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January 31, 2012

Dangerous Ideas

After yesterday's Nature vs. Nurture post, spd reminded the Editorial Staff of an article we had pestered some of the Oink Cadre with many moons ago. What fascinated me was the notion that there are ideas (and I'm shifting the emphasis here slightly from facts to ideas) that we suspect have real merit, but which we resist because their implications challenge or threaten something we hold dear:

There are dangerous facts, the knowledge of which threatens certain people, institutions, the social order, and so forth. Must they be made public no matter what? I think as a general matter, the presumption has to be on the side of disclosure, but that’s not a mandate. That’s simply to say that the more “dangerous” a fact, the greater the discretion that must be employed when deciding whether or not to make it public. If a reporter in wartime gets a tip about troop movements, he doesn’t have the moral right (or, as it happens, the legal right) to broadcast that information. If a reporter discovers during wartime that a general is taking bribes from a defense contractor, the moral equation shifts. Many times people who believe facts dangerous to themselves should be suppressed do so under the excuse of the common good (I’m thinking about you, Your Grace). But the fact that authorities can and do abuse discretion to cover their own backsides does not mean that discretion itself is a discredited concept.

Five years ago, the science site Edge.org published a scientific symposium in which respondents — most of them prominent scientists and science journalists — answered the question: “What’s your dangerous idea?” The question was bounded like this:

The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?

I had no trouble thinking of several such ideas. But there's an even more interesting twist on the notion of dangerous ideas that takes the form of arguments we dismiss out of hand when used to question a core belief, but embrace wholeheartedly when used to defend a core belief:

“’Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,’ said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. ‘But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.’”

Be sure to read the list of alternate explanations towards the end of the short article. Close to the top of my Dangerous Ideas list would be one promulgated by Dr. Haidt himself: that regardless of our ideological leanings, we arrive at moral judgments using our guts and employ reason after the fact to lend the appearance of dispassion or objectivity to what amount to emotional/aesthetic judgments.

Luckily for you, I can explain that away :) A big reason I write online is that having to justify my initial take on an issue often opens my eyes to arguments I hadn't considered. How much of what consider to be great ideas are really only our passions, dressed up for public display?

Discuss amongst yourownselves, you hypocritical racist, ignorant, inbred, snake handling Red Staters, you.... :)

Posted by Cassandra at January 31, 2012 08:27 AM

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The citation to Hume is a good one. He saw himself as putting forth a new doctrine, but many read Aristotle as asserting a very similar model. Aristotle divides the soul into the rational and the irrational parts; and he asserts that the irrational parts generally "set the end" with reason left to determine the means. Of the base desires, many of their ends are perfectly good ones, like the irrational desire not to go hungry, or not to perish.

However, there's a major exception for Aristotle -- the virtue of phronesis, usually translated as "practical wisdom," which allows reason to set ends by reasoning to them from other ends. The original end may be set by desire, but the subsequent ends may be quite rational: 'if I desire this, I should also desire that.'

A good example of this kind of reasoning is the way the Left has adopted gay marriage as a cause. They have been convinced, on rational grounds, that there is an analogy between interracial marriage and gay marriage; and supporting the one, they ought therefore to support the other. It's a rational argument if the analogy holds, as they believe it does; obviously there's a substantial difference between the two cases that convinces me that the analogy fails.

So, 'the will' or 'the irrational soul' may be at the base of a lot of our reasoning; but maybe not all of it, at least not directly. If Aristotle's picture is right, we may be operating at two or three levels removed from an end set by the will/desire/irrationality.

Posted by: Grim at January 31, 2012 10:24 AM

Thought you'd enjoy the Hume link :p

I can offer a parallel analogy to your gay marriage one. There are conservatives who believe that gay marriage is objectionable because homosexuality is immoral per se.

And there are those who find gay marriage objectionable because there is a noisy part of the gay community (think Castro Street) who openly champion sexual license.

One of the more compelling arguments for gay marriage is that if you believe that overall, marriage promotes healthy, stable families and helps people channel their sexual urges in a direction that encourages positive outcomes for both individuals and society, you should probably support gay marriage as a remedy for the problems posed by unrestrained sexuality, a la "It is better to marry than to burn".

That's why I support civil unions (but not redefining marriage). I see a real argument for recognizing permanent/long term unions but not for erasing the distinctions between two things that are demonstrably unlike in several respects. And I suspect that in today's climate the vast majority of people would not equate "different" with "inferior/superior".

Posted by: Cassandra at January 31, 2012 10:47 AM

That was exactly the position I occupied myself until your co-blogger, Ms. Yockey, talked me out of it. Apparently there are some indications from Europe that civil unions are more harmful to traditional marriage even than gay marriage because heterosexual couples find them more desirable than marriage (being easier to get into and out of, for one thing). Thus, if the goal is to strengthen marriage and family in the wider society, civil unions are the worst of the three options (i.e., no reform, civil unions, or full gay marriage).

I think I'm largely convinced by Aquinas' reading on marriage; however, out of respect for democratic legitimacy, I would be willing to compromise on the issue. If we are going to reform marriage so far as to include gay unions, we ought at the same time, and as the tradeoff, to eliminate the forms of divorce that have proven so disruptive to the institution. I'll accept the one reform if they'll accept the other.

Posted by: Grim at January 31, 2012 10:58 AM

You gave us a lot to digest, Cassandra. The hardest thing to abandon is a core belief.

I suppose it started with me - and the ugly realization - that there was no Santa Claus. ;-)

Truly intellectual discussions - Socratic dialogue? - without emotion - among people is so rare as to be almost non-existent.

Years ago I used to car pool with a Belgian woman who was a typical modern European "Greenie".

That is she felt Reagan was bad, cars were bad, (even though we relied on one for our livelihood), NATO was bad, etc etc.

With nothing else to do to pass the commute time we had polite discussions on politics.

She had to concede some of my points and I found some merit in hers.

Still you had to start with some assumptions (ie, NATO and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe - good or bad?.

You can't even get some people to agree on assumptions.

Then you have some ideas - such as marriage - to have at its core assumptions - such as the stability of society starting at the family - but as far as hard absolute facts - those are difficult to find.

With that I am going to get by rice bowl dinner.

And a beer.

Posted by: Bill Brandt at January 31, 2012 08:02 PM

By the way, I don't know if you saw it, but there's a follow-up piece in the Chronicle on Haidt just now.

Posted by: Grim at January 31, 2012 11:46 PM