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Posts Tagged ‘rationality’

One question that  is pertinent to politics as well as psychology is the nature of moral progress. When I say moral progress, I mean the process by which individuals end up updating or modifying their basic moral beliefs (or priors). This process usually is a slow one, and at the micro level involves one’s reaction to evidences or thought processes.

This typically happens when Person A comes across some data/evidence that is in tension with his moral system. For example, A may value a certain principle and then realize one day that some regular action of his violates this principle. Or maybe A values several principles, and new data (or just new reasoning) seems to suggest that in at least some instance these principles are in conflict.

To give a couple of examples:

Time: 1790. Place: America. A values both individual liberty and a harmonious, prosperous society. The issue at hand is slave ownership. A reluctantly accepts slave ownership for the time being because he believes that Blacks are intellectually inferior and would not be able to live in the same land as the Whites. Perhaps A supports emancipation in principle but thinks an actual implementation would result in tremendous disorder, huge decrease in prosperity and would also require eventual deportation of all the Blacks back to Africa in a painful, costly and disrupting process. But one day his scientist friend shows him evidence that seems to strongly suggest that the inferiority of Blacks is a myth, and given proper education they would be as likely as Whites to succeed in intellectual endeavors.

Or to give a second example, A is a young European, living currently, who has a strong moral opposition to hunting for pleasure. He thinks it is wrong and rights-violating. Yet he eats meat. He justifies this by saying that killing for food or to achieve some other basic necessity is ok, but killing for pleasure is morally wrong. But one day, after a conversation with a friend he starts to wonder if his position is morally sound. He realizes  that he can get by  without eating animals (gaining the needed protein from other sources, such as lentils, milk and soy, as many Asians do) so the main reason behind eating meat is the pleasure he gains from it. So how is eating meat different form hunting then?

And so on…

The interesting question to me, is what A does in such a situation.  He has several choices:

1. Simple minded denial: He can just deny that the evidence exists. For instance the 18th century American could refuse to believe his scientist friend. He could claim that the facts and the research are false and move on. We seem to see something similar with some (not all) global warming sceptics today.

2. Tweaking:  He can decide that despite the new evidence/argument, he can resolve the tension with minor tweaks. For instance, he comes up with other evidence or arguments to counter the tension. Or he  makes minor changes to his priors that make this tension go away or at least become less pronounced. There are many ways to tweak one’s beliefs, some simple, some highly complex; some honest, some not, some based on reason, some based on emotion.

3. Biting the bullet: He can decide that his values are truly in conflict and modify them significantly. The 18th century American could either give up his belief  in liberty, or abandon his support for slave-ownership. The 2oth century European could decide that animals don’t have rights (and end his moral opposition to hunting) or decide to become a vegetarian. Any of these outcomes are what I’d call significant moral progress. At the individual level, they can be life-changing.

It seems to me that personality plays a complex role in deciding which of the above outcomes occur. As a rule, people have a strong emotional resistance to any sort of change in their moral priors. For that would mean acknowledging to themselves, and perhaps to others, that they have engaged in beliefs/actions that are false/evil. Some make a conscious attempt to avoid letting emotions take precedence over reason in deciding how one deals with such conflicts, while others go with the flow.

Age probably plays an important role in all this; younger people are more likely to change their belief systems. As Fitzgerald once wrote, “At eighteen our convictions are hills from which we look; at forty-five they are caves in which we hide.”

In any case, I don’t have any deep insights to offer, but I think these are interesting questions, and being able to deal with moral dilemmas in an efficient, unbiased and rational manner would certainly improve political outcomes.

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Megan’s article reminded me of some thoughts I have had in the past about political polarizations.

There are several commonly held intellectual blinkers, or, to use a Robin Hanson terminology, roads to rationality ruin, that prevent us from properly appraising the value of a political position. This is true with respect to positions we support as well as those we oppose. In the past, I have blogged or linked to articles about several of these. One that is unfortunately rather common among  people who feel alienated from the thinking of the masses is the pleasure they derive from believing something different than most people. As Hanson says, this pleasure is evil because it clouds rational thinking. Another that seems to afflict a lot of people of every political stripe these days is to assume bad-faith on the part of their opponents. Megan’s article, linked above, is a great take on this issue. Then, there is the confirmation bias, which means that we tend to put more weight on evidence that agrees with things we already believe in, and discount those that don’t.

There is a common way in which many of these biases express themselves when actually appraising a political position. In a way, this expression is so common that people rarely write about it. However for precisely that reason I will repeat it here. And that is simply this, when evaluating a policy proposal, people tend to disproportionately look at only one side of the cost-benefit equation. (Those who support it, mainly look at the benefits, those who oppose it, mainly look at the costs). I am not saying that people are unaware of the other side, simply that they put far less effort in making an intellectually honest appraisal of it. This is related to but not the same as the confirmation bias. Think of the confirmation bias as a kind of blinker that biases evidence-gathering, and this as a blinker that biases decision-making.

Sometimes this blinker leads to contradictions within the views held by the same person. To start with an almost trivial example, polls show that most people favor cutting taxes. Yet, they also want the government to provide for a lot of things that would be impossible unless accompanied by extremely high levels of taxation.  Clearly there is a wide gap between what most people want and what most people are willing to pay. This is an example of the kind of dissonance I have been talking about. When thinking of benefits they want, people often fail to properly appraise the cost that is necessary to provide the benefit.

But at least the issue of taxation, when posed in a plain-vanilla style, is one that unites most people. So it is not really an issue that causes political polarization. Things get trickier when one moves on to more subtle questions.

For instance, should some version of the Glass-Steagall act, that was weakened over the years and ultimately repealed by Clinton, be reinstated? Most progressive say yes, conservatives and libertarians say no. And anyone who follows politics seems to have an opinion on that matter.

What seems to clear to me however, is that most people have something of a blinker on when appraising this issue. Progressives rarely consider in a detached manner the question of whether there are gains of uniting commercial and investment banking. Very few have read papers like this which argue that unified banking is actually safer, while they have all certainly read Krugman’s pieces. They tend to forget that that without the repeal of the Glass-Steagall, many of the acquisitions that mitigated the effects of the crazy financial meltdown in 2008 would have been legally impossible. On the other side of the spectrum, conservatives tend to ignore anything written by a liberal economist. This is perhaps justifiable when the issue is one you have thought deeply about already but such is rarely the case, especially about questions on current affairs which are politically charged. For instance, if asked whether unified banking (repeal of Glass Steagall) led certain institutions like Citi to make riskier ventures than they would have otherwise (this question, which is a very different one from whether the effects of the repeal were a net negative, has in my opinion the correct answer Yes), many conservatives would reflexibly answer no.

So my prescription to those wishing to seriously understand a subtle political issue is this. See what you initially think of the proposal. Do some research. Form an opinion. Then, look around. Think seriously about practical and philosophical objections to your position. If you are supporting a law under discussion, have you really considered its fiscal, social and moral costs? If you oppose it, have you considered its benefits?  Even if your morality/basic philosophy impels you to take one side, it is still important to research both sides. This is because of two reasons. One, you may otherwise overlook some opposing point that is also morally relevant to you. Two, because your moral philosophy can sometimes change or get more refined when faced with new arguments and evidence.

In short, do not claim to have a well-formed opinion on an issue until you have exhaustively researched the  opposing view. Anything less is intellectual laziness.

Talking of intellectual laziness, I am struck by two different contexts in which the word ‘extreme’ in used in politics.

One of them refers to people with political opinions that are fringe or out of whack with the mainstream. But having an opinion that is out-of-whack but well-considered should really have no negative connotation attached to it. If anything, it is among these people that one usually finds the visionary thinkers of each era. Furthermore, it is very difficult to evaluate out-of-whackness. What do you call someone who does not neatly fit into the conventional left-fight spectrum, for instance? Yet, the words extreme and extremist are bandied about in this context with implications that are not particularly positive.

The second, very different, context in which the word ‘extreme’ is used is with respect to strongly held political feelings, rather than fringeness of views. At the edge, it refers to people who are bitter, violent or reactionary in their political expression. Going through the blogosphere, I would estimate that about 80% of those who regularly comment on partisan blogs fall in this category. They tend to demonise the opposing view, assume bad-faith from the outset, are verbally vicious and show remarkable little evidence of having deeply considered both sides of the matter. Of course, it is possible I am wrong about some of them; after all, one reason to write is to quickly release frustration. Nonetheless, I do think that many of these people, which include not just a lot of commenters but also certain popular writers and journalists, radio and TV show hosts, and film directors, suffer from all the biases I have mentioned above. In short, whether they are right or wrong, they certainly are intellectually lazy, and thus do not deserve to be taken too seriously. People like those are much more deserving of the epithet extreme in a derogatory sense.

Now I of course realize that those who are extreme in the one sense are occasionally extreme in the other sense, but the difference between the two meanings is worth emphasizing.

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To make up for my lack of posting, let me link to a discussion over at Aristotle’s blog. It started off with Rawls but has evolved into topics like the nature of morality and the objectivity (or lack thereof) of values.

To a casual reader of the thread linked above, I might come across as rather critical of Ayn Rand and what I consider to be a flawed attempt by her to build an objective theory of morality. So to give a more balanced picture of what I really think of Rand and her works, let me quote myself from a different thread on the same blog.

I won’t say Rand is for everyone; I really do think you need to have certain personality traits in order for Rand’s fiction to really speak to you. This is especially true of the way she depicts the sexual and emotional aspects of her characters.

[…] So, I can see why The Fountainhead does not appeal to a lot of people, including many who really value individualism. As for me, I read it in my late teens and have re-read it since. I love it, and that’s an understatement.

Actually Ayn Rand is *not* my favourite moral philosopher; she does not even come close. There are several fundamental logical flaws in the way she treats the topics of rationality and first principles. But The Fountainhead is a different matter; it distills just the right aspects of her philosophy, perhaps by accident, but nevertheless.

There are a lot of things I dream of doing with my life and none of them have much to do with Rand or objectivism.

But if you ask me the name of just one book, *any* book from *any era*, that I wish *I* had written…. it would be the Fountainhead.

Reading Rand was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. For that I will be eternally grateful.

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Apparently there is something called World Homoeopathy day.

A function was held in [Kanpur] to observe the World Homeopathy Day. Speaking on the occasion, Dr Anil Katiyar, a noted homeopath said, “The good aspect is that homeopathy is capable of curing a person completely and there are no side-effects from this mode of treatment.”

I posted on homoeopathy previously here.

But the most brilliant demolition of irrationality ever is the poem below. Enjoy:

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Ryan Avent on the incompatibility of climate science and some libertarians:

That is to say, confronted by a problem demanding solutions inimical to libertarian beliefs, libertarians were faced with the choice of reneging on their beliefs or turning their back on science. Tellingly, they chose the latter. One might think that’s a rather drastic decision, given the role scientific endeavors have played in delivering the material prosperity so dear to the hearts of the libertarian world, and one would be right.

A belief system that cannot grapple with the fundamental reality of a situation is, quite simply, not a belief system worth having. 

I agree completely with Avent’s last sentence. I am also a libertarian. So what goes?

First off, Avent is wrong in his basic claim. There are very many libertarians who approach scientific questions scientifically. And most of them conclude that human induced climate change is real. Sure, some libertarians do turn their backs to science, but it is wrong to use that as an excuse to tar the whole movement.

Secondly, what Avent and others of his ilk forget is the question of how to deal with the problem of climate change is not merely a scientific one. It is perfectly consistent and reasonable to accept that AGW is happening and still reject most of the solutions being proferred. The question of what to do about any problem (or indeed, whether to do anything at all) depends not merely on an analysis of the problem (this is the scientific part) but also of how much value, that is costs and benefits you attach to each aspect of the problem and the possible solutions (and their consequences). This is where analysis and ideology interact in a complex manner.

I had a conversation with a friend a week ago. He asked me the following question: what would I do if I had to choose between truth and libertarianism? I answered that such a choice would never be necessary. Sure, the pursuits of truth and happiness do conflict, and so do freedom and happiness. But I cannot conceive of truth and freedom ever conflicting. I believe my moral axioms are good enough to ensure that.

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I found this on the internet while searching for related stuff. It was written ten years ago by someone called Brian Wilson.

This is the important year. The beginning of the end. “The Shift” is happening.

[…] “The Shift” is what I call the mass hysteria, the mass group thinking that takes over suddenly, when 95 percent of the population suddenly and ferociously agrees on something that they never cared deeply about before. And what comes next is legislation to force the last 5 percent to bend to their will. To the population caught up in “The Shift”, this sudden new conviction is as strong as religion, and anyone in the last 5 percent who even SUGGESTS a calm debate or alternative is treated like a heretic who should be burned at the stake. If you are getting angry or self righteous at this rant because you suspect where it is going, then you have fallen prey to the mass thinking already.

[…] Now, you might be part of the 1 percent of the population that is like me. If that is the case, I apologize for lumping you in with the rest of the mindless masses. I seem to be immune to “The Shift” in most cases. This isn’t a blessing: I’m continually lamenting the loss of yet another freedom to “The Shift”. Those caught up in the various crusades (anti-smoking, pro-seat belts, pro-motorcycle helmets, etc) joyously give away their freedoms, and seem happy to do it.

This year we are still early enough in “The Shift” that some helmet wearers had some very thoughtful insights. One 50 year old couple who were wearing helmets suggested that the highly publicized deaths of Sonny Bono and Kennedy last year, both by colliding with trees, contributed to the large rise in helmet use. But we are far enough along in “The Shift” that the truly mindless were coming out of the woodwork also. I rode up a lift in Winter Park Colorado with a woman and her 4 year daughter. The daughter was wearing a helmet, and the woman was not. The woman actually told me that she wished the government would pass a skier helmet law, so that she would be forced to wear a helmet just like she forced her daughter to wear one.

For a moment I lost the will to live, and I almost jumped off the lift.

I cannot STAND people who have this kind of attitude. It is not the government’s job to force us to be “safer children”. It is not the government’s job to decide what is an acceptable risk for us personally, and what is not. If you want to wear a helmet while skiing, please do! It is a very good idea. I might choose to wear one also, depending on the conditions and where I plan to ski that day. But you and I need to accept the decision of the informed skier who chooses to feel the wind in their hair, and take the well known risk of going sans-helmet.

That applies today, it will apply tomorrow, and it will apply 50 years from now. Don’t succumb to “The Shift”, in which you suddenly change your opinion at the same time as the rest of the population does, and you hold your new opinion with religious fervor.

I realize this rant is hopeless; I am tilting at windmills. I predict that within 5 years there will be a skier helmet law for anyone under 18. Within 10 years, there will be a skier helmet law for everyone. And 20 years from now, on a ski slope, on a perfect day with a blue sky and perfect snow, I will irritate my friends by playing the heretic. While wearing my government mandated ski helmet, I will wish out loud that just for one run I could feel the wind in my hair.

Do read the whole thing.

Brian’s prediction hasn’t yet come to pass. No  country yet has a universal ski-helmet rule that covers everyone. However many places already mandate  helmets for children and it seems likely that some Canadian provinces will soon pass a a law forcing all skiers to wear helmets. And maybe it will then be California, or some European country, and pretty soon the rest of the world will follow. Or maybe not.

But his thoughts about “The shift” are true, not just in the paternalistic context but about anything really. And if you are thinking that shifts are merely rational reactions to updated human knowledge, I’d prefer you mull over it some more.

***

And now a more personal note. I don’t know what Brian thinks today of his rant from ten years ago. He probably believes his rant made no difference to anyone’s lives. And to an extent he is right. No law has been influenced by his opinion and most people don’t care about freedom anyway. But if he ever reads this, I’d like him to know that it did make a small difference to someone’s life about fifteen minutes ago. His rant made me happy. It made me smile, even if that smile were tempered by sadness and a tinge of hopelessness.

For to believe in individual liberty is to see your strongest moral convictions treated like dirt by ninety-five percent of the population. It is a bit like living in some country in the past where everyone else possesses slaves. When you believe something to be utterly wrong it does not help if the overwhelming majority thinks it is good.

Why did his post make me happy?

I am not happy to be part of a minority that rails against the stupid majority. Such happiness is an enemy of rational thinking. On the contrary, I’d like most other people to think similarly on this core moral issue– my dream world is one where liberty is taken for granted by everyone so that it is not even an issue; where there is no need for me to blog about it or do random internet searches.

His post made me happy because, quite simply, it gave me some kind of support. In a small way, it told me I am not alone. I can not justify this happiness except to say I am human. So thanks Brian, and all those other advocates for liberty who I have read but never met.

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Set aside 30 minutes today to watch this wonderful presentation by Bjorn Lomborg on global warming.

Lomborg is no libertarian — he is a liberal who favours a welfare state and strong redistribution through taxation — and  indeed, there is no mention of any intrinsic value of freedom and property rights in his presentation. His arguments are basically value-neutral and only rely on maximising efficiency. However, including an assignment of intrinsic value to liberty into our analysis (one corollary of that is, if the outcomes of two actions are similar, we should favor the less-coercive one) only strengthens Lomborg’s conclusions about a sane, scientific and non-reactionary approach to the problem of global warming.

It’s a great video and I am not saying that just because I agree with almost everything he says. And thanks Reason, for hosting this event and producing this video. I am glad I donate to you folks.

[Edit: Looking around the web, I find some who accuse Lomborg of cherry-picking, or at least under-stating facts to suit his views. I am a mathematician, not an expert on global warming, but I did go through those objections in detail and followed through to many of the cited papers. My opinion stated above about the essential correctness of Lomborg’s position is unchanged.]

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