Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Objectivism & Politics, Part 12

Influence of sentiment on thinking In the last several “Objectivism and Politics” posts, compelling reasons have been provided for regarding most philosophical theories as mere derivations from sentiments. In this post, we are going to examine some of the scientific evidence supporting Pareto’s contention that it is not theories (i.e., derivations) but sentiments (i.e., residues) that are the primary determinant of ethical and political beliefs.

According to research in cognitive science,

most human beings earn a failing grade in elementary logic. But we’re not just frequently incompetent, we’re also willfully and skillfully illogical. When a piece of deductive reasoning leads to a conclusion we don’t like, we often rebut it with irrelevancies and sophistries of which, instead of being ashamed, we act proud. Recently, a new mortality study … reported that … the death rate among smokers was twice as high as that among nonsmokers. That night on television … a reporter was shown asking various smokers what they thought of the findings: one man sarcastically replied, “So nonsmokers don’t die, right?”—and looked immensely pleased with himself; a young woman, with equal self-satisfaction, said, “Nobody lives forever, anyway.” Such rebuttals are not at all unusual; many psychological studies have shown that smokers tend to reject logical inferences about smoking by means of various distortions and rationalizations. They may assert that the evidence is incomplete or biased, or cite the case of someone they knew who smoked heavily and lived to be ninety, or, like the man and woman on television, rebut conclusions other than the one that was actually drawn.

Similarly, most people are little influenced by the reasoning, however cogent, of campaigners, organizers, and other public persuaders. Jeanne B. Herman of the Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University has studied the reactions of people subjected to company and union arguments prior to voting on some issue, and found that few of them change their attitudes as a result of such exposure. By a variety of nonlogical cognitive techniques they “insulate” themselves from the reasoning they are exposed to unless it confirms their preexisting attitudes. To be sure, some part of every voting population changes its views in the course of a campaign, but the cause of shifts are factors such as personalities of the campaigners, changing economic conditions, threats or promises, and so on; the noble ideal of persuasion by means of the clash of ideas in the marketplace has little to do with it.

Even within the ranks of foreign-policy decision makers, rationality is the ideal but rarely the reality. The classic theory of high-level decision making views it as a process in which the theoretical rational man weighs costs against benefits and inexorably comes to the optimal decision, but many recent studies find that this is rarely the case. Political scientists Ole R. Holsti of Duke University and Alexander George of Stanford University have analyzed various examples of such decision making and found that only when a problem is trivial do foreign-policy decision makers behave rationally; far more often, such factors as stress, the complexity of the problem, and their own conflicting motives cause them to make decisions by irrational processes...

If we need any final piece of evidence that even fine minds are not so much let by logic as prone to bend logic to their own conclusions, look at the output of the United States Supreme Court…. The justices interpret the language of the Constitution in their own ways, so as to derive from it justification for their own social values. As [former] Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes said to William O. Douglas, when Douglas was new to the Supreme Court, “You must remember one thing. At the constitutional level where we work, ninety percent of any decision is emotional. The rational part of us supplies the reasons for supporting our predilections.”

Thus there is yet another paradox about the human ability to reason deductively: those who are best at logical reasoning often use it—as the rest of us use illogic—to get where they want to go, rather than where reason would naturally lead them. [Morton Hunt, The Universe Within, 128-130]

What cognitive science has discovered in research accords with the experience of everyday life. Anyone who attempts to change people’s minds on any issue that is important to them will quickly find how difficult it is. The reason for this is quite simple: most people make up their minds based on their sentiments, and so they are impervious to logic. It is Pareto’s “residues” that are critical in determining belief and conduct, not the theories of philosophers and social thinkers, which are mere “derivations.” As Pareto himself puts it:

Theologians, metaphysicists, philosophers, theorists of politics, law, and ethics, do not ordinarily accept the order indicated [of residues being more important than derivations]. They are inclined to assign first place to derivations. What we call residues are in their eyes axioms or dogmas, and the purpose is just the conclusion of logical reasoning. But since they are not as a rule in any agreement on the derivation, they argue about it till they are blue in the face and think that they can change social conditions by proving a derivation fallacious. That is an illusion on their part. They fail to realize that their hagglings never reach the majority of men, who could not make head or tail to them anyhow, and who in fact disregard them save as articles of faith to which they assent in deference to certain residues. [Mind and Society, §1415]


JayCross said...

Pinker said something in The Blank Slate like "most people feel compelled by social decorum to offer reasons for their positions, but if you refute them, they will just invent new ones instead of changing positions because of your refutation."

Sadly, I have to agree that this is pretty much true. I rarely debate politics or morality with people anymore and I tend look back on all the times I tried to as a waste of time. I also pity people who still believe that it works. The other night I went to a friend's party, and listened to him tell me about how he's "really having a tough time" deciding which economic system/philosophy to advocate. My first impulse was to tell him "it really doesn't make a damn bit of difference" but that, too, would just be a pointless argument that didn't convince him.

In the end, I suppose it's best to know where you stand but abandon any illusion that you will change the world (or even very many minds.)

Xtra Laj said...


I think that what you say is true, but there is a dimension of it that I appeal to you to consider a bit more enthusiastically.

Like Pinker also pointed out, some people do form and base their political and moral positions on empirical facts about human nature and are willing to realign their sentiments on the basis of such facts. I, for example, became more of an evolutionary conservative (a conservative whose views are influenced by the findings of the biological sciences on human nature) and far less libertarian because of empirical facts.

So while many people might not care about such issues for various reasons, some people do. What is hard is to distinguish between the empirically informed and the mostly ideological. That is why I think that it is important to look for at least two sides/sources of information on any issue.

Cavewight said...

I find that it's more interesting to listen to people talk than to try to dissuade them of their precious sentiment-based views. But I don't just sit there like a dead stump, it's also educational to prod them with incisive questions. Most people are quite capable of leading their own objective reasoning process, all they need is some gentle guidance to find their way back to it.

Sometimes I like to try this simple experiment: at a certain point in their rant (it always comes across as a rant, so that's not an insult), ask him or her, "Is that logical?"

The answer will tell you much about the person ranting. Some people will merely laugh and carry on as if you didn't ask anything, some will say (honestly), "I don't care," and some, holding to a veneer of objectivity, will respond with a hesitant "y-y-yes!"

Cavewight said...

Pareto has merely recycled Hume, who made morality out to be a matter of sentiment.
"It is our feelings or sentiments, Hume claimed, that exert practical influence over human volition and action."

Is there any new theory in the world at all?

Cavewight said...
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Cavewight said...

Quoting Hunt: "...most human beings earn a failing grade in elementary logic. But we’re not just frequently incompetent, we’re also willfully and skillfully illogical. When a piece of deductive reasoning leads to a conclusion we don’t like, we often rebut it with irrelevancies and sophistries of which, instead of being ashamed, we act proud."

The original claim was:

"sentiments (i.e., residues)... are the primary determinant of ethical and political beliefs."

But the examples which follow do not show how such beliefs are determined. All they serve to show is that people cling to them, rationalize them. And this is something we already knew without all that research in cognitive science.

Iconoclast said...
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Jay said...

(Sorry for the double-post. On a friend's laptop and his Iconoclast username was already logged on.)


In which ways and why have you departed from libertarianism? I would be curious to know.

You're right - there are people who are willing to consult evidence and facts in forming their beliefs. I think they are so few and far between relatively speaking that it is easy to forget about them. Most people I have met regard facts as just a different opinion or even a threat to their sense of themselves.

Xtra Laj said...


I don't think libertarians take conflicts of interests and human inequality as seriously as they should, and I think it's mostly that when you accept a biologically informed view of human nature, you see the tension with libertarian ideals and how science views human nature.

I used to base my libertarianism in part on an unlimited view of the potential of human beings. If human beings had different strengths and weakness influenced by genes as well as the environment, then inequality is a problem that isn't going anywhere. Different environments will play to the strengths of different individuals/groups. Moreover, kin selection and nepotistic bias will also accentuate other kinds of unequal status.

The libertarian ideal will select some individuals/groups at the expense of others, and libertarians write without understanding the kind of ideological opposition that their preferred political system by itself will foster, rationalizing such ignorance by empty claims of "fairness".

Most political analysts are pretty clueless and statistically illiterate when discussing these topics. Unfortunately, these topics aren't politically correct as Pinker showed in his book. If you're interested in the issue, just do some of the reading on Pinker's background sources in behavioral genetics and be aware that you might not wish you had read what you read.

The impression I got when I looked at my defenses of libertarianism after reading The Blank Slate was that I had been far too rationalistic in my conception of human nature. I did lots of reading on behavioral genetics and evolutionary psychology and the world started to make far more sense to me.

After having defended some libertarian and Randian ideas for a long time, I had to eat a lot of humble pie (in isolation - I wasn't so arrogant I had to apologize to anyone). That's why I have a much better appreciation of Humean skepticism and the limits of rationality.

The best thing that libertarianism has going for it in America today is really Peter Schiff - if it wasn't for him, libertarianism would be irrelevant. However, even his overly ideological view of many issues seems oblivious to the changing demographics in America.

Can't elaborate much more than that.