I’m writing this post not as commentary but as one who doesn’t really know what to think about a topic. I’ve been contemplating for weeks now what exactly defines the limits of the law. We have various actions we consider immoral. Within immoral actions, some are illegal, and some are legal. Where do we draw the line? How do we decide which immoral actions to tolerate and which ones to outlaw? I will take for granted that no one here is Lord Devlin (or Judge Dredd) and simply does not believe the law has limits.
As the SEP entry on the limits of the law notes, the harm principle, as articulated by John Stuart Mill, is the best known answer. I know Nathaniel isn’t a big fan of the harm principle, but it does seem like a good place to start a conversation on the limits of the law. The Harm Principle may not end up fully capturing why we make some actions illegal and others not, but it does seem to define the most basic level of law. If absolutely nothing else, we have to keep Jones from murdering Smith.
If we accept the harm principle, the big question then is defining what exactly constitutes harm. Murder once more is a good place to start. Direct, grievous, bodily harm seems easy enough to identify as harm. But what about more diffuse harm like societal harm? If we do recognize diffuse, societal harm, how does one draw a line? We obviously cannot prevent all societal harm. How we do decide what to combat and what to leave alone? Is it simply another utility calculation of greater and lesser harms? And what of self-harm?
A further consideration is when, in attempting to prevent harm, we end up creating more harm instead. The SEP entry addresses this idea as well. Prohibition of alcohol increases alcohol consumption and adds criminal elements to a previously legal enterprise. Complete illegalization of prostitution drives vulnerable women further underground and away from law enforcement. To some extent, these problems can be avoided by more intelligent lawmaking (like the Nordic Model on prostitution, which protects prostitutes by making the purchase of sex illegal while the sale of sex is legal), but intelligent lawmaking can only go so far in the continual struggle with human nature. For example, I don’t think any amount of intelligent lawmaking would have made prohibition work. In effect, there seems to be a certain amount of pragmatism to lawmaking. We only have so many resources. We cannot change human nature. At what point do we surrender and accept a certain tolerable amount of harm?
Stepping away from the harm principle, what role does morally right action and social cohesion play in lawmaking? The idea (apparently called legal moralism) seems to have been totally banished from the modern mind (particularly proponents of the harm principle), but I don’t know if we can simply throw it out without a second thought. We shouldn’t go so far as Plato to suggest that the state should regularly and actively enforce the cultivation of moral virtue, to the point that there simply is no distinction between the moral and the legal, but I think there’s room in between Plato’s Republic on one end and a society whose laws are totally indifferent to virtue and social cohesion on the other end. Here I think Lord Devlin is more on target even if I don’t agree with his overall view:
For society is not something that is kept together physically; it is held by the invisible bonds of common thought. If the bonds were too far relaxed the members would drift apart. A common morality is part of the bondage. The bondage is part of the price of society; and mankind, which needs society, must pay its price.
I also suppose I take the ancient view that virtue and social cohesion are one and the same. Moral virtue produces harmony both in the individual person and society at large. Immorality produces disharmony in both the soul and society. But, as mentioned earlier, I recognize the need for pragmatism in this matter. The attempted enforcement of virtue can and often does produce the opposite effect or simply no effect at all. So we get neither virtue nor social cohesion and we waste state resources to boot.
On the topic of legal moralism, the SEP entry starts hitting on a subject that does conflict me greatly, the topic of marriage. I realize people are a bit tired of this topic, but I think it’s greater fodder for contemplation on the limits of the law. On the one hand, I recognize marriage as having specific characteristics (monogamous, heterosexual, and permanent) and purposes (the good of the spouses and procreation of children). These characteristics and purposes are central to the well-being of both individual persons, especially children, and society in general. But then I jump over to another topic, contraception, where I believe a simultaneously personal and societal harm exists, and I have zero interest in making contraception illegal. So what gives? How do I differentiate any legal objections I might have to gay marriage or divorce or polygamy from my total legal acceptance of contraception?
I can already tell this entry is a bit of a mess. I’m jumping around, mixing and matching moral outlooks (like utilitarianism and more virtue-based outlooks), not defining or exploring presuppositions, etc. It’s pretty bad. But I think this mess is still useful for generating a discussion. Let me know what y’all think.
You’ve probably seen something like this meme in your own social media network feeds.
I’m gonna do two things to this meme. First: debunk it. Not because it’s all that notable, but because it’s a pretty typical example of something scary and nasty in our society. And that’s what we’re going to get to second: zooming out from this particular specimen to the whole species.
This meme has the appearance of being some kind of insight or realization into American politics in the context of an important current event (the pandemic), but all of that is just a front. There is no analysis and there is no insight. It’s just a pretext to deliver the punchline: conservatives are selfish and bad.
You can think of the pseudo-argument as being like the outer coating on a virus. The sole purpose is to penetrate the cell membrane to deliver a payload. It’s a means to an end, nothing more.
Which means the meme, if you ignore the candy coating, is just a cleverly packaged insult.
You see, conservatives don’t object to pandemic regulations because they would rather watch their neighbors die than shoulder a trivial inconvenience. They object to pandemic regulations (when they do; I think the existence of objections is exaggerated) because Americans in general and conservatives in particular have an anti-authoritarian streak a mile wide. Anti-authoritarianism is part of who we are. It’s not always reasonable or mature, but then again, it’s not a bad reflex to have, all things considered.
One of the really clever things about the packaging around this insult is that it’s kind of self-fulfilling. It accuses conservatives of being stubborn while it also insults them. What happens to people who are already being a little stubborn if you start insulting them? In most cases, they get more stubborn. Which means every time a conservative gets mad about this meme, a liberal spreading it can think, “Yeah, see? I knew I was right.”
Oh, and if incidentally it happens to actually discourage mask use? Oh well. That’s just collateral damage. Because people who spread memes like this care more about winning political battles than epidemiological ones.
Liberals who share this meme are guaranteed to get what they really want: that little frisson of superiority. Because they care. They are willing to sacrifice. They are reasonable. So reasonable that they are happy to titillate their own feeling of superiority even if it has the accidental side effect of, you know, undermining compliance with those rules they care so much about.
I’m being a little cynical here, but only a little. This meme is just one example of countless millions that all have the same basic function: stir controversy. And yes, there are conservatives analogs to this liberal meme that do the exact same thing. I don’t see as many of them because I’m quicker to mute fellow conservatives who aggravate me than liberals.
Why did we get here?
You can blame the Russians, if you like. The KGB meddled with American politics as much as they could for decades before the fall of the USSR and Putin was around for that. Why would the FSB (contemporary successor) have given up the old hobby? But the KGB wasn’t ever any good at it, and I’m skeptical that the FSB has cracked the code. I’m sure their efforts don’t help, but I also don’t think they’re largely to blame.
We’re doing this to ourselves.
The Internet runs on ads, and that means the currency of the Internet is attention. You are not the customer. You are the commodity. That’s not just true of Facebook and it’s not just a slogan. It’s the underlying reality of the Internet, and it sets the incentives that every content producer has to contend with if they want to survive.
The way to harvest attention is through engagement. Every content producer out there wants to hijack your attention by getting you engaged in what they’re telling you. There are a lot of ways to do this. Clickbait headlines hook your curiosity, attractive models wearing little clothes snag your libido, and so on. But the king of engagement seems to be outrage, and there’s an insidious reason why.
Other attention grabbers work on only a select audience at a time. Other than bisexuals, attractive male models will grab one half of the audience and attractive female models will grab the other half, but you have to pick either / or.
But outrage lets you engage two audiences with one piece of content. That’s what a meme like this one does, and it’s why it’s so successful. It infuriates conservatives while at the same time titillating liberals. (Again: I could just as easily find a conservative liberal that does the opposite.)
When you realize that this meme is actually targeting conservatives and liberals, you also realize that the logical deficiency of the argument isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. It’s just another provocation, the way that some memes intentionally misspell words just to squeeze out a few more interactions, a few more clicks, a few more shares. If you react to this meme with an angry rant, you’re still reacting to this meme. That means you’ve already lost, because you’ve given away your attention.
A lot of the most dangerous things in our environment aren’t trying to hurt us. Disease and natural disasters don’t have any intentions. And even the evils we do to each other are often byproducts of misaligned incentives. There just aren’t that many people out there who really like hurting other people. Most of us don’t enjoy that at all. So the conventional image of evil–mustache-twirling super-villians who want to murder and torture–is kind of a distraction. The real damage isn’t going to come from the tiny population of people who want to cause harm. It’s going to come from the much, much, much larger population of people who don’t have any particular desire to do harm, but who aren’t really that concerned with avoiding it, either. These people will wreck the world faster than anyone else because none of them are doing that much damage on their own and because none of them are motivated by malice. That makes it easier for them to rationalize their individual contribution to an environment that, in the aggregate, becomes extremely toxic.
At this point, I’d really, really like everyone reading this to take a break and read Scott Alexander’s short story, “Sort by Controversial“. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Back? OK, good, let’s wrap this up. The meme above is a scissor (that’s from Alexander’s story, if you thought you could skip reading it). The meme works by presenting liberals with an obviously true statement and conservatives with an obviously false statement. For liberals: You should tolerate minor inconveniences to save your neighbors. For conservatives: You should do whatever the government tells you to do without question.
That’s the actual mechanism behind scissors. It’s why half the people think it’s obviously true and the other half think it’s obviously false. They’re not actually reacting to the same issue. But they are reacting to the same meme. And so they fight, and–since they both know their position is obvious–the disagreement rapidly devolves.
The reality is that most people agree on most issues. You can’t really find a scissor where half the population thinks one thing and half the population thinks the other because there’s too much overlap. But you can present two halves of the population with subtly different messages at the same time such that one half viscerally hates what they hear and the other half passionately loves what they hear, and–as often as not–they won’t talk to each other long enough to realize that their not actually fighting over the same proposition.
This is how you destroy a society.
The truth is that it would be better, in a lot of ways, if there were someone out there who was doing this to us. If it was the FSB or China or terrorists or even a scary AI (like a nerdier version of Skynet) there would be some chance they could be opposed and–better still–a common foe to unite against.
But there isn’t. Not really. There’s no conspiracy. There’s no enemy. There’s just perverse incentives and human nature. There’s just us. We’re doing this to ourselves.
That doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doomed, but it does mean there’s no easy or quick solution. I don’t have any brilliant ideas at all other than some basic ones. Start off with: do no harm. Don’t share memes like this. To be on the safe side, maybe just don’t share political memes at all. I’m not saying we should have a law. Just that, individually and of our own free will, we should collectively maybe not.
As a followup: talk to people you disagree with. You don’t have to do it all the time, but look for opportunities to disagree with people in ways that are reasonable and compassionate. When you do get into fights–and you will–try to reach out afterwards and patch up relationships. Try to build and maintain bridges.
Also: Resist the urge to adopt a warfare mentality. War is a common metaphor–and there’s a reason it works–but if you buy into that way of thinking it’s really hard not to get sucked into a cycle of endless mutual radicalization. If you want a Christian way of thinking about it, go with Ephesians 6:12
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
There are enemies, but the people in your social network are not them. Not even when they’re wrong. Those people are your brothers and your sisters. You want to win them over, not win over them.
Lastly: cultivate all your in-person friendships. Especially the random ones. The coworkers you didn’t pick? The family members you didn’t get to vote on? The neighbors who happen to live next door to you? Pay attention to those little relationships. They are important because they’re random. When you build relationships with people who share your interests and perspectives you’re missing out on one of the most fundamental and essential aspects of human nature: you can relate to anyone. Building relationships with people who just happen to be in your life is probably the single most important way we can repair our society, because that’s what society is. It’s not the collection of people you chose that defines our social networks, it’s the extent to which we can form attachments to people we didn’t choose.
What are the politics of your coworkers and family and neighbors? Who cares. Don’t let politics define all your relationships, positive or negative. Find space outside politics, and cherish it.
Times are dark. They may yet get darker, and none of us can change that individually.
But by looking for the good in the people who are randomly in your life, you can hold up a light.
Not long ago I was in a Facebook debate and my interlocutor accused me of just wanting to be right.
Of course I want to be right. Why else would we be having this argument? But, you see, he wasn’t accusing me of wanting to be right but of wanting to appear right. Those are two very different things. One of them is just about the best reason for debate and argument you can have. The other is just about the worst.
Anyone who has spent a lot of time arguing on the Internet has asked themselves what the point of it all is. The most prominent theory is the speculator theory: you will never convince your opponent but you might convince the folks watching. There’s merit to that, but it also rests on a questionable assumption, which is that the default purpose is to win the argument by persuading the other person and (when that fails) we need to find some alternative. OK, but I question if we’ve landed on the right alternative.
I don’t think the primary importance of a debate is persuading speculators. The most important person for you to persuade in a debate is yourself.
It’s a truism these days that nobody changes their mind, and we all like to one-up each other with increasingly cynical takes on human irrationality and intractability. The list of cognitive biases on Wikipedia is getting so long that you start to wonder how humans manage to reason at all. Moral relativism and radical non-judgmentalism are grist for yet more “you won’t believe this” headlines, and of course there’s the holy grail of misanthropic cynicism:the argumentative theory. As Haidt summarizes one scholarly article on it:
Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments. That’s why they call it The Argumentative Theory of Reasoning. So, as they put it, “The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.
Jonathan Haidt in “Righteous Mind”
Reasoning was not designed to pursue truth.
Well, there you have it. Might as well just admit that Randall Munroe was right and all pack it in, then, right?
Not so fast.
This whole line of research has run away with itself. We’ve sped right past the point of dispassionate analysis and deep into sensationalization territory. Case in point: the backfire effect.
According to RationalWiki “the effect is claimed to be that when, in the face of contradictory evidence, established beliefs do not change but actually get stronger.” The article goes on:
The backfire effect is an effect that was originally proposed by Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler in 2010 based on their research of a single survey item among conservatives… The effect was subsequently confirmed by other studies.
Entry on RationalWiki
If you’ve heard of it, it might be from a popular post by The Oatmeal. Take a minute to check it out. (I even linked to the clean version without all the profanity.)
Wow. Humans are so irrational, that not only can you not convince them with facts, but if you present facts they believe the wrong stuff even more.
Of course, it’s not really “humans” that are this bad at reasoning. It’s some humans. The original research was based on conservatives and the implicit subtext behind articles like the one on RationalWiki is that they are helplessly mired in irrational biases but we know how to conquer our biases, or at the very least make some small headway that separates us from the inferior masses. (Failing that, at least we’re raising awareness!) But I digress.
The important thing isn’t that this cynicism is always covertly at least a little one-sided, it’s that the original study has been really hard to replicate. From an article on Mashable:
[W]hat you should keep in mind while reading the cartoon is that the backfire effect can be hard to replicate in rigorous research. So hard, in fact, that a large-scale, peer-reviewed study presented last August at the American Political Science Association’s annual conference couldn’t reproduce the findings of the high-profile 2010 study that documented backfire effect.
Uh oh. Looks like the replication crisis–which has been just one part of the larger we-can’t-really-know-anything fad–has turned to bite the hand that feeds it.
This whole post (the one I’m writing right now) is a bit weird for me, because when I started blogging my central focus was epistemic humility. And it’s still my driving concern. If I have a philosophical core, that’s it. And epistemic humility is all about the limits of what we (individually and collectively) can know. So, I never pictured myself being the one standing up and saying, “Hey, guys, you’ve taken this epistemic humility thing too far.”
But that’s exactly what I’m saying.
Epistemic humility was never supposed to be a kind of “we can never know the truth for absolute certain so may as well give up” fatalism. Not for me, anyway. It was supposed to be about being humble in our pursuit of truth. Not in saying that the pursuit was doomed to fail so why bother trying.
I think even a lot of the doomsayers would agree with that. I quoted Jonathan Haidt on the argumentative theory earlier, and he’s one of my favorite writers. I’m pretty sure he’s not an epistemological nihilist. RationalWiki may get a little carried away with stuff like the backfire effect (they gave no notice on their site that other studies have failed to replicate the effect), but evidently they think there’s some benefit to telling people about it. Else, why bother having a wiki at all?
Taken to its extreme, epistemic humility is just as self-defeating as subjectivism. Subjectivism–the idea that truth is ultimately relative–is incoherent because if you say “all truth is relative” you’ve just made an objective claim. That’s the short version. For the longer version, read Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word.
The same goes for all this breathless humans-are-incapable-of-changing-their-minds stuff. Nobody who does all the hard work of researching and writing and teaching can honestly believe that in their bones. At least, not if you think (as I do) that a person’s actions are the best measure of their actual beliefs, rather than their own (unreliable) self-assessments.
Here’s the thing, if you agree with the basic contours of epistemic humility–with most of the cognitive biases and even the argumentative hypothesis–you end up at a place where you think human belief is a reward-based activity like any other. We are not truth-seeking machines that automatically and objectively crunch sensory data to manufacture beliefs that are as true as possible given the input. Instead, we have instrumental beliefs. Beliefs that serve a purpose. A lot of the time that purpose is “make me feel good” as in “rationalize what I want to do already” or “help me fit in with this social clique”.
I know all this stuff, and my reaction is: so what?
So what if human belief is instrumental? Because you know what, you can choose to evaluate your beliefs by things like “does it match the evidence?” or “is it coherent with my other beliefs?” Even if all belief is ultimately instrumental, we still have the freedom to choose to make truth the metric of our beliefs. (Or, since we don’t have access to truth, surrogates like “conformance with evidence” and “logical consistency”.)
Now, this doesn’t make all those cognitive biases just go away. This doesn’t disprove the argumentative theory. Let’s say it’s true. Let’s say we evolved the capacity to reason to make convincing (rather than true) arguments. OK. Again I ask: so what? Who cares why we evolved the capacity, now that we have it we get to decide what to do with it. I’m pretty sure we did not evolve opposable thumbs for the purpose of texting on touch-screen phones. Yet here we are and they seem adequate to the task.
What I’m saying is this: epistemic humility and the associated body of research tell us that humans don’t have to conform their beliefs to truth and that we are incapable of conforming our beliefs perfect to truth and that it’s hard to conform our beliefs even mostly to truth. OK. But nowhere is it written that we can make no progress at all. Nowhere is it written we cannot try or that–when we try earnestly–we are doomed to make absolutely no headway at all.
I want to be right. And I’m not apologizing for that.
So how do Internet arguments come into this? One way that we become right–individually and collectively–is by fighting over things. It’s pretty similar to the theory behind our adversarial criminal justice system. Folks who grow up in common law countries (of which the US is one) might not realize that’s not the way all criminal justice systems work. The other major alternative is the inquisitorial system (which is used in countries like France and Italy).
In an inquisitorial system, the court is the one that conducts the investigation. In an adversarial system the court is supposed to be neutral territory where two opposing camps–the prosecution and the defense–lay out their case. That’s where the “adversarial” part comes in: the prosecutors and defenders are the adversaries. In theory, the truth arises from the conflict between the two sides. The court establishes rules of fair play (sharing evidence, not lying) and–within those bounds–the prosecutors’ and defenders’ job is not to present the truest argument but the best argument for their respective side.
The analogy is not a perfect one, of course. For one thing, we also have a presumption of innocence in the criminal justice system because we’re not evaluating ideas we’re evaluating people. That presumption of innocence is crucial in a real criminal justice system, but it has no exact analogue in the court of ideas.
For another thing, we have a judge to oversee trials and enforce the rules. There’s no impartial judge when you have a debate with randos on the Internet. This is unfortunate, because it means that If we don’t police ourselves in our debates, then the whole process breaks down. There is no recourse.
When I say I want to be right, what am I saying, in this context? I’m saying that I want to know more at the end of a debate than I did at the start. That’s the goal.
People like to say you never change anyone’s mind in a debate. What they really mean is that you never reverse someone’s mind in a debate. And, while that’s not literally true, it’s pretty close. It’s really, really rare for someone to go into a single debate as pro-life (or whatever) and come out as pro-choice (or whatever). I have never seen someone make a swing that dramatic in a single debate. I certainly never have.
But it would be absurd to say that I never “changed my mind” because of the debates I’ve had about abortion. I’ve changed my mind hundreds of time. I’ve abandoned bad arguments and adopted or invented new ones. I’ve learned all kinds of facts about law and history and biology that I didn’t know before. I’ve even changed my position many times. Just because the positions were different variations within the theme of pro-life doesn’t mean I’ve never “changed my mind”. If you expect people to walk in with one big, complex, set of ideas that are roughly aligned with a position (pro-life, pro-gun) and then walk out of a single conversation with whole new set of ideas that are aligned under the opposite position (pro-choice, anti-gun), then you’re setting that bar way too high.
But all of this only works if the folks having the argument follow the rules. And–without a judge to enforce them–that’s hard.
This is where the other kind of wanting to “be right” comes in. One of the most common things I see in a debate (whether I’m having it or not) is that folks want to avoid having to admit they were wrong.
First, let me state emphatically that if you want to avoid admitting you were wrong you don’t actually care about being right in the sense that I mean it. Learning where you are wrong is just about the only way to become right! People who really want to “be right” embrace being wrong every time it happens because those are the stepping stones to truth. Every time you learn a belief or a position you took was wrong, you’re taking a step closer to being right.
But–going back to those folks who want to avoid appearing wrong–they don’t actually want to be right. They just want to appear right. They’re not worried about truth. They worried about prestige. Or ego. Or something else.
If you don’t care about being right and you only care about appearing right, then you don’t care about truth either. And these folks are toxic to the whole project of adversarial truth-seeking. Because they break the rules.
What are the rules? Basic stuff like don’t lie, debate the issue not the person, etc. Maybe I’ll come up with a list. There’s a whole set of behaviors that can make your argument appear stronger while in fact all you’re doing is peeing in the pool for everyone who cares about truth.
If you care about being right, then you will give your side of the debate your utmost. You’ll present the best evidence, use the tightest arguments, and throw in some rhetorical flourishes for good measure. But if you care about being right, then you will not break the rules to advance your argument (No lying!) and you also won’t just abandon your argument in midstream to switch to a new one that seems more promising. Anyone who does that–who swaps their claims mid-stream whenever they see one that shows a more promising temporary advantage–isn’t actually trying to be right. They’re trying to appear right.
They’re not having an argument or a debate. They’re fighting for prestige or protecting their ego or doing something else that looks like an argument but isn’t actually one.
I wrote this partially to vent. Partially to organize my feelings. But also to encourage folks not to give up hope, because if you believe that nobody cares about truth and changing minds is impossible then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And you want to know the real danger of relativism and post-modernism and any other truth-adverse ideology? Once truth is off the table as the goal, the only thing remaining is power.
As long as people believe in truth, there is a fundamentally cooperative aspect to all arguments. Even if you passionately think someone is wrong, if you both believe in truth then there is a sense in which you’re playing the same game. There are rules. And, more than rules, there’s a common last resort you’re both appealing to. No matter how messy it gets and despite the fact that nobody ever has direct, flawless access to truth, even the bitterest ideological opponents have that shred of common ground: they both think they are right, which means they both thing “being right” is a thing you can, and should, strive to be.
But if you set that aside, then you sever the last thread between opponents and become nothing but enemies. If truth is not a viable recourse, all that is left is power. You have to destroy your opponent. Metaphorically at first. Literally if that fails. Nowhere does it say on the packaging of relativism “May lead to animosity and violence”. It’s supposed to do the opposite. It’s advertised as leading to tolerance and non-judgmentalism, but by taking truth off the table it does the opposite.
Humans are going to disagree. That’s inevitable. We will come into conflict. With truth as an option, there is no guarantee that the conflict will be non-violent, but it’s always an option. It can even be a conflict that exists in an environment of friendship, respect, and love. It’s possible for people who like and admire each other to have deep disagreements and to discuss them sharply but in a context of that mutual friendship. It’s not easy, but it’s possible.
Take truth off the table, and that option disappears. This doesn’t mean we go straight from relativism to mutual annihilation, but it does mean the only thing left is radical partisanship where each side views the other as an alien “other”. Maybe that leads to violence, maybe not. But it can’t lead to friendship, love, and unity in the midst of disagreement.
So I’ll say it one more time: I want to be right.
I hope you do, too.
If that’s the case, then there’s a good chance we’ll get into some thundering arguments. We’ll say things we regret and offend each other. Nobody is a perfect, rational machine. Biases don’t go away and ego doesn’t disappear just because we are searching for truth. So we’ll make mistakes and, hopefully, we’ll also apologize and find common ground. We’ll change each other’s minds and teach each other things and grudgingly earn each other’s respect. Maybe we’ll learn to be friends long before we ever agree on anything.
Because if I care about being right and you care about being right, then we already have something deep inside of us that’s the same. And even if we disagree about every single other thing, we always will.
King’s College political theorist Adam Tebble was recently interviewed about his latest paper on epistemic liberalism and open borders. Explaining epistemic liberalism, he says,
Epistemic liberalism is a tradition of thought that places questions about knowledge, complexity and social learning at the heart of debates in political philosophy, initially with regard to debates about economic organisation and distributive justice. Key thinkers in this tradition are Karl Popper, Michael Polanyi and of course Austrian School economists such as Friedrich Hayek, although there is also something to be said for including David Hume and John Stuart Mill on the list, given what they have to say about justice in extended or ‘large’ societies and about our liberty to engage in ‘experiments of living’ respectively.
I pick up where these authors, and particularly Hayek, leave off by claiming that epistemic considerations are not just crucial to debates about distributive justice, but also to more fundamental questions about the status of the background norms and conceptions of the good that inform the economic choices that we, either as self-interested individuals or as other-regarding pursuers of collective projects, may make. Thus, in Epistemic liberalism: a defence I seek to build upon Hayek’s claim about the existence of an economic knowledge problem – where the knowledge relevant to our deciding what to do with resources is for a variety of reasons uncentralisable – to claim that there also exists a more profound cultural knowledge problem.
How does this relate to open borders?
In contrast to much of the literature on migration and justice, and especially in contrast to that which defends a more liberal position, the argument I make in favour of more open borders focuses not upon the interests of immigrants or of the already-resident, but upon those whom migrants leave behind in their countries of origin. In this sense my argument represents something of a breakthrough, for it seeks to claim the interests of those left behind for those arguing in favour of the more liberal approach, rather than leaving them to be appealed to in arguments against it, most notably by writers on brain-drain. My argument, then, can be read as a response to brain-drain critiques of more open borders and to scepticism about freedom of movement in general.
There is some very interesting work in this area, particularly on social remittances and their effects by authors such as Kathleen Newland and Peggy Levitt. Both their work and studies by others in development economics do show how, through visits home, via regular communication, or both, immigrants also remit the values of their adopted nations to those they have left behind. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that not only the relatives of immigrants, but those who live near to them, are also impacted by this phenomenon.
What’s more, “open borders not only enable migrants to assist those left behind in ways that alternative cross border resource transfer mechanisms cannot, but also assist governments to do the same, via a process of what I call ‘state signalling’.”
After listening to [Benjamin] Ginsberg‘s lecture, do you agree with his assessment that politics is all about interests and power?
The Stuff I Said
Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s recent book The Elephant in the Brain demonstrates that these underlying desires for power and status inform many of our decisions and behaviors in everyday life. Politicians certainly do not transcend these selfish motives by virtue of their office. I would actually add a subcategory to “status”: moral grandstanding. We want to paint ourselves as “good people” by signaling to others our superior moral quality. This allows us to enjoy the social capital that comes along with the improved reputation. We not only gain status, but we can also think of ourselves as do-gooders; crusaders who fight the good fight. Unsurprisingly, evidence suggests that we have inflatedviews of our own moral character and that acts of moral outrage are largely self-serving. What’s unfortunate is that social media may be exacerbating moral outrage by making signaling both easier and less costly to the individual.
I think the rise of populism in both America and Europe is a timely example of interests at play. While various elements contribute to the populist mindset, economic insecurity is the water it swims in. And this insecurity has been exploited by politicians of more extreme ideologies across multiple countries. For example, the Great Recession eroded European trust in mainstream political parties: a one percentage point increase in unemployment was associated with a 2 to 4 percentage point increase in the populist vote. A 2016 study looked at the political results of financial crises in Europe from 1870 to 2014 and found that far-right parties were the typical outcome. In America, President Trump made “Make America Great Again” his rallying cry, feeding off the public’s distrust of “the Establishment” during the post-crisis years. In doing so, he advocated protectionism and tighter borders. Oddly enough, you find comparable populist sentiments on the Left: Bernie Sanders has been very anti-trade and iffy on liberalized immigration (open borders is “a Koch Brothers proposal“), all in the name of helping the American worker. One of his former campaign organizers–the newly-elected Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez–has also expressed similar concerns over trade deals (especially NAFTA). This is why The Economist sees less of a left/right divide today and more of an open/close divide. Skepticism of trade and immigration wrapped in “power to the people” sentiments may be invigorating in rhetoric, but it’s asinine in practice. And it’s doing nothing more than riding the wave of voter anxiety. What’s worse, it’s hiding these politicians’ accumulation of power, attainment of status, and moral self-aggrandizement behind what Ginsberg so aptly calls “the veneer of public spiritedness.”
A classmate asked if I believed that politicians always acted in self-interest or if there were moral lines that some would not cross. In response, I pointed out that Simler and Hanson are largely arguing against what they see as the tendency for people to tiptoe around hidden motives and self-deception. It’s not that we’re only motivated by selfish motives. We just tend to gloss over them. But they are deeply embedded. Failing to acknowledge them not only has personal consequences, but public ones as well (their chapter on medicine is especially on point). I think we should consider moral motivations through all possible means available, including life experience and behavior. However, I think a healthy dose of skepticism is necessary. It can certainly help protect us against intentional deception. But perhaps more importantly, it helps protect us against unintentional deception. It’s easy to give more weight to life experience, moral principles, and the like when it’s a politician on “our side,” all while harshly judging those on “the other side” as unscrupulous. Political skepticism or cynicism can aid in keeping our own selfish motives and emotional highs in check. And it can lead us to seek out more information, improve our understanding, and refine our beliefs. Otherwise, we end up being consumed by our own good intentions and moral principles without actually learning how to implement these principles.
My classmate also put forth a hypothetical to get a feel for my position: if legislative districts were redrawn so that legislators now represented districts with a different ideological makeup, how many would change their positions on issues just to stay in power? Personally, I think we would see a fair number of politicians shift their position because it is more advantageous. However, there is considerable evidence that political deliberation with ideological opposites actually backfires. Political philosopher Jason Brennan reviews the evidence in chapter 3 of his book Against Democracyand finds that political deliberation:
Exacerbates conflict when groups are different sizes
Avoids debates about facts and is instead driven by status-seeking and positions of influence
Uses language in biased and manipulative ways, usually by painting the opposition as intrinsically bad
Avoids controversial topics and sticks to safe subjects
Amplifies intellectual biases
There’s more, but that should make my point. So even if some politicians did not flip flop in their newly-drawn districts, the above list should give us pause before we conclude that their doubling down is proof of disinterest in status or moral grandstanding.
I certainly believe that people have moral limits and lines they will not cross. My skepticism (which I prefer to the word cynicism, but I’m fine with interchanging them) is largely about honest self-examination and the examination of others. For example, consider something that is generally of no consequence: Facebook status updates. My Facebook feed is often full of political rants, social commentaries, and cultural critiques. Why do we do that? Why post a political tract as a status? It can’t be because of utility. A single Facebook status isn’t going to fix Washington or shift the course of society. It’s unlikely to persuade the unsaved among your Facebook friends. In fact, it’s probably counterproductive given our tendency for motivated reasoning. When we finally rid ourselves of the high-minded rationales that make next to zero sense, we find that it boils down to signaling: we are signaling our tribe. And that feels good. We get “Likes.” We get our worldview confirmed by others. We gain more social capital as a member of the group. We even get to moral grandstand in the face of that friend or two who hold (obviously) wrong, immoral beliefs. Sure, some of it may be about moral conviction and taking a stand. That certainly sounds and feels better. But I think we will all be better off if we realize that’s really what those behaviors are about: sounding and feeling good. And I think our politics will be better off if we apply a similar lens to it.
And More Stuff
A classmate drew on Dan Ariely’s work to argue that people–including politicians–have a “personal fudge factor“: most people will cheat a little bit without feeling they’ve compromised their sense that they are a “good person.” When people are reminded of moral values (in the case of the experiments, the honor code or 10 commandments), they don’t cheat, including atheists. So while politicians may compromise their values here and there, they still have a moral sense of self that they are unlikely to violate.
In response, I pointed out that a registered replication report last year was unable to reproduce Ariely’s results. That doesn’t mean his results were wrong, just that we need to be cautious in drawing any strong conclusions from them.
When discussing his priming with the 10 Commandments on pg. 635, Ariely references Shariff and Norenzayan’s well-known 2007 study. This found that people behave more prosocially (in this case, generosity in experimental economic games) when primed with religious concepts. They offered a couple explanations for this. One hypothesis suggested that “the religious prime aroused an imagined presence of supernatural watchers…Generosity in cooperative games has been shown to be sensitive to even minor changes that compromise anonymity and activate reputational concerns” (pg. 807). They then cite studies (which later studies confirm) that found people behaving more prosocially in the presence of eye images. “In sum,” the authors write, “we are suggesting that activation of God concepts, even outside of reflective awareness, matches the input conditions of an agency detector and, as a result, triggers this hyperactive tendency to infer the presence of an intentional watcher. This sense of being watched then activates reputational concerns, undermines the anonymity of the situation, and, as a result, curbs selfish behavior” (pg. 807-808). In short, religious priming makes us think someone upstairs is watching us. This has more to do with being seen as good.
However, religious priming obviously doesn’t work for the honor code portion. Yet, Shariff and Norenzayan’s other explanation is actually quite helpful in this regard: “the activation of perceptual conceptual representations increases the likelihood of goals, plans, and motor behavior consistent with those representations…Irrespective of any attempt to manage their reputations, subjects may have automatically behaved more generously when these concepts were activated, much as subjects are more likely to interrupt a conversation when the trait construct ‘‘rude’’ is primed, or much as university students walk more slowly when the ‘‘elderly’’ stereotype is activated (Bargh et al., 1996)” (pg. 807). Being primed with the “honorable student” stereotype, students were more likely to behave honorably (or honestly).
In short, Ariely’s study I think shows a mix of motivations when it comes to behaving morally: (1) maintaining our self-concept as a good person, (2) fear of being caught and having our reputation (and the benefits that come with along with it) damaged, and (3) our susceptibility to outside influence.
My point about moral grandstanding is not that we should interpret all behaviors by politicians through the lens of self-delusion and status seeking. But being aware of it can help us cut through a lot of nonsense and avoid being swept up in a collective self-congratulation. To quote Tosi and Warmke, “thinking about grandstanding is a cause for self-reflection, not a call to arms. An argument against grandstanding shouldn’t be used as a cudgel to attack people who say things we dislike. Rather, it’s an encouragement to reassess why and how we speak to one another about moral and political issues. Are we doing good with our moral talk? Or are we trying to convince others that we are good?” And as philosopher David Schmidtz is said to have quipped, if your main goal is to show that your heart is in the right place, then your heart is not in the right place.
I started my MA program in Government at John Hopkins University this past month. Homework is therefore going to take up a lot of my time and cut into my blogging. Instead of admitting defeat, I’ve decided to share excerpts from various assignments in a kind of series. I was inspired by the Twitter feed “Sh*t My Dad Says.” While “Sh*t I Say at School” is a funnier title, I’ll go the less vulgar route and name it “Stuff I Say at School.” Some of this material will be familiar to DR readers, but presenting it in a new context will hopefully keep it fresh. So without further ado, let’s dive in.
A recent Pew study showed that millennials are less religiously affiliated than any other previous cohort of Americans (sometimes called the rise of the “nones”). Given the emphasis Tocqueville places on the role religion plays in creating a culture that helps to keep democracy in America anchored, analyze these developments through Tocqueville’s viewpoint[.]
The Stuff I Said
Tocqueville would likely have a strong affinity for Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark’s research on religion. Stark’s sociological analysis of religion takes a similar approach to Tocqueville, acknowledging that the religious competition and pluralism (i.e., religious free market) that resulted from religion’s uncoupling from the state produces a robust, dynamic religious environment. He puts it bluntly in his book The Triumph of Faith: “the more religious competition there is within a society, the higher the overall level of individual participation” (pg. 56). It is the state sponsorship of churches, he claims, that has contributed to Europe’s religious decline.
I was struck by the claim in the lecture that 95% of Americans attended church weekly in the mid 19th-century because it contradicts the data collected by Stark and Finke:
On the eve of the Revolution only about 17 percent of Americans were churched. By the start of the Civil War this proportion had risen dramatically, to 37 percent. The immense dislocations of the war caused a serious decline in adherence in the South, which is reflected in the overall decline to 35 percent in the 1870 census. The rate then began to rise once more, and by 1906 slightly more than half of the U.S. population was churched. Adherence rates reached 56 percent by 1926. Since then the rate has been rather stable although inching upwards. By 1980 church adherence was about 62 percent (pg. 22).
Tocqueville might also be more optimistic about the state of America’s religious pulse. For example, Stark has criticized the narrative that often accompanies the “rise of the nones”:
The [Pew] findings would seem to be clear: the number of Americans who say their religious affiliation is “none” has increased from about 8 percent in 1990 to about 22 percent in 2014. But what this means is not so obvious, for, during this same period, church attendance did not decline and the number of atheists did not increase. Indeed, the percentage of atheists in America has stayed steady at about 4 percent since a question about belief in God was first asked in 1944. In addition, except for atheists, most of the other “nones” are religious in the sense that they pray (some pray very often) and believe in angels, in heaven, and even in ghosts. Some are also rather deeply involved in “New Age” mysticisms.
So who are these “nones,” and why is their number increasing–if it is? Back in 1990 most Americans who seldom or never attended church still claimed a religious affiliation when asked to do so. Today, when asked their religious preference, instead of saying Methodist or Catholic, now a larger proportion of nonattenders say “none,” by which most seem to mean “no actual membership.” The entire change has taken place within the nonattending group, and the nonattending group has not grown.
In other words, this change marks a decrease only in nominal affiliation, not an increase in irreligion. So whatever else it may reflect, the change does not support claims for increased secularization, let alone a decrease in the number of Christians. It may not even reflect an increase in those who say they are “nones.” The reason has to do with response rates and the accuracy of surveys (pg. 190).
Finally, Tocqueville was right to recognize the benefits of religion to society. As laid out by Stark in his America’s Blessings (pg. 4-5),the religious compared to irreligious Americans are:
Less likely to commit crimes.
More likely to contribute to contribute to charities, volunteer their time, and be active in civic affairs (a recent Pew study provides support for this last one).
Happier, less neurotic, less likely to commit suicide.
More likely to marry, stay married, have children, and be more satisfied in their marriage.
Less likely to abuse their spouse or children.
Less likely to cheat on their spouse.
Performing better on standardized tests.
More successful in their careers.
Less likely to drop out of school.
More likely to consume “high culture.”
Less likely to believe in occult and paranormal phenomena (e.g., Bigfoot, UFOs).
Overall, I think Tocqueville would be pleased to see data back up his observations.
A classmate pointed to a recent study claiming that when one controls for social desirability, the amount of atheists in America possibly rises to over a quarter of the population. The study is certainly interesting, though I wonder if this would hold up in other countries. Based on Stark’s The Triumph of Faith, these are the following average percentages of atheists across the world:
Latin America: 2.5%
Western Europe: 6.7%
Eastern Europe: 4.6%
Islamic Nations: 1.1%
Sub-Saharan Africa: 0.7%
Other (Australia, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand): 8.4%
As for the unaffiliated Millennials, unchurched and irreligious are two different things. A Pew study from last year found that 72% of the “nones” believe in some kind of higher power, with 17% believing in the “God of the Bible.” Even 67% of self-identified agnostics believe in a higher power, with 3% believing in the “God of the Bible.” But unchurching can lead to other forms of spirituality. The Baylor Religion Survey has found, perhaps surprisingly to some, that traditional forms of religion and high church attendance have strong negative effects on belief in the occult and paranormal. In other words, a regular church-goer is less likely than a non-attendee to believe things like Atlantis, haunted houses, UFOs, mediums, New Age movements, alternative medicine, etc. This is probably why Millennials are turning to things like astrology, alternative medicine, healing crystals, and the like.
I just finished reading A River in Darkness, the autobiography of a Korean-Japanese man who escaped from North Korea. It’s a tragic and engrossing read, but one detail that stuck out was the way that North Korean bureaucrats forced North Korean farmers to grow rice in ways that even a kid from urban Japan who had never studied agriculture knew were incorrect. (Basically, they planted the rice much too close together.)
It reminded me of another book, The Three-Body Problem, which depicted some of the real-life events of the Cultural Revolution in China, in particular “struggle sessions” in which Chinese professors were publicly humiliated and tortured by a mob in part for refusing to recant scientific principles that had been deemed incompatible with political doctrine.
The communists in North Korea and China were in good company. Matt Ridley, in The Origins of Virtue, recounts the Soviet Union’s own peculiar war on science:
Trofim Lysenko argued, and those who gainsaid him were shot, that wheat could be made more frost-hardy not by selection but by experience. Millions died hungry to prove him wrong. The inheritance of acquired characteristics remained in official doctrine of Soviet biology until 1964.
So in North Korea they insisted on disregarding ancient agricultural knowledge because the Party knew best, up to and including triggering massive starvation. In China they executed, exiled, and fired an entire generation of trained scientists because the Party knew best. And in the Soviet Union they insisted on trying to create frost-resistant wheat by freezing the seeds first and created even more massive starvation. Genetics, quantum mechanics, and common sense: why did the Party think they knew so much?
Let me tell you what got me thinking about this. A friend of mine posted a link to this article from Duke University’s The Chronicle detailing that a graduate program director who urged foreign students studying at Duke to speak English has been forced to step down as a result of her advice. Now, I don’t have enough information about the outrage du jour to have a strong opinion about it. As a matter of basic ethics and common sense, it’s rude and counterproductive to go to a foreign country to study and work and then hang around other people speaking your own language instead of adopting the language of the country you’ve moved to. Of course there are exceptions and I don’t generally think it’s a good idea to enforce every aspect of etiquette and common sense with formal policies, but that’s not really the point. I don’t want to take a strong position on the Duke case because I don’t know or care that much about it.
On the other hand, my friend who posted the article knew everything there is to know about it. I will not quote from the post (it was not shared publicly), but she interpreted everything through the standard lens or racism / colonialism / privilege / etc. and as a result she had zero doubts about anything. She spoke with absolute confidence and black-and-white judgment. Then all of her like-minded friends piled on, congratulating her. She knew and they knew that there was one and only explanation, one and only one answer, and that it was obvious.
I tried to engage in some discussion, leading with a simple question: have you ever lived in a foreign country and did you insist on speaking your language there? Do you even speak a foreign language? She hasn’t, so she couldn’t, and she doesn’t. (I have, I could but I did not, and I do.) Instead of considering that her view might be wrong, however, she just called for another friend to come in because they were a specialist in linguistic imperialism. So, as far as I know, this friend also has zero relevant experience but has a bigger ideological toolbox to whack people over the head with. Other commenters–even when they were polite–were just as clueless, sharing stories about growing up in bilingual homes or teaching English as a second language at the elementary school level. What do either of these things–interesting as they may be in themselves–have to do with speaking English in a graduate program? Not a single thing.
There are two things going on.
First, radical ideologies are incredibly dangerous things because they enable stupidity on a massive scale. People embrace radical ideologies because they are powerful explanation-machines. Life confronts all of us with ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. Also, disappointment and difficulty. Radical ideologies are a perfect antidote to the ambiguity, complexity, and uncertainty. They are, functionally speaking, fulfilling the same role that conspiracy theories do. They don’t improve your life, they aren’t meaningfully accurate, but they make your life explicable. They turn all of the randomness into order. This doesn’t actually make your situation objectively better, but it makes it feel better.
This can be relatively harmless. Radical ideology, conspiracy theories, and superstition have harmless manifestations where they don’t really do anything except waste time in exchange for a false feeling of control. Sure, you might be throwing away money to get your palm read, but it’s not really hurting anyone, right?
Sure, but things get dicier when your kooky explanation-machine happens to target, say, vaccines. Or all of modern psychiatry. Or, heck, modern medicine from start to finish. Even in these cases, the damage is limited to mostly yourself and, in particularly tragic cases, maybe your kids.
But when the explanation-machine that you’ve adopted is a political ideology, we go through a kind of phase-change and things get much, much worse.
Unlike micro explanation machines–superstition and conspiracy theories, for example–political ideologies are macro explanation machines. They have two functions. The first is the same as micro explanation machines: to quickly and easily make your life experiences intelligible. But they don’t stop there. They have a second function, and that function is to accumulate power. And that’s where things go off the rails and we get industrial-scale stupidity enabling.
To illustrate this, we have to understand why it was that Marxists in North Korea planted rice too close together, or Marxists in China executed physicists, or Marxists in the USSR kept using psuedo-science to try and grow frost-resistant wheat. You see, it wasn’t just some kind of weird accident that happened to be harmful, in the way that some people cling to harmless conspiracy theories like Bigfoot and others cling to harmful ones like the anti-vax crowd. Nope, the Marxists in North Korea, China, and the USSR were following a script laid down intentionally and inevitably by Lenin and Stalin.
Here’s philosopher Steven L. Goldman’s recounting:
This imperialism of the scientific world view—that there is such an imperialism—has a kind of, let’s call it, acute support that one doesn’t ordinarily encounter from an odd quarter, and that is from V.I. Lenin and Joseph Stalin. Before he was preoccupied with becoming the head of the government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, Lenin wrote a book called Materialism and Imperio-Criticism in which he harshly criticized Ernst Mach’s philosophy of science, and other philosophies of science influenced by Mach, that denied that the object of scientific knowledge was reality—that denied that scientific knowledge was knowledge of what is real and what is true.
Lenin strongly defended a traditional—not a revolutionary—but a traditional conception of scientific knowledge, because otherwise Marxism itself becomes merely convention. In order to protect the truth of Marxist philosophy of history and of society—in order to protect to the idea that Marxist scientific materialism is “True” with a capital “T,” Lenin attacked these phenomenalistic theories, these conventionalistic theories—that we have seen defended by not just Mach, but also by Pierre Duhem, Heinrich Hertz, Henri Poincare, at about the same time that Lenin was writing Materialism and Imperio-Criticism.
Stalin in the 1930s made it clear that the theory of relativity and quantum theory, with its probability distributions as descriptions of nature—”merely” probabilistic descriptions of nature—”merely” I always say in quotation marks—that these were unacceptable in a Communist environment. Again, this is for the same reasons, because Marxist scientific materialism must be true. So, scientific theories that settle for probabilities and that are relative, are misunderstanding that special and general theories of relativity are in fact absolute and deterministic theories.
The willful stupidity of Marxist-Leninist ideology is not an accidental byproduct. It is a direct consequence of the fact that radical political ideologies are not content to be one explanation-machine among many but–as organized political movements in a battle for power–have to fight to be the explanation machine. This leads directly towards conflict between Marxist-Leninist ideology and any other contender, including both science and religion.
When these macro explanation machines aren’t killing millions of people, the absurdity can be hilarious. Here’s Goldman again:
A curious thing happened, namely that Russian physicists of the 1930s, 1940s and even into the 1950s, in books that they published on relativity and quantum theory, had to have a preface in which they made it clear that this book was not about reality—that these theories were not true, but they were very interesting and useful. It was okay to explore, but of course they’re not true because if they were, they would contradict Marxist scientific materialism.
This is quite funny because back in the 16th century, when Copernicus’ On the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543, it was accompanied—unbeknownst to Copernicus, who was dying at the time—that the man who saw it through publication was a Protestant named Andreas Osiander—who stuck in a preface in order to protect Copernicus, because he knew that the Church would be upset if this theory of the heavens were taken literally. We know Galileo was in trouble for that. We talked a lot about that. So Osiander stuck in a preface saying, “You know, I don’t mean that the Earth really moves, but if you assume that it does, then look how nice and less complicated astronomy is.”
Now, I’m a religious person. I don’t think there’s any unavoidable conflict between religion and science. But when religion becomes a political ideology–as it was in the days of Copernicus and Galileo–then it is functionally equivalent to any other macro explanation machine (like Marxist-Leninism) and you will get the same absurd results (and, more often than not, the same horrific death tolls).
So here’s what I’ve learned. Human evil is never dangerous when it’s obvious. All of the great evils that we recognize today–fascism, slavery, Marxist-Leninism–were attractive in their day. And not to cackling, sinister villains rubbing their hands together with glee at the thought of inflicting evil misery on the world. Ordinary people thought that each of these monstrous evils was reasonable and, in many cases, even preferable.
If you roll that logic forward, it implies that the greatest evils of our time will be non-obvious. The movement that in 40 or 50 years from now we will revile and disavow is a movement that seems respectable and even attractive to many decent and intelligent people today. It is a macro explanation engine that appeals to people individually because it brings order to their personal narratives and–because it is functioning in the political realm–it is a macro explanation engine that will seek to crowd out all competitors and will therefore be hostile not only to alternative political ideologies but also to micro explanation engines that function in totally disparate realms like religion in science.
And, precisely because it seeks to undermine all other explanation engines even when operating in domains where it has zero utility or applicability, it will be most easily recognized in one way: as a massive enabler of stupidity.
Because that’s what happens when you have a mighty hammer. You start to see nothing but nails.
We spent that time writing academic papers and publishing them in respected peer-reviewed journals associated with fields of scholarship loosely known as “cultural studies” or “identity studies” (for example, gender studies) or “critical theory” because it is rooted in that postmodern brand of “theory” which arose in the late sixties. As a result of this work, we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.
How did they come up with ideas for papers?:
Sometimes we just thought a nutty or inhumane idea up and ran with it. What if we write a paper saying we should train men like we do dogs—to prevent rape culture? Hence came the “Dog Park” paper. What if we write a paper claiming that when a guy privately masturbates while thinking about a woman (without her consent—in fact, without her ever finding out about it) that he’s committing sexual violence against her? That gave us the “Masturbation” paper. What if we argue that the reason superintelligent AI is potentially dangerous is because it is being programmed to be masculinist and imperialist using Mary Shelley’s Frankensteinand Lacanian psychoanalysis? That’s our “Feminist AI” paper. What if we argued that “a fat body is a legitimately built body” as a foundation for introducing a category for fat bodybuilding into the sport of professional bodybuilding? You can read how that went in Fat Studies.
At other times, we scoured the existing grievance studies literature to see where it was already going awry and then tried to magnify those problems. Feminist glaciology? Okay, we’ll copy it and write a feminist astronomy paper that argues feminist and queer astrology should be considered part of the science of astronomy, which we’ll brand as intrinsically sexist. Reviewers were very enthusiastic about that idea. Using a method like thematic analysis to spin favored interpretations of data? Fine, we wrote a paper about trans people in the workplace that does just that. Men use “male preserves” to enact dying “macho” masculinities discourses in a way society at large won’t accept? No problem. We published a paper best summarized as, “A gender scholar goes to Hooters to try to figure out why it exists.” “Defamiliarizing,” common experiences, pretending to be mystified by them and then looking for social constructions to explain them? Sure, our “Dildos” paper did that to answer the questions, “Why don’t straight men tend to masturbate via anal penetration, and what might happen if they did?” Hint: according to our paper in Sexuality and Culture, a leading sexualities journal, they will be less transphobic and more feminist as a result.
We used other methods too, like, “I wonder if that ‘progressive stack’ in the news could be written into a paper that says white males in college shouldn’t be allowed to speak in class (or have their emails answered by the instructor), and, for good measure, be asked to sit in the floor in chains so they can ‘experience reparations.’” That was our “Progressive Stack” paper. The answer seems to be yes, and feminist philosophy titan Hypatia has been surprisingly warm to it. Another tough one for us was, “I wonder if they’d publish a feminist rewrite of a chapter from Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf.” The answer to that question also turns out to be “yes,” given that the feminist social work journal Affilia has just accepted it. As we progressed, we started to realize that just about anything can be made to work, so long as it falls within the moral orthodoxy and demonstrates understanding of the existing literature.
What were the results? 7 papers were accepted (including one recognition of excellence), 2 were revised and resubmitted, 1 was still under review, 4 were in limbo, and 6 were rejected. Here are a few highlights:
The put it crudely, the paper argued that men should have the “rape culture” trained out them in ways similar to dogs. Reviewers described it as an “incredibly innovative, rich in analysis, and extremely well-written and organized given the incredibly diverse literature sets and theoretical questions brought into conversation.” More telling, the editor wrote to them,
As you may know, GPC is in its 25th year of publication. And as part of honoring the occasion, GPC is going to publish 12 lead pieces over the 12 issues of 2018 (and some even into 2019). We would like to publish your piece, Human Reactions to Rape Culture and Queer Performativity at Urban Dog Parks in Portland, Oregon, in the seventh issue. It draws attention to so many themes from the past scholarship informing feminist geographies and also shows how some of the work going on now can contribute to enlivening the discipline. In this sense we think it is a good piece for the celebrations. I would like to have your permission to do so.”
To sum up, the paper argues that social justice warriors shouldn’t be made fun of, but that they maintain the right to make fun of others. One reviewer wrote, “Given the emphasis on positionality, the argument clearly takes power structures into consideration and emphasizes the voice of marginalized groups, and in this sense can make a contribution to feminist philosophy especially around the topic of social justice pedagogy.” Another thought it was an “Excellent and very timely article!”
Bottom-line: feminazi is apparently a thing. The reviewers found it “interesting,” stating that the “framing and treatment of both neoliberal and choice feminisms well grounded.” In their view, the paper had “potential to generate important dialogue for social workers and feminist scholars.”
If you will excuse the language, this is why others have referred to this brand of scholarship as scholarsh*t.
You can see what other academics are saying about the hoax here.
When David Hume said that “reason is…the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”, he thought it would “appear somewhat extraordinary.” Maybe it did in the mid-18th century, but a 21st century audience takes this assertion in stride. It’s not that human nature has changed. Humans have always held opinions and they’ve always been held for non-rational reasons. What’s changed is that we’re more aware of the extent of our opinions and of their frequently irrational nature.
We’re more aware of this for two reasons. First, the narcissism of social media and the tribally partisan nature of our society make us painful aware of everybody else’s opinions. As a group, we can’t shut up about the things we think are obviously true, even though things that really are obviously true (like the sky being blue) don’t generally require frequent reminders in the form of snarky memes.
Second, there’s a growing body of research into the reasons and mechanisms by which humans acquire and maintain their beliefs. It’s become so trendy to talk about cognitive biases, for example, that the Wikipedia list of them is becoming a bit of a joke. Still, the underlying premise–that human reason is about convenience and utility rather than about truth–is increasingly undeniable and books like Thinking, Fast and Slow or Predictably Irrational make that undeniable reality common knowledge.
In fact, we can now go farther than Hume and say that not only is reason the slave of the passions, but that it is only thanks to the passions that humans evolved the capacity for reason at all. This is known as the Argumentative Theory, which researchers Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber summarized like this:
Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.
Oddly enough, I can’t find a Wikipedia article to summarize this theory, but it’s been cited approvingly by researchers I respect like Frans de Waal and Jonathan Haidt, who summarized it this way: “Reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.”
If the theory is right, then the human tendency to believe what is useful and then to express those beliefs in ways that are farther useful is part of the story of how humanity came to be. This might have been deniable in Hume’s day, requiring an iconoclastic genius to spot it, but it’s becoming a humdrum fact of life in our day.
Our beliefs are instrumental. That is, we believe things because of the usefulness of holding that belief, and that usefulness is only occasionally related to truth. If the belief is about something that’s going to have a frequent and direct effect on our lives–like whether cars go or stop when the light is red–then it is very useful to have accurate beliefs and so our beliefs rapidly converge to reality. But if the belief is about something that is going to have a vague or indeterminate effect on our lives–and almost all political beliefs fall into this category–then there is no longer any powerful, external incentive to corral our beliefs to match reality. What’s more, in many cases it would be impossible to reconcile our beliefs with reality even if we really wanted to because the questions at play are too complicated for anyone to answer with certainty. In those cases, there is nothing to stop us from believing whatever is convenient.
And it’s not just privately-held beliefs that are instrumental. Opinions–the expression of these beliefs–add an additional layer of instrumentality. Not only do we believe what we find convenient to believe, but we also express those beliefs in ways that are convenient. We choose how, when, and where to express our opinions so as to derive the most benefit for the least amount of effort. Benefits of opinions include:
maintaining positive self-image: “I have such smart, benevolent political opinions. I’m such a good person!”
reinforcing community ties: “Look at these smart, benevolent political opinions we have in common!”
defining community boundaries: “These are the smart, benevolent political opinions you have affirm if you want to be one of us!”
the buzz of moral superiority: “We have such smart, benevolent political opinions. Not like those reprehensible morons over there!”
Opinions aren’t just tools, however. They are also weapons. If you want to understand what I’m talking about, just think of all the political memes you see on your Facebook or Twitter feeds. They are almost always focused on ridiculing and delegitimizing other people. This is about reinforcing community ties and getting high off of moral superiority, but it is also about intimidating the targets of our (ever so righteous) contempt and disdain. We live in an age of weaponized opinion.
Which brings me to the idea of a demilitarized zone.
A demilitarized zone is an “is an area in which treaties or agreements between nations, military powers or contending groups forbid military installations, activities or personnel.” The term is also used in the context of computers and networking. In that case, a DMZ is a part of a private network that is publicly accessible to other networks, usually the Internet. It’s a tradeoff between accessibility and security, allowing interaction with anonymous, untrusted computers but restricting that access to only specially designated computers in your network that are placed in the DMZ, while the rest of your computers are stored behind a defensive firewall.
The same concepts make sense in an ideological framework.
A typical partisan might have a range of beliefs that looks something like this:
The green section doesn’t represent what is actually good / correct. It represents what a person asserts to be correct / good. The same applies for the red portion. So, these will be different for different people. If you are, for example, someone who is pro-life then the green category will include beliefs like “all living human beings deserve equal rights” and the red portion will include beliefs like “consciousness and self-awareness are required for personhood”. If you are pro-choice, then the chart will look the same but the beliefs will be located in the opposite regions.
And here’s what it looks like if you introduce an ideological DMZ:
The difference here is that we have this whole new region where we are refusing to categorize something as correct / good or incorrect / bad. This may seem like an obvious thing to do. If, for example, you hear a new fact for the first time and you don’t know anything about it, then naturally you should not have an opinion about it until you find out more, right? Well, if humans were rational that would be right. But humans are not rational. We use rationality as a tool when we want to, but we’re just as happy to set it aside when it’s convenient to do so.
And so what actually happens is that when you hear a new proposition, you (automatically and without thinking about it consciously) determine if the new proposition is relevant to any of your strongly-held political opinions. If it is, you identify if it helps or hurts. If it helps, then you accept it as true. Maybe you use the same “fact” in your next debate, or share the article on your timeline, or forward it to your friends. In other words, you stick it into the green bucket. If it hurts, you reject it as false. You attack the credibility of the person who shared the fact or thrust the burden of proof on them or even jump straight to attacking their motives for sharing it in the first place. You stick it in the red bucket.
If you’re following along so far, you might notice that what we’re talking about is certainty. One of the popular and increasingly well-known facts about human beings and certainty is that certainty and ignorance go hand in hand. The technical term for this is the Dunning-Kruger effect, “a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is.” Even if you’ve never heard that term, however, you’ve probably seen webcomics like this one from Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal:
The idea of a DMZ is related to these concepts, but it’s not the same. These comics are about the vertical ignorance/certainty problem. Lack of knowledge combined with instrumental beliefs cause people to double-down on convenient beliefs they already have. That’s a real problem, but it’s not the one I’m tackling. I’m talking about a horizontal ignorance/certainty problem. Instead of pouring more and more certainty into (ignorant, but convenient) beliefs that we already have, this problem is about spreading certainty around to different, neighboring beliefs that are new to us.
How does that play out in practice? Well, as a famous study revealed recently, “people who are otherwise very good at math may totally flunk a problem that they would otherwise probably be able to solve, simply because giving the right answer goes against their political beliefs.” That’s because–without a consciously defined and maintained DMZ–they immediately categorize new information into the red or green region even if it means magically becoming bad at math. That’s how strong the temptation is to sort all new information into friend/foe categories is, and it’s the reason we need a DMZ.
So what does having a DMZ mean? It means, as I mentioned earlier, that you can easily list of several arguments or propositions which might work against your beliefs, but that you don’t reject out of hand because you simply don’t know enough about them. It doesn’t mean you have to accept them. It doesn’t mean you have to reject the belief that they threaten. It doesn’t even mean you have investigate them right away.. It just means you refrain from categorizing them in the red bucket. And you do the same with new information that helps your cause. If it is about a topic you know little about, then you go ahead and put it in that blue bucket. You say, “That sounds good. I hope it’s true. But i’m not sure yet.”
There’s another aspect to this as well. So far I’ve been talking about salient propositions, that is: propositions that directly relate to some of your political beliefs. I’ve been leaving aside irrelevant facts. That’s because–although it’s easy for anyone to stick irrelevant facts in the blue bucket–the distinction between relevant and irrelevant facts is not actually stable or clear cut.
One of the problems with our increasingly political world is that more and more apparently unrelated facts are being incorporated into political paradigms. There’s a cottage industry for journalists to fill quotas by describing apparently innocuous things as racist. A list of Things college professors called ‘racist’ in 2017 includes math, Jingle Bells (the song), and punctuality. This is a controversial topic. Sometimes, articles like this really do reveal incisive critiques of racial inequality that’s not obvious at first. Sometimes conservatives misrepresent or dumb-down these arguments just to make fun of them. But sometimes–like when a kid in my high school class complained that it was sexist to use the term for a female hero (heroine) as the name for a drug (heroin)–the contention really is silly. And so part of the DMZ is also just being a little slower to see new information in a political light. Everything can be political–with a little bit of rhetorical ingenuity–but there’s a big difference between “can” and “should”.
If you don’t have an ideological DMZ yet, I encourage you to start building one today. In networking, a DMZ is a useful way to allow new information to come into your network. An ideological DMZ can fill the same function. It’s a great way to start to start to dig your way out of an echo chamber or avoid getting trapped in one in the first place. In geopolitics, a DMZ is a great way to deescalate conflict. Once again, an ideological DMZ can fill a similar role. It’s a useful habit to reduce the number of and lower the stakes in the political disagreements that you have.
Even after all these years, North and South Korea are technically still at war. A DMZ is not nearly as good as a nice, long, non-militarized border (like between the US and Canada). And so I have to admit that calling for an ideological DMZ feels a little bit like aiming low. It’s not asking for mutual understanding or a peace treaty, let alone an alliance.
Anger is toxic, and it has no place in ordinary political disputes. I’m very reluctant to add to it.
And yet, it is less with anger and more with a sense of bone-deep bewilderment that I–reluctantly–read a few articles about Alfie Evans.
Aflie is a baby with a severe neurological affliction that–according to doctors–has left him in a vegetative state with no conceivable chance of recovery. This is tragic, and no one is to blame for Alfie’s condition.
The UK courts have decided that no further care should be given to Alfie because there’s no hope of his recovery. This is tragic, but also defensible. It’s not possible to expend unlimited resources on every tragic case, and hard calls have to be made.
But where things stop making sense to me is where the UK government has refused to allow Alfie to be transported to Italy for additional care. Alfie has been granted Italian citizenship, the Italian military sent a plane to UK to fly him to a hospital in Italy, and all of this was done–one guesses–largely in response to the Pope’s public support for Alfie.
The UK government’s response is, essentially, that Alfie’s parents don’t know what they’re doing. The doctors know better. That may be true. Even the Italian hospital admits it can do no more than keep Alfie alive while doctors study his case. No one things there is a miracle cure.
But here’s the thing: why does the UK government, or any group of doctors, get to decide?
It gets more baffling still. Now Alfie’s parents, haven given up on the Italian option, just want to take him home. But even that they cannot do unless the doctors say so. In what universe is that a morally defensible position to take? Quoting an anonymous British father:
When my son was born nearly 16 months ago, I found to my amazement that I could not take him home until a paediatrician had signed a small slip of paper, to be handed in at the exit, authorising his release. I joked to my wife that we were only parenting under licence from the State. It seems less of a joke now.
The last straw–and the cause of the anger I can’t deny I feel about this–is the insufferable arrogance of the UK politicians and medical experts. For example:
Lord Justice McFarlane said parents, like those of Alfie Evans, could be vulnerable to receiving bad medical advice, adding that there was evidence that the parents made decisions based on incorrect guidance.
Hospital officials at Alder Hey say they have received “unprecedented personal abuse” from the global backlash to Alfie’s case. The Liverpool hospital has faced several protests in recent weeks, organized by a group calling itself “Alfie’s Army.”
“Having to carry on our usual day-to-day work in a hospital that has required a significant police presence just to keep our patients, staff and visitors safe is completely unacceptable,” the hospital’s chairman, Sir David Henshaw, and chief executive Louise Shepherd said.
Oh, is it “completely unacceptable” for people to protest what is essentially government-sanctioned kidnapping? I’m so sorry! I come from this crazy moral universe where parents–and not the government–are the guardians of their own children.
Or here’s another one:
Sometimes, the sad fact is that parents do not know what is best for their child,” Wilkinson said. “They are led by their grief and their sadness, their understandable desire to hold on to their child, to request treatment that will not and cannot help.
The UK was, in many ways, the birthplace of our political heritage of individual liberty and rights. It’s mystifying–and tragic–to see the sorry state of decay it has fallen into today.
So tell me, folks, am I missing some really vital aspects to this story that make it something other than a micro-dystopia?
I recently had an interesting political exchange–as have basically all of us, these days–in which I was called out for not being nice enough. At least, that’s how I interpreted it. My interlocutor suggested that my argument was deficient because I hadn’t started out by finding something we could agree on before launching my critique. A critique that was, just for the record, entirely civil and on-point. At no point did I get personal and there was no allegation that I had. The problem wasn’t that I had been rude, uncivil, or anything like that. The problem was that I hadn’t been nice enough.
Now, OK, it never hurts to be nice, right? Speaking as a purely practical matter, shouldn’t we always try to express our beliefs in as non-abrasive a way as possible? You get more flies with honey, and all that. So, what’s the harm in accepting as a new rule of debate the general principle that we should always find a point of common ground first and only then engage the issues directly. What kind of a person disagrees with this? Surely only a heartless and soulless person, and why would we want to listen to what someone like that has to say, anyway?
And that, my friends, is why I dislike the tyranny of kindness.
The problem with it is that it’s only a tiny jump from saying, “Why not be nice?” to then saying, “If you’re not nice, nothing you say matters.” And “nice” is an awfully subjective term. There is no logical reason why a general rule of thumb to look for common ground should lead to exiling some people from discussion for not following arbitrary rituals, but–given the incentives of political discourse–the outcome is inevitable.
I realize I’m swimming upstream here, so let me try a different tack and see if I can make some headway.
Requiring people to be nice enough in their debates is discriminatory against non-neurotypical people. The term “neurotypical” is one of those neologisms like “cissexual” that is invented to describe the category of people who didn’t need a description before because they’re just, well, normal baseline humans. A cissexual is someone who identifies as the gender that matches their birth sex. Neurotypical means “not displaying or characterized by autistic or other neurologically atypical patterns of thought or behavior.” So, people who aren’t on the autism spectrum are neurotypical.
Neurotpyical people have no problem conforming with this new minimum requirement to engage in public discourse. They are, by definition, able to conform with expected social conventions. It is easy and natural for them to both interpret ordinary social cues and conform their own behavior–including written communication–to standard expectations. A neurotypical can easily come across as nice with minimal effort. Someone who is not neurotypical, well, they might have a harder time. For them, the requirement to be “just be nice” is not actually something incidental. It’s something that requires an awful lot of conscious effort and attention, if it’s attainable at all.
So our seemingly benign call to emphasize niceness in discourse functions–whether we intended to or not–as a form of bigotry that excludes a certain class of people from discussion.
Which doesn’t sound very nice, does it?
I am not merely playing games here. This isn’t a theoretical problem, it’s a real one. Gender, as the saying goes, is performative. So is all human speech. And we’re not all equally good at it. Tying the validity of a person’s argument–the worth of their viewpoint–to their capability and/or willingness to perform well enough is not a benign requirement. It’s not a case that it might lead to unfair applications, it is intrinsically exclusionary and debilitating. Which is exactly why it’s so increasingly popular. Calling on people to be nice isn’t neutral. It’s a power-play. Which is why–in other contexts–minorities have long-rejected it as “tone policing”.
Look at that, I’m agreeing with an aspect of social justice ideology. Will wonders never cease?
I’ll be clear about what I’m saying here: refraining from personal attacks and incendiary language is a reasonable minimum standard for any discussion. You should be able to avoid meanness. Don’t insult people. Don’t troll. Don’t humiliate or mock people. These things we can expect, and should expect, because the toxicity ruins discourse.
But that’s it. That’s the extent of what it makes sense to require from people in a debate. The “thou shalt nots” are sufficient. There’s no reason–or excuse–to start adding “thou shalts” to the mix as well. Don’t expect people to proactively express their empathy. Don’t express them to follow rules like, “always start every disagreement by first finding common ground.” Don’t get me wrong, these things can be great practices. I’m not saying anyone shouldn’t do them. They can be very powerful, practically speaking, and certainly can make debate more pleasant.
I’m just saying that they shouldn’t be transmuted from “nice-to-haves” into “minimum requirements” because when we do that we engage in the tyranny of kindness. We insinuate prejudice and bigotry into our discussions, and we make it inevitable for perverse incentives to lead to defining “nice” in such a way that a person cannot disagree without violating the norm. This is already commonplace. To have a different opinion on certain hot-button social issues–abortion, sexuality, transgenderism, gun-rights, etc.–is defined as being not-nice. After all, the best way to win a debate is to bar your opponent for showing up, and that’s what happens as soon as we start imposing any kind of ritualistic performance requirements.
I try very, very hard to be civil. I also try to be emapthic although, for me, that’s not easy. It does require a lot of effort. I have worked deliberately and conscientiously for many, many years to come across better in online communication (political or not) and I’m still a work in progress. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me as calling for worse behavior online. We’ve got enough toxicity.
I’m just calling for moderation. Expect your opponents to not be abusive.
But don’t expect–or attempt to require–that they validate you, either.