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Guest Post: Reason Versus Experience, by The Prudential Liberal

The Prudential Liberal adds nuance to my Reason vs Experience essay.  He’s right that I oversimplified “reason” in my original post.  I did that to keep it short(er) and to stick to the main point I wanted to make.  I don’t agree with every idea The Prudential Liberal expresses here, but there are many things I like about it too.  Overall it adds some of the nuance and depth that’s lacking from my essay.        


While I really enjoyed your article on how the difference between Liberals and Conservatives might be due to the possibility that their thinking style favours either ‘Reason’ or ‘Experience.’ I think that it missed certain nuances that are important. First, I think that reason is the wrong word for what you are describing. I believe that the word ‘Rationale’ (the principle that underlies or explains something) would be a better fit for what you are getting at. If I understand it correctly, your epiphany was that the Liberal left utilises an abstract, from first principles, algorithmic rationale in their reasoning, whereas, Conservatives utilise experience more. Now rationale is an important part of reasoning, but it’s only a part, because reasoning often involves holding incompatible elements in your head, and weighing and balancing them before coming to a judgement. Reason respects the implicit, the ambiguous, and the insurmountable, whereas, rationality demands the explicit, clear, and complete. You could, if you had to, reason utilising two opposing rationale. ‘Capitalism lifts people out of poverty’ and ‘capitalism favours those with wealth and privilege’ for instance.

Secondly, I believe the article creates a false dichotomy between theory and the experience of practical application that I don’t think exists in reality. For instance I don’t think I could apply a coat of paint to a wall without some kind of underlying theory on how to go about it. In fact, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory” (Lewin). Most rationale is usually made up of an intertwining of abstract knowledge and practical experience; from the kind of brush that works best in different situations, to the kind of paint one should use outdoors as opposed to indoors. Also experience is a psychosocial phenomenon. Everything we experience is, essentially, the acquired rationale of the culture you’re exposed to. And we don’t experience an objective reality in any case. It is filtered through the rationale we use to understand it; either a doctrine we’ve mostly constructed or adapted ourselves or the orthodoxies of our culture. Now this rationale might be biased in favour of abstraction or the lived world, but it’s seldom a binary either/or.

Thirdly, the article implies certain assumptions underpinning logical arguments that I don’t believe stand up to scrutiny. Experience might well ameliorate a rationale, but it depends on the experience (conformation bias). Similarly, a rationale might not be able to withstand an encounter with reality, but that depends on the rationale. If the rationale is ambiguous enough, or if the person holding that rational is delusional enough, then it will cope with almost any eventuality. People who predict the end of the world for instance, upon living through the day the world is supposed to end, will simply recalibrate based on the flimsiest grounds (calendar error etc.). Also, abstract rationale is not confined to liberals. There are those on the far right who cling to an abstract rationale where an unrestrained free market would, eventually, create a capitalist utopia, no different to left wing socialists. Similarly experience is not confined to conservatives. It’s just that liberals see the world more through the care/harm moral foundation, so their experience of the world is different.

Finally, in my view, ‘Reason’ and ‘Reasonableness’ are closely linked to sound judgement or good sense. Ian McGilchrist’s contends that there are three aspects of Judgement; Intuition, Knowledge and Experience (rationale), and logic (HOW we rationalise with our knowledge and experience). These also tie in with Dan McAdams three levels of personality. Reasoning then, requires an intuitive leap to begin with, because all logic is based on assumptions (in fact, even logic itself is a form of intuition when you think about it). These intuitions (Haidt’s moral foundations) make us prone to acquiring certain rationale. And some do, indeed, favour more abstract, linear, closed system orthodoxies formed from first principles that have the virtue of perfection, but are ultimately empty and unfeeling. However, they are on both sides of the political spectrum (Marists socialists and unrestrained free market capitalists). Now, in fairness, these doctrines aren’t grounded in real world experience (or else they conveniently ignore that experience). However, others prefer their orthodoxies to evolve from established conventions and be grounded in the lived world. Centre left liberals prefer rights based doctrines, and centre right conservatives favour an entrepreneurial systems. Both are grounded in real world experiences, Liberals see the benefit of people having rights so that minorities can’t be disenfranchised, and Conservatives see the benefits of rewarding work because it lifts people out of poverty and strengthens society.

The different demographics then build upon their rationale logically, either piece by piece without reference to context, or, alternatively, using real world reference points. The far left and far right, I believe, build piece by piece. Hence socialist realise that, logically, the only way their rationale can be implemented is to over throw the current system and implement a bureaucratic, centralised state run system. And unrestrained free market capitalists realise that, logically, any kind of social safety net, regulatory system, or oversight and governance, interferes with the smooth running of the free market. They don’t see any downsides to their worldviews because they are certain of their logic. It has, after all, been built brick by brick. And they’re right, it’s sound; it’s the underlying assumptions that are flawed. Towards the centre both sides take account of context, so that when conservatives come across workers that are being taken advantage of by big business they move to regulate that business. And when liberals see people failing to get something they are entitled to because of bureaucracy they move to deregulate and incentivise the market to meet people’s needs… in a system that’s working properly.

Luckily though, reasoning also has a feedback loop, the ability to categorise, so that most of us can see when these systems are not working properly, which is a regular enough occurrence for those who base their systems on abstract perfection and untried social constructs. These seldom survive contact with the real world. But recognising that failure depends on whether or not we categorise using ‘features that must invariably be present’ or using ‘an exemplar’ from the real world. Utilising only features that must invariably be present you could conclude that North Korea is a functioning society. However, if you compare it to South Korea you could not possibly reach that conclusion. The same applies to the more moderate right and left wing ideologies. If you apply features that must invariably be present you might concluded that once an economy is growing, there is close to full employment, and you are comfortably off, then you live in a wonderful place. However, if you compare it to an ideal or exemplar, usually a time in the past for those on the centre right, or another country, Norway for instance, for those on the centre left, then you might conclude that the country is falling apart or else you feel repulsed by rampant inequality… depending on your perspective.

Reasonable people, on both sides of the political spectrum can compromise with each other though. It’s no big deal, happens all the time in the lived world. However, in politics it’s becoming less and less possible because both sides keep electing people who utilise an abstract, linear, closed system rationale that is impervious to compromise, because, logically, those rationales will not work when compromised. This is exacerbated by the media’s tendency to vilify people who compromise with the other side as unprincipled traitors, whereas, in reality, the principled thing to do is to compromise. Because the other side is not wrong; they just see the world differently.

That’s the intuitive leap I made some time ago. After reading Haidt (and Burke) I came to the conclusions that conservatives were not wrong… or misguided… or power hungry unprincipled monsters. They just see the world differently. Now admittedly, it’s easier for people like me, left leaning liberals, to move towards the centre, because we don’t have as much of our identity tied up in our team as our more groupish (Loyalty/Betrayal) conservative brethren. And, in any case, people tend to naturally, become more conservative as they get older, not because their morality is maturing (implies liberals are immature), but because we begin to take more account of the culture we will bequeath to our children than the plight of its current inhabitants. However, the people with most to lose if the current polarisation continues are mainstream conservatives. Liberal populations are growing because urbanisation has an inherent bias towards the individual with rights and entitlements rather than communities with duties and responsibilities. People who live in very close proximity seem to seek to establish their individuality ironically, and this favours abstract, linear, atomistic liberal thought processes. And, more importantly I would have thought, polarisation will definitely not lead to order and stability; quite the opposite.

My (limited) understanding of American history is that the country was founded on such compromise. Liberals, with a rights based rationale, such as Thomas Paine, found common ground with Conservatives with a duty and responsibilities rationale. They adopted the ideals of classic liberalism and incorporated them into the new Republic, while preserving, to a huge extent, the political, social and economic structures of the colonies at the time. Hence, if any of the founding fathers had been faced with a choice between a flawed egalitarian and a megalomaniac, I cannot see how they would not compromise and vote for the least worst option as they might see it. It does not seem unreasonable to me!


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