When thinking about politics, or about some other issue related to morality, have you ever thought something like, “The facts are available for everyone to see, and the story they tell is obvious to anyone who bothers to look, as I do. Therefore, anyone who disagrees with me either does not have all the facts or they’re not thinking straight, probably because they’re blinded by their ideology?” I know I have.
But what if the person who disagrees with us thinks the same thing about us? We can’t both be right, can we?
How does this happen? Why is it that we can so easily see the flaws in the thinking of others, and at the same time be so utterly convinced that we are the ones who know the “real” truth?
Of course, part of the answer is that we’re just different. We like different things, we have different preferences, and those preferences “logically” lead us to different conclusions.
But another part of the answer is that perception is reality in the art of reputation management, and we humans have evolved some clever strategies to put ourselves, or our group, in the best possible light, and our opponents in the worst. ( This posting is a brief summary of some of the key ideas in Chapter 4: The Faults of Others, available online here of The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom )
Humans survive and thrive best when we work together in cooperative groups. But within any group there’s always the potential problem of free riders; people who take advantage of the resources and benefits of the group, but who don’t contribute much to it. One of the primary ways we police the members of our own group is through gossip. That is, if we perceive that a member of the group is not cooperating as we think they should be we tend to talk about that member to the other members of the group. The offending member will be treated differently, maybe less fairly; maybe he’ll be shunned, ostracized, even outcast from the group.
As a member of a group, therefore, it’s in our own best interest to always appear to be a fully vested, cooperating, contributing, member of the group. The key word being “appear,” because while the simplest way to appear virtuous is to actually be virtuous, life is not always simple. Circumstances, and our inner passions, sometimes conspire against us, making it difficult to be virtuous at all times. Sometimes our inner elephant may make us do things we know we shouldn’t. We let our instinct or gut feel take over when our mind tells us to do otherwise. Two innocent examples of this are ignoring our alarm clock and going back to sleep when we know we should get up, and giving in to the temptation of a delicious desert when we know it’ll ruin our diet.
But unlike those innocent examples which affect only ourselves we sometimes do things that impact the group. That’s when reputation management becomes important and we become really good at rationalizing a plausible explanation for our behavior that places some or all of the blame for it somewhere other than on ourselves. For example, we might complain about the traffic when we’re late for work when the real reason is that we overslept.
Further, we tend to actually believe the stories we tell. Evolution has instilled in us some clever tricks we use to convince ourselves, and to try to convince others, that we’re virtuous and right, that we see things as they really are, and that those who oppose us are wrong, probably because they are biased by their passions or their ideologies.
One trick, described in the opening paragraph of this post, is called naïve realism. It is, essentially, the belief that the world is perceived exactly as it is. (1) “If I have an experience as of a large apple tree, then that’s because there’s a large apple tree in front of me.” (2) Naïve realism is also often called “direct” realism. (3) We have the tendency to think that we see things as they really are, free of influence by any ideology or philosophical framework which might allow us to interpret things differently. That being the case, then, it’s easy to see why we’d conclude that anyone who disagrees with us must have a flawed or incomplete perception of the situation, or their comprehension of what they see is influenced by their beliefs or ideology.
A second trick we use to convince ourselves that we’re right and the other guy is wrong is called “the myth of pure evil.” We tend to see victims (i.e. people or groups on our side) as minding their own business doing nothing wrong, or having only the purest of intentions, and perpetrators (i.e., the other side) as motivated by little more than a desire to do harm. When we’re honest with ourselves we’re aware that circumstances in the real world are seldom black and white. People who commit violence, for example, usually don’t do so without reason. Many of the violent acts we hear about in the news are actually the last act in an escalating series of perceived injustices and retaliations. Often, with just a small shift in circumstances or events, the perpetrator could as easily have been the victim. But in arguments about morality or politics, especially when comparing our own group with an opposing group (e.g., liberals vs. conservatives, or Democrats vs. Republicans) “evil comes from outside and is associated with a group or force that attacks our group. Furthermore, anyone who questions the application of the myth, who dares muddy the waters of moral certainty, is in league with evil.” (4)
A third trick is sometimes referred to as the Rose Colored Mirror. We tend to perceive of ourselves as being above average. In one survey, Americans and Europeans rated themselves above average on a wide variety of traits, such as intelligence, driving ability, sexual skills, and ethics. (5) In another survey, seventy percent of one million American high school students rated themselves as above average in leadership ability. One way we get away with this, and convince ourselves of it, is by defining the trait in question in terms of one or more of our own strong points. (6)
Righteous indignation feels great. We love to find the faults in the logic of others who disagree with us, and we can be really good at it. But at the same time, we can be really bad at seeing and admitting our own faults. In this way, no matter which side of the political aisle we’re on, we have something in common with those on the other side. We’re all hypocrites.
1) From the dictionary.com definition of naïve realism, here: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/naive+realism
(2) From the discussion of Naïve Realism on theoryofknowledge.info, here: http://www.theoryofknowledge.info/naiverealism.html
(3) From philosophyprofessor.com, here: http://www.philosophyprofessor.com/philosophies/naive-realism.php
(4) The Happiness Hypothesis, p. 74
(5) Ibid. p. 67
(6) Ibid. p. 68