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A statement on the tension between a commitment to Reason and a practical need for joining organized efforts that are rarely if ever in perfect alignment with Reason:

When I consider what I’ll call Cultural Politics, which is the competition of narratives in the population at large, and which is what I consider the more fundamental arena in which the poltical contest takes place, I am all for non-partisanship: We should dump all of our ideological and partisan baggage, and merely strive to be reasonable and humane people, knowing that we don’t know, working with others in a disciplined and pragmatic way to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. But when I consider what I’ll call Politics Proper, which is the competition over electoral victories and specific policies enacted through the political process in real time, I feel no choice but to become more partisan, because those more superficial but still significant and vital battles are determined by superior organization and mobilization of resources, and too much disintegration of efforts into divergent emphases undermines the ability of those so inclined to pass their preferred laws and policies.

I prefer Obama to Romney, a Democratic controlled Congress to a Republican controlled Congress, the passage of gay rights legislation, and humane immigration reform, and the preservation of our social welfare system, and more proactive investment in the extension of opportunity and the reduction of social injustice, and more attention to environmental and public health and safety issues. The reality is, in current election cycles, except very rarely at the more local levels, we are faced with an effective choice between two broad alternatives, and I will and feel that I must dedicate what effort I dedicate to Politics Proper working to see that my preference among those two choices prevails.

But there are many points of intersection between Cultural Politics and Politics Proper, in which the demands of both become more blended. While working, on the Cultural Politics side, for a less ideological and more imaginative and analytical approach to self-governance, I also work to move the political party I favor more in that direction (and often get as much flak from my own fellow Democrats for doing so as I get from Republicans for opposing them more broadly). And, if promising third parties emerge that seem better positioned to incorporate more of what I favor on the Cultural Politics side into their approach to Politics Proper, I will certainly work to raise their profile and viability so that at some point in the future they might actually become a reasonable investment in the electoral competitions that define Politics Proper.

But I will not relinquish the present to the party which I consider the less desirable of the two currently viable choices in service to some personal commitment to some dysfunctional purity of my own. We have to blend the pragmatic and idealistic and long-term and immediate demands that confront us, to articulate with the world in the most effective and beneficial way possible.

However, the demands of compromise move us toward reason in the next stage, after arguably moving it away from reason in the stage described above: Once we’ve organized in support of our preferred policies, we must compromise with those who have organized in support of theirs with which we disagree, in order to govern ourselves effectively and functionally. And, as a general rule, over the long-term, this requirement increases rather than decreases the rationality of our policies, and the quality of analysis and human consciousness that has gone into their design and implementation.

In theory, this process continues into the global arena, with nations that have hopefully developed to be more inclusive internally also developing in the direction of being more pacified and cooperative externally. There will always be divergent interests and orientations in play in this dynamic, within political parties, within nations, and throughout the world, nested and overlapping organizations of divergent and convergent interests, competing and compromising and moving toward arrangements that better serve humanity’s interests. The more we can rationalize and realize this process, the better off we all will be.

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  • JH:

    Greetings- As a first-time poster, I want to thank Mr. Harvey for his efforts on this site and elsewhere, and all the others who strive to engage in constructive dialogue. It’s challenging. It takes patience and practice to not let our judgements come so quickly.

    It’s evident that most people who are politically engaged (at any level) feel strongly about how things ought to be, whatever political profile we identify with- “conservative”, “liberal”, “libertarian”, etc. And I daresay that most of us have probably met people who we believe to be “good” people even though they held very different perspectives about politics, religion, world view, etc. It’s very frustrating to try and understand how that can be, right? Or maybe we simply chalk our differences up to them being mistaken, ignorant, simple minded- simply wrong, even if they seem genuinely well meaning. If you wish to understand how we come from such different views, I suggest some of the material by psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The link below takes you to a video talk of his on the topic (though it’s far from being a complete paradigm changing overview). He also came out with a book spring of 2012 called “The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion”. Early on, that book points to research indicating how we are largely guided by intuition/”the passions”, which is then backed by reasoning- and we are wired to use reasoning to arrive at whatever our passions tell us. So to enlist rational argument as a guiding standard may not get us any closer to our mark of increased agreement since it is generally going to lead us back to what our intuition says (all due respect, Steve- that’s just what the research seems to show). I identify as liberal, but I don’t see that as the one and right way necessarily, and want to get above that arbitrary boundary and figure out how to make things work better with people of other views.

    If I can take a stab at the bottom line: Around the world and across our nation there are a huge variety of groups (political parties, sports teams, gangs, neighborhoods, communities, countries, religions, religious sects, etc.) who identify their members by one or more attributes. Despite how strongly we may feel to the contrary, there seems to be no universal or absolute right or wrong- there are simply mores that allow groups, societies, etc. to function more cohesively- but there are functioning groups that do not hold the same morals as you or me. Morals are a social construct, and social groups vary. Can we recognize that there are morals that differ from ours, and that ours are right to the extent simply that they help our group function? And do we agree that we live in an increasingly globalized world where less space between groups means more interaction and realization of differences, testing of boundaries? Then to the extent we don’t wish harm on people, we should be willing to consider whether the maintenance and protection of those differences is worth the friction/mistrust/death they may cause. When we feel so different (or distant) from someone or some group, it is easier to care less about them (or dislike/hate more). However, think back on those times you’ve met someone who you at first felt a dislike, distrust, or any other negative feeling toward- and then came to feel less negative for some reason or another. Perhaps you came to see the humanity in them, some similarity between you. I think given the right circumstances, our feelings toward people outside our group (whichever that is) would move positively along the positive-negative continuum, even though we may disagree about some matters that are very core to our identity. That’s not to say we should set aside all our differences and declare unity, but unless we think ourselves so superior in the world (many do feel sure in this) and unwilling to seek a boundary with less harm, then we have to keep our morals on a leash. To cling unflinchingly to these boundaries and identities seems at least a little bit silly considering that they are largely arbitrary, no?

    And while many of us may fancy ourselves well informed on certain issues, I think it should give us pause to consider that even the experts & specialists (e.g., economists) who are consulted or deciding on national policy and other levers don’t seem to get it right much of the time. So before we jump on that good feeling of being so sure about what is the correct/best way to do something, let’s try taking a humble pill and savoring at least a little taste of uncertainty. Even if our personal wisdom is undiscovered (otherwise you might already be one of those national “experts”, right? And you would be recognized for it), any prescriptions on a certain issue are hard to implement effectively without controlling for the other multitude of factors. And unless someone really thinks they’re an expert on all the factors to where you can say what’s going to make things work (I would expect irrefutable evidence), I ask that you step down from the pulpit/podium and join in the dialogue to see how we can make things work best with our differences. Like anyone who has preferences of music, food, and what qualifies as art, I have my own strong preferences and tastes, but I don’t think for a minute I know certainly how things ought to be, or what is the best. Just my two cents for now- thanks for taking the time.

  • JH, thanks for your thoughtful comment. This is the second time I’ve encountered the work of Jonathan Haidt being proferred as an argument against reason. I have not read his work, and might find much of value in it, but the conclusions you appear to be drawing are, I think, less useful than what it is you are using those conclusions to oppose.

    First of all, there is much agreement in our positions. I agree that knowing that we don’t know is vital to wisdom, and that striving for some kind of unity is vital to humanity. We also agree that humans aren’t predominantly rational; that we all have biases, and that we tend to use reason as a tool for attempting to rationalize those biases after the fact. We diverge, however, in the implications of these premises, and what conclusions they naturally recommend.

    Since you seem to suggest that these premises lead to the conclusion that reason cannot be channeled in a way conducive to reducing bias and increasing accuracy and utility, and that taking positions based on one’s best attempts at utilizing reason in as disciplined a manner as they can manage is somehow incompatable with the statements above that we agree on, your argument appears to me to be another argument against reason. In fact, you state that reason doesn’t get us any closer to the goal. But the historical evidence, despite your claim, very emphatically contradicts that notion: The application of reason does improve and dramatically has improved our understanding of the world.

    You seem to imply that knowing that we don’t know, and being aware that the perspectives of others may at times have a legitimacy that we fail to recognize, prohibits us from arguing a postion on an issue. But, if you accept that we should consider the merits of all arguments, it does not follow that we should not make arguments that we think have merit.

    You argue for a unity that doesn’t exist and can’t be wished into existence, in place of these competing ideologies (in the broadest sense) which divide us, but don’t offer the formula for how to work toward such a state. I agree that we should work toward that unity, toward recognition of that shared cognitive field defining and facilitating a shared purpose, but I strive to identify and advocate for some strategy that might move us toward it rather than implying that the way to bring it into existence is to treat all opinions as equal. By the latter approach, I’d have to consider Nazism equal to the opposition to it, and I’m happily unconvinced by either the wisdom or humanity of such non-differentiation.

    The strategy recommended by history, and which is the one clearly distinguishable from and superordinate to all others, is to promote a commitment to the procedures and methodologies which have proved most (though, as you note, imperfectly) effective at reducing bias and increasing accuracy. That is the one that I promote. I do not promote blind adherence to substantive positions, but rather a wise commitment to striving to be reasonable people of goodwill, recognizing our own limited comprehension, using disciplined imagination and reason in service to humanity, working together to do the best we can in a complex and subtle world. It’s hard to find any alternative formulation to recommend for broad agreement other than any one of the competing substantive ideologies itself, in the familiar pattern we have always been trapped in.

    This is worth emphasizing: The disunity you identify is a disunity of substantive positions, reinforced by a false certainty of the value of one’s own substantive positions in comparison to those of others. The unity you claim to favor but do not indicate any pathway toward is one which recognizes that we are all fallible, but fails to provide any methodology for promoting actual reason and humanity in our substantive positions, and instead simply relies on a vague inability to differentiate among perspectives and arguments. A more robust and useful unity would be a shared commitment to the methodologies and procedures which best maximize accuracy and reduce bias, which, like mathematics (which is one dimension of such a methodology), transcends individual cultures and provides a common language.

    The fact that we have biases that we then rationalize does not imply that the process of “rationalizing,” i.e., trying to use reason, does not increase the reasonableness of our positions. The fact of the existence of science, for instance, and the history of its development and success in reducing bias and increasing accuracy, militates against this conclusion: Clearly, disciplined attempts to employ reason do not merely mask the inevitable absolute dominance of irrationality. And, to be honest, the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates the truth of what i have just said, and not the truth of an attempt to dismiss reason as irrelevant.

    Even science is based on the fact that we begin with predispositions that we then attempt to rationalize. But it channels that inherent tendency into the most robust methodology we have yet devised, in order to minimize the bias and maximize the accuracy and utility of the outputs. So, scientists make hypotheses, which they test. They might be right or wrong in what they hypothesize. They are trying to “rationalize” their initial “bias” with “an argument,” but constrain their arguments in such a way that they are bound by the rules of evidence and logic. Law (and legal procedure), in a somewhat less precise way, does much the same thing.

    The lathe of reason does not work by virtue of each individual’s perfection, by through a process of competing arguments and competing experiments based on them. In science no less than in public discourse, we start with predispositions that we then try to defend through the mobilization of rational arguments. But, the more disciplined and honest we are, the more we allow those rational arguments to work on our predispositions, as I frequently have. In any case, we do so collectively, if grudgingly, as illustrated by our evolving comprehension of the world in which we live.

    To insist that reason is only a tool to defend irrationality, and that therefore we must treat all perspectives as equal since our own arguments, no matter how well reasoned or evidenced, are merely a ploy to defend just another irrational position that has no more to recommend it than any other, presumes that this demand to rationalize our arguments has no value. But this is where your argument falls apart: It is precisely the demand to try to explain and defend a position that facilitates the degree of reason we rarely individually rise to. It raises the salience of reason collectively, by creating a competition of conflicting views, competing in an arena in which reason applied to evidence is the test of merit.

    Human biases are not erased by rational argumentation; their salience is simply reduced by it. And these attempts to argue (that is, to employ reason) to argue in favor of irrationality is really just nonsensical. You cite a well-known cognitive fact (that we are not primarily rational, and that our rational arguments are enlisted in service to our irrational beliefs), and use to declare that it illustrates a conclusion that, in reality, doesn’t follow (that rational argumentation doesn’t get us any closer to “the truth”). The first statement is correct, and the second, which you parenthetically apologe to me for as something indicated by the research, is neither indicated by the research nor even at a glance the least bit plausible. We know more about nature and ourselves, including the research findings you are relying, through the attempt to apply reason to our understandings. And this academic process that has been so successful is not a thing apart, not occupying some separate sphere, but merely one disciplined application of reason to the attempt to understand nature and better inform our actions on the basis of such improved understandings.

    You are arguing a purely relativistic stance, rather than a fallible realistic stance. The former refuses to state that any position can ever be considered more accurate or useful than any other (we must not dismiss views simply because reason applied to evidence militates against them), while the latter accommodates the humility you wisely identify as crucial without the pretense that all beliefs are equal. They’re not.

    If I believe that the atmosphere is composed of 99% Helium and 1% Oxygen, agreeing on the conventional definitions of those terms, then I’m just wrong. It’s not a valid position that must be given equal respect. It’s just wrong. And understanding the human condition isn’t fundamentally different. Yes, there is great complexity, and yes, our conclusions must generally a bit less certain and a bit more tentative, but we should still lean in favor of the best informed and best reasoned arguments, not in favor of pretending that how well informed and how well reasoned they are is irrelevant.

    And it does not serve world peace to do the latter rather than the former, to pretend that differences in perception do not and cannot imply differences in accuracy or depth of perception or comprehension; it only makes us collectively dumber while we continue to fight over the things that we’re really fighting over: Power, wealth, resources, privileges, and rights. And while that fight has usually been among parties want more than other parties, there is a faction more defined by the desire to maximize justice and efficacy rather than maximize one or more parties’ advantage over others. That is the faction to adhere to, and to argue passionately on behalf of. We should champion humanity with reason, and frame our arguments within that commitment, rather than try to rationalize the avoidance of that commitment and legitimate views that are perpetuations of historical injustices by claiming that they’re just alternative points of view.

    It’s a bit hard to believe that attempts to insulate irrational ideologies from the scrutiny of reasoned argumentation can continue, invoking the irony of attempting to make a rational argument against rational argumentation. It’s time to be done with such sophistries once and for all, and get on with the business of using our disciplined imaginations and reason in service to humanity. The excuses for opposing this by defintion more rational and humane approach to our shared existence are getting tiresome.

  • JH:

    Hi Steve,
    Despite having a very different intention with my previous response, I apologize for raising your ire and not making myself clearer about whom I was addressing and what I was trying to communicate (neither was singular in focus). Alas, one of the challenges of written discourse is the ability to clarify and rectify misunderstanding in real-time. It’s not at all my intention to appear in opposition or subversion to your position or approach (though I see how it came across that way)- I sincerely respect and admire your ideas, approach, and determination. In aiming for some brevity, I certainly sacrificed clarity, and I’m sorry for that. I consider myself on the same side, and suffice it to say I would vote for you if you were running for office again. When I wrote, “…I ask that you step down from the pulpit/podium and join in the dialogue…,” I was appealing to anyone who feels certain in their way being the one right way.

    I personally have nothing against how you are striving and what you strive for (I am quite of the same mind, if far less educated and articulate), and I consider myself much more liberal than conservative or otherwise, and believe science, evidence, and reason are all to be used to the extent they can advance the common human condition. However, from what I gather, conservatives and others have other moral foundations (referred to shortly as Sanctity, Authority, and Liberty) that underlie their way of seeing and evaluating. It seems our liberal views, founded largely on principles of Care and Fairness, are not enough to find common ground with people of very different ideologies. The idea that I am putting out for consideration (borrowed in part on the book I mentioned in previous post: “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”- Jonathan Haidt 2012) is that we liberals won’t be able to communicate (or reason, or politic) effectively with conservatives (or other ideologies) until we can also recognize and understand the influence of those other foundations in their perspectives.
    I wish I had a prescription or formula, but for now I am simply looking for feedback or consideration of the idea that we are missing part of the picture that forms some of these other ideologies. I know there are too many books out there to read whatever anyone recommends, but this one about moral psychology seems to describe some of the dynamics pretty well. Some earlier publications based on the Moral Foundations Theory are cited (and can be requested) at this link: As a theory, it’s still evolving, but seems to have plenty of good supporting evidence to keep working on.
    Steve, if I could shake your hand I would, and clap you on the back as you keep pushing forward.

  • Ah, Joe, sorry for the misunderstanding! A few months ago, I had encountered a right-wing ideologue using Haidt as the basis for an argument against reason, and I may have leapt to the conclusion that this was a similar argument.

    So, it appears that the agreement I identified in my re-edited comment (re-edited before seeing your latest comment, by the way) as a foundation for conclusions other than the rejection of reason are the basis for shared conclusions as well. Phew! I’m always glad to see reason getting a boost, and it’s absence a rebuke! You’ve turned my “ire” into relief….

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