September 25, 2004

Causes, Reasons, and Theory of Mind

Matthew Yglesias argues that we have a moral duty to take the reasons that people advance seriously. I wish to dissent in large part: we do have a transcendental and practical duty to take the reasons that people advance seriously only under certain conditions: when those reasons form part of a coherent structure of thought that is stable and consistent over time. When those reasons are not stable and consistent over time, then we are dealing not with a Mind but with a deceptive simulacrum of a mind, and it is a waste of our own powers--it is disrespectful to ourselves--to try to take these reasons seriously:

Matthew Yglesias: Sullivan, Bush, FMA: One thing you learn studying the philosophy of mind is the difference between a cause and a reason. Ask me why I'm a liberal, and I could give you two different sorts of answers. One would be based on reasons -- I would present arguments as to why I think liberalism is the correct political theory and then say that I am a liberal because of liberalism's correctness. Another would be based on causes -- my parents were liberals, as were the overwhelming majority of people I grew up with and interacted with until the very recent past, and I never found a compelling reason to abandon the ideology of my youth, though I've certainly changed my views on various specific reasons.

Causal explanations are interesting, but ultimately it's disrespectful to talk about people in causal terms.... [I]t would be silly to deny that, in a causal sense, the FMA plays a larger role in Andrew [Sullivan]'s thinking than in the thinking of most people... but this is a dehumanizing and ultimately fruitless line of inquiry. He, like everyone else, gives reasons for his views and if you disagree with him (or me) you ought to take issue with his (or my) arguments...

Let me illustrate what I think is the problem with this argument is with a case study:

Here's Paul Krugman in September of 2000, advancing Bush's fiscal profligacy as a reason to vote against George W. Bush:

The Unofficial Paul Krugman Web Page: Throughout the campaign Mr. Bush has counted on his personal charm to protect him from awkward questions about his economic proposals.... [M]ost reporting accepts Mr. Bush's numbers on his tax cut, which his campaign likes to describe as costing the Treasury $1.3 trillion over the next decade, compared with a projected $2.2 trillion surplus. Few reporters have noticed that that comparison turns out to be full of sly tricks designed to make the tax cut look less irresponsible... counting $400 billion of Medicare funds in the budget surplus number... [while also insisting] that these funds are in a "lock- box."... [N]ot mentioning... an extra $300 billion or so in interest payments... accounting tricks — a hundred billion here, another hundred billion there, eventually adding up to real money.... Mr. Bush's headline number is also held down by a feature of his plan that will come as a rude shock if the plan ever becomes law: Millions of taxpayers won't actually get the tax cuts... paying the alternative minimum tax instead.

But Mr. Bush's number games on taxes pale in comparison with his breathtaking audacity on Social Security.... [P]rivatization of Social Security.... But what is his plan? All we know is that he proposes to allow individuals to invest part of the money they currently contribute to Social Security, which will reduce the inflow of money into the Social Security system by $1.3 trillion over the next decade — and that he insists he will not cut benefits....

Thus here we have, back in 2000, Paul Krugman reasoning that George W. Bush's deceptive fiscal profligacy is a reason to vote against him.

What is Andrew Sullivan's response to this argument? Here it is, as it stood back in 2001:

...Paul Krugman adamantly argues day after day that we cannot afford a tax cut.... One wonders when... a tax cut would be possible. I suspect the answer is never....

...the combined whine of DowdHerbertLewisFriedmanKrugmanCollins, from which not a single positive, or even vaguely fair, squeak can be discerned...

...The Krugmans and the Chaits will shortly have a cow, if not a whole herd of them... "The Bush Tax Cut Is A Lie - Part I" - by Paul Krugman, The New Republic, this week.... Honest, I had no idea when I wrote my piece... revulsion at Paul Krugman's increasingly hysterical attacks on the good faith of this administration...

...The choice at the Times is between frauds and ideologues. (Of course, there's also Paul Krugman, who manages to conflate the two.)...

Sullivan's counterargument in 2001 is expressed allusively, but if I may summarize it, it is: Only shrill dorks worry about bringing the long-run spending plans and revenues of the federal government into balance. Bush's tax cuts are a reason to vote for Bush, not a reason to vote against him.

But lo and behold, one day in September 2003 Andrew Sullivan wakes up and discovers that Bush's tax cuts, the mendacity with which their effects were described, and the resulting fiscal profligacy are not a complaint made only by shrill dorks who deserve to be mocked, but is instead a serious and profound reason to vote against George W. Bush: - Latest Posts: It's such a basic presidential responsibility we sometimes overlook it; or we think of it as an economic or technical matter, rather than a profound moral one. But in three short years, this president has so ramped up government spending that he has turned a fiscal surplus into a huge and mounting debt. Far from taking responsibility for the nation's finances, the president has shirked basic house-keeping in order to foist crippling debt on the next generation. If a president is in some sense the father of an extended family, Bush is fast becoming a dead-beat dad, living it up for short-term gain, while abandoning his children to a life of insecurity and debt....

Bush has upped domestic spending by a whopping 21 percent in three years. That compares with an actual decrease in such spending of 0.7 percent in the first three years of Bill Clinton.... [H]e has done nothing substantive to reform Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security to avert the looming burden of the baby-boomers' retirement years.... [Bush] is racking up the next generation's debt.... Worse, the president doesn't even seem to care. When you ask administration officials about the deficit, they tell you that it doesn't hurt the president politically. So what? Wasn't this president supposed to be about taking responsibility rather than checking polls?... [F]iscal conservatives who backed Bush in 2000 are beginning to feel not so much disappointed as betrayed.

What changed between 2001 and 2003? Nothing important. Our long-run fiscal gap was some 5% of GDP in 2000. It's some 8% of GDP today. About 0.5% of that comes from higher forecasts of long-term spending as a result of Bush spending policies. About 2.5% of that comes from lower forecasts of long-run taxes as a result of Bush's past changes in the tax code and the future changes in the tax code needed to extend and make permanent the effects of the 2001 and 2003 tax bills. We had a big long-run fiscal gap in 2000. George W. Bush ran on a program of tax cuts to make it significantly bigger. Back in 2000 Bush's advocacy of these tax cuts was a reason to vote for him. Today it is a reason to vote against him.

Let's have some definitions so we can think clearly about this. Let's start by defining a Mind. There are various causes at work in the world. These causes create things called Minds. Each Mind has a particular structure determined by its particular causes. This thing called a Mind then takes in data about the world and constructs consistent reasons and logical arguments to reach conclusions. It is this consistent and logical process of reasoning that makes the Mind a Mind.

Now how should one analyze another Mind? One can look at the causes that led to its particular structure. Or one can look at its reasons and arguments--at its internal processes that generate the map from data to conclusions. Yglesias makes the claim that as Minds ourselves we have a transcendental duty to treat Minds as we would like to be treated--to have our reasons and arguments considered and answered. I believe that Yglesias should also be making the claim that one, insofar as oneself is (as I believe myself to be) also a Mind driven to try to reach conclusions that are in the relevant sense "true", should not dismiss reasons and arguments advanced by other minds as irrelevant and whacka-whacka but should try to understand and comprehend them--for they might be right and I might be wrong, and perhaps I should swap out some of my own arguments and reasons and swap in some of theirs instead.

It may be immoral ("disrespectful") for some transcendental reason to analyze other Minds in terms of their causes rather than their reasons. But it is also counterproductive--at least, it is counterproductive for a Mind that is in the reach-true-conclusions business rather than in the yea-for-my-team! business. For it's only by taking the reasons advanced by other Minds seriously that one has a chance of improving the quality of one's thought. That is the key reason to pay attention to reasons rather than causes when analyzing other Minds.

In Andrew Sullivan, however, do we have a Mind as we have defined it? We do have the following structure of thought: In 2000 (and in 2001, and in 2002), Bush's advocacy of large tax cuts was a reason to vote for him: those expressing concern about Bush's fiscal profligacy were shrill dorks to be mocked. Today (and in 2003), Bush's advocacy of large tax cuts is a reason to vote against him: those expressing concern about Bush's fiscal profligacy are serious advocates of good public policy and high public morality. What has changed in the world to provoke this topsy-turvy flip-flop? Nothing important.

Reasons can't explain this flip-flop. There are no stable reasons, no structure of consistent and logical argument leading from the world to conclusions. Therefore Yglesias is disrespecting himself--is wasting his own limited time--by searching here for a Mind that has a stable pattern of consistent reasons and logical arguments to analyze. For arguments that are deployed only when they count on the side one has already pre-chosen are not really arguments. Reasons that are advanced only when it is convenient to advance them are not really reasons. We have duties to take reasons seriously, but only if people are telling us what's on their Mind. If they aren't--if the structure of thought they present is a changing simulacrum rather than the real thing--I do not believe that we have any such duty.

This point was brought home to me most powerfully when I discovered that the critique of Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia that was most effective in providing my students with the proper critical distance from the book were not any of the critiques of Nozick's philosophy (of his conception of human nature, of his failure to deal with "primitive accumulation," of his monstrously inadequate treatment of organized violence, et cetera) but was instead a little piece, "Anarchy, State, and Rent Control" in the New Republic (which three people have sworn to me is a true and fair account of what happened) about how Robert Nozick used the Cambridge Rent Control Board to squat in Eric Segal's apartment until he had extorted $30,000. This was, I eventually concluded, a powerful argument because it spoke to the structure of what Nozick was claiming was his Mind. Anarchy, State, and Utopia purports to be a presentation of Nozick's thoughts on, among other things, how state interference with contract destroys one's ability to make and keep promises and so keeps one from one's telos as a rational and reasonable being with aims and purposes making plans and carrying them out. When the state says "No. You can't make this contract. You have to make that one," the state is, Nozick argues, making you (in this respect) no better than a slave by forcing you to break your promise.

The little "Anarchy, State, and Rent Control" piece points out that this reasoned argument is not a consistent and permanent piece of Nozick's thought--or, at least, that partial enslavement in being forced by the state to break your word is worthwhile if it comes with $30K. The students conclude from this that Nozick doesn't take what he is writing very seriously... and then they conclude that since he doesn't take these reasons seriously, there's no reason for us to take what he writes very seriously...

Whenever I teach "Anarchy, State, and Rent Control," odds are that the class will then have a furious argument over whether Nozick's failure to take his own libertarian principles very seriously should or should not be taken as a reason to distrust Nozick's book. I have, after much thought, decided that it should be taken as a strong reason to distrust Anarchy, State, and Utopia. It tells us that Nozick's book is not a presentation of Nozick's Mind (or not a presentation of those parts of Nozick's Mind that it would require more than thirty thousand smackers to change), but is instead something else. And that is important, for then the question "what are Nozick's reasons for thinking this?" appears silly as our duties to undertake that inquiry fall away, and the qustion "what caused Nozick to write this?" appears much more interesting.

Posted by DeLong at September 25, 2004 10:18 AM | TrackBack

But, isn't that is the same reasoning that allows people to dismiss critics of the administration as partisan and shrill, rather than address the merits of their arguments . . .

(Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Krugman R’lyeh wagn’nagl fhtagn! Aiiiiiii!!!)

Posted by: rea at September 25, 2004 10:29 AM

Arguments do not occur in a vacuum. Brad DeLong has left out a very important factor, trust. Now trust itself comes in varieties, there is the good trust, trust earned by the person making the argument having been right or at least honest in her arguments. There is partisan trust, trust because you are on the same general side as the person making the argument. Finally there is blind trust, trust one has in one's children or parents, and the local con man.

I would suggest that Andrew Sullivan had a lot of blind and partisan trust in BushCo, only to have the former destroyed when he found great disagreement with their policies on homosexuals, and then saw that he was, as they say, being taken for a sucker by them.

The key to identifying con men and trolls is that the justifications keeps shifting.

Posted by: Eli Rabett at September 25, 2004 10:29 AM

On Sullivan, 'nuff said.

On Nozick: doesn't Emerson's quip about foolish consistencies, little minds and hobgoblins cover it? Couldn't you say that the state's interference made Nozick break his promise to himself (regarding his libertarianism)?

I'm not sure you can dismiss Prof. M, so easily, Prof. DL. (Much as I would like to.)

Posted by: Paul G. Brown at September 25, 2004 10:33 AM

I think that Matt was arguing against generalized positivist reductionist theories which do not distinguish between reasons and causes, so that what we think of as valid reasons are not perceived as superior to reflexive causes. In some cases, as a scientific principle, it is claimed that all so-called "reasons" are just masks for underlying causes.

Beyond that is a lead-pipe style of debunking which reduces all of the opponent's reasons to causes-- Marxist accusations of bourgeois false consciousness being the type case. This amounts to simply denying that the adversary is competent to talk about anything at all -- it's like an ad hominem attack.

The psychologist Rom Harre has said something to the effect that "You only give psychological explanations if there's a problem." For example, you can say that a given player plays poorly under pressure because he's got some psychological issue. If a player performs well under pressure, it's because he's a good player and his psychological state is unproblematic. Psychology rarely gives a clean bill of health to anyone. The best they'll say is that you're problems are manageable. (Bradshaw of "On the Family" says that 95%+ of all families are disfunctional). You can't collect fees for helping someone who doesn't have problems.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at September 25, 2004 10:39 AM

I don't understand why anyone any longer gives a second, or even first thought to any bleating or claim from Sullivan. He is a silly, uninteresting fool with a modest gift of gab.

Posted by: David at September 25, 2004 10:49 AM

In the case of Nozick, you can just say that everything he does is reasonable, but that rational personal self-aggrandizement pure and simple is the most fundamental motive (manifest both in his writing and in his renter behavior). His reason for writing the book was to get famous and to justify and advocate various things that he did, but at a deeper level he did not want the rules he wrote to hamper him in his various other self-aggrandizing activities. In other words, he's always reasonable, but essentially predatory, and others cannot take his sayings at face value, but must interpret them game-theoretically.

In the case of Machiavelli and the Chinese Legalists, their followers had to publicly disavow belief in these principles, since no one would ever trust a Machiavel. In particular, a sharp legalist minister would always have an eye open for a chance to usurp the throne.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at September 25, 2004 10:49 AM

Yglesias is right: an argument is an argument is an argument, no matter who the person presenting it is. Doesn't matter if it's a talking point repeated by a parrot - in Sullivan's case - it's still an argument to be judged on it's merits.

Even in Nozick's case, even though he is making a (sort of) moral argument while being a hypocrite, you still should be able to evaluate his argument without any regard to Nozick's character, his sincerity.

Posted by: abb1 at September 25, 2004 11:11 AM

There is a tendency to conflate two separate questions here. One question, as abb1 points out, is how do you evaluate an argument?. These should only be evaluated by the reasons presented. The second question is how do you evaluate the person making the argument? That is, should I spend time trying to understand this person's argument or is my time better spent doing something else. I satisfied myself quite some time ago that in Sullivan's case that there are many others making similar arguments in a much more intellectually honest fashion, therefore, I don't waste my time worrying about what he has to say on any particular subject.

Posted by: k at September 25, 2004 11:29 AM

Very perceptive!

As a long time subscriber of the New Republic, I have grown acustomed to what I can only image must be the Frat/Club House culture that Martin Peretz has allowed to flourish and the disasterous effects it has had on TNR's reputation, not the mention the torture inflicted on its readers.

That is not to say that TNR has not had many fine
writers and thinkers pass appearing in its pages along the way. The feeling however, is that standouts were merely guests just passing through was unmistakable. They served the purpose of retaining an increasingly uneasy subscribership.

I wonder how many specious arguments have found there way in to its pages not base on reason or intellectual rigor, or journalistic merit, but based on whether it struck the fancy of Clubby mindset of the senior editors. Remember the Sullivan and Kelley leadership era at TNR. Did the TNR bash Clinton Administration because it deserved it or because it did not make suffient effort at massaging the egos of fashinistas. That a serial fabulist like Stephen Glass could take hold at the TNR was perhaps not suprising. He knew immediately how to taylor his pieces to the fashion deemed in style by the senior editors.

My wonder is whether how pervasive this Of the Club, Not of the Club mindset is through out the journalism profession. I guess is very.

Posted by: llamajockey at September 25, 2004 11:33 AM

Ideas are not people. Nor are they as complex. The question is which one of the two one prefers. Your ideas are logical, Rumsfeld's for example, are not (or rather they are derived from a logic not in his possession.) But your ideas do not describe Rumsfeld nor how we should respond to him.

I think you would claim to be interested in understanding the world and not just our ideas about it. If that is so I wonder what has caused you to oversimplify the problem?

Posted by: seth edenbaum at September 25, 2004 11:35 AM

Causal explanations are interesting, but ultimately it's disrespectful to talk about people in causal terms

I seem to recall a discussion over at pandagon about precisely that point (ii understand correctly).

I was noticing that people in their "how i was wrong on irak" explanations, tend to describe very precisely their reasons, while, following matthew yglesias distingo, tending to forget or underestimate the causes (namely imho, a good ol propaganda push straight from the textbook, by the current administration).

It is true that a not-nice-at-all lab rat flavor sticks to "cause" type of explanations, but i'd add that a real explanation may not be complete without it.

Actually without that "causal" understanding, i don't know how one could hope not to be bound (or at least note same from) repeating the mistake.

Posted by: yabonn at September 25, 2004 11:42 AM

"or at least not safe from"


Posted by: yabonn at September 25, 2004 11:47 AM

I basically agree with Eli Rabett's observation above: the key determinant of a person's obligation to address reasons is if they were offered in good faith. Participants in a liberal polity should absolutely offer a presumption of good faith to all participants - it should be a rebuttable presumption, though. Offering unexplained, incompatible rationales for a single policy goes a long way to rebutting that presumption.

Failing to extend a presumption of good faith argument - knee-jerk adressing of motive, rather than content - is just as degrading to public discourse as only addressing content. I had a lengthy post on related matters, in the URL.

Posted by: Dave M at September 25, 2004 12:24 PM

"Actually without that "causal" understanding, i don't know how one could hope not to be bound (or at least note same from) repeating the mistake."

I disagree. Let's say someone presents a good argument but you are reasonably sure this person is trying to fool you. Then it's still perfectly alright to acknowledge that the argument is valid, yet it doesn't mean you have to buy that insurance policy (or start a war or whatever) if you don't trust the guy.

These are simply two different things: salesman may have a solid, perfectly valid argument - and you may know that he's a crook who wants to steal your money. So, you'll agree with his argument - but no sale.

Posted by: abb1 at September 25, 2004 12:26 PM

DeLong seems to be advocating the idea that principles (I guess such as moral or political ones) should be time invariant

a coherent structure of thought that is stable and consistent over time

This is perhaps too strong a condition. I'm glad people change their minds.

A better principle is more like the following Kantian one, in essence a principle of invariance which is roughly something like this: A moral predicate or social predicate P(x) is robust iff the group of transformations which preserves P has no fixed points.

Posted by: CSTAR at September 25, 2004 12:43 PM

We argue, we learn, we grow, we change. Still, there must be a reason behind the change that points to others a sincerity of our arguments at any time. When arguments are merely meant for others while we are removed, there is little reason to take the arguments seriously.

Lawrence Kohlberg, the moral philosopher, would tell us that he believed in the value of the ideals he set out, as did Rawls or Kant, but there were many times when living out the ideals became in effect too difficult. This we did respect.

Posted by: anne at September 25, 2004 01:19 PM

"How can we meet the gods face to face till we have faces?"

You're arguing for only directly engaging people's ideas when they have integrity and honesty, I think. And defending argumentum ad hominem: "don't believe him; he is not trustworthy." Probably a productive attitude within a community of scholars. But only engaging the integrated and honest doesn't do for politics--or teaching, for that matter--, because most people *aren't*. Hence, parables, puzzles, koans.

Posted by: Randolph Fritz at September 25, 2004 01:22 PM

By failing to address Krugman seriously, Sullivan gave evidence that we should not treat him seriously. Not just for justice's sake -- he doesn't deserve to be taken seriously is fine -- but because he gave us a lot of evidence that he's not really up to the task of reasoning, so we should look for rational argument elsewhere. As k said, our time is short, and there are plenty of things to think about, and what Sullivan thinks doesn't rank very high on the list, because he's said so many silly (and annoying, and embarrassing, and foolish, and so on) things in the past.

Your argument about Nozick doesn't have much force, though. So he had a weak will, so did Augustine. Or, as libertarians might say, he's trapped in a world of gov't and has no choice but to play by the rules. There are better reasons to dismiss A,S and U.

Posted by: david at September 25, 2004 01:28 PM

It's a complicated rhetorical argument with your own valid conclusion. I get stuck on what Seems to be a reductionist premise of "Mind". At the cellular level there is plasticity, so it follows that the multi-layered neurobiological components of behavior, motivation, prejudice, habits, addictions- and so assertions, are certainly malleable under the complex and prolific influence of environmental feedback and cues. They can not be defined by this Mind- and that's good, baffling, irritating and sometimes harmful to all of us. No writing, movie, advertisement, assertion, novel, or peer-reviewed journal article; not to mention political journalism- is ever without a rhetorical component or proposal to the reader. How the reader chooses to accept or reject a media's rhetoric, promotional message or conclusion is based on his or her own malleable judgement. With so much to read there are quite a few authors who consistently don't bring my idea of the facts and reason to bear- and many of the same whose only purpose is to incite a knee-jerk emotional reaction. After a while my choice is to avoid them like the plague in an admittedly VEry non-open-minded prejudicial way.

Oh, and what about this national sales tax proposal that Nancy Pelosi mentioned in a CNN article this morning...? Fact, rhetoric, exageration, marketing, truth, partial-truth...? Does Bushs Mind not think this is a tax?

Posted by: ThisThatandTheOtherThing at September 25, 2004 01:45 PM

I don't get it. WHY does the damn blogerati always feel they have to comment on every little thing some Sullivan writes? I really want to know.

Posted by: NotSoFast at September 25, 2004 02:03 PM

Analytic philosophy tells us that good arguments are normally available, as in mathematics, and that we should simply look at the arguments independent of the source. To put it in a most timely fashion, Ahmed Chalabi apparently really and truly is/was a talented mathemetician with degrees from MIT and Chicago.

In historical and political reality you seldom have adequate evidence or sufficient proofs, so what you know about the proponent counts for a lot -- track record, good judgement, reputation, character.

This is sort of a different question, though. When people say that someone's ideas are "caused" rather than "reasoned", usually they're saying that they have an erroneous hidden agenda of which they may not even be aware.

Recently a number of weenie Ivy League Dems confessed that they supported the Iraq War as much as anything because it was opposed by hippy peaceniks such as myself. You could call that a "caused" rather than "reasoned" decision they made, or you may just say that their reasoning process foolishly put non-hippieness far too high in the heierarchy of criteria for valid reasoning.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at September 25, 2004 02:28 PM

David above is right. It's too quick to dismiss Nozick's ASU on the basis of his lamentable behavior as tenant. There are plenty of possible reasons why he opted to do what he did which would be entirely consistent with his own philosophical beliefs as espoused in ASU. (And incidentally, he partly retracted his views in ASU in the late 80s.)

I think that taxes on upper-middle class citizens, including myself, should be significantly higher than they are. And I would vote to increase them (all else equal). But that doesn't mean I won't look for every possible legal mechanism for lowering my own tax bill for next year--and do so with no loss of intellectual consistancy whatsoever.

I see no reason why one should assume that Nozick's case is disanalogous.

Posted by: Dave Hanson at September 25, 2004 02:30 PM

AS's original "reasoning" was nothing more than an ad hominem attack on Krugman. As an evasionary tactic it displayed no real reasoning at all. It was obviously "caused" by his predetermination to vote for Bush for "reasons" that I can't possibly begin to fathom. If nothing else, given that he apparently is capable of understanding the consequences of Bush's disastrous policy choices, it shows that AS is astonishingly susceptible to non-rational decision making. I don't care why, but I'm with david above, AS has expended his credibility and moving past him to focus on others who haven't is the best use of one's own time and effort.

Posted by: Barbara at September 25, 2004 02:55 PM

These are simply two different things: salesman may have a solid, perfectly valid argument

We agree on that. My rethorical "one" was the one being wrong, i suppose that's what motivated your answer. But, just in case, i'll slaughter a little more innocent electrons.

As far as appreciating the validity of one's arguments, "causes" should be hald at a safe distance, i agree with matt yglesias on that. Risk being to falsely discard valid points, because they came from the wrong person, as you mention.

But i presume that if i'm examining my failure, it is in the hope avoiding failure in the future. Shall i ignore a part of that failure i may be headed to yet another one of the same keg. So causes, (propaganda in our case) should be considered, imho, by people interested in an accurate, and maybe even fruitful description of their mistake.

To put it, (maybe too) bluntly, if this goverment's propaganda is not on the list of things that mislead you (rethorical) on irak, i'm worried on how you'll fare the next time the gov decides it's propaganda time.

That said, i personnaly have seen more that my content of iwaswrongaboutiraks. Spoilt milk, election coming, all that. I admit i may be talking easily of that : living outside of the u.s. ("cause", haha), i was spared the spectacle of the sudden disappearance of the peace demonstrators, opinions, movement, ideas.

Posted by: yabonn at September 25, 2004 04:14 PM

Brad... in over your head a little bit trying to dissect political psychology. We have to remember that humans are not rational and only have the appearance of being rational...

You'll likely find some of the research into some of the research into individual psychology of decision making to be nifty (to say the least)... take a peek at some of the research into integrative complexity and personality types and how the two relate to political decision making. The only research I can name off the top of my head is by Chann and & McRae, who did some neat stuff on big 5 personality traits and political outlook.


Posted by: Alex Jones at September 25, 2004 04:39 PM

One should not confuse a philosophy class with everyday life. We are often poorly equipped to evaluate the validity of an argument. Once we recognize that, we sensibly take into account the person making the argument, including his motivations in advancing it.

You may not be able to calculate the benefits offered by an insurance policy very accurately, so you have no way of knowing whether the salesman's arguments are valid. But you know he wants you to buy, so you discount the arguments somewhat. That seems like a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

Posted by: Bernard Yomtov at September 25, 2004 05:16 PM

I would like to put in a plug for another concept: wisdom. Wisdom is the process of trying to figure out what is good, better and best. The methods for doing this rely largely on the kinds of factors that Zizka mentions, and others. Some people are just better at this than others, and they are frequently able to explain their thoughts so the rest of us can follow. For me, it is a good goal to try to become wise in this sense. The problem is that this frequently conflicts with Nozick-style self-aggrandizement. For that reason, I think the argument of our host is correct. It is perfectly fair to argue that Nozick is clearly not trying to become wise, and that is solid grounds for ignoring him.

Posted by: masaccio at September 25, 2004 05:23 PM

If I had students, no matter what their discipline, I would recommend "Less Than Words Can Say" by Richard Mitchell. Here's a small excerpt.

"Words never fail. We hear them, we read them; they enter into the mind and become part of us for as long as we shall live. Who speaks reason to his fellow men bestows it upon them. Who mouths inanity disorders thought for all who listen. There must be some minimum allowable dose of inanity beyond which the mind cannot remain reasonable. Irrationality, like buried chemical waste, sooner or later must seep into all the tissues of thought."

Mitchell's books are available on line, search for Underground Grammarian.


Posted by: ej at September 25, 2004 07:08 PM

I think the assumption of good faith is a fine thing in its proper domain and that domain is, as here, evaluation of arguments in the abstract. The problem comes when many, especially liberals and academics, try to extend the good faith postulate to the analysis of *actions* and of motivations for action. I think this gets to the core of why so many people who should have known better supported the Iraq War. They felt they had to give, if not Bush personally, the American political system that had produced him, the benefit of every possible doubt. If the Administration said there was evidence of WMDs, it had to be so - the liberal bias is to assume good faith as long as possible and quite often longer. There was, however, no good faith, as was obvious to those of us more willing to be "conspiracy theorists" i.e., to see the reality presented us as a falsehood deliberately fabricated for reasons unstated. It is true that to a considerable degree this trust is necessary for a liberal polity to function; that does not make the trust deserved, and one of the great problems of liberalism is that it does not have, as far as I can see, a good answer for dealing with those who do not fundamentally abide by its social contracts. The first step, of course, is recognizing the fact that such exist.

Posted by: Martin Bento at September 25, 2004 07:58 PM

Part of the problem is that everyone expects to "reason" with "rational" (or like-minded) people. "Reasoning" with un-rational or semi-rational people is discussed among mental health circles. (The closest I came to doing so was to work customer support where I met all three varities.)

One can encounter Liars. They will give YOU false information for YOUR reasoning because; they cannot help it (pathological), believe in it themselves (delusional), or because they need to "make sh*t up" (professional).

One can also encounter people who will use faulty reasoning. Some will argue "2+2=4" everywhere EXCEPT in in their local area, in which case it is supposed to be "2+2=5" (or 3 in some cases). Others will argue "2+2=5" (or 3) is universal.

Then one can encounter people who will reason consistantly, BUT will not apply that reasoning. When Jesus talked about the "beam in you own eye", he was describing these people.

If you cannot trust the facts that someone uses to base their reasoning, if you cannot trust how that person construsts their reasoning, or if you cannot trust them to apply their reasoning consistently then why trust their reasoning at all?

Posted by: linnen at September 25, 2004 08:19 PM

Where Grice's axioms contradict Machiavelli's, trust Machiavelli. There's lots of real bad faith out there.

Don't trust Machiavelli PERSONALLY. Just his book.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson at September 25, 2004 09:02 PM

A Mind is a terrible thing to have.

Posted by: Elaine Supkis at September 26, 2004 05:16 AM

Of course, the main reason not to take (most) right-libertarians seriously is that they're actually closet feudalists:

Posted by: liberal at September 26, 2004 08:20 AM

I feel dirty. As if I just got done watching pig wrestling from a front row seat.

'But it is also counterproductive--at least, it is counterproductive for a Mind that is in the reach-true-conclusions business rather than in the yea-for-my-team! business.'

I think a fair inference from the entire post and the specific sentence above would be that Minds that are in the yea my team business are not in the truth business and so we can dismiss their reasoning.

A sample from the wonderful lying in ponds-

'KRUGMAN 400: Paul Krugman reached a milestone a couple of weeks ago -- he's now written over 400 columns for The New York Times, yet not a single one of them has been a "crossover column", consisting primarily of substantive praise of Republicans or criticism of Democrats. The award-winning economist and leading columnist has never written an entire column praising the Republican Party or any individual Republicans on any issue. He's never written an entire column criticizing the Democratic Party or any individual Democrats on any issue. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a liberal columnist such as Mr. Krugman would be stingy with praise for Republicans, but even the most strident ideologues will tend to criticize members of their own party for failing to live up the party's principles, or for being too willing to compromise with the other side. Yet Paul Krugman has managed to write two columns per week for the last four years (including the final year of the Clinton administration) without finding a single occasion to substantively take issue with the Democratic Party. How is that possible?'

So we should dismiss Paul Krugman's reasoning. We should ignore what he has to say. He is not a truth seeker. He is a yea for my team mind and so the reasoning he produces is corrupt and flawed.

And it is not totally unfair to conclude that if De Long is made aware of this about Paul Krugman, and hopefully he just has, and he still cites Paul Krugman's reasons that we can, no should, dismiss De Long's reasoning. If he cites non-truth seekers, perhaps even liars, as authoritative sources he cannot be all that interested in the truth, and we should dismiss his reasoning.

Only I don't, I won't, and I cannot so easily dismiss Krugman and De Long. It would be wrong for me to dismiss Krugman and De Long in that manner.

Their may be some small gleam of truth in the idea that untrustworthy people produce untrustworthy reasoning and that we should take the trustworthiness of the source into consideration when evaluating the produced reasoning.

But a little of that goes a long way. Imperfect people produce imperfect reasoning and when you show me the perfect man I will show you the only bit of reasoning we cannot casually dismiss. :).

Matt is right and if we adopt the other way we might as well seek truth by gouging our eyes out and wallowing in the mud.

Posted by: BigMacAttack at September 26, 2004 08:44 AM

As a confirmed (Jamesian) pragmatist, I naturally reject the cause/reason dichotomy as presented in a universalist fashion. The dichtomy is useful, to be sure, but it has to be examined in real-world complexity of different contexts in order to become useful, or even coherent.

Thus, I agree with a number of thoughtful comments by the likes of linnen, Martin Bento and others, who draw our attention to the actually existing intellectual terrain.

We should indeed want to live in a good faith community, and do whatever we can to create such a community. However, we do nothing to build such a community by deluding ourselves into believing that it includes creatures such as Sullivan--or Nixon, or Safire, etc.

Rather, we need to study the causes which contribute to the development--or destruction--of such a community. Allowing the invasion of bad-faith actors is surely part of what causes the destruction. But, of course, identifying bad-faith actors is not always easy or unproblematic. Therefore, we must err on the side of giving people leeway, as well as using non-totalitarian methods of exclusion--shunning, not censoring--even when the judgement is clear.

Aiding in this endeavor, we now have a great deal of valuable information from cognitive science, political psychology and the like, giving us different forms of evaluative frameworks for judging both arguments and those who put them forward--be they individuals, organizations, communities or movments. Examples include the framework of cognitive complexity (Tetlock, et al), the Piaget/Kohlberg/Kegan framework of cognitive development, the social dominance theory of Sidanius/Pratto, the right-wing authoritarianism documented by Robert Altemeyer, and the metaphorcial analysis of George Lakoff.

None of these approaches should be used to dismiss a particular argument, in place of offering reasoned counter-arguments. Rather, they aid us in understanding ensembles of arguments--good, bad or in whatever mixture we find them. They are particularly helpful in identifying underlying patterns in these arguments which get at why they are appealing to particular people, quite apart from their putative truth content, rationality, etc. (This applies to valid arguments as well as invalid ones, BTW.)

Generally speaking, we should wish to promote arguments of greater cognitive complexity, reflecting higher cognitive development, and less prejudice, which means less social dominance orientation, and less rightwing authoritarianism. Arguments which run the other way are far more likely to be flawed, short-sighted, self-contradictory, selectively applied, etc.

Posted by: Paul Rosenberg at September 26, 2004 12:25 PM

Ideally, I think we would like to be able to treat every argument made by anyone in the context of all the other arguments that person considers relevant, and rebut the new argument in a robustly context-sensitive way. Thus, every time AS says something nutty, we could have an instant reply explaining both the argument's flaws, and it's inconsistency with many other things he has said before, and how this shows his system of thought is bunk, etc. The only reason to be against this form of argument, I think, is simply pragmatics. We'd like to robustly rebut (or agree with) every new argument that comes along, but there's just not enough time. But this is a long way from saying that we *want* people to start dismissing those that seem inconsistent or ad-hoc (or ad hominem).

Since this is an academia-leaning blog, think of it in academia. The best arguing (say, about Robert Nozick's philosophies) takes place in long articles and books that can tackle the full complex of the person's arguments, including how they have shifted over time and their potential inconsistencies. This is a good thing! No one would publish a paper that says "Look, RN acted inconsistently with his principles in this apartment issue decades ago". What matters is the ideas. Perhaps we may not have time to give every argument its due, but that's not to say that we don't want to--or don't want anyone else to. Encouraging your students to repudiate not the ideas but the man is elevating the pragmatic blog-and-news "gotta save time and cut bait on inconsistent speakers" principle above the ideal that every argument needs be dealt with on its own terms, in terms of its immediate context, and in terms of its larger context in the works of the writer and those around him.

Who gives a damn whether the words were produced by a mind, a chimp, or a computer? Practically speaking, we need to have a chimp-inbox that, like spam, we hardly ever read. But ideally, we'd like to be able to look over everything and dismiss it on its own terms, especially when, in the real world, it's so hard to judge someone's ideas without plunging deep into them. And who knows, perhaps AS has come round. It's happened before, and again, ideally we'd always be on the lookout for a newly blossoming set of good ideas. Practically speaking, we may not have time to glance at AS more than once a month (or year), and we're unlikely to go wrong with that--but that's not something to be desired in the world of ideas. Even a long-term criminal needs to be given the constant chance to go straight. The practical need to ignore the words of dummies is like triage--a necessity, but an unfortunate one, that should not be praised or encouraged unless absolutely necessary.

Posted by: Nick at September 26, 2004 12:42 PM

I've read this over several times and I still have a problem with the idea of considering the man and his body of work as one, rather than separately. In what ways is someone who writes a nonfiction book of his ideas different than an artist?

If you were teaching art or music, and a particular artist who produced beautiful works also had an ugly private life where he treated people badly, would you say that his works of art should be evaluated differently/negatively because of it? I don't think you would.

Your example was an easy one for you. You had already worked through reasons why you felt the book had flawed arguments. The article about rent control just added reinforcement to your judgment. You had bad argument, bad person. But what if there was a book written by someone you highly respected and believed, and you were disappointed in a similar fashion?

I believe that the divine spark of inspiration is very indiscriminate. It can land on the earth angel and the asshole, and anything in between. Then we have to sort it out.

Posted by: wood turtle at September 26, 2004 02:29 PM

I'm amazed at the post, and at the responses. There has never been a single human being outside of mythology or fiction who has succeeded in living his or her ideas as 'reasons' without 'causes'. To argue otherwise is a sign either of faith or of pathology. That's why I made my little quip. Every mind is worthy of analysis, just as every mind is worthy of distrust.
It's not as if there were one test that Krugman passes and that Sullivan fails; no one passes that test. Sullivan falls before Krugman and Krugman falls before others. Or perhaps it depends on the day, or subject (but I wouldn't bet on Sullivan-try someone else). DeLong fails just by asking the question.
I can defend Yglesias' argument without ignoring his insecurity or snobbery.

And economics is a science?

Posted by: seth edenbaum at September 26, 2004 03:59 PM

Great thread. Allow me to channel the wisdom of others:

Chip Morningstar (via Weinberger):
"'epistemologically challenged': a constitutional inability to adopt a reasonable way to tell the good stuff from the bad stuff."

Me (not wise):
If we're out looking for mutant memes, to evaluate for possible addition to our private meme pool, and we want to optimize the process, we'll acquire our mutants from people who we expect are most likely to recognize (and transmit) good ones - i.e. we would not choose the epistemologically challenged as our suppliers.

This is similar to the "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" heuristic.

Interesting interview with Jamie Whyte on bad thinking, how best to form one's opinions given limited resources, etc. here -
- "...what makes somebody reliable is the way that they acquire their beliefs..."

Back to Nozick and whether hypocritical actions (relative to claimed beliefs) are grounds for discounting the hypocrite's utterances - sometimes political hypocrisy is necessary, given that unilateral disarmament loses elections. And sometimes people are just weak, e.g. Bookie of Virtues Bennett. In the latter case, they may even have particularly valuable knowledge of the costs of the behavior, seeing as how it takes one to know one.

On the other hand (liberal waffling) - it's interesting that the students "get" the anti-Nozick arguments best when faced with his hypocrisy - seems like the human psyche is optimized to heavily discount the utterances of a hypocrite.

vaguely related quote:
"It is difficult to convince a man of something if his paycheck depends on his not understanding it."

Posted by: Anna at September 26, 2004 04:12 PM

re Martin Bento's "the liberal bias is to assume good faith as long as possible and quite often longer"

from Body and Soul here -
"I focused on idealistic words, and allowed myself to believe that maybe they meant them. I let myself think that George Bush and I had the same basic values, but just disagreed about how to achieve them. I gave them the benefit of the doubt. I tried telling myself that even though they didn't do things the way I would, maybe their way could work, too. Maybe there was a value that I would come to recognize over time.

But after awhile it started to feel a lot like living with an abuser. You can only make so many excuses for the creep, before you finally give up and admit that trusting him and trying to see things his way isn't being open-minded, it's just being a doormat."

Posted by: Anna at September 26, 2004 04:18 PM

"When those reasons are not stable and consistent over time, then we are dealing not with a Mind but with a deceptive simulacrum of a mind, and it is a waste of our own powers--it is disrespectful to ourselves--to try to take these reasons seriously"

Put this back into plain English and what it says is this: We can't take anyone seriously who changes their mind, or admits that any of their views were ever wrong.

What inane drivel!

We might hold God to this standard, but He is supposed to be omnicient. I can't see how anyone with good sense would hold Andrew Sullivan, or any other of we fallible human beings, to it.

Or, to quote Oliver Cromwell, "I beseech you gentlemen, in the very bowels of Christ, to consider the possibility you might be mistaken!"

I would propose that as the true moral starting point for "self respect".

Posted by: Joseph Marshall at September 26, 2004 06:27 PM

I thought that comment was from Martin Luther.
I think BDL was making the comment not to waste time on a LSOS.

Posted by: dilbert dogbert at September 26, 2004 08:25 PM

Well, dilbert, my memory of the citation is from a source I would hardly consider definitive, the very minor esoteric author Dion Fortune (!), so it may be incorrect.

But it seems to me the prinicple is the same and that we should try to put these things in as plain an English as possible to see the questionable implications.

"In Andrew Sullivan, however, do we have a Mind as we have defined it?"

A man doesn't have a mind because he changes it more frequently than you would like, or in ways that you don't approve of?

What can you do with something like this, after all?

All that is necessary is to say is, "Andrew Sullivan's current views are wrong, and they are overly colored by an emotional idee fixee on one issue, gay marriage."

Say that and a whole bathtub full of overwritten prose becomes needless. And nobody has to merely "think" that they know what you are saying.

Posted by: Joseph Marshall at September 27, 2004 09:40 AM

A person who presents arguments that he doesn't stand behind can still produce interesting or useful arguments. You might learn something. But if he does stand behind his ideas then they're more likely to be something you could stand behind too.

There's nothing wrong with presenting ideas that support your own survival. Like the bear told Hannali (in _Okla Hannali_, by RA Lafferty) "The First Order of Business in the world is to look after your own skin.". The important skill here is to do your best to look at the truth and arrange your life so you benefit by telling the truth and acting on the truth. When your survival is enhanced by bamboozling people it's a sign you may have made some prior mistake that left you in that precarious position.

Posted by: J Thomas at September 27, 2004 10:10 AM

I never took AS seriously when he went after Krugman.

AS was for Bush on grounds that had little or nothing to do with economics. AS is an attack dog and he sank his teeth into as many asses of Bush's opponents as he could find. His complaints about Krugman suggest he's probably never taken any economics class at a top-notch university, and that this was no reason not to have a little humility when it came to criticising Krugman's economics.

Many literary and political intellectuals feel that way about economics. They know nothing of economics in any formal sense but don't hesitate to dispute and second-guess what economists have to tell them. That it is a point of honor to dismiss what economists have to say on economics.

I remember reading Irving Kristol saying something to the effect that in 1980 he was all prepared to endorse Reagan's economic policies, no matter how little he knew of economics, because Reaganomics was finally about tax policy and government spending and who really cares about stuff like that when your man is right on other more important issues like rolling back communiism and defeating the USSR?

Posted by: kit at September 27, 2004 10:15 AM

When Cromwell begged his oppponents to consider they might be mistaken, he was asking them not to oppose him. He gave no indication that he accepted any possibility he might be mistaken himself.

They didn't buy it, and people were killed as a result. If only they had surrendered, so he wouldn't have to kill them!

Posted by: J Thomas at September 27, 2004 10:16 AM

"When those reasons are not stable and consistent over time, then we are dealing not with a Mind but with a deceptive simulacrum of a mind, and it is a waste of our own powers--it is disrespectful to ourselves--to try to take these reasons seriously"

"Put this back into plain English and what it says is this: We can't take anyone seriously who changes their mind, or admits that any of their views were ever wrong."

It is also implying that if your expectations don't match consequences in a thousand variable problem, you HAVE NO MIND at all. It is also implying that those who were defecit hawks at the time of the tax cuts are in fact not engaging in a similar act of self denial by supporting a man whose major platform planks are a minor increase in tax rates (why isn't the whole thing being rolled back?) on some people and a major spending increase for everyone.

Reasons are all that matter. The arguments presented must be judged on their own. Jefferson was inconsistent, so I guess he never had a mind and all of his writings should be discounted out of hand. The argument is not only absurd on the grounds that it is an attempt to justify the use of a logical fallacy against select targets, but it is monumentally arrogant in its presumption that all sides aren't inclined to reinterpret ideas as time goes on.

Posted by: Jason Ligon at September 27, 2004 11:27 AM

Hello anyone reading this far down. I think Brad
's argument against Sully is devistating personaly. He clearly illustrates that Sully argues in bad faith.

The examle with the libertarian seems a bit weaker though. The fact that Nozick has these moral beliefs that he may have reasoned out, doesn't mean he even tries to live up to his own code. He may just be an evil bastage.

Has anyone asked him how he feels about using the government to rob someone of 30k?

Posted by: Frank at September 27, 2004 09:16 PM