« Well Al-righty Then... | Main | The Importance of Perspective »

March 04, 2009

The Beagle or the Turtle?

For the past few days a memory has played repeatedly in the back of my mind like a scene from an old movie, watched so often that certain scenes evoke an overwhelming sense of deja vu.

spiro.jpg I'm not sure it has any intrinsic meaning. On the other hand, it's hard to shake the notion that such visions lie suspended just beneath the waterline of awareness for a reason. Unable to dismiss it or divine its purpose, I'm transfixed by an odd sense of passivity as it bobs elusively in the swells of my unquiet mind.

In my vision, I'm looking out the window of our first house in Camp Lejeune, N.C.

Outside, a year-old beagle puppy dashes frentically around our newly fenced in back yard, tracing a series of perfect spirographical loops around a small object in the bare spot beneath a group of towering pines.

Closer inspection reveals the object to be an eastern box turtle.

Though I can't hear her in my vision, Molly emits a constant stream of exuberant beagle yelps. They burst joyously from her tiny body each time she executes a bombing run on the oblivious target of her excited attentions. Meanwhile, the turtle (unfazed by the impressively energetic attempts of our family pet to elicit some undefined turtle-ish reaction) continues its majestically slow trek across the back yard.

Amused, I imagine a thought bubble over its painted head:


I'm reminded, perhaps irrelevantly, (but then when has my mind ever been easily disciplined?) of one of the existential questions of the 1970s for young women of a certain age and background: Are you a Scarlet or a Melanie? As the product of a culture steeped in self-absorbed dimestore psychoanalysis I can't help wondering: which am I? The beagle? Or the turtle?

Last year at this time the turtle would have won out hands down. But now I'm not so sure. Confronted by massive and intractible forces I neither understand nor control I feel more like my beagle: inconsequentially yapping at the edges of problems too big to comprehend in their entirety.

That's a feeling I share with many conservatives these days:

Responding to a crisis of identity, Rush Limbaugh explains that "We conservatives have not done a good enough job of just laying out basically who we are because we make the mistake of assuming people know." And just basically who are you?

I defy anyone to extract an identity from the linked speech. Conservatives are for opportunity, but not equality of outcomes, but we are born equal, but we succeed or fail on our own merits, but conservatives will try to stop you from failing, but if you do, that's too bad, and we need everyone to succeed as an individual for the country to succeed, except for those who don't, because it's their fault, and the fault of the war on poverty, or . . . some such. The Donk is deluded by the allure of technocracy, by the notion of scientific government; the Gopster is a set of cultural phobias, affected regular-guy affinities, and catch phrases. It's probably appropriate that they draw their inspiration and spokespeople from the ever-more-irrelevant and anachronistic medium of radio.

The Donk complains that the Republicans are crass obstructionists. Would that it were true. The contemporary GOP wears the guise of obstructionism but lacks the wherewithal to oppose effectively. Superjesus Black Reagan rules the airwaves, and the supposed opposition is sequestered away in a chintzy hotel ballroom listening to C-list newsmedia celebrities extemporize around the posthumous legacy of Romulus and Remus Ronald Reagan. If there is anything we need right now, it's a cranky minority party that reacts with zealous incredulity at the vast outpouring of expenditure and views with innate suspicion the claims of managerial liberalism. Instead we get awkward governors mumbling anathemas at the US Geologic Survey and talk-radio hosts giving recursive stemwinders to the choir. The Donk spent eight years under George Bush getting along by going along, but as polite acquiescence seems to have been bred out of the rightward faction of national politics, they'll endeavor to continue the trend by creating the most thunderously loud irrelevance the world has ever known.

For someone who traveled the path from passionate liberalism (before I had a husband and children to care for) to guarded and yet equally passionate conservatism, the current financial crisis poses challenges: not to my core beliefs but to the efficacy of applying principles that assume enlightened self-interest to the seemingly irrational behavior of a market and a nation in crisis. I reject the knee jerk reactions of unthinking pundits, both on the reich and left, who conflate volume with intellectual relevance. Rush gets some things right but when a talk show host (and no rational person sees Mr. Limbaugh as the intellectual equivalent of William F. Buckley) becomes a convenient straw man for those who prefer sneering dismissal to honest debate, the marketplace of ideas becomes debased and dysfunctional.

We face serious problems that require the active participation of both liberals and conservatives. Willfully dismissing one side of America's centuries-old tradition of vigorous debate because "we won" is less a refutation of their ideology than a smug and self-satisfied refusal to think. The incoherence of political debate these days reflects a loss of confidence in not only the markets; it reflects waning confidence in the marketplace of ideas. Faced with the prospect of a prolonged economic downturn, all but the most dogmatic thinkers find themselves questioning notions they once thought rock solid.

This is not an irrational response. When the consequences of seeing your policy preferences enacted suddenly become more costly to your fellow Americans, it seems rash not to exercise a bit of intellectual caution. But though caution may be called for, a retreat into inaction would be deadly. I've been talking with my Democrat friend again about the financial crisis. She points out the more rational side of the progressive argument for government intervention: many people who did nothing wrong or irresponsible have been harmed by the financial crisis and their suffering is quite real. Why not ask those who can well afford it (and she and I both fall into that category) to step up to the plate and help out?

Like Tigerhawk, I'm not inured to the suffering out there. It's just that, like him, I'm not convinced by proposed remedies that refuse to acknowledge either human nature and the role of incentives in shaping behavior:

... a big part of the question is whether the intended remedies *will* fix the economy. Let's not forget the salient example posed by the war on poverty. It harmed more than it helped b/c it incented all the wrong behaviors. Persistent, multigenerational black poverty and 70% illegitimacy rates that didn't exist before we altered the incentive structure don't argue well for the idea that government is an efficient mechanism for solving every societal problem.

I think the biggest problem with Obama is that he is using this crisis and the fear it engenders to enact sweeping changes to the basic incentive structure that drives our economy, based on the assumption that we "have to" do something to mitigate present discomfort and distress.

But what if some of that discomfort and distress constitute necessary feedback for a sick economy? What if they're actually important corrective measures that align individual behavior more rationally? If we tell our children hot stoves *shouldn't* be allowed to burn them (and further that if they are burned, we'll magically take away all that "unfair" pain) have we not produced an irresponsible and unrealistic world view that disincents natural caution? If they believe there are no negative consequences, what will prevent them from touching the stove again?

If we take away the pain that results from irresponsible borrowing and trading, what prevents morons from going right back out and doing the same things that crashed the economy?

I think that contrary to his rhetoric, Obama is presenting a false set of choices that defers or minimizes present suffering at the expense of healthy and responsible decision making. I'm not convinced that we "have to" do anything - there's a whole body of evidence that stimulus packages hit too late to do any good and fail to achieve their intended effects.

A while back I linked to a lecture by Jonathan Haidt. I've been meaning to get back to it.

Haidt postulates that morality has several dimensions:

Haidt argues that ... political liberals rely primarily on two of these systems, involving emotional sensitivities to harm and fairness. Conservatives, however, construct their moral understandings on those two systems plus three others, which involve emotional sensitivities to in-group boundaries, authority and spiritual purity. "We all start off with the same evolved moral capacities," says Haidt, "but then we each learn only a subset of the available human virtues and values. We often end up demonizing people with different political ideologies because of our inability to appreciate the moral motives operating on the other side of a conflict. We are surrounded by moral conflicts, on the personal level, the national level and the international level. The recent scientific advances in moral psychology can help explain why these conflicts are so passionate and so intractable

I found this idea intriguing. It aligns with Eric Posner's theory that most judges don't decide cases according deeply held principles, but rather according to gut feel. In other words, they judge first and justify in order to rationalize their decisions:

Modern theories about rational choice and information processing don’t adequately explain weakness of the will. The older metaphors about controlling animals work beautifully. The image that I came up with for myself, as I marveled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.

* * *

The point of these studies is that moral judgment is like aesthetic judgment. When you see a painting, you usually know instantly and automatically whether you like it. If someone asks you to explain your judgment, you confabulate. You don’t really know why you think something is beautiful, but your interpreter module (the rider) is skilled at making up reasons, as Gazzaniga found in his split-brain studies. You search for a plausible reason for liking the painting, and you latch on to the first reason that makes sense (maybe something vague about color, or light, or the reflection of the painter in the clown’s shiny nose). Moral arguments are much the same: Two people feel strongly about an issue, their feelings come first, and their reasons are invented on the fly, to throw at each other. When you refute a person’s argument, does she generally change her mind and agree with you? Of course not, because the argument you defeated was not the cause of her position; it was made up after the judgment was already made. If you listen closely to moral arguments, you can sometimes hear something surprising: that it is really the elephant holding the reins, guiding the rider. It is the elephant who decides what is good or bad, beautiful or ugly. Gut feelings, intuitions, and snap judgments happen constantly and automatically . . . , but only the rider can string sentences together and create arguments to give to other people. In moral arguments, the rider goes beyond being just an advisor to the elephant; he becomes a lawyer, fighting in the court of public opinion to persuade others of the elephant’s point of view.

* * *
In my studies of moral judgment, I have found that people are skilled at finding reasons to support their gut feelings: The rider acts like a lawyer whom the elephant has hired to represent it in the court of public opinion.

...Studies of everyday reasoning show that the elephant is not an inquisitive client. When people are given difficult questions to think about—for example, whether minimum wage should be raised—they generally lean one way or the other right away, and then put a call in to reasoning to see whether support for that position is forthcoming. . . . Most people gave no real evidence for their positions, and most made no effort to look for evidence opposing their initial positions. David Perkins, a Harvard psychologist who has devoted his career to improving reasoning, has found the same thing. He says that thinking generally uses the “makes-sense” stopping rule. We take a position, look for evidence that supports it, and if we find some evidence—enough so that our position “makes sense”—we stop thinking. But at least in a low-pressure situation such as this, if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don’t make an effort to do such thinking for themselves

When you stop to think about it, this theory goes a long way towards explaining the vitriol and viciousness of modern debate. It's axiomatic on both the left and right that ideas have consequences. Between the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis, the consequences of applied ideology have never seemed more consequential. In a sense, the transaction costs of public debate went up dramatically.

That we decide first and rationalize only later doesn't necessarily invalidate our conclusions. Gut instinct often reflects unconscious lessons we've picked up along the way. But it does pose a challenge to those entrenched in their own world view.

Do we have the courage to question our assumptions and put aside intellectual arrogance and insularity? I suspect not.

We are, after all, only human.

Posted by Cassandra at March 4, 2009 08:02 AM

Trackback Pings

TrackBack URL for this entry:


Sometimes it all feels like this:


With the great partitioning of people and minds due to the wonderful clustering caused by the internet and opinion/political blogs, this phenonmenon of ill will is going to get a lot worse.
I read opinions and comments from the "other side" and am appalled at the frequent lack of belief that anybody on the "right" has two brain cells to rub together. And then apply the same perspective to "righty" blogs, and yes, there's alot of ill will and unwillingness to even consider the "other" perspective.
Opinionated people, convinced of their own rightness, and using every possible anecdotal experience to buttress their own beliefs.

Of course I know that I am right about this, so don't give me a lot of carp and disagree with me.

And another thing......

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at March 4, 2009 10:03 PM

"...if someone else brings up reasons and evidence on the other side, people can be induced to change their minds; they just don’t make an effort to do such thinking for themselves"
Too true. But not seeing something from the perspective of another is no more a rule than an exception. It is the view from the sum of the whole. As you point out;
"That we decide first and rationalize only later doesn't necessarily invalidate our conclusions. Gut instinct often reflects unconscious lessons we've picked up along the way. But it does pose a challenge to those entrenched in their own world view."
Absolutely! Because of our investment in our own rightness, our righteousness, it becomes the foundation upon which we live and govern our own lives. How can that be wrong?
"Do we have the courage to question our assumptions and put aside intellectual arrogance and insularity? I suspect not."
What? Are you suggesting that I no longer allow ye olde superego to thrash the id with the cosmic 2x4, or vice-versa? At least I did not call one conservative and the other progressive.

A very thoughtful piece M'lady, but at this juncture I'm afraid that I'm gonna have to hang on to my 2x4.

"Of course I know that I am right about this, so don't give me a lot of carp and disagree with me.

And another thing......"

Or what Don said. =8^}

Posted by: bthun at March 5, 2009 12:00 AM