The political divide is largely a natural and inevitable consequence of fundamental human nature. We evolved to form into groups of like-minded people which then compete with other groups for political power and influence. But some of the divide is NOT inevitable. That part, simply put, is ignorance. Both sides believe things about human nature that are not true. And because of those false beliefs we believe things about each other that are also not true. It is the aim of The Independent Whig to work to replace the falsehoods with truths.
Many aspects of the political divide are common to everyone regardless of their political persuasion. That is, many parts of our Righteous Minds and of the Coming Apart are not liberal things or conservative things, they’re human things. Examples include the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice.
The number of things that are truly unique to right or left is limited. It is the aim of The Independent Whig to work to tease out the unique from the common.
Due at least partly, if not mostly, to our varying understanding of human nature, people on opposite sides of political issues often have very different, arguably mutually exclusive, concepts in mind when they use words like liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. A major consequence of those differences is that we talk past each other, and we’re often dumbfounded as to how a person on the other side could possibly support policies that are so clearly counter-productive to what we believe liberty, equality, justice, etc., to be.
It’s been said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. In the context of this essay what that means is that it is the aim of The Independent Whig to shine the light of day on those different conceptions, and work to see that they’re openly part of our political discussions rather hidden below the surface or between the lines, so that all parties understand themselves and each other and the goals and objectives they’re trying to achieve.
The American Founding was based largely on only one of the two major conceptualizations human nature, and on only one of the two major conceptualizations of liberty, equality, justice, and fairness. It is the aim of The Independent Whig to shine the light of day on this, too, so that our political discussions can happen with an understanding and appreciation of the context of where we came from, the reasons for our founding, and the reasoning in our founding documents, in the hope that this context can be a better guide for where we want to go.
Following is a listing of false beliefs and their attendant truths. The list is not complete, nor is every statement necessarily in its final form. The list is offered as a first draft only to indicate the thought process and direction of The Independent Whig. Links are provided only as introductions to the topics they describe. They’re not considered to exhaustive explorations of the False Beliefs or Truths they’re associated with. The effort described here is a work in progress, subject to additions and deletions, and refinements and enhancements, as it continues.
False Belief: reason is objective analysis of empirical facts.
Truth: Reason is almost entirely subjective.
False Belief: Human thought and action is determined mostly by reason, and therefore the reason people don’t act or think “right” is because they don’t think straight.
Truth: Ninety-nine percent of what we think, say, and do is driven by subconscious intuition.
False Belief: Reason evolved in humans to help them make better decisions
Truth: Reason evolved to create post hoc rationalizations in defense of our intuitions intuitions.
Belief: The mind is a blank slate at birth, which means that everything we believe about right and wrong, and good and bad, is taught to us or learned as we mature.
Truth: We’re born already “knowing” at a subconscious level, many about favorable and unfavorable behavior. (The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences)
False Belief: There’s no genetic component to ideology, and the only reason we’re liberal, conservative, or something else is because of what we’ve been taught, or because of the environment we grew up in, or because we “reasoned” our way to our ideology.
Truth: Ideology is heritable. We tend to inherit personality traits from our parents. including in matters of ideology. We’re born predisposed to lean left or right, and most people stay with that predisposition.
False Belief: There’s no genetic component to behavioral differences among groups of people of different sexes, cultures, or ideologies, and therefore all such differences are nothing more than artificial social constructs
Truth: Evolution continues. It happens within groups, which creates differences between groups. (Faster Evolution Means More Ethnic Differences by Jonathan Haidt, The Bell Curve Twenty Years Later: A Q&A With Charles Murray.)
False Belief: Abstract reason is the path to moral truth.
Truth: Reason is terrible at finding truth, and often leads us away from it.
False Belief: Since reason is the path to moral truth, and since human behavior is determined almost entirely by reason and by social constructs, then all we have to do to achieve the good society is teach the right things and put in place the right social constructs.
Truth: Since none of the assumptions upon which this is based are true, this too is not true.
False Belief: Morality starts and ends with “care”
Truth: It also includes, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity.
False Belief: Liberals understand conservatives better than conservatives understand liberals
Truth: It’s the other way around.
False Belief: Liberals understand human nature better than do conservatives
Truth: Again, it’s the other way around. ( Haidt on The Colbert Report. Colbert does a fantastic job of summarizing Haidt’s work. Haidt on Moyers and Company)
False Belief: Religion is somehow fundamentally different from ideology or morality, secular or otherwise.
Truth: Religion, morality, and ideology are nothing more than different words for the same underlying aspect of human nature. Namely they represent the value sets around which like-minded people form into groups which then compete with other groups for political power and influence.
False Belief: There is such a thing as “The right side of history.”
Truth: This belief is the intellectual equivalent to the idea that there’s a “right side” to the random chance of evolution, or for that matter to any event or set of events subject to chance. It is, in other words, a delusion.
False Belief: It is possible to be purely pragmatic and non ideological, i.e., to have “No labels,” and through pure pragmatism to “find practical solutions that work” to solve social problems.
Truth: It psychologically impossible for humans to be purely rational like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock. The first principle of social psychology is “Intuition comes first, strategic reasoning follows,” in every sense of the word “follows.” Ninety-nine percent of what we feel, think, say, and do is driven by automatic, instantaneous, subconscious, instinct and intuition. We use our powers of conscious reason to justify and defend those instinctive reactions, and to try to convince other people that our own reactions are the right ones. Reason requires language, and the construction of logical argument, and therefore time. It can happen only AFTER intuitions have already been felt, and decisions have already been made. Our intuitions, in turn, are driven by at least six evolved psychological mechanisms of social perception, awareness, and understanding. It is this set of “moral foundations” that create in us the visceral feelings of like or dislike, approach or avoid, right or wrong, good or bad, and fight or flee that we experience in response to the things that happen around us in the social world. In other words, it is physically, psychologically, impossible for human beings to be purely pragmatic and non ideological. In fact, we are ONLY ideological. See, for example, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences by Hibbing, Smith, and Alford, and The Argumentative Theory, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber.
Reason reveals truth in small things
While I have a lot of sympathy for this underlying thesis, I believe it misses an important point, which at the same time validates and invalidates its principle ideas. I believe a better statement would be:
We use reason to convince each other, because reason is so good at finding out truth, however it is best at finding out truth when the issue is non-complex and the presuppositions are agreed up.
Let me give an example: Suppose a group of people are driving along and they see a sign that says, “Next service station 100 miles.” The driver glances down at the fuel gauge and says, ‘We should stop at this service station.” When one of the passengers asks why, wouldn’t it be better to keep on driving so as to get where they are going sooner, he replies, “We have very little gas in the tank, and the next station is in 100 miles. If we attempt to go on we risk running out of gas, which will delay us even more.”
There’s logic for you. And he used it to convince his passengers. And he did it by (almost certainly) arriving at a truth which they ended up agreeing with.
But why does this example work so well? Because it is a non-complex situation where all of the presuppositions are agreed upon. The correlation between a low gas gauge and running out of gas is well known, and does not involve that many variables. All of the passengers share various presuppositions: that the gas gauge more or less accurately reflects how much gas is in the tank, that running out of gas will cause the car to stop, that getting stopped by running out of gas will delay their trip, that they want their trip to continue at the best possible speed, etc.
So in this case everyone agrees that the driver has arrived at the truth, and so he has convinced them of a certain plan of action.
Now let us take a different case. Let us say that a pro-life protestor makes the case: 1) Abortion kills a baby 2) Killing babies is wrong ERGO) Abortion is wrong.
That is a simple argument. The only problem is that some people disagree with one or more of the presuppositions. The pro-abortion politician may claim that the developing fetus is ‘not a baby, it is just a blob of tissue’. Or they may claim that it is ‘not a killing, because it is not a person’. In this case the pro-life argument fails to persuade not because of a lack of truth, but because of a lack of agreement on the premises.
Or let us take the libertarian argument: 1) Government regulation leads to less liberty and a more inefficient economy 2) We all desire more liberty and a more efficient economy ERGO) Government regulation is bad.
There again the presuppositions may be disagreed with. But in the case of the first presupposition, the issue is extremely complex. There are actually dozens or even hundreds of presuppositions, facts, and arguments hidden inside the ‘less liberty’ and ‘inefficient economy’ issues. So the observers ability to determine the truth of his argument is greatly diminished, even to the point of non-existence.
The problem with the ‘reason as persuasion’ thesis is that reason can only work to persuade if reason, at least in some cases, performs some valuable service. If reason can often arrive at truth in small, ordinary circumstances, people will be more likely to be persuaded by it in the big complex cases. However if reason is merely a tool to persuade all the way down, it will have no persuasive force.
“Truth: Reason is terrible at finding [ moral ] truth, and often leads us away from it.”
What’s the alternative?
Experience. Collected wisdom. Empirical evidence.
Different experiences lead to different truths.
In order to have collected wisdom, there must be some choices in articulation, which will be guided by reason.
I’m using reason as in analysis as opposed to “moral reasoning” which is more akin to rationalizing.
You are correct.
I should probably say abstract reason or pure reason.
My single statement about reason is intended as a summary of ideas in the fuller descriptions linked below.
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