2013-08-06

You Win Some, You Lose Some

Not long ago, faithful Stationary Waves reader GB suggested to me that ethics were for the most part the human mind justifying its feelings ex post facto. (I'm paraphrasing, so I hope GB doesn't mind too much if I haven't done justice to his argument, which was certainly more refined than that one sentence.) At the time, I resisted the idea, and to some extent I still do. However, if recent experience has taught me anything, it's this: GB certainly seems to be right about some of us.

The great vanity of philosophy is that it is a grand pursuit of knowledge, that over the process of exposition, Socratic dialogue, a priori reasoning, and so forth, we can arrive at The Truth. But what happens when all the pondering and all the thinking is nothing more than a game we play with ourselves to attach a noble veneer to the front of that which we have already decided to believe? What happens when the philosophy itself is the illusion?

Some Context
The blogs I read have been engaged in a lot of libertarian navel-gazing recently. First, there was George Selgin's exposition on why he is not a libertarian:
So ideology pointed me in the direction that was to develop into my research program. But it did so, not by making me want to become an advocate for "libertarian" monetary ideas, but by equipping me with a working hypothesis that was long overdue for testing, and which seemed to me to survive such testing remarkably well, if not with flying colors. I dare say that any young professor finding himself armed with such a hypothesis would have done exactly what I did, which was to run with it as far as it would go. Naturally libertarian groups (but not genuinely "right wing" ones***) have found my research attractive, and have sometimes awarded me for it. But I didn't pursue it just to please them. Indeed I rather prefer having non-libertarians express interest in, if not agreement with, my ideas, because their interest is more likely to depend on the power of my arguments than on the propriety of my conclusions. It's hard, on the other hand, for me to really get a kick out of talking to hard-core libertarians since their way of thinking makes all my hard research seem like so much gimcrack ornament.
Then there was Jonathan Finegold-Catalan's exploration of the idea that there is no such thing as a libertarian philosophy, only a liberal one, and that the uncompromising nature means that he himself - former Ludwig von Mises Institute writer that he is (like myself) - is more a liberal than a libertarian:
I made the term “libertarian sympathizer” up. I consider myself, first and foremost, a liberal, in that I support governance that approaches unanimity as much as possible. What unanimity means is that everyone’s opinion counts in collective action. But, I support a set of policy prescriptions that is broadly libertarian — free banking, limiting the size and scope of the military, ending corporate welfare, et cetera. I just don’t think these policies are the ones that should be implemented over all other policies: these things should be up for public debate, the only liberal position.
Meanwhile, Matt Zwolinski and Derek Ellerman fan the flames of libertarian in-fighting. I'll opt out of excerpting either of those posts, but I link to them here for the curious reader.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bryan Caplan declares that libertarians are better at applied moral reasoning than everybody else:
My claim: The fundamental difference between libertarians and non-libertarians is that libertarians have overlearned common-sense morality.  Non-libertarians only reliably apply basic morality when society encourages them to do so.  Libertarians, in contrast, deeply internalize basic morality.  As a result, they apply it automatically in the absence of social pressure - and even when society discourages common decency.
This is obviously a highly tendentious claim that ought not be taken too seriously, in my opinion. Libertarians aren't more ethical than others - they simply have a different set of ethics; or, more likely, a different set of ethical priorities. Everyone who thinks about ethics is interested in solving the same kinds of problems. We all just disagree as to how to solve them.

David Henderson also writes:
I've had a couple of economist friends ask me "So have you been doing any serious work lately." My friend Bob Barro has done this, for example. I answer, "All of my work is serious."
The Underlying Image
It's funny that so many people who basically agree on the same set of policy prescriptions disagree with each other so completely on the underlying reasoning. For some, the policy prescriptions are the result of a stoic and academic pursuit of incontrovertible knowledge. For others, they are the best way to attain a truly pluralistic society. Still others have a particular objective in mind, be it curing cancer or solving the world's pollution or hunger problems, or whatever else it might be. The same libertarian principles that appeal to George Selgin on grounds of their being a compelling hypothesis to be tested appeal to other people as a humanitarian methodology that can bring food and medicine to the poor.

So, all of these different kinds of people have gravitated toward the same set of ideas for many different reasons. But what if the world is a lot more like GB says it is? What if Selgin selected libertarianism as the hypothesis he wanted to test because he had already developed a mood affiliation for it? (Surely liberal or conservative academics have gravitated to non-libertarian hypotheses, after all.) What if Finegold-Catalan sees libertarianism as a means to secure pluralism because he is already inclined toward libertarianism? (Certainly leftists and rightists see their philosophies as being the more proper way to reinforce the will of the people.) What if Caplan sees libertarian ethics as being more rigorously ingrained because he happens to be a libertarian? (Doubtless leftists and rightists think the same about their own ethics.)

We all have in our own minds a certain idea about the way things ought to be. Regardless of how seriously you happen to take that image, it may very well be that this image governs the way you interact with competing theories. That image is bound to unfairly discount competing theories and disproportionately favor anything that buttresses the image itself.

The Truth, Or Something Much Like It
Most of us like to believe that we arrived at our beliefs after having given due consideration to all of the facts. Unfortunately, though, at least some of us decide first what we choose to believe, and offer justification for it afterward. There are two problems with this.

The first problem is the obvious one: If the only purpose to your thinking is to reaffirm what you already want to believe, then you will never figure anything out at all. Your beliefs become nothing more than cheap rationalization for thoughts you cannot defend because you haven't given them proper consideration. Basically, you're just cooking up any old excuse to allow yourself permission to think what you already want to think. The better you are at rationalizing your feelings, the less capable you will be at knowing that you're basically just deluding yourself.

Worse yet, this behavior is self-reinforcing, which brings me to my next point. When you develop an expertise in rationalizing, you basically enter into a moral psychosis: You live in reality, but your morality is a pure fantasy. There are several possible results to this mental state, but the obvious and most common one is that you feel a sense of morality that is impossible to live up to. This is quite common among devout practitioners of religion, self-flagellators, and the like. But it has also been observed of some Objectivists, for example. Even if you don't descend that far into the void, you might end up simply holding everyone but yourself to an impossibly high standard, resulting in a grandiose delusion that we could basically describe as the No True Scotsman Incarnate. This is someone who constantly tests people, situations, and concepts for their loyalty to the cause and, when the subjects inevitably fail the test, the tester lashes out.

Basically, we are talking about mental illness.