About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Why you should hold your beliefs at arm’s length

by Ian Pollock
[Today we feature a guest post by long-time Rationally Speaking reader and commenter Ian Pollock. Ian is a graduate engineer from Canada, with philosophical inclinations. He likes arguing a bit too much for his own good (his own words). Ian’s interests are too numerous to list, but many tend to involve the application of rationality to daily life: for example, to akrasia, ethics, diet & exercise; as well as to those age-old existential questions (“Is there any real purpose to my life? How can I be made of mere atoms?”) that tend to come up whenever we’re feeling contemplative (or hypoglycemic). Ian has an abiding love for well-crafted puzzles, both natural and manmade.]
“If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.”
(Paul Graham)
Let’s start with politics.
I know somebody who knows somebody who is a monarchist. No really, that’s what he is. He even introduces himself that way, I’m told: “Hi, I’m Carl (or whatever his name is) the Monarchist.”
Now although I’m certain that Carl is a barrel of laughs on social occasions, I think he’s making a big mistake — not about the Commonwealth monarchy (I’m favorably disposed to it myself for largely aesthetic reasons*), but about what kinds of things belong in a description of “Carl” as a person. Less importantly for most people, but perhaps more importantly for the typical reader of this blog, he is setting himself up for some serious extra cognitive blind spots on a wide range of topics.
There are quite a few problems with Carl’s situation:
To begin with, by thinking of this opinion as a characteristic of his person, he is ensuring that criticisms of that opinion will feel like malicious personal attacks on him. I have experienced this from the inside (in my youth as an armchair Trotskyite), and seen similar tendencies in many true believers I’m acquainted with. Eventually, criticism of the idea comes to have a nasty emotional impact similar to criticism of, say, personal appearance.
Relatedly, by committing to this view in public, Carl is ensuring that changing his mind will be maximally difficult and embarrassing. We change our minds less often than we think, and part of the reason is that, socially speaking, it takes a lot out of us to admit to being wrong.
(As an aside, this has huge implications for effective communication between people who disagree. For example, try to treat both your own beliefs and those of others as external to the person altogether. A simple change of phrasing from “I think you’re incorrect” to “I think this idea is incorrect” may make the difference between defensiveness and honest appraisal. On a personal level, I find it useful to think of beliefs as maps that I take out of an imaginary glove compartment.)
The third reason that Carl is wrong to call himself a monarchist (and why I think people oughtn’t to call themselves liberals, conservatives, libertarians, environmentalists or whatever) is that human brains are very leaky contraptions, and one corollary of this is that initially descriptive ideas tend to drift in the direction of prescriptivity (hence, inter alia, the naturalistic fallacy). Let’s say you notice, as a fact about yourself, that you favor low taxes and a generally small government on ethical and practical grounds. You look in a dictionary and, lo and behold, that is a big part of the definition of “conservative.” Out come the phonemes: “I am a conservative.” Aren’t words great?
What you will probably not notice, however, is that increasingly when you don’t know what you think about some issue yet (say, your country’s stance on foreign affairs), you will take your cue from other self-identified conservatives, as opposed to thinking it through yourself and then describing your conclusion in political terminology. The normative self-definition has staged its coup d’etat. Whatever “conservatives” think, that is going to be your opinion. Of course, when I put it that way, it looks ridiculous. But from the inside, this process feels perfectly rational — like wisely throwing your lot in with a really smart group of people.
The hasty allegiances formed by the drift to normativity have a further drawback, in that they tend to make progress towards specific goals difficult. The political landscape is a skew coordinate system. In other words, you can never move along a single axis without simultaneously moving along others. Want to support the only party that is currently serious about climate change? Well, be my guest, as long as you don’t mind their economic protectionism. Want to combat protectionism by supporting the opposing party? By all means, as long as you’re all right with “family values.” And what, pray tell, does sexual bigotry have to do with free trade economics? Why exactly is that a package deal? Search me. Apparently it’s somehow distantly related to where two varieties of wig-wearing aristocrats sat during the French Revolution.**
To be clear, I am not advocating disengagement from politics. Rather, I suggest we should take a piecemeal approach to political issues, avoiding an excessive focus on their historical relations with each other.
So much for politics. To be fair, at least when you define yourself in political terms, you are making a sort of ethical statement about yourself, which makes some sense in terms of personal identity.
What is even worse is self-definition in terms of empirical matters, or more broadly, propositions about the world that are either true or false (this includes some philosophical questions, though of course the boundary is pretty porous).
Let’s say I have some proper belief about a particular fact question, like “nuclear fusion will be a commercially viable energy source in 30 years or less.” Say I give this proposition subjective odds of 3:1 in favor (75% probability).
There are a lot of things I might want to do with this belief, like invest in technologies for separating deuterium from seawater, or refrain from getting a career in the coal industry. One thing I should NOT want to do is wake up early in the morning on a Sunday and solemnly proclaim the glorious imminence of fusion power. Another thing that I should NOT want to do is wear a t-shirt with a stylized red F on it, and go around calling myself a “fusionist” or some such thing.
The problem with calling yourself an “atheist” is not that the proposition itself is wrong. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a proposition more overdetermined by philosophical and scientific lines of evidence than this one: that all the creator beings humans have ever dreamt up are laughably improbable (if they even rise to the level of being coherent).
Rather, the problems with such a self-definition are as follows:
(1) You will probably develop “person with a hammer” syndrome, wherein every problem you see looks like a nail, or in this case a jihadi. Realistically, although religious belief is a big problem, it is not anything remotely like the biggest problem. If you flipped a switch and everybody on earth became an atheist, we would still retain most of our problems.
(Arguably, a mass deconversion could actually be a bad or at least neutral thing, if there were no concomitant understanding of rationality in general, or of how ethics, meaning, emotion and subjectivity are supposed to fit into a determined and purely physical universe. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing — just ask the atheists who are now nihilists as well, or the people who think Young’s double-slit experiment proves that We Are All One Consciousness, Man.)
Also, (2) Why do we care? What interesting thing does this tell us about you, other than your stance on one rather silly proposition? What DO you actually believe in, apart from not being a theist?
It would be different if you had said “I’m a rationalist” or “I’m a mysterian” or whatever. These refer to interesting tendencies in philosophical thought — tendencies whose consequences are far-reaching indeed. As an aside, note that although being a rationalist should (I claim) result in very low subjective probabilities for creator beings, the term refers to the process by which such claims are to be considered — it doesn’t hard-code specific claims into its definition. Thank goodness.
(3) In general, it’s bad practice to allow propositions — even very certain ones — into your self-definition. Reasons for this were discussed above: among other things, it makes changing your mind nearly impossible, as well as socially costly. Yes yes, I know you won’t need to change your mind on this question. But are you really so good at judging which propositions are near-certain, and which aren’t? If you say “odds of 99:1 against” on 100 separate occasions, you won’t be wrong more than once or twice... right?
(4) It’s (probably) nothing to be proud of. If you grew up in a truly religious household or community, with unapologetic brainwashing and social seclusion along religious lines, then yes, you should be proud to have found your way through all those obstacles to the truth. If, however (like me) your parents gave you a measure of intellectual freedom, and your society does too, then you should be no more proud of your atheism than a middle-class westerner should be proud of a high-school diploma. Above all, in general, beliefs are for predicting future experiences, not for feeling proud.
Just as a probability distribution is not an accomplishment, a policy preference is not a part of who you are.
*And anticipate being so disposed for as long as the heir apparent keeps his mouth shut upon succession.
**Sometimes a good test of whether your beliefs are too affected by historical contingency is to imagine explaining them to a martian.


  1. a policy preference is not a part of who you are

    Inasmuch as certain moral values are neurally bound in my brain, and certain policy preferences logically follow from those, which are also neurally bound, I think it's fair to say that certain policy preferences are quite literally a part of who I am. That doesn't mean that they're immutable, of course (e.g. given brain plasticity and changing environmental circumstances). But, as you suggest, they are likely to be quite tenacious.

  2. And what, pray tell, does sexual bigotry have to do with free trade economics? Why exactly is that a package deal?
    You could ask the same of atheism and rationalism, which are all contained in a scarlet letter. But is it such a bad thing that they are a package deal? I wouldn't want a mass deconversion without a concomitant understanding of rationality in general.

  3. @Mufi: you are quite right in principle. However, in practice, we do not have reliable introspective access to our own moral terminal values. We are also very bad at figuring out what instrumentally achieves those values on a personal level, let alone a societal one.

    So even though our moral values might rationally imply certain policy preferences, exactly *which* policies they imply is always at least partly opaque to human minds. Hence the need to distance oneself from one's own policy preferences.

  4. Ian, you mention that sometimes people feel that attacks against political beliefs they consider part of their identity are personal attacks, or at least on par with personal attacks. And surely this is often a little ridiculous, but I can think of cases where such attacks really do amount to personal attacks, or when they have personal consequences. What about people who are racial minorities who have strong opinions about policies that severely disadvantage or actively discriminate against certain races? Wouldn't it be reasonable for them to be strongly against such policies in a way they consider part of their identity? Wouldn't attacks against such policy preferences amount to attacks on their identity, if indirectly?

  5. Hence the need to distance oneself from one's own policy preferences.

    OK, so take the healthcare issue, for example (which seems more topical here in the US than where you live). For whatever reasons (or non-reasons, like innate personality and upbringing), I tend to think that personal wealth should not determine access to basic healthcare services (e.g. like those obtained via the insurance plan offered by my private employer). So I naturally tend to voice support for universal healthcare.

    That support alone doesn't guarantee a particular policy preference, given a variety of situational constraints and the plurality of possible schemes. But it's an empirical question which schemes come closest to meeting the moral goal of universal healthcare.

    Should I not seek such policy knowledge? And, inasmuch as I attain it, should I then pretend that no scheme is any better than any other? Or is it enough if I just try to avoid political labeling (i.e. even if turns out that virtually everyone else in society labels that scheme and its supporters a particular way)?

  6. Can I identify as a "holder of beliefs at arm's length?"

  7. ianpollock
    >"we do not have reliable introspective access to our own moral terminal values."
    Would you give an example of a "moral terminal value"... Thanks

  8. mufi
    >"certain moral values are neurally bound in my brain"
    Are you referring to morals that you have internalized?

  9. DJD, yes.

    But I would agree with Ian that I am not fully conscious of what those moral values are; e.g. it might take a third-party evaluation of some kind - say, by a cognitive scientist w/an interest in moral psychology - in order to lay them out on the table.

  10. mufti
    So...if you have been "stuck" with them....should you resist them....embrace them...judge them (by what standards)...What shall we do with the beliefs and moral attitudes that we have not chosen....but have been "stuck" with?

  11. @AB: Yes, you make a good point; policy can be outright malicious, in which case much of this doesn't apply.

    @mufi: On the healthcare example, I would say that avoiding labeling is the main concern - particularly labeling yourself. There is a huge difference in how it feels from the inside to *think that X is the best policy option,* versus *think of oneself as an X-ist.*

    I am definitely not arguing that anybody should pretend not to see blatantly better policy options, or keep their mouths shut when they notice them.

    @Jeremy: HOBAAL. I think the acronym needs work. ;)

    @DJD: >Would you give an example of a "moral terminal value"... Thanks.

    Yes, sorry, I ought to have unpacked that jargon (I was posting on a brief lunch break). I mean "terminal" to be in contrast to "instrumental," so that, for example, you might terminally value your child's life, and instrumentally value vaccinations - the vaccinations are a means to an end, which is terminal.

    Anyway, by my definition, terminal moral values are the psychological rock-bottom of your ethics (e.g., "suffering is bad") , upon which the higher-level stuff (e.g., "stop eating factory-farmed meat") is based. They are exceedingly difficult to state clearly.

    Utilitarianism has one terminal value - utility (usually cashed out in terms of pleasure/suffering). I'm (more or less) a consequentialist but not a utilitarian - I think humans have many tens of irreducible terminal values, if not more, without any one of which we are greatly diminished.

  12. Good post Ian - while not too clear on why all gods dreamed up by people are 'laughingly improbable' (most, maybe, but not all) I understand your larger point as a simple caution not to go overboard with the nametags.

    But would agree with some other commenters that it may matter less to others how one self-identifies than how one acts on their beliefs, be they heartfelt or at arm's length.

    For instance, I think that a robust Philosophy of Information, reliant on audience participation could get us to "We Are All One Consciousness, Man" as easily as it can get us to "We Are All Just Tiny Bits of Consciousness, Dude". So do lots of credentialed academics who think of PI as a growth area in philosophy and take pains to keep the woo stuff out of their papers.

    But whether my take on information is a belief or a predilection - as long as I don't act on anything too weird to others - it's all good and harmless.

  13. Wow - how did I not notice the blatant contradiction between my last paragraph "I am a consequentialist" and what I said to mufi?

  14. I'm sorry to say I don't really find the essay persuasive. It just focuses on costs and completely ignores benefits. There are arguments the costs outweigh the benefits for political self-identifiers, but this essay doesn't seem to offer one, and in the end, as an atheist, I would disagree anyway. There have been studies that suggest correlations between political alignments and personalities, and if those results bear out there may even be personality signals contained in the labels even apart from the more obvious benefits. Still, my compliments on identifying some subtle costs there.

    As for "terminal" values - economists sometimes refer to them as fundamental preferences, if it's of interest. Also, most/all economists would depart from historical utilitarians such as Bentham and simply identify utility as the metric that guides tradeoffs between what you term the terminal values. That maneuver allows them to be agnostic on the psychology apart from some minimal assumptions like non-circular preferences - and for utilitarianism it implies it seeks to max people's preferred mental states as each individual wants them to be (so they'd respect a person's preferred tradeoff point b/w e.g. suffering and happiness).

  15. Ian, I agree.

    After I left religion, I went on an tour of various political ideologies, including a summer with some Trotskyists as a matter of fact. I concluded ideology, even atheist ideology, could have a strongly "religious" nature to it. When people ask me now if I am a liberal or conservative, my response is "it depends on the issue".

    You wisely did not include some of the more divisive issues of the day, because that would lead to the very problem you are describing. But I will bring up the Wisconsin public union question.

    Too may people immediately chose sides based on their ideology, backed up by their confirmation bias. But clearly it was an empirical question that required a dispassionate analysis which started with the realization that either side could have been deserving support. It was a question ideology could not solve a priori.

  16. Ian, those labels are hard to avoid, aren't they? :-)

    Just for a full disclosure: I'm influenced by the writings of cognitive scientist/linguist George Lakoff on this topic (although I would certainly be reluctant to label myself a Lakoffist - I so hate commitments). To summarize (e.g. his book The Political Mind: Why You Can’t Understand 21st-Century Politics With an 18th-Century Brain), he finds patterns in conservative and progressive political positions and relates them to opposing moral frameworks, which he further argues are rooted in opposing parenting styles, Strict Father and Nurturing Parent, respectively.

    However, Lakoff also observes that most of us are "biconceptual" in that we harbor concepts from both frameworks, such that some of us are progressive on some issues and conservative on others, whereas others are more consistently one or the other. Where the balance rests is largely determined by personal experience (or by the forces of repetition and trauma), in which the early-developmental years exert a disproportionate influence (which partly explains the analogy to parenting styles).

    Lakoff is also an unapologetic advocate for a progressive/Nurturing Parent value structure, although he spends little time or space in trying to rationalize it (which he suggests is not what actually changes minds, anyway). Perhaps he appreciates the consequences of general adherence to that structure more so than that of general adherence to the conservative/Strict Parent alternative (or even to some hybrid thereof).

    If so, then I would agree, although I admit that there is probably a tribal element involved, given how good it feels to be allied with others around shared beliefs and causes.

  17. ianpollack
    I agree with Timothy. What you describe are your things you hold dear, fundamental interests, etc.....Not fundamental moral beliefs. Also...talking about how best to insure and protect the interest of those we care about or how to insure that we accomplish our goals and desires...is not the basis for moral rules...it is more akin to instrumental reasoning about means....as in if you want to fell a tree you should use a saw or ax. Morality is about a sense of what we ought to do...are expected to do...have a duty to do...will be praised by doing or condemned by not doing, etc...Using reason and knowledge to pursue our interests and the interests we care about are is simply knowledge of the best means to get what we want.

  18. ianpollock
    I would like to suggest that "suffering is bad" is different than "suffering is immoral". Did you mean the former or the latter?

  19. @DaveS: Thanks for the comment! I'm not sure what sort of explanatory power philosophy of information gets you. If anything, the world seems more confusing after I accept the argument than it was before; likewise for the consciousness issue. If we are all one consciousness, then there would need to be an explanation for why it doesn't feel that way.

    >But whether my take on information is a belief or a predilection - as long as I don't act on anything too weird to others - it's all good and harmless.

    Maybe so, but I still usually regard such statements as warning signs. After all, if we really think an idea is true, we have no need to protest that it's harmless.

    @Timothy: Thanks for sharing the economists' equivalent terms. To quibble a little: you said something about maximizing preferred mental states. This would be a large, large mistake, because we care not just about mental states but about their referents as well. I want my family to be alive & healthy; I don't just want to occupy the mental state in which they're alive & healthy.

    @mufi: Lakoff's ideas are interesting. I have also seen stuff by Stephen Pinker, who identifies one of the major differences between conservatives and liberals as pessimism/optimism about human nature.

    To be honest though, I tend not to be in sympathy with such general, diffuse heuristics as "nurturing/strict parent" as a guide for policy. Even accepting that that metaphor works for politics, sometimes parents really DO need to be nurturing, and sometimes they really DO need to be strict, so to adopt one attitude to the other's exclusion seems like a bad idea.

    @DJD: I disagree on the issue of metaethics - I do think ethical arguments ultimately reduce to arguments about our values and how best to fulfill them. The seeming unbridgeable gap between instrumental rationality and ethics, which hinges on concepts like "oughtness," is really a matter of perspective, not a principled difference. If Massimo et al. are so disposed, that might be a good subject for a future guest post.

    As for "suffering is immoral," I don't think that scans very well. Who is the utterer of that sentence talking to? The cosmos?

  20. Good post, interesting things to reflect on... My girlfriend is one who hates labels and tries to avoid them like the plague. She's never explained in details why, but the rationale of this post sounds like a good reason for such avoidance...

    "socially speaking, it takes a lot out of us to admit to being wrong"

    Yeah, and that's because we seem to be somehow trained, from a young age, to consider changing your mind as a sort of shameful thing, apparently. Or so it seems to me. And you don't even need to go as far as calling yourself a "somethingist" -- as soon as you utter an opinion, people label you themselves, in their minds. And if you later say something somewhat different, they call you out on that, usually in a mocking tone, like: "look at her, who used to be an X/said she didn't like Y, etc...."

    Coincidentally enough, I have an example from work, from a few weeks ago, actually. And the target was me, heh. About 2.5 years ago, I said in a meeting that I didn't want to touch the data generated by a certain DNA sequencing technology for our de novo sequencing projects that were just starting, since I had seen some data from that tech and it was horrible (for the purpose of our project): tiny sequence reads (36 bases) where about half of them were error-prone anyway. FFW to few weeks ago, and I mention, during lab meeting, that I was analyzing sequence data from that technology for a couple of projects we have (and that results were looking great). Cue for my boss to, laughing, say "wow, look at J, who said blah blah..." Now, the tech in question evolved enormously in the past couple of years: now reads can be 100 bases, paired end (which in effect makes them even better than the 200 bases long they effectively cover), and error rates are much lower. But none of that matters when the urge arises to call out people who "changed their minds", right? (even if on this case, strictly speaking, I didn't change my mind at all, what changed were the technical circumstances) And one feels defensive when that happens, or at least I seem to have acted that way -- I could have just smiled and ignored the general laughing, but instead I smiled and pointed out that, if things were still as in 2009, I would still be saying the same things as I said then.

    Now, I'm old enough to take the mocking reasonably well, heh. But when that is done to 6, 8, 15 years olds, what does it teach them? So, everyone, think twice before you call out someone for seemingly changing their minds. :-)

  21. ianpollock
    "I do think ethical arguments ultimately reduce to arguments about our values and how best to fulfill them." You seem to be describing instrumentalism, which is a word most would connect with science...not morality. How best to accomplish a goal is dependent upon practical knowledge and the goal has nothing to do with "morality"...if the goal is merely a typical human desire. Why not just quit using words like 'moral' and 'ethical', if what you describe is our desire to find instrumental means to our ends?. We have always, as humans, acted in the way you suggest. We identify our goal and then discover the best way to instrumentally achieve our goal. There is nothing 'ethical' about this process. UNLESS...you interject some moral rules which we must or should obey in the process of our instrumental acts we make towards our goals.
    That is where the "gap" exists.

  22. Ian, that impression might be a result of my trying to sum up a book in a few short paragraphs and from memory, as I'm pretty sure that Lakoff did not recommend that parents or political leaders never be strict. Although he may have suggested that the conservative/Strict-Father notion of "strict" puts too much emphasis on punishment, obedience to authority, and patriarchy (as opposed to protection and empowerment, which he associates with the progressive/Nurturing-Parent model).

    For example, in political terms, he would argue that this attitude translates into a callousness towards the poor, whose misfortune is presumed to be a result of moral failure, rather than just that - misfortune. It also translates into a disgust towards homosexuals, teen mothers, and the like because they are perceived to have acted in disregard to their fathers (yes, fathers).

    As a parent, who to some degree has dipped into the child-psych lit of recent decades, I suspect that Lakoff could build a strong empirical argument in support of the Nurturing-Parent model, and likewise with respect to policies typically advocated by progressives (or their international counterparts, such as social democrats). But (following the cognitive science portion of Lakoff's work) persuading someone who has already been deeply ingrained with the conservative/Strict-Father model would be long and difficult task, involving repetition as much (or more so) as rational persuasion.

    Anyway, I recommend that you not take my word for it and check out the book for yourself.

  23. Ian - a consequentialist cares about mental states. Such an ethic would care about your loved ones directly, since they're self-aware, and not because someone else loves them. It'd be possible to construct a tradeoff where a consequentialist would, say, protect someone with a social network more than a loner, since the former has greater welfare implications. It's also true that consequentialism would prompt the behavior to care about loved ones' actual conditions rather than the mental states that loved ones create in you (since the ethic cares about their mental states, which you can only affect/improve through their actual conditions).

    It's not true, however, that consequentialism values the actual conditions as an end in themselves where tradeoffs exist between them and the desired mental states. For Nozick's experience machine, for instance, if someone's jumping in wouldn't adversely affect anyone else's welfare (an assumption Nozick did not make, btw), the ethic would prefer that person to have the happy life in the tube. If you dislike that feature in the ethic then "consequentialist" definitely isn't a label you'll want for yourself :)

  24. Eh, maybe I should clarify that I mean "consequentialist" in its sense of normativizing consequences to human welfare; there are actually tons of conflicting constructions of the term in the literature. I even had the misfortune of trying to wade through a paper on a consequentialist epistemology a number of months ago.

  25. Ian,

    I enjoyed your post very much, however I wonder if you've let out something important. Self-identifying as a monarchist, or an atheist, or whatever, has a social function. It alerts anyone nearby that you have a strong commitment to that belief. If you're looking for social connection with others of your ilk, that may be just the ticket. It may also ward off those who have an aversion to that belief. On the other hand, it may very well attract someone who loves an argument! In the case of "Carl the Monarchist", I rather suspect that's the goal.

    Particularly in social interactions, the words we use shouldn't always be taken at face value. Maybe Carl's declaration says more about his social goals (and perhaps his emotional needs) than about his intellectual life.

  26. @J: Yes, it is terrible how we treat those who change their minds - either with I-told-you-so condescension or "gotcha" contempt. Politicians are never supposed to "waffle," for example. Probably a nominee for the worst piece of bad epistemology out there, although there are so many contenders!

    @DJD: I do think there is something about moral discourse that distinguishes it from ordinary discourse about ends and means, but it's hard to have a good conversation here without laying out my whole take on metaethics, which is a blog post or ten in itself. So I suggest we put this issue on hold for the time being. :)

    @mufi: I will perhaps check out Lakoff's book, then, though I remain skeptical. Policy decisions are complicated, and usually involve a tradeoff of somebody's welfare for somebody else's - not the kind of thing I like to trust to a generalized heuristic with so much scope for bias.

    @Timothy: I suppose I am using "consequentialism" as a pretty vague umbrella term, perhaps too vague. I'll look into it. I do object to the experience machine/wireheading scenarios.

    @Nick Barrowman: that is a very good point. However, I'd still argue it's a cognitively dangerous thing to do. Statements about one's self, even made for social reasons, have a funny way of hijacking internal discourse.

  27. Ian: I don't think Lakoff proposes a heuristic so much as a way of understanding how "the political mind" actually works, based on recent developments in cognitive science. What we do with that understanding (if anything) is up to us.

    But, suffice it to say: identity plays a huge role in how one frames an issue, and framing plays a huge role in which policies make it to the negotiating table in the first place.

    So, if you happen to be politically active (or simply enjoy a good informal political debate), it's very important to get the framing right from the get-go [which, btw, Lakoff believes conservatives in the US usually do quite well, but progressives not so much (especially those who are influenced by rational choice theory, which he suggests is an out-dated model of human cognition and behavior)]. That way you are more likely to communicate your moral values accurately, particularly as they pertain to a controversial political issue.

    If you happen to be a policy wonk and/or a great negotiator on top of that, all the better. But policy wonks and great negotiators still require a basis (and a characteristically moral one at that) from which to formulate policy and negotiate compromises. And getting the frame right applies to them as much as to anyone else.

  28. PS: If I label myself a "conservative" or a "progressive" on political issues, it's likely because, more often than not, I respond positively to the frames, narratives, and related policy platforms of others who so label themselves. But I think the real question is: Why do I follow that response pattern rather than a different one? I suggest that the explanation is not necessarily due to a consciously "excessive focus" on "historical relations" between political issues, so much as a largely unconscious bias towards some ideas over others. The historical relationships emerge because the ideas naturally complement (as opposed to inhibit) one other at the neural level.

  29. > I do object to the experience machine/wireheading scenarios.

    I'm curious what your particular objections are. Perhaps another guest post!

  30. ianpollock
    ."I do think there is something about moral discourse that distinguishes it from ordinary discourse about ends and means"
    I will look forward to any conversation you have to offer on that subject. Is is a subject that needs discussion because of the recent introduction of "caring" and "nurturing" as grounding for morality. The feminists introduced this theme...but it is being endorsed more and more....without discussing the function of morality....what it is used to do..and how.

  31. I’m not sure I agree with this criticism.

    I do agree that it’s intellectually dangerous to identify by party, because then with each swing in party direction based on current personalities and conflicts one is pulled to track the movement lest one be a traitor.

    …but I think that certain values are fairly fundamental.

    For example, I think that individualism is far preferable – intellectually, morally, etc. – to communitarianism. I think that rights are inviolate.

    A constellation of axioms that I think are compatible (and perhaps even mutually supporting) leads me to assert “I am a libertarian”, or “I am an anarchocapitalism [ although if pushed I may fall back to being a libertarian ]“.

    I think that assertions like “I take liberty to be axiomatically good” are no more dangerous than “I take rationality to be axiomatically good”.

    By extension “I am a libertarian” is no more dangerous than “I am a rationalist”.

    Serious question: Are you willing to renounce the assertion that you are a rationalist?

    Serious question #2: if not, why should a libertarian (or an anarchocapitalist) cease identifying with those political/philosophical positions?


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