Why People Act in Self-Defeating, Irrational Ways—and …
In one psychological study, subjects were exposed to evidence from studies of the deterrenteffect of capital punishment. One study had concluded that capital punishment has adeterrent effect; another had concluded that it does not. All experimental subjects wereprovided with summaries of both studies, and then asked to assess which conclusion theevidence they had just looked at most supported overall. The result was that those whoinitially supported capital punishment claimed that the evidence they’d been shown,overall, supported that capital punishment has a deterrent effect. Those who initiallyopposed capital punishment thought that this same evidence, overall, supportedthat capital punishment had no deterrent effect. In each case, partisans came up withreasons (or rationalizations) for why the study whose conclusion they agreed with wasmethodologically superior to the other study. This points up one reason why people tendto become polarized about politicalissues: we tend to evaluate mixed evidence as supporting whichever belief we alreadyincline towards—whereupon we increase our degree of belief.
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Sometimes the observed correlations are the of what one would expect on thebasis of reason alone—sometimes, that is, people who hold one belief are likely to holdother beliefs that are supported by the first one. For instance, one would naively expect thatthose who support animal rights would be far more likely to oppose abortion than thosewho reject the notion of animal rights; conversely, those who oppose abortion should bemuch more likely to accept animal rights. This is because to accept animal rights (or fetusrights), one must have a more expansive conception of what sorts of beings have rightsthan those who reject animal rights (or fetus rights)—and because fetuses and animals seemto share most of the same morally relevant properties (e.g., they are both sentient, butneither are intelligent). I am not saying that the existence of animal rights that fetuseshave rights, or vice versa (there are some differences between fetuses and animals); I amonly saying that, if animals have rights, it is much more likely that fetuses do, and viceversa. Thus, if people’s political beliefs generally have cognitive explanations, we shouldexpect a positive statistical between being pro-life and being pro-animal-rights. In fact, we observe precisely the opposite.
Understanding the nature of political irrationality is itself a big step towardscombating it. In particular, explicit awareness of the mechanisms discussed in section 6should cause one to avoid using them. When learning about a political issue, for example,we should collect information from people on all sides of the issue. We should spend timethinking about objections to our own arguments. When we feel inclined to assert a politicalclaim, we should pause to ask ourselves what reasons we have for believing it, and weshould try to assess the subjective, speculative, and anecdotal character of those reasons—and perhapsdowngrade our confidence in them accordingly.
Why People Act in Self-Defeating ..
But note that, on this hypothesis, we would not expect the existence of an cluster of beliefs. That is, suppose that liberal beliefs are, in general, true, and that thisexplains why there are many people who generally embrace this cluster of beliefs. (Thus,affirmative action is just, abortion is permissible, welfare programs are good, capitalpunishment is bad, human beings are seriously damaging the environment, etc.) Whywould there be a significant number of people who tend to embrace the opposite beliefs onall these issues? It is not plausible to suppose that there are some people who are in generaldrawn toward falsity. Even if there are people who are not very good at getting to the truth(perhaps they are stupid, ignorant, etc.), their beliefs should be, at worst, to the truth;they should not be systematically directed from the truth. Thus, while there could bea ‘true cluster’ of political beliefs, the present consideration strongly suggests that neitherthe liberal nor the conservative belief-cluster is it.
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The Ignorance Theory fares slightly better, since if people were ignorant, not only of thefacts pertaining to the political issue, but also of their own level of ignorance, theirconfidence in their political beliefs would be understandable. However, it remains puzzlingwhy people would be ignorant of their own level of ignorance—this itself calls for a furtherexplanation. Moreover, the Ignorance Theory has difficulty explaining the followingfeature of political disputes.
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