U.S. Intellectual History Blog

After Ideology

(Dear Readers: This guest post is written by my good friend Corey Washington and his co-author Johanna Carr. I first got to know Corey in 2001, when he was still a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland. Since then he quit the philosophy business and got a second Ph.D. in neuroscience from Columbia. He’s now a consultant in New York City. Corey’s background gives him a fairly unique perspective, I think. I have always enjoyed our debates because he attacks issues from such a different vantage point. He and Johanna are in the beginning stages of writing a book that is an argument against the very notion of ideology. I asked him to write up a synopsis for the USIH blog, since this seems like the perfect venue for critical feedback on an essay in the realm of ideas. Like most of us, Corey loves a good debate. Enjoy.)

I recently finished reading two books endorsing atheism – God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Each gives a variety of reasons for believing that God does not exist, but the central argument offered by both men is a variation on Occam’s razor:

(a) The hypothesis that God (an all powerful, all knowing, all good being who intervenes in the world) exists is extraordinary.
(b) Being extraordinary, it requires extraordinary supporting evidence before it should be believed.
(c) There is no compelling, let alone extraordinary, evidence for God’s existence.
(d) Hence, one should infer that God does not exist.

Many of my friends are atheist (or agnostic), and mostly for reasons similar to that above. They do not believe in God, because they see no good evidence that he exists. Clearly, they engage in evidence based reasoning about religion. At the same time, almost all of them describe themselves as falling into some political grouping: Marxist, socialist, social democrat, liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist – sometimes per economics, sometimes per social issues, sometimes regarding both.

When they talk about politics, they often express very strong beliefs in political ideas based on very little evidence. They might claim legalizing cocaine would benefit society at large or more stimulus spending would be bad for the economy. Some maintain life would be better if there were no markets, others if there were no taxes. While some of these claims are extraordinary and others not, in each case the evidence presented clearly falls short of what a rational person would demand in order to endorse a given claim as vehemently as its advocates do.

It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims.

My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.)

In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.

Given how randomly political beliefs are formed and injudiciously maintained, we have little reason to be confident they are true. To see this, suppose you set out to maximize the number of true beliefs, and minimize the number of false beliefs, you have about a controversial issue. How should you proceed? You should probably do what scientists do when investigating a new subject: read a range of papers from credible sources; be careful to get different perspectives on the issue. Talk to experts in the field with varying points of views; get their assessments of what you have read and heard from others. If possible, you might even try to conduct your own experiments.

Throughout the process you would try to be very even-handed, weighing conflicting evidence for strength and credibility. You would also be hyper-critical of hypotheses you are considering endorsing – always looking for evidence that what you believe is wrong, so as to avoid coming to an incorrect conclusion. In the end, you might end up endorsing one view (if the evidence was overwhelming), but most likely you would end up taking an intermediate position. Notice how strikingly different this approach is from how people generally form their opinions on political issues.

There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?

When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?

Corey Washington’s Background:
M.S., MIT, Linguistics, 1987.
PhD, Stanford, Philosophy, 1994
Asst. Prof, U Washington, 1992-1996
Asst. Prof. U Maryland, 1996-2003
PhD Columbia, Neuroscience, 2010
Corey is presently a New York City consultant.

Johanna Carr received her degree in Philosophy, emphasis on History of Science, from Stanford 1991. After years in the tech world, failing to effect any change in corporate politics, she is currently pursuing a second PhD in Motherhood.

55 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This is a great post. I’m not sure I agree with everything here. I tend to think ideological extremes, like Marxism or Ayn Rand’s Objectivism, are bad and have little to no evidence to support them.

    I think people’s reaction to the drug question might be somewhat similar to what you described with atheists and God. I would argue it’s the absence of evidence for success in the drug war that leads leftists and libertarians alike to argue for drug legalization.

    I really liked this recent New Yorker piece by George Packer:


    It distinguishes between “ideology” and “principle,” using Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology” as a guide. Ideology is rigid and inflexible and produces stock answers without evidence. Principles, on the other hand, are “a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances but not compromised away.”

    I think it’s crucial to have values: universal healthcare as a right, for example, and other basic principles of the modern welfare state, and then be pragmatic in our efforts to achieve those principles, rather than be limited by rigid ideologies. I actually think there is decent evidence, namely, the past 50 years or so in most of the democratic world, that a strong welfare state and regulated capitalist market is the way to go. But you’re right that even this “historical evidence” is something that, at least to some degree, I take on faith.

    My two cents. Really great post.

  2. Interesting — just finished James Livingston’s chapter on the “War on Terror” (from _The World Turned Inside Out_). Livingston examines the dominant narrative of the Bush administration regarding the significance of 9/11 and the nature of al Qaeda, and gives Hitchens a (disapproving) nod for his part in constructing a narrative which basically follows the “clash of civilizations / unappeasable religious fanatacism” model of understanding the rise of Islamic terror.

    Livingston steps back and takes a pragmatic (and specifically Jamesian) view which recognizes that there may be other more helpful ways of framing the events than the story which Hitchens, Berman, et. al., have told.

    Hitchens’ part in constructing the narrative, as I understand it, is to posit that religion is an evil and inevitably leads to violence, and that as long as there are religious fanatics there will be no peace. (If I’m missing something there, correct me.)

    I assume that Hitchens might resist the suggestion that his view on religion is not an expression of empirical reality, but rather a story he’s telling that makes sense to him (and a lot of other people), and that it’s not the only story that could work.

    The way that the question in this post is framed — “if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies” — implies that there is AN accurate view, and assumes that what people most want is to be empirically right.

    But “rightness” is a means to some other end — in other words, most people want their view of the world to be “right” so that they find their way through it with minimal grief. So people find narratives that “work for them,” whether they fit “the facts” or fit in with other peoples’ narratives or not.

    For me, the interesting question raised by this post is something like this: What allows people to move away from one explanatory narrative and embrace a different one? Do they have to reach the conclusion that what was once a satisfactory explanation for them no longer satisfies, or is there some other way to get to a different vantage point?

  3. It is unclear to me what the authors are implying in their last two paragraphs. What does it mean to “give up ideolog[y]” in the context of political views? I presume it means something more than the banal claim that people should more carefully consider empirical evidence, but does it mean, for instance, that we should give up (if indeed the authors are making a normative claim) claims about political ends/means/both that derive from theoretical or moral commitments rather than empirical ones? I gather that the authors aren’t saying that, but then what? -B

  4. There must be some elements of the larger argument missing, because all I see here is false equivalence based on an uncharitable and selective generalized reading of “people.”

  5. All of these comments deserve substantial replies and we’ll try to provide some in the coming days.

    Corey and Johanna

  6. Anybody read Terry Eagleton’s “Reason, Faith and Revolution: A Reflection on the God Debate?” It seems to me to be the best refutation of the Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris atheistic canon.

  7. “There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles.”

    Might this not be said about all kinds of reasoning? Even scientific ones? To practice science it is necessary to abstract away large sections of reality–that’s what an experiment is–but politics cannot be done in this way. to read a stack of position papers before you make a decisions is either to renounce decision at all, or to have already made one without being honest about it.

  8. I suspect the authors are also making a problematic analogy in comparing political views to religious ones. The religious debate is about whether something unlike anything we have actual daily experience of exists. Political debates and decisions, on the other hand, are about the hierarchy of values and rights as well as efficacy of particular policies in achieving those values. This leads to a host of differences in how we might justify employing different standards of evidence when evaluating arguments.

    I’m also interested in how the authors handle the potential for the infinite regress of this argument. Should people have values at all? After all, the value of these values is something that is constantly debated, and we might be forgiven if we think that analytic philosophy hasn’t established them once and for all. It seems like we could rather quickly end up with an argument that people should only act on their immediate desires, since those, at least, are something thing can be relatively certain of (though of course they can’t even be sure of the connection between acting on these desires and, say, happiness.) -B

  9. I want to thank LD for the thoughtful and interesting reply. I haven’t read Livingston, Berman (LD: which Hitchens do you have in mind?) but I will now. I will take it “on faith” that LD gets Hitch’s claim about religion right. That said, just consider the absolutist form of the claim (and H implies similar things in his God book). No evidence can support the claim that religion inevitably leads to violence. That’s a polemic form, not an evidence-based one. Religion may often lead to violence, but sometimes it doesn’t and an accurate characterization must understand where it does and does not, and why.

    LD quotes us: “if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies” and then goes on to say: “implies that there is AN accurate view, and assumes that what people most want is to be empirically right.” There are two implications here: we think (1) there is AN accurate view of the world and (2) what people want most is to be empirically right.

    (1) deserves a lot more space than we can give to it here. We are committed to the view that there are accurate, or at least, more accurate views of the world, though not necessarily that there is AN accurate view. There certainly are facts of the matter in any given political situation. One of the easiest ways to assess a view for accuracy is to test its consequences. Over the years, I have tried to make a habit of recording my political predictions and checking to see how I did. Overall, the results have not been stellar, which has shown me that many of my views of the world were not accurate.

    1986: I predicted that ANC would not succeed in their fight against apartheid for 30 years. WRONG
    • Assumption: The only route to winning was military, i.e. the apartheid government would not cave to any other pressure.

    1990: I predicted Sandinistas would win Nicaraguan elections. WRONG
    • Assumption: Nicaraguan’s overwhelmingly supported the Sandinistas and that reports that they did not were merely anti-Sandinista, US propaganda.

    1996: I accepted predictions by liberal groups that Clinton’s welfare-reform law would put 1/2 million children on the street (and did not vote in protest). WRONG
    • I was working with an oversimplified view of the economics of poverty. As Sudhir Venkatesh has show in a number of works, the social-economy of the poor is complex. Poor people often have a range of economic options, usually in the underground economy that can, at least in part, make up for loss of government support. They also have social networks that can help them with housing and food.

    1997: Having read Lester Thurow’s book The Future of Capitalism, I gave a lecture in my social issues class at UMD where I said unemployment would keep rising and American farmers would get clobbered by farmers from the former Soviet Union. WRONG
    • Assumption: Following Thurow, automation would put more workers out of jobs than would find jobs in new tech sectors. I also accepted Thurow’s view that farmland in the former Soviet Union was the most fertile on earth and that this would determine competitive success.
    2003: Predicted that the Iraq war would be a cake-walk. WRONG
    • I assumed that most Iraqis hated Hussein and wanted him gone and would welcome the help. I also assumed that the society would be quickly reorganized after he was gone. I had come to believe that Iraq was an educated, largely secular society that would flourish when if given the opportunity.

    2008: Predicted that Obama was unelectable (repeatedly said “America is not ready for a black president”). WRONG
    • Assumption: the U.S. was too racist. I also tacitly assumed that the whiter a state was the more racist it was. Obama’s massive wins in Idaho and Colorodo showed this was completely mistaken.

    To be continued…

  10. …Continuing

    • Johanna thought that Obama would beat Clinton in the primaries because she thought the country was more sexist than racist – or at least, that being explicitly sexist during the campaign would be more acceptable than being overtly racist.

    (Though one of us appears to have been proven correct, it hasn’t escaped our notice that my being black and Johanna being female clearly influenced our positions more than any research, upon which neither of us embarked prior to making our predictions.)

    I would say the failure of these predictions shows that my assumptions about the political reality on which they were based are (and were) inaccurate. I resolved, after they failed, to look at my assumptions, see where they went wrong and revise them. I don’t believe I was being particularly ideological in all of these predictions, but I was basing my expectations on assumptions for which I had no real evidence, and in this sense, my assumptions were similar to ideological ones. I hope the examples make clear what we mean by ‘accuracy’. Accuracy in this sense is all we need assume for our view to make sense: an ideological approach will not lead to an accurate view of the political world, since it is not based on evidence and, in consequence, is unlikely to be revised in the face of conflicting evidence.

    (For the past 25 years—since I’ve been having these conversations—many of my left-wing friends have been predicting the immanent collapse of the US economy. So far, none of them have revised the assumptions on which this prediction was based.)

    (2) We think LD is right: Deep down many people may not care that much about whether they have accurate views about political reality. However, the pretense people make in criticizing their opponents for lying, being inaccurate, etc. certainly gives the impression they want their views to be accurate. We have no direct evidence for this, but one possible explanation may be that people want to appear to want their views to be accurate and may even want to want their views to be accurate without actually wanting them to be accurate. The resistance most people exhibit to contrary evidence certainly suggests that few people really want to know they are wrong.

    Giving up ideology means taking a positive attitude towards being shown to be wrong. You have to seek out sources of information that will show you to be wrong and honestly assess the data for whether it goes for or against you. This is a very unnatural frame of mind, but it seems to us, extremely useful in trying to develop successful policies.

  11. “I was basing my expectations on assumptions for which I had no real evidence, and in this sense, my assumptions were similar to ideological ones… Accuracy in this sense is all we need assume for our view to make sense.”

    This is your confusion: In your view, ideology can be reduced to its efficiency in *describing* political reality, but it excludes questions of value, what you *cherish,* and the value of the activity of forming coalitions that make sure those values are represented in the polity. E.g., you might value justice as a liberal, or order as a conservative. These questions are *separate* from mere accurate descriptions of political reality. Values and description can overlap, for sure. You can value things that are wrong and get an outcome that isn’t desirable. And in that case, you should reconsider what you value. But even in cases where it’s clear that you should reconsider your thinking, the debate over what you should value doesn’t go away.

  12. I would use the term faith instead of ideology. It is impossible to predict the outcome of future events, especially with many unforeseen variables. Take tax cuts, for example. You can believe that cutting taxes will raise more revenue (a leap of faith) and explain why it hasn’t worked before and argue that it should be tried again because whatever mitigating factors have been adressed, but it is still a leap of faith. The same can be applied to ideas on the left. You can also see it in another dimension with a conspiracy theory like peak oil. In that case it is a faith that the capitalist system will come to a disastrous end.

  13. A number of reactions. First, I just have to get the God objection out of the way. I know of no generally accepted epistemic principle that corresponds to (b) of the modified Occam’s razor argument you describe above.

    Second, premise (c), though expressed as an objective statement about the world is really a statement about us. We cannot assert with warrant that there is no such evidence; the most we can assert with warrant (and even this would be disputed by people on the other side of the issue with a deeper understanding of the arguments than a hack like Hitchens could ever achieve) is that we don’t know of any such evidence. That is a claim about us. Essentially, the argument, as stated, commits a very basic fallacy; we can’t prove God exsts; therefore, it is not true that God exists.

    One could make a similar argument for theism that begins with the premise that the idea that a world like this game into existence without being created is an extraordinary idea. Etc. The modified version of the Occam’s razor is just a terrible argument — and that supports your more general thesis if this is really what’s being advanced by those books and your friends.

    The way the argument should work is as follows. First, the premise should be about whether the hypothesis that God exists does any explanatory work in the world — not is there evidence. These two ideas come apart. Suppose you accept Plantinga’s ontological argument for God’s existence. Then that would be proof of God’s existence that does not express any explanatory role that God’s existence would explain.

    Second, instead of the conclusion that we should reject the claim that God exists, the proper conclusion would be we should NOT ACCEPT the claim that God exists. In other words, an Occam’s razor argument, by itself, simply gives you reason for not adding to your theory of the world that God exists because it plays no explanatory role

    That argument would go something like this: (1) There is no role that the existence of God would play in explaining relevant phenomena. (2) Hypotheses that posit the existence of explanatorily superfluous objects should not be accepted. (3) Therefore we should not accept the claim that God exists. That is the correct statement and application of Occam’s razor. There is a related reason in this case for not accepting God’s existence, under these conditions, as part of one’s theory of the world: doing so violates the epistemic principle that simpler theories are epistemically preferable to more complex ones.

    But premise (1) utterly overstates the success of science in explaining relevant phenomenon. First, I understand that the official philosophical articles of faith require allegiance to the proposition that there are no souls. But that claim is nowhere near well-established. I will send you two published papers arguing why, each attacks one of the two central arguments against dualism. In any event, the upshot is no one has come close to explaining how a meat computer gives rise to consciousness. And there is no mapping that would explain this.

    Second, we haven’t much of a clue as to how the world went from being purely inorganic to having living things in it. Very little scientific progress in accepting that.

    Now that doesn’t get us the conclusion that God exists; that would commit a God-of-the-gaps fallacy. But it does show that the Occam’s razor argument buys nothing here. The best the atheist can do is battle to a draw on the evidential argument from evil.

    Kenneth Einar Himma, Professor of Philosophy, Seattle Pacific University

  14. Corey, I hope you don’t mind my sharing and commenting on a response you shared over email. You said:

    “I don’t think I stated my argument as well as I should have. Its way to compressed. Here’s what I have in mind. Do you believe that there there are 14 ft. tall people in Afghanistan? No you don’t. Not only do you NOT believe *there are 14 ft tall people in Afghanistan* you believe * NOT there are 14 ft. tall people in Afghanistan*. Why do you believe this. You believe it because it is an extraordinary hypotheses that there are 14 ft tall people in A, and there is no commensurate evidence. Now this doesn’t prove that there are no 14 ft tall people in A. It just gives you a reason to believe *NOT there are 14 ft. tall people in A*. That I think is that key to atheist arguments. They do not prove there is not god, but they argue that it is rational to believe there is no God.”

    Two reactions: (1) the existence of 14-foot-tall people might be an extraordinary fact (given that the tallest we ever see is under 8 feet, so the existence of a person 6 feet taller is extraordinary). But this doesn’t entail that “extraordinary” evidence is required. Same evidene is required to show that there is someone 7’6″ in the world: trot someone out that height (Yao Ming will work). Trot a 14-foot-person out and the epistemic game is over. This doesn’t constitute extraordinary evidence but it is compelling.

    Second, the claim that we are not aware of evidence proving God’s existence does not, by itself, imply even that it is rational to believe that God doesn’t exist. To be rational in believing X, one must have some sort of consistent reason for believing X. So for it to be rational to believe that God does not exist, more is needed than just the Occam’s razor argument. Some positive reason is needed — best place to look for that is the evidential problem of evil. No one, and I am a serious Christian, can deny that this provides a reason for believing that God does not exist. And every Christian who has ever looked at a natural disaster like the earthquakes in Japan or Haiti and wondered how an all-loving God could allow that has proven that point.

    Finally, the claim that it is rational to believe that God does not exist is an extraordinarily weak claim. That simply amounts to the claim that it is not irrational to believe that God does not exist; in other words, you are not believing against conclusive evidence to the contrary.

    Surely that is not what an atheist wants to say. The atheist wants to say that we are justified in believing, at the very least, it is far more likely than not that God doesn’t exist. Occam’s razor buys nothing like this.

    Kenneth Einar Himma, Professor of Philosophy, Seattle Pacific University


  15. Last comment: there are two claims you can be defending in this book that should be distinguished and discussed. The first is an empirical claim about how people form beliefs and I like the strategy that you’ve employed here, commenting on the inconsistent reliance upon so-called “evidence.”

    The second is a philosophical claim that discusses standards of evidence and discusses, from an impartial philosophical point of view, whether these standards are satisfied by arguments for theism or atheism and by arguments for morally, politically, and aesthetically normative conclusions.

    I’m not sure which should come first but both should be discussed.

    “The street’s in me forever, y’all.
    But I’m not going back.” Nas

    Kenneth Einar Himma, Professor of Philosopohy, Seattle Pacific University

  16. This has been a really stimulating exchange and amazon.com would like to thank you all! (my cart is not up to $279). We’re a little slow here in New York (“Guns kill people”)-Asheville (“No they don’t, abortion clinics so), but we’ll get back to all of the comments. Just to make sure that our responses are relevant, we want to summarize what we take to be the gist of the next few comments. Please let us know if we have misunderstood you.

    Weiner: The distinction between ideology and principle is real and important. (The Packard and Hayes pieces are very interesting—haven’t read Daniel Bell yet—and we recommend both to anyone who hasn’t read it, which is not to say that we agree with both fully.)

    Anonymous: Asks what we mean when we talk about giving up ideology.

    Dresser says that we set up a “false equivalence based on an uncharitable and selective generalized reading of ‘people’.” We take this as a request for evidence that the claims we make do in fact apply generally. If this is not how it should be read, please correct us.

    Eric questions whether our claims about political reasoning apply to all sorts of reasoning.

    Johanna and Corey

  17. It seems that this article is motivated, at least in part, by the authors’ concerns for the way in which people make political decisions. In my mind the authors would not take the time to write this article unless they felt political decisions were important. But why are political decisions important? Can this question be answered without reference to some sort of ideology or world view? One of the comments mentions abandoning “ideology” and accepting “principles.” Isn’t that just semantics? Is it even possible to live without an ideology or world view? To me it also seems that music, art, love, joy, friendship, beauty, and all the enjoyable things about life are at least influenced by ideology and world view? Given life without ideology were possible, would it be worthwhile?

  18. Corey’s take on ideology is interestingly quantitative. I’m willing to bet that this structure comes from his background in the sciences. I do take issue with (double) Dr. Washington’s comparison of ideology to religion.

    The equation of atheism to Occam’s razor on a global scale is a good one- lacking evidence to reach a difficult conclusion, atheists look for more reasonable explanations. However, this is a hard to match with ideology, because there is a surplus of evidence which shapes our ideology. In fact, there is an overload of information.

    Our upbringing shapes our likely political views, as does our environment and peer group. Each of these are venues for us to pick up evidence to back up our hypothesises on how the world works (our ideology), or to remodel our viewpoint to better fit with evidence. I believe that ignoring opposing viewpoints is less endemic than it might seen, given that we pick up much of our political information through the news, which can employ heavy handed bias which is rightly discarded. The fact that people experience political shifts is proof that they are not fully filtering out opposing views.

    This is different from religion, which really does evade opposing evidence (or evidence at all). The malleability of ideology, responding both to past experience and shifting personal goals, marks it as separate from religion. This ability to change is the ideal reason why we have debates between political candidates, and also the reason why we don’t see priests debating rabbis.


  19. Anonymous said: ” the value of these values is something that is constantly debated, and we might be forgiven if we think that analytic philosophy hasn’t established them once and for all.”

    You think?

    The post’s authors don’t mention Dan Dennett, but I’ve always been fascinated by how closely the New Atheist debate tracks to the debate over analytic versus “continental” philosophy. Dennett very publicly rejects the division between Geisteswissenschaften and Naturwissenschaften. It’s as if natural science and social praxis can be collapsed into one thing as a matter not even worth thinking about. There’s only a thin sense of understanding in a hermeneutic sense. Everything is completely understandable according to the model of the physical sciences, and that’s presented as invariably the wisest use of our intellects.

    A recent discussion between Dawkins and de Grasse Tyson highlighted how this kind of view can be narrow and closed to productive dialog with other human minds:


    All you need to do is culturally cross the English channel and you get some very different ways of looking at things. Here’s Charles Taylor commenting on Jurgen Habermas’s work:

    “The difficulty of establishing firm ethical conclusions in the midst of vigorous debate among rival doctrines, particularly when these disputes are contrasted to those among natural scientists can all too easily push us to the conclusion that there is no fact of the matter here, that ethical doctrines are not a matter of knowledge, but only of emotional reaction or subjective projection, that the issues here are not cognitive… For Habermas, ethical deliberation is primarily social, dialogical; it is worked out between agents. Of course, in a secondary way, we can and often do deliberate on our own, but the shape of our ethical world is dialogically elaborated…”


  20. I was the one who mentioned the distinction between “ideology” and “principles,” which I borrowed from a recent New Yorker piece by George Packer.

    I don’t think the distinction is semantic. Ideology implies an intellectual rigidity that cannot adapt to circumstance.

    The best example I can think of concern healthcare. I believe in the principle that states have an obligation to provide universal healthcare, that is, healthcare for all their citizens. I also believe, more weakly, that all citizens should be entitled to the same quality of treatment, regardless of socioeconomic status. That’s why I like Canada’s system single-payer system, because at least in theory (though not at all in practice) everyone gets the same treatment. I believe that greater privatization and market involvement leads to greater disparity in healthcare treatment.

    However, if someone could prove to me that in fact, with more market involvement and privatization, and the creation of a two (or 3 or 4) tiered healthcare system, everyone would benefit, healthcare costs would go down,the system would be more efficient, even though some people would receive better care than others, I would abandon principle two, because principle one, the more important principle, would be maintained, and at a lower cost and greater efficiency.

    If I had an ideological commitment to equality at all costs, however, I could not accept this outcome. But from a one based purely on principles, I can.

    In writing this out, I realized that I probably do have an ideology, and it is some basic form of utilitarianism. But I don’t think utilitarianism is an ideology that purports to have any explanatory power, like Marxism. Rather, it simply demonstrates a preference for the way things should be. And I think utilitarianism also allows for a certain pragmatic flexibility, provided that certain principles be maintained–protecting various individual rights, for example.

    I think the issue of explanatory power is key here. A Marxist might say that any sort of privatization will likely lead to ruin, whereas an Ayn Rand Objectivist might say any government involvement in healthcare will likely lead to Fascism. Living without ideology is accepting that predicting the future is very difficult, indeed, that explaining the way the world works is difficult. But one can still have preferences for the way the world should work.

  21. Corey and I have had this debate before–likely more than once. But the conversation is too much fun not to participate in.

    I agree that the so-called “new atheists” (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) often use their atheism as a cover for liberalism. They think most repression in the world can be chalked up to religion, which beyond being simplistic ignores all the good people have done, in part, for religious purposes. But, the notion that people can live without ideology, frankly, doesn’t make any sense to me. There are good ideologies and bad ideologies, rigid ideologies, flexible ideologies, but we all have an ideology. This is not some postmodern, there-is-no-truth relativism I’m espousing. I think truth exists, but certainly not apart from ideology. A good ideology allows one to see truth. Ideology is not a pejorative, it’s how humans make sense of the world, according to a system of ideas. I suggest everyone read Terry Eagleton. Not only is he the smartest critic of the new atheists (“Reason, Faith, and Revolution”), he’s also the most perspicuous analyst of ideology (see his “Ideology: An Introduction.”) I also suggest Eagleton’s “After Theory,” which is a critique of postmodernism in defense of truth and objectivity (but not anti-ideological).

    Without going into my qualms about that idea that science is non-ideological (not that I’m Kuhnian on this, just that as a historian, truth claims always seem more contingent in retrospect), how does science or simple empirical study answer some of the big questions. Such as, how do we organize society? What is the good life? I would argue that equality should be the driving force. Now, scientific evidence would obviously be paramount in determining the best way to achieve the good society, but it can’t do much about deciding what the good life is. A libertarian might argue that the good life is complete freedom from external compulsion, and therefore might have a case that enforced equality would inhibit this good life. The scientific method would be crucial in attempts to achieve libertarian utopia (for me, dystopia), but how could it determine the first question–how shall we live? How shall we be happy, which is a question relative to a host of contexts?

  22. From one of my libertarian friends:

    Well, I must say for once that I strongly disagree with your main thesis : Political beliefs are similar to religious beliefs. But maybe I have misinterpreted your text. Maybe it is more about the psychology of the believers than about the ideas they believe…

    Some reasons :

    1) Political beliefs are controversial but it seems we can assess and justify those beliefs. The fact that most people have little evidence don’t really affect the nature of those beliefs. In fact most common beliefs, like winning a lottery makes people happier or kids personalities are largely influenced by their education, are simply false and therefore based on no evidence at all. The fact that a lot of common beliefs are false don’t mean they cannot be justified. Religious beliefs on the other hand rely on faith only and not on evidence.
    2) Political beliefs can be confronted to each other. Can religious beliefs?
    3) I agree that most people look for material which support their position. But most people ARE NOT ignorant of the ideas of their political adversaries. Political life is quite intense and we need to adapt our beliefs to a constantly changing world. And so do our political adversaries. Religious beliefs on the contrary are static and religious people simply ignore (or exterminate) people with different beliefs.
    4) Political systems have social and economical consequences (do you deny this?). It is therefore meaningful to be strongly concerned by politics. There is no really way to get rid of politics whereas I suppose we could enjoy a world free of religion.
    5) I’m not sure that there is a strong connection between political views and values. According to my experience, most opposing views on politics reflect conflicting analyses rather than conflicting values. I nonetheless agree that most people believe there is a strong connection between their values and their political ideas. They are simply wrong.
    6) Most people don’t reason critically. It’s therefore not surprising that most of their political ideas appear to be ill-founded or just clannish. Maybe they are. But I don’t believe that their psychological dispositions should let us conclude that politics and religion are just two kinds of ideologies which provide people a ready-to-use value system.

    I’m not sure my comments will be of any help.


  23. CGW: Of course views on equality is also where you find significant differences between different ideological positions. Marxist and socialists place a strong emphasis on “equality of outcome”, i.e. all people should have the same material conditions in life. Social democrats and Liberals believe in “equality of opportunity”, i.e. everyone should have the same chances, although ability, work-ethic and luck will result in people having different outcomes. Conservatives and libertarians tend to believe that equality, beyond ensuring that people have the same basic rights, is not worth aiming for. You’ll note that the equality axis runs in the opposite direction to the freedom axis. They are inversely related.

    Vivian: I don’t know why you stressed this difference regarding “equality”. I suppose it was to stress ideological differences resting on real conflicting value systems as opposed to differences regarding empirical facts. But I wonder which kind of “equality of outcome” should be favored? Is there a way to compare individual material conditions? For example, how should we compare the wealth of a 20 years boy in Yale with the wealth of a retired little shop owner in New Mexico? Should we confiscate the money resulting from work and sacrifice in order to guarantee an “equality of outcome”? What would be this outcome if we destroy the incentive of working and investing in a business. If equality of outcome implies that everybody has less. Is it still valuable per se? ( I suppose North Koreans (except Kim family and friends) have pretty much the same outcome for example). If one can show that a dynamic economy rests on inequalities for example , don’t you think that apparent conflicting values are at the end only diverging economical views? Once a better and more positive view of economical interactions are recognized, I believe that a lot of the apparent ethical conflicting views would disappear.

  24. To me, Corey and Johanna’s post ignore two crucial things that cannot be studied non-ideologically:

    1) Ethics: What is the good life?

    2) Power.

    On the question of power, Eagleton writes (in “Ideology”)): “Ideology refers specifically to the way power struggles are fought out at the level of signification…” (113) A close study of the post-ideological thinkers of the early Cold War (Bell, Schlesinger, etc), otherwise known as the consensus or pluralist thinkers, reveals that the danger in arguing against ideology is that one person’s ideology is often seen by others as a cover for ideology. A sort of “the fish is the last to see the water” obfuscation. Again, I like Eagleton on this: “To view an ideology from the outside is to recognize its limits; but from the inside these boundaries vanish into infinity, leaving the ideology curved back upon itself like cosmic space” (58).

  25. WWWJD?

    “What would William James do?”

    It seems to me that what Corey and Johanna are talking about is “a certain blindness in human beings.” (Not the essay, but the phenomenon.) It seems that they are posing a question about how ideologies, which are in some sense value systems, can nevertheless get in the way of our actually accomplishing the things we value/desire/want to see happen in the world. They are asking us to ponder the puzzling problem over why we might continue to prefer an ideology which “doesn’t work” over — over what? A plurality of possibilities?

    Or am I being too simplistic?

  26. On studying ethics and the question of “What is a good life?”, non-ideologically, see:

    (1) This list of books from British philosopher A.C. Grayling (courtesy of Slate.com’s Nina Shen Rastogi). Take note of book #1 on that list, Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. [Aside: Isn’t Grayling an atheist?]

    (2) M.J. Adler’s The Time of Our Lives (1970). Adler meant for TOL to be updated version of the Nichomachean Ethics (NE). Of course with Adler you have to ignore the dated chapter consisting of anti-counterculture rhetoric, as well as the lousy ideological introduction by Deal Hudson (from the 1990s, completely out of sync politically with Adler’s purpose). But those two parts of the books are clearly out-of-step with the rest, which pretty much is a genuine philosophical attempt to update Aristotle’s NE.

    – TL

  27. There’s a difference between being an atheist, and being a New Atheist in the mode of Dawkins and Dennett, who are really arguing that the physical sciences should take religion’s place in culture. As Alan Wolfe has argued in *The Future of Liberalism*, there’s something illiberal in their stridency in arguing this. (And ideological.)

  28. LD: Perhaps you’re right, but how do we even know what we want?

    This difference speaks to one of Corey’s examples about how his ideology led to his poor predictive capabilities. He predicted that the Sandinistas would win the 1990 election because he distrusted the information he was getting from US propaganda sources. Corey might have been wrong in his predictions, for a variety of reasons, perhaps related to his ideology. But he was right in two ways: 1) To want the Sandinistas to win; 2) To distrust US propaganda channels. And being right in these ways is related to ideology of first principles.

  29. And I wasn’t clear in my previous comment, so let me try to be…

    Corey used the example of not expecting Obama to be elected president, and seemed to be using this as an example of one expression of his “ideology” — his set of ideas and beliefs about the way that racism, political power, etc., actually do work in our society, his beliefs about the unlikelihood of a black candidate being embraced by a majority of the white electorate, etc., etc.

    And he is saying that in this instance his “ideology” was wrong because it prevented him from seeing/understanding/conceptualizing the possibilities that were present in others.

    This isn’t *exactly* what James is talking about in his essay, but I think it’s close enough:

    “Now the blindness in human beings…is the blindness with which we are all afflicted in regard to the feelings of creatures and people different from ourselves.”

    In some sense, we are blind to the potential value of other peoples’ values when they differ from ours, and our view is perspectival and partial.

    [skipping much lovely poetry and prose, and lovely prose about the poetry and prose…]

    Here’s how James concludes:

    “Hands off: neither the whole of truth nor the whole of good is revealed to any single observer…[more absolutely soaring prose here]”

    So what makes ideology problematic is its inner consistency, its total “explanatory” power. We see in part, but our ideology allows us to imagine that we have the (most) complete view of the whole. That seems to be the problem.

    Now, this is a different way of using “ideology” than Corey used it in his example.

    Verbal slippage! Contagion of metaphors! Paging Daniel T. Rodgers…

  30. LD; Nice use of James. But for Corey and Johanna, it seems to me that science, or empirical observation and evidence, stands in for the total explanatory power of ideology, but is still total and explanatory, as long as evidence exists.

    I should note that in my previous comment Corey and Johanna’s maxim about evidence would apply to the appropriateness of distrusting US propaganda sources, since there is copious such evidence that leads to the conclusion it is to be distrusted, when it comes to US foreign policy in much of the world, especially Central America.

  31. We haven’t defined ideology up to this point and it might be useful to do it now. Here are some definitions taken from the web:

    Wikipedia: a set of aims and ideas that directs one’s goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare worldview).

    History central: a set of beliefs and goals of a social or political group that explain or justify the group’s decisions and behavior.

    arkarcheology.uark.edu/rockart/index.html: a system of ideas, principles, and values that characterize the belief system of a community.

    It’s clear from these definitions that ideologies are fuzzy and complex. They contain both factual and ethical claims, in addition to more amorphous ‘values’, all of which affect specific goals, but may not yield clear claims, e.g. libertarians value freedom more than socialists.

    JJ and Andrew raised the point that our discussion has focused on the factual component of ideologies, at the expense of the value component. While the value-side is more complex, we think it is not fundamentally different. Like the factual component of ideology, values are normally acquired in arbitrary ways and maintained through selective exposure to data and irrational responses to opposing positions. It is possible to take a more rational, less arbitrary, approach to forming and assessing values that will reduce, if not eliminate, ideology. Such an approach does not use the quasi-scientific method we advocate for the analysis of factual assumptions, but is evidence-based and draws on philosophical/ethical analysis.

    There appear to be two considerations that normally determine people’s values (as with religion): (1.) experience — where you grew up, what your parents taught you, who your friend are, etc. (“That’s the way I was raised.”); and (2.) personal psychology, which appears to be genetic. People who are more open to new experiences tend to be liberal. People who more readily see threats tend to be conservative. Its seems clear that both of these considerations are arbitrary and so provide no rational justification for ethical views. (Your ethical views shouldn’t be determined in the same way as your favorite sports team.)

    One of most striking features of values is how they vary with social situation or position. My views on what was permissible in law enforcement are similar to the views of people I grew up with, and substantially different from those of many police officers I’ve met. Police think a lot more should be allowed. Certainly, part of the explanation has to be what cops see and experience on a daily basis, and it’s quite likely I would change my views if I saw what they did.
    (We think its reasonable to assume, unless given evidence to the contrary, that each person is like any other and would do what that person does/come to a similar conclusion if put in similar circumstances, i.e. we hold to “unexceptionalism” as a default position (on the basis of the biology and psychology similarities between human beings.))

    To be continued…

  32. Similarly, my views on taxation differ from those of business people I know, and it seems my views might change if I were in their shoes. My upbringing and lack of business experience are arbitrary and should not determine my values. I should hang out with cops and business people and try to get the info they have and add these to the factors I use to develop my values. Overall, a rational and empirical approach to values involves exposing yourself to alternative experiences that might give you reason to alter them.

    We want to underscore that anyone can have their putative values changed by evidence. Ray Paternoster is a professor at UMD and author of my favorite book on the death penalty (“Capital Punishment in America”). Paternoster used to come to my class and start off by explaining how he got interested in the topic. He said he was just an ordinary statistician when one day in the late 70’s he got a call from a friend who was a defense attorney in South Carolina (can’t remember the county). The friend said he had an all white jury in a county that was 50% black and wanted to know the odds of such a jury composition (2^12 or 4096 to 1 in the absence of other information). When Paternoster dug deeper, he found no blacks had been on a jury in that county since 1870; the odds of that were the same as getting hit by lightening seven times in one year. This led to his research and the book.

    Fast forward to 2000. Paternoster is asked by the governor to lead a panel examining the death penalty in Maryland for signs of bias. He had to read through lots of terrible cases. He told me that doing this work changed his view on the death penalty to that of being a supporter. This guy knows and has seen stuff I haven’t, he’s reasonable, and is now (circa 2002) pro death penalty. Knowing this should lead me to hedge the strength of my opposition.

    It seems that one way to remove some of the arbitrariness of your experience is to figure out which experiences you are lacking that might be relevant to determining your values, and have as many of these experiences as possible. I should start talking to cops and business guys and, if possible, hang around while they do their jobs. Where its not possible to have those experiences, one should start gathering secondary data — reading, watching documentaries, etc. — and assessing the evidence by rational means. Of course, one will not be able to fully investigate the topic, so one should hedge the strength of any values/principles one holds, calibrating the strength to the quality of the data/arguments encountered and knowing one’s views could rationally be altered by prosaic experiences.

    Along with gathering experiences and data, we think it is essential to carry out a philosophical and ethical analysis to see whether values are rational. Part of this will involve examining the logical consequences of value assumptions. I used to cover abortion in my social issues class. I found that drawing out the consequences graphically could move people.

  33. Pro-choice students glommed onto the assumption that a woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body and, thus, abortion should be legal at any state in pregnancy. I’d present the following scenario:

    When Robert DeNiro played Jake Lomatta in Raging Bull he gained 50 pounds for that role. Played it and then lost the weight. We thought that was cool. I asked the students, how they would feel if Angelia Jolie got pregnant to play the role of an expectant mother and then got an abortion in month seven. (Note the fetus is viable, but killed by the procedure.) After all, if a woman has a right to do whatever she wants with her own body that should ok and legal. You could hear the revulsion from everyone. This tended to lead the pro-choice kids to to pull back from the abortion at any time for any reason view.

    The pro-life kids held that life begins at conception and so abortion should be illegal across the board. Ok, if life begins at conception, then during a natural disaster you should run to the nearest fertility clinic and protect the petric dishes because these clinic have the highest density of “human life” on the planet. Audible “ugggh” from that side of the room, and back-peddling from the embyos/fetuses at any stage have the same right to life as you and me position.

    In addition, you should apply rational constraints such as the Kantian categorical imperative (“”Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.”) Under the imperative, “a person acts morally when he or she acts as if his or her conduct was establishing a universal law governing others in similar circumstances.” (Wikipedia) Any ethical principle that can’t be universalized should be rejected.

    Emotional appeals may be most potent, but they are dangerous. The single most affecting speaker in my social issues classes was an activist from PETA, who I invited for the section on animal rights. He showed a pirated video taken after hours from a lab that showed researchers “dancing” with a lobotomized macaque, rabbits with serial ports in the back of their heads, and cats carcasses being dumped en-mass into the garbage. After teaching for three weeks with little apparent movement in people’s views, half the class acknowledged that animals have rights on the spot after that video. One of my students told me that he was convinced now that his dog had rights and that instead of using animals for experimental subjects we should use death row inmates. Not quite what I was trying to get across. I should have balanced this presentation with a detailed discussion of the benefits of animal research and information about how animals are usually treated in labs but did not have time.

    So, in sum we advocate

    1. Trying to figure out experiences/data that might be relevant to determining your values and examining/experiencing as much of them as you can.

    2. Conducting an ethical analysis.

    3. Hedging the strength of any values/principles you hold, calibrating the strength to the quality of the data/arguments you’ve encountered and knowing your views could rationally be altered by prosaic experiences.

  34. I’m a fan of Charles Taylor’s notion of a “strong evaluation.” Sure, probably some values are perceived conditioned by previous experience in some way, but a lot of times values are perceived because we are actually getting something right (as opposed to just just experiencing an artifact of conditioned experience or some biological, too-subjective-to-consider something-or-other).

    Someone recorded a lecture of his on this subject and posted it here:


    I liked his joke at the end of the talk.

  35. Corey: Your position comes into better focus with these latest comments. But if I’m understanding you correctly, you’re arguing that the solution to our arbitrary and particular conditions, of which our values are formed, should be tempered by more arbitrary and particular experiences, but chosen such that our values are challenged? But you’re also making a Kantian categorical imperative case? How do you square these? For instance, one could make a Kantian evaluation of the death penalty that it’s always wrong for the state to murder people. But your friend’s reconsideration of the death penalty must have been based on some utilitarian balancing of two social evils.

    To put in in the context of an issue I care more about–equality–Rawls argues that the ideal society would be organized by people who hadn’t a clue about their own perspective–the veil of ignorance. So he asks that we think about the social ideal in terms of making society decent for the worst off. This is universalizing a particular in Kantian fashion. But it also assumes or values a degree of equality in and of itself, which is an original position that shouldn’t be balanced or relativized away by other social goods. Which is a different original position than that held by a libertarian such as Nozick. In short, the balancing of facts to reevaluate original positions works in some cases, as you’ve addressed, but not in all. By what standard would I reevaluate my commitment to equality? If I were confronted by evidence that equality is miserable? OK, but I’m not holding my breath.

  36. I know this way off-topic, but I have to point out that Rawls did not advocate economic equality. Perhaps the main point of his argument is that some inequalities make everyone better off. (The most obvious example of this are public policies and private behaviors that stimulate economic growth, which is why I believe that his late-in-the-game 1971 opus still represents an expression of postwar consensus liberalism.) Those specific inequalities (but not *every* inequality) are the ones that anyone in the original position would favor, as people care about their own position, not their position relative to others. (Rawls concluded this from the fact that those in the initial position are rational. That his conception of rationality might not be as neutral as he thought motivated the strongest attacks on his theory, and was more-or-less the reason for the significant revisions that he made to it in “Political Liberalism.”)

    The purpose of the welfare state would be to increase the number of these “win-win” scenarios–though taxation, social programs and the like–so that behavior that would otherwise benefit only some would turn out to benefit all. He specifically rejected the notion that those in the original position would choose a society based on the principle that people should be economically equal.

  37. Thanks, Mike, for clarifying Rawls. It’s been 10 years since I read “A Theory of Justice” and it seems I need to dust it off and give it another read soon. (Or just wait for your book!) I went back and looked at an old grad school essay that I wrote on Rawls and there I was bitching (in not-so-sophisticated fashion) about his “difference principle,” which allows for a great deal of economic inequality. I guess my memory of Rawls is clouded by my ideology! Corey is right!

  38. Reply to Weiner: We find Packard’s article “Deepest Cuts” appealing. As you wrote, he distinguishes between principles and ideology as follows: principles are “a set of values that have to be adapted to circumstances, but not compromised away”, whereas ideology “knows the answer before the question has been asked.” He wants Obama to have principles but not ideology.

    Note, however, Packard never gives a clear example of an ideological claim juxtaposed to a principle. He suggests “one should support Medicare, Medicaid, education, and the environment.” Is this a principle? Or is it a principle *to protect the least powerful in society economically*, an exhortation that without defense certainly sounds ideological?

    So long as a principle is something that can be refined on the basis of evidence, we would not identify principle with ideology. Being principled without ideology would seem, therefore, to mean that one arrives at views on the basis of evidence and is willing to give up a principle if presented with compelling evidence to the contrary, but that one accords the principle the weight it deserves in political bargaining (whatever that may be–here ideology may be essential.). So understood, we would agree that being principled, but not ideological, is a good thing (if feasible).

    We don’t think Packard has fully explored, though, what not being ideological involves. He baldly advocates liberal values, without offering clear evidence for why one should adopt those values, which is typical of ideological discourse. Liberal principles may be valid, and non-ideological, so might conservative principles, but one can only show this by appealing to some non-partisan, rational/empirical means of ethical evaluation.

  39. Maybe I’m missing something, but the unconditional demand a for “non-partisan, rational/empirical” basis for values/principles seems innocent of a pretty long and serious line of challenges to the possibility of doing that. What would empirical evidence in favor of an ethical value look like?

    Sidenote: What does “rational-empirical” mean, anyway? You’ve pointed to Kant as an example of valid rational ethical decision making, but for Kant contingent empirical (as in, part of the world of sense) considerations can’t be part of the picture because that leads to consequentialist thinking and allows for heteronomous control of morals by contingent conditions.

  40. Corey and Johanna: I’ve been thinking about another problem with your “after ideology” approach–one that’s so obvious it should go without mention, but should be mentioned here anyway. That is of class positioning or perspective. To use the most obvious example, ownership will not and can not come to the same conclusions (ethical, ideological) about management issues as organized labor. The two sides have interests inimical to one another. Now, both sides would be wise to analyze their interests using all available evidence, but their interests and their interests.

  41. This article offers a great example of stereotypical ideological thinking:


    In response to decisive contrary evidence the ideological response is never to admit error but to change the subject or deny holding the position that has been shown to be false. (When the Sandinista’s lost the 1990 elections, Sandalistas like me said, who had previously predicted a resounding victory changed our tune and started saying: “how could you have expected them to win with the US breathing down their back the country knew war would never end if they won.”

  42. Response to Dresner, Eric and Andrew (one comment back). Dresner raised the question about how generally our claims about irrational reasoning in politics apply, while Eric questions whether there is anything special about political irrationality. We think the claims apply to most people and that there is something distinct about this type of irrationality. Before we go on, we should say the best popular introduction to the science behind it we’ve come across lately, is a recent article in Mother Jones:
    It covers nearly the whole subject in very clear terms. Because the basic cause of the irrationality would appear to be emotion, we believe what is true for politics probably applies to any topic with strong emotional content for the subject, e.g. health/diet/medical issues (vaccines), sex, money, etc. (An old girlfriend of mine once said “people are weird about food, sex and money.” I think she was onto the phenomenon 20 years before it had a name.) Since emotion in politics is widespread, we expect the tendencies we describe are fairly pervasive among humans. In contrast, we would not expect those tendencies to extend to areas of human reasoning where people can be dispassionate.
    The set of phenomena at issue have come to be collected under the heading of “motivated reasoning”: thought that takes place in an emotional context where people aim to maintain, or arrive at, a particular conclusion. One form this takes is “confirmation bias”, where people seek out evidence that supports their view, while avoiding data that might conflict with it. (We agree with JJ that people’s ethics may be based on valid inferences from their experiences, but problems arise from the fact that people’s individual experiences often only tell only part of the story. You can defend almost anything with a proper selection of the data. As LD observes, we often see only our story and are blind to others’.)
    A second form is the refusal to accept clear evidence against one’s view, either changing the subject of the discussion when faced with such data or denying it proves what it does. (A friend purportedly quoted Dante to me long ago: “At some points in an argument all you can do is pull out a knife.” Though emotional on his side, it was aimed at situations were you can’t get someone to assent to a sound syllogism.)
    It is somewhat difficult to rely on research to show the precise extent of the phenomenon. Because the default scientific assumption is that people do not exhibit motivated reasoning and because scientists don’t generally publish negative data, it’s hard to cite research that shows where motivated reasoning does NOT occur. However, it seems reasonable to assume it occurs far less common in discussions of the weather, driving directions, exercise routines, how to perform particular laboratory procedures, cleaning products, etc. — subjects about which there is generally little emotion. If someone thinks it’s going to be sunny today and you offer them the latest report saying it will rain, they are not likely to go into denial and seek out evidence to show that it is going to be sunny. (Unless you’re in a particularly combative relationship; in which case, we all know you aren’t really arguing about the weather.) There are a whole set of other problems with human reasoning on ordinary topics — faulty memories, misconceptions about randomness and causation — but these are more design flaws that breeds of irrationality.

  43. If motivated reasoning is tied to emotion, then one would expect a person could come to avoid it in politics if she could remove emotion from the subject matter. I think some writers do this better than others, and those that do tend to feel “bloodless”. (Some of my favorites include Paternoster on Capital Punishment, Christopher Jenks on Homelessness and Mark Graber on Abortion. Graber is mildly pro-life, but thinks that outlawing abortion would lead to massive equal protection violations.)
    Here is a newsweek article that summarizes a study connected with beliefs about Obama:
    The article links to a 2006 by my favorite researchers on the topic
    The study was carried out before the 2004 election. Westen, et. al, took equal numbers of Kerry and Bush supporters and gave each group two statements — one provided evidence that Bush had lied, while the other provided evidence that Kerry had lied. The Bush people accepted the statement about Kerry, but found pretexts to dismiss the statement about Bush, and the Kerry people did the opposite. Interestingly enough, when they were dismissing the statement about their guy, fMRI detected activity in one of the pleasure centers of their brains.
    Andrew, you suggest that Paternoster was motivated by a utilitarian argument to embrace CP after doing the government study. I don’t know. This occurred years after his book and he never said precisely what it was that tipped him in favor. My unsubstantiated guess is that it wasn’t any specific principle or argument per se, just the horrific quality of the cases he was reading. Some of the murders were probably so gruesome and over the top or the guy killed so many people that he concluded that the perpetrator had lost his right to life. (This happened with another friend after he read about a guy who shotgunned a woman in her pubic area and then made her crawl over barbed wire before he would agree to “finish her off”.)
    Andrew, you ask whether you could respond to Paternoster by taking a deontological position that killing is always wrong. Of course, you could, but this would be a conventional example of motivated reasoning. As the Mother Jones articles notes, when pro-CP and anti-CP people read two articles about CP, advancing arguments for or against, they find “flaws” in the argument against their view but find the argument for their view more “convincing”. You would be starting with your pre-established position and reasoning back to some principle to justify/rationalize it.

  44. Andrew, as you noted, our argument has a Rawlsian flavor: forget what your position is and try to assess the arguments impartially. Go wherever the data/argument go. Our view is also similar to Descartes’ in holding that emotion impairs reasoning and thus disagrees with Damasio (“Descartes Error”) who criticizes Descartes from a neuroscientific perspective.
    We should note that there is one philosophical line of reasoning that argues all ethics derive from emotion. Under this view, one cannot have ethical positions without emotion. (There go the Vulcans.) This suggests that to the extent that irrationality about ethics accompanies any subject shot through with emotion, rational ethics is impossible.

  45. In what sense, if any, is “ideology” distinct from “theory” as it is used in the following sentence? “For the meanest of men has his Theory; and to think at all is to theorize.” If ideology is simply how one looks upon the world, or “theorizes,” then does it have any especial significance? If it is something beyond that, at what point does it become distinctly “ideology” as something beyond one’s individual perspective on the world?

    What is missing here is some awareness of the history of “ideology” as a concept. That’s not something I know much about, but as this is a blog about intellectual history, it is, I think, something that should enter the discussion. Especially considering, taking this exchange as evidence, how important ideology remains in abstract and in concrete terms.

  46. Varad: My favorite history of ideology, though it’s not systematic, is Terry Eagleton’s “Ideology: An Introduction.” I think that Corey and Johanna must wrestle with Eagleton in their proposed book. Viewing the world anti-ideologically becomes much more difficult when the subject is studied historically, since all past efforts to escape ideology are retrospectively understood to be historically contingent fool’s errands. See how historians treat Daniel Bell’s “End of Ideology” (1960) to get a sense of this.

  47. Check out this essay in the New York Review (a review of Sam Harris’s latest book. It seems to me the reviewer’s criticisms of Harris’s contradictory scientism speak to the problems inherent to Corey and Johanna’s attempts to transcend fact-value distinctions.

  48. Initial response to Himma (more to come): This discussion is a little technical, but I hope I can explain why it is relevant to politics and ideology. To remind people of what’s at issue, Ken responded to an argument I gave for atheism:

    I wrote in an email to Ken:
    “I don’t think I stated my argument as well as I should have. It’s way too compressed. Here’s what I have in mind. Do you believe that there there are 14 ft. tall people in Afghanistan? No you don’t. Not only do you NOT believe *there are 14 ft tall people in Afghanistan* you believe * NOT there are 14 ft. tall people in Afghanistan*. Why do you believe this? You believe it because it is an extraordinary hypotheses that there are 14 ft tall people in A, and there is no commensurate evidence. Now this doesn’t prove that there are no 14 ft tall people in A. It just gives you a reason to believe *NOT there are 14 ft. tall people in A*. That I think is the key to atheist arguments. They do not prove there is not god, but they argue that it is rational to believe there is no God.”

    Ken wrote: “…the existence of 14-foot-tall people might be an extraordinary fact (given that the tallest we ever see is under 8 feet, so the existence of a person 6 feet taller is extraordinary). But this doesn’t entail that “extraordinary” evidence is required. Same evidence is required to show that there is someone 7’6″ in the world: trot someone out that height (Yao Ming will work). Trot a 14-foot-person out and the epistemic game is over. This doesn’t constitute extraordinary evidence but it is compelling.”

    I would say that I have to disagree. Ordinary evidence for someone’s height might include reports of how tall someone is or a photograph. A photograph or a report should be enough to convince someone that I am 5’7’’. We might even accept a photo or a report as evidence that there is a 8 ft. tall person in Afganistan (maybe). However, we should definitely not accept either as proof that there is a 14ft tall person in Afghanistan. Why? Well, human height has an approximately normal distribution with the mean for males falling around 5’9’’. Current estimates suggest that a person who is 7’4’’ is 5-6 standard deviations away from the average. So statistically there should be only 1 such person in 4-500,000,000 individuals. (The tallest person in the US is the US is 7’8’’. The tallest living person is 8’1’’ and the tallest person ever was 8’11’.) So the odds against there being a 14 ft tall person are astronomical, probably exceeding a trillion to one.

  49. I think Ken is begging the question when he says, “Trot out a 14-foot-person…” Because “trot out” assumes that the 14 ft tall person exists, when the existence of such a person is precisely what is at issue. To avoid begging the question, he needs to say, “Trot out what looks like a 14 ft person.” What kind of evidence should convince you that what looks like a 14 ft tall person is actually a 14 ft tall person, i.e. that a trillion to one odds has come through? Suppose you had a photograph or a video showing a 14 ft tall person. Should you believe that it is real? No. You should weigh two likelihoods. What is more likely: the photo/video really is of a 14 ft person or the photo/video is fake? Clearly that it is fake. The odds of faking a photograph or video is less than 1 in a trillion. Even if you saw a person in in front of you who looked 14 ft, you should disbelieve it (as probably a conjurer’s trick). What you need to have is evidence in which the odds of its being fake are greater than 1 in a trillion, i.e see the person stripped down naked, go over the person’s body to ensure no tricks, and have my own blood tested to rule-out hallucinogens. (I assume we are talking about a naturally 14 ft tall person. If bone lengthening via breakage and re-healing, limb transplants, and artificial growth hormone are permitted, the claim is not extraordinary.) If all this checks out, then it looks like we have solid evidence of a 14 ft tall person. This is what I mean by extraordinary evidence.

    Now consider a similar case. I have a friend, a well-known, neuroscientist as it turns out who happens to believe that Karl Rove somehow allowed the 9/11 attacks to happen so as to bolster George Bush’s popularity. Why does he believe this? Well, at some point, Rove apparently said that a terrorist attack would be good for Bush’s popularity. Now, a comment like that is not good enough evidence to believe in such a conspiracy. (Other friends of mine claim that the maker of Diebold electronic voting machines helped Bush win the 2004 election by rigging the machines in Ohio; similar arguments apply to this theory to.) Just consider what would have to occur for it to be true.

    Rove would have had to communicate his desire to lower the air/signal defense system at particular times to people at the NSA/CIA, and these people would have to communicate this fact to the large number of people who *manage* the monitoring of satellites and communications around the world. These people would in turn have to communicate it to the grunts who actually do the monitoring and analyzing. They would have to successfully lower the activity of these systems without anyone else finding out and then turn the systems back on without anyone else finding out, and LEAVE NO TRACE, and NO ONE COULD TELL ANYONE ABOUT THIS.

    Now not only do I *not* believe that this happened, i.e. refrain from believing it, I actively *believe that this did not happen*. I believe it didn’t happen because the odds against it happening are astronomical, given what we know about human behavior and the cyber traces, and no evidence commensurate with this extraordinary unlikeliness has emerged.

  50. God is quite a lot more extraordinary than a 14 ft tall person or a massive 9/11 conspiracy. S/he is infinitely powerful, infinitely good and all knowing. All assessments of what is likely must be based on some data set, and the data set of known objects suggests that anything like God is so completely unusual that one should believe that it does not exist as a default hypothesis — and in the face of any imaginable evidence. (Ask yourself what are the odds of a being that can lift 10000 kg, 1000000 kg, 10000000 kg, 100000000 kg……? The asymptote of this curve = the probability of there being an infinitely power being (God)= 0). It is more likely that any evidence put forward for God’s existence has a natural explanation, i.e. natural selection in the case of the origins of different species, delusion on the part of people who claim to have witnessed miracles, etc. than that God is the explanation. Again, this doesn’t prove God doesn’t exist, but only that it is rational to believe that s/he does not exist. Thus, the argument against God is the same as the argument for not believing in most conspiracy theories and the same as the reasons for not believing in fairies and gobblins or the invisible man sleeping under my bed who wears a fedora on Thursdays.

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