Warning Signs: Beliefs that Signal Loyalty or Ability

My last post has generated some controversy on Facebook, where the audience is a bit more diverse, faith-wise, than those who read the blog. I thought it might be useful to continue pressing on the critique of instrumental beliefs with an instructive list of warning signs that your opinions are primarily instrumental, from Robin Hanson. How many of us derive our beliefs about the economy by negating whatever is popularly prescribed on Fox News? How often do you find yourself thinking that Glenn Beck or John Boehner may have a point? (Even a stopped clock, etc.) How often do you reject a line of research because you can’t think of a good journal to publish it in? How often do you acknowledge that your opinions on an important matter are fairly conventional? If we notice these kinds of patterns, shouldn’t we wonder if our non-theological beliefs follow a similar structure to other kinds of instrumental beliefs?

Hanson’s list of warning signs:

  1. You find it hard to be enthusiastic for something until you know that others oppose it.
  2. You have little interest in getting clear on what exactly is the position being argued.
  3. Realizing that a topic is important and neglected doesn’t make you much interested.
  4. You have little interest in digging to bigger topics behind commonly argued topics.
  5. You are less interested in a topic when you don’t foresee being able to talk about it.
  6. You are uncomfortable taking a position near the middle of the opinion distribution.
  7. You are uncomfortable taking a position of high uncertainty about who is right.
  8. You care far more about current nearby events than similar distant or past/future events.
  9. You find it easy to conclude that those who disagree with you are insincere or stupid.
  10. You are reluctant to change your publicly stated positions in response to new info.
  11. You are reluctant to agree a rival’s claim, even if you had no prior opinion on the topic.

Tyler Cowen adds this, which helpfully sums up the way in which status games (and honor talk!) can blind us to the truth:

12. You feel uncomfortable taking a position which raises the status of the people you usually disagree with.

The only problem I have with this list is that it doesn’t model instrumental beliefs among academics quite as well, because we have a different incentive structure and are a bit better at creating opportunities to converse on neglected topics if we can prove to our fellows that we have important insights. But even there, we might question our own motives when, for instance, we find ourselves taking a provocative and unpopular view.

Hanson’s frequent point in his blog is that many of our beliefs, and not just our beliefs about the divine, are primarily instrumental ones. He calls this the “homo hypocritus” hypothesis. Given the popularity of ideological and psychoanalytic analyses among continental philosophers, I think my friends would benefit from checking out his blog “Overcoming Bias.” Hanson, on the other hand, would benefit from reading more Foucault or (if he’s doing so, which his writing frequently suggests) from acknowledging his scholarly non-economist influences more often.

One topic that I think deserves a lot more attention in political philosophy and ethics is the status of the biases and heuristics research coming out of the social sciences, especially psychology but to a lesser extent behavioral economics. So this post is part of my effort to raise the relative status of such questions among my own philosophically-inclined readership.

Deliberative Democracy and the Bad Man

During my talk at GW on Friday, one concern emerged as the dominant theme, and I stumbled a bit in responding to it. Basically, it’s a version of the Platonic anxiety about democracy: if deliberative institutions give demagogues and sophists equal time to peddle their emotive rhetoric alongside earnest activists and critical thinkers honestly seeking justice, how can we be sure that these institutions will actually be better than non-deliberative institutions like a secret ballot? We know that most citizens are vulnerable to a number of different kinds of pressure in deliberative contexts: various studies of group polarization in juries and activist groups prove this. So why should we encourage our fellow citizens to submit to deliberative encounters that will likely drive them to either ambivalence or extremism, especially when we may then be handing the reigns to political actors advancing their policies in bad faith?

Part of making this argument stick requires us to evaluate exactly what it is about bad faith deliberation that scares us so. Is it rhetorical skill? Charisma? Or are we scared that the force of the better argument will not always be on our side? The strongest argument against the rhetorician is a version of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr’s “Bad Man” argument: there are sociopaths among us, silver-tongued amoralists who will take positions they don’t support for money or power. Let loose, such bad men will overwhelm the resistances of a deliberative democracy, subverting our reason-responsiveness through appeal to our passions. Like a virus, the bad man turns democracy’s strength against it. Socrates’ death at the hands of the Athenians is all the proof we need that when philosophers tangle with sophists, philosophers lose. To protect ourselves from the ‘bad man’ (and all his weak-minded followers) we need liberal rights to trump majoritarian policy-preferences.

I have a long answer in my dissertation’s first chapter, but here’s a sketch.

We don’t protect ourselves from rhetoricians by forgoing broad deliberation. We don’t sidestep these problems by hiding from politics or our neighbors’ political ideas: bad faith arguments still proliferate in the partisan press (Fox News and The Nation both.)  Bad faith deliberation is most dangerous to non-deliberative populations. Sophistry is like the chicken pox: early exposure is the best vaccination. 

Of course, we all know that even critical thinkers can be led astray when they find themselves on unfamiliar ground. Just think about how long it took us to remember that torture is wrong primarily because it doesn’t work: philosophers and poltiical scientists spent five years debating ticking time bombs with no apparent memory for the very same debates from the eighteenth century. We continually forget why we should prefer a Prince weakened by procedural safeguards when emergencies seem to require a decisive leader rather than legislative squabbling.

At that point, pluralism itself is the best defense against bad reasons. Just as Madison and Hamilton argued that federalism would be a defense against factions, local and active institutions of civic engagement and deliberation supply a crucial resistance to rhetorical infections.  The chattering classes are quickly swayed by class-interests and intellectual fads: we need a broader base for public policy arguments. As such, deliberation needs to include many more divergent viewpoints in order to achieve its goals, even though we know that this will lead many to feel listless and ambivalent, and others to grow strident and obsessive.

Broad-based communal deliberation compartmentalizes the deliberative process so that only views that can garner an overlapping consensus  gain traction. By supplying localities with opportunities to create reason-giving communities, we require that bad men (and bad women, too!) conquer multiple and plural communities who are persuaded of very different kinds of reasons. Perhaps it’s the optimist in me, but that seems like a pretty good defense. Even if it’s not always perfect, it’s probably as good as it gets.