Ideology and Self-Sealing Arguments

From Understanding Arguments by Walter Sinnott-Armstrong and Robert Fogelin, which I use in my critical thinking course:

Ideologies and worldviews tend to be self-sealing. The Marxist ideology sometimes has this quality. If you fail to see the truth of the Marxist ideology, that just shows that your social consciousness has not been raised. The very fact that you reject the Marxist ideology shows that you are not yet capable of understanding it and that you are in need of re-education. This is perfect self-sealing. People who vigorously disagree with certain psychoanalytic claims can be accused of repressing these facts. If a boy denies that he wants to murder his father and sleep with his mother, this itself can be taken as evidence of the strength of these desires and of his unwillingness to acknowledge them. If this kind of reasoning gets out of hand, then psychoanalytic theory also becomes self-sealing and empty. Freud was aware of this danger and warned against it. […]

[This kind of argument can] counter criticism by attacking its critics. Critics of Marxism are charged  with having a decadent bourgeois consciousness that blinds them to the facts of class conflict. The critic’s response to psychoanalytic theory is analyzed (and then dismissed) as repression, a reaction formation, or something similar. Here self-sealing is achieved through an ad hominem fallacy. We might call this self-sealing *by going upstairs*, because the theorist is looking down on the critic.

Much of this will be familiar with Hannah Arendt’s criticism of totalitarian ideology.

Notably, many arguments for evolutionary psychology have a similar form, especially those that focus on the way beliefs are formed to signal loyalty or attract esteem.

Marginal Revolutions on Democracy: The Game Show

I asked Tyler Cowen what he thought of the public policy game show idea. He posted my request for comments, and there has been some helpful stuff from his readers:

As president, I would solve all the world’s problems by creating a reality TV show where think tanks compete for the best solutions to everything from health care to energy policy to immigration. The judges would be experts who help viewers sort the squirrel shit from the caviar, but the final decisions would be made by viewers, just like on American Idol. […]

Seriously, I’d love to watch a reality show where two think tanks argue over whether we should go balls-to-the-wall growing sugar cane and turning it into fuel. Is corn for losers? Does Brazil have it right? It’s all slightly too boring for me to research on my own, and it wouldn’t help because I don’t believe anything I read. But I’d watch a reality show about it if the losers were insulted by someone witty. That’s the kind of leader I am.

  • Yang described something similar in China:

You’ll be amazed by how socially engaged many Chinese citizens are, given the political censorship. There are discussions on everything from one-child policy to the possibility of Korea unification; the only censored topic is really the Communist Party and the political process. Perhaps there’s a trade-off – when people don’t have a specific party or politician to attack or vote against, they actually think more about the policies.

  • Several people commented on the difficulty in accurately judging the outcomes of proposed policy soluations. For instance, b_a wrote:

Like SteveX above, I too think that the main problem would be the selection of the policy-judges. How to select unbiased, non-ideological experts with knowledge? And how to convince the viewers in a politicized democracy of that unbiasedness of a good selection? Analysis from one judge which went against the beliefs or preferred policies of large or important social groups would always face the criticism of ideology. I fear that in view of this problem, there would be a pressure to select judges proportionally from all political parties as well as from important interest groups. Such a selection would predict a lot of political posturing and not a lot of thoughtful analysis from the judges. The incentives the judges face from outside of the game show might dominate.

I tend to think this is a feature, not a bug, but that’s because I’m more interested in controversy and “buzz” as a way of generating the knock-on effects of off-screen deliberation. If the projections are in dispute, that’s part and parcel of the goal, which is to draw attention to the issues that matter, even if this also draws our attention to the uncertainties or factual disagreements that matter

  • Several people quipped that politics is already a game show or that this would be boring. I tend to think these two claims cancel each other out. On the other hand, Geraldo wrote:

Previous comments are not nearly effusive enough. This is a GENIUS idea! Genius!

Every day, myself and four of my closest friends* are engaged in endless email discussions. A good many of them center around policy reform, so I say yes, this game show could at least run one season. Although if there’s going to be spider eating, I’m out.

*We’re all women, so if any screenwriters/novelists would like to show realistic depictions of women talking to other women, there you go.

So I’ve got that going for me! If we could get half of the Daily Show’s audience (which tops out at about 3.6 million) would that be enough to sustain another reality tv show?

Meliorism versus Perfectionism

Consider two courses of action:

  • One has a low probability of success but promises to mildly increase welfare (however defined). Call this “meliorism.” Rawlsian liberals, Burkean and Oakshottean conservatives, and Hayekian libertarians frequently identify with this view.
  • Another has an unknown probability of success, but promises to massively increase welfare (however defined). Call this “perfectionism.” Marxists, anarchists, neo-conservatives, and cosmopolitans frequently identify with this view.

It seems to me that the perfectionist critique of meliorists frequently concerns the size of the benefit, while the meliorist’s response focuses on the probability of success.

But common-sense meliorists also sometimes offer the cliche that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” By this, I think they intend an addendum to the perfectionist position:

  • That perfectionism entails a greater probability of creating a massive decrease in welfare (however defined)

In support of this addendum, meliorists might offer various historical examples of populism-cum-tyranny and good intentions leading to tragedy.

But perfectionists can play the addendum game too. For the perfectionist, there is an unnoticed tendency in meliorists to accept moderate decreases in welfare over a disruption in the status quo. The addendum might be:

  • That meliorism entails a greater probability of mild and continual decreases in welfare (however defined)

In support of this addendum, perfectionists can offer both historical and contemporary examples of institutional degradation, continued barbarism, and a general blindness to suffering by meliorists, as well as, in some cases, a sophisticated theory of causality and history to account for both the decline of meliorist institutions and the epistemic ignorance of the meliorists to the weaknesses in their position.

It seems, in this case, that both groups are engaged in basic probability and effect-size assessment. Thus, it would seem incumbent on both groups to begin by working on a definition of welfare and then on a consensus for the probabilities assigned to various consequences. And yet here perfectionists tend to reject both the project of defining success and the project of assigning likelihoods, retreating to a skepticism about metrics and about the evaluation of future probabilities. Frequently, the perfectionist bolsters these skepticisms with the sophisticated teleological or messianic view of history, or the error theory I mentioned earlier, now applied to available metrics which allegedly blind us to real depredations.

Does this sound right?

Bleg: Honor, Status, Esteem

I’m preparing a version of my review of Anthony Appiah’s The Honor Code for publication, and I was hoping that folks might give me their favorite articles, cites, and quotes on esteem and honor. If any other reviews of Appiah’s book really stood out to you, I’d love to read them, too. In my expanded review, I’m making more of the fact that Appiah’s work is over-influenced by his earlier book on x-phi, so good criticisms of the Humean streak in experimental philosophy are welcome as well!

Jonathan Haidt’s Conflation of the Personal and the Partisan

There’s been a conflict running through Jonathan Haidt’s work that it’s time for him to address.

On the one hand, he asserts that there are characteristic moral intuitions that distinguish partisan liberals from partisan conservatives. He recently argued that these moral intuitions are demonstrated by the fact that the vast majority of social psychologists identify themselves as liberal.

If this is true, then there’s an important spectrum of the human condition that liberal social psychologists will fail to address. According to Haidt, liberal partisan identification hamper scholarship because liberals are unable to understand or be motivated by in-group affinities, deference to authority, or purity and disgust. Haidt’s earliest claim was that conservatives have moral intuitions that liberals can’t recognize.

But when he polled social psychologists looking for liberals, their answers signified that they are Democrats or have even more radically “leftist” policy preferences. Is this the same as being liberal in the way that his research suggests, which is to say that they allow their moral lives to be ruled by the intuitions associated with fairness and care? Haidt has said that it is:

The current American culture war, we have found, can be seen as arising from the fact that liberals try to create a morality relying almost exclusively on the Harm/Care and Fairness/Reciprocity foundations; conservatives, especially religious conservatives, use all five foundations, including Ingroup/Loyalty, Authority/Respect, and Purity/Sanctity.

One the other hand, Haidt has been going out of his way to show that liberal partisans demonstrate the supposedly conservative “moral intuitions.” We are now told that partisan liberals evince purity intuitions, in-group solidarity, and deference to authority, too. If they’re excluding Republicans from the academy because of tribalism, they can certainly understand the motivation to allow loyalty to dominate fairness! So liberals can recognize conservative moral intuitions, if only they’d reflect on the ways that they do similar things.

He can’t have it both ways: either liberals have a purity, hierarchy, and in-group intuitions, which keeps partisan conservatives out of the academy, or they *fail* to have those intuitions in ways that importantly hamper their work. So which is it? Are liberals just like conservatives, making conservative perspectives superfluous, or are they unable to feel or understand the full spectrum of moral intuitions, and thus no threat to conservative participation in the academy?