Wednesday, May 15, 2024

Beyond Reason

Reasoning will never make a Man correct an ill Opinion, which by Reasoning he never acquired.
Jonathan Swift, A Letter to a Young Gentleman, Lately Enter’d Into Holy Orders by a Person of Quality, 1721
How do you form your political opinions? How do any of us?

Depending on where you are on your life’s journey, you may be struggling to work out the right and wrong of every political issue or, if you are older, your positions may well be be encased in concrete.

My sense is that most, if not all, of us like to think we arrive at our opinions sensibly and logically. That we take in all the evidence and arguments and then arrive the right view through reason while applying self-evident moral standards.

Over time, though, when our conclusions repeatedly land in the same place in agreeing with certain friends, politicians and/or a political party (call them your politics peer group), it might become easy to simplify the political judgment process by simply following the lead of those people you’ve come to trust for their political judgment. Or more likely, you may have found news sources that you have come to trust and it so happens that you and your politics peer group usually, if not invariably, have the same reactions to each fresh news report.

What I’ve just described, however, amounts to choosing a side. And once you’ve chosen a side, your reasoning is no longer deductive. It has become inductive. In other words, rather than examining the evidence neutrally and seeing where it leads, you are starting with a conclusion and looking for information to back it up. When it comes to modern politics, there are plenty of news sources and opinion makers to provide that selective information to you—also known as talking points.

Is it even possible to look at political issues neutrally? Probably not. The best we can likely do is to be as aware as possible of our own core values and to use them rigorously as a yardstick against each issue that comes along. The risk in that, though, is that occasionally your conclusions might not perfectly match your politics peer group. In fact, people who are very individualistic and committed to deductive reason will find that they have no ideological home. You may occasionally find yourself disagreeing with people you admire and respect or on the same side as people you don’t like very much.

It can be kind of lonely. People who are very hard-core about their politics—the kind who have litmus tests for friendships—won’t trust you. Worse, reality may trip you up. You will eventually come up against the fact that the question of right and wrong in the real world is often not as clear as we would like.

When I was younger and more idealistic, my position on capital punishment was unyielding. Taking a life was wrong. That is an eminently satisfying position when it came to innocent people on death row purely because of their social and racial circumstances. It’s a bit harder to muster enthusiasm for pushing that position energetically when the person in question is a monster like Ted Bundy or Timothy McVeigh. Things get muddier still when we realize that society makes decisions about human life and death all the time, albeit usually in a more indirect way. And then there’s the flipside to the capital punishment question: abortion. If you accept that a viable fetus (i.e. which would likely survive if prematurely delivered) in the womb is some sort of human life, many if not most people would judge that it can be reasonably sacrificed for any number of reasons, especially if it is to save the mother’s life.

In other words, the position that human life cannot be considered absolutely sacrosanct without exception is not tenable in the real world. Reality requires society to make choices with winners and losers. Once you accept that, things get messy indeed.

Perhaps that is why it is easier for us to concentrate on who we would rather have as winners and losers instead of adhering strictly to moral principles. That won’t stop us, however, from framing our arguments as being based on morality even if they’re really about partisanship.