why:


A cry I hear from many advocates of secularism (and more often from anti-theists) is that “children are indoctrinated into religion and therefore it’s wrong”. What they tend to mean is that children should either be taught traditions from many religions or they should not be taught any religious tradition until they are older and are supposedly more capable of making “correct” decisions. They want them to “think for themselves.”

Ignoring whether or not such a viewpoint is valid, I’d like to discuss the concept of “indoctrination” in terms of the discussion on neutrality we just had. So let’s take two examples:

In situation 1, a family raises their child in the religious tradition they the parents were brought up in.

In situation 2, a family raises their child not in their particular religious tradition, but instead offers them information about many different religious traditions.

In situation 3, a family decides to raise their child in the absence of any religious tradition, leaving open the possibility that once the child becomes older, he/she can decide if he/she will follow any given religious tradition.

Let’s posit a question: Why should situation 1 be considered “indoctrination” while situations 2 and 3 should not? From a logical perspective, such a declaration makes little sense. From time T~birth~ until some time later (lets go with time T~18~ for 18 years old), the child is brought up according to the worldview of the parents. Whether that means being brought up in a specific religious tradition, in many religious traditions, or in no religious tradition, it is dependent on the worldview of the parents.

Now, one may argue that in the absence of society (because it can’t just be the parents who are absent but any mentor or guardian who could affect the child’s mindset) the child would not be taught religion. But this is problematic for a number of reasons:

First, such a situation is itself unfeasible, as most children would die without guardians.

Second, therefore, such a situation cannot be tested.

Third, if one assumes their worldview to be true (regardless of being a theist, agnostic, or atheist), then would it not be valid to teach a child the worldview? Certainly a child who grew up in the absence of society would likely not encounter the fields of medicine or physics, but does that mean we should not teach children (and by this we mean anyone below 18 to remain consistent with the thought experiment) these fields? Could one not say that those who are upset with religious “indoctrination” are not logically distinct from those who are upset about “indoctrination” regarding “liberal BS” (see conservative complaints re: colleges)?

So what do people mean by “indoctrination”? When we say “you are indoctrinating that child” that is not contrasted to “you are allowing that child to grow up as a purely rational being”; instead, it is contrasted to “you are not teaching that child the ‘correct’ things”. So that means that “indoctrination” means “teaching someone something incorrect”. One does not say we are “indoctrinated with physics and chemistry”. So clearly, indoctrination has to do with something being “wrong”. But how do you define “wrong” (especially with religion and when one begins to understand how inadequate science is as a gateway to the “truth”)? And here we have returned to ethics.


I’d also like to point out the work of the blogger Zippy who discusses metaphysical neutrality albeit also in the concept of ideology/politics especially in terms of liberalism. I will be applying critiques of neutralism to ideology/politics(especially Liberalism) in more depth in the future (Rawls can suck my d*ck).

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