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Jan 22, 2016

Stupidity, Immorality, and Political Differences

We treat people’s political beliefs as indicative of their character or competence, but that’s often a mistake.

Too often in political debate, we assume the absolute veracity of our empirical beliefs. We know that private schools fail to serve the underprivileged, or that immigrants take jobs, or that trade deficits harm the working class.

We admit no possibility that we might not have enough information to justify our views or that conceptual framework we employ to interpret evidence might have imperfections. Furthermore, we tend to think that our views aren’t just correct, but obviously correct. It’s not that the data is murky, but we’ve managed to get the right read on it. No, the data is clear as day, and the interpretive framework we employ self-evident. And if the data is that clear, then there must be something wrong with those who don’t see it. Since private schools are so obviously inadequate, we think, then those who want private schools must want inadequate schools.

Too often, this is how we evaluate the policy proposals of our political adversaries. Because the evidence supporting our preferred policies is obvious, and because the way we interpret that evidence self-evident, we tend not to see differences of political opinion stemming from good faith disagreement about the underlying facts or how best to interpret them. Instead, we see differing political opinion as the result of explicit desires to work against the goals of our preferred policies.

Say we believe that Policy A, which we support, will lead to good Result X. We encounter someone who instead advocates for Policy B. Because of our certainty about the evidence and how to interpret it, too many of us too often see that person’s support for Policy B coming not from a good faith and reasoned belief that Policy B is a better way to get to Result X. Because if what we believe is both correct and obvious, then the advocate of Policy B must know that it will undermine the achievement of X. And if X is a good result, then this person doesn’t just disagree with us, but actively wants something bad to happen.

Unfortunately, this all-too-common way of thinking about political debate leads to serious problems, because it means that our empirical beliefs are essentially closed to critique unless that critique comes from someone who already shares our policy preferences. If our interlocutor doesn’t share our policy preferences, then before the conversation can get off the ground, we’ve already decided he is either stupid (he’s too dumb to see his error) or immoral (he maliciously prefers evil outcomes). But, of course, if our empirical priors or interpretive framework are wrong, then someone with better priors will likely come to a different policy conclusion.

Thus individual policy preferences exist as a signal of their holder’s intelligence or moral worth—and a challenge to one’s policy preferences gets interpreted as an attack on the holder’s smarts or basic goodness. Because we believe that certain policy preferences signal moral worth, we adopt our policy preferences based on how we would like to be perceived. And we hold to those policies regardless of their actual, real-world outcomes, or pay so little attention to their outcomes that we never feel the need to revise our political preferences.

Alternatively, we could just assume that people we disagree with differ from us because they’ve read the data one way, while we read it another, and yet both of us are operating in good faith and are reasonable people. This is clearly not the case in every instance of disagreement, yet treating disagreement this way is a pretty good way to go about political debate. Assume the best of your opponent unless you have strong reason to do otherwise.

Let’s say you and I differ on education policy. You’re a strong supporter of public schools, while I think we ought to switch to a system of publicly-financed private schools. It’s possible that I support private schools because I’m either stupid (the evidence is clear, but I’m too dumb to see it) or I’m immoral (I don’t care about poor kids getting a quality education, and so am happy to see only the rich become educated). It’s also possible, however, that I instead want to see everyone, rich and poor, get a quality education, but believe, after careful consideration, that the evidence supports private schools and school choice as the best way to achieve that. I could be wrong about that evidence, of course, but so could you. Debating that is bound to be more fruitful than simply condemning each other as benighted.

We need to be careful, however. Because there is a moral element to politics, and that means we shouldn’t take the above as an argument against seeing any moral angle to political differences. There are policy preferences that are immoral and reflect poorly on the moral quality of those who hold them. We should call those out when we see them. Some policy preferences actually do aim at immoral goals, and some depend on arguments and evidence so blindingly bad that to hold on to them evinces a morally blameworthy level of ignorance. We can see Jim Crow was an example of the former, while anti-GMO policies fall within the latter.

The difference between that sort of moral judgment, however, and the kind I’m challenging is where morals enter. We can begin with moral judgments and derive our politics from there. We can say, for example, that it’s morally wrong to lock people in cages because they exhibit non-violent behavior we find off-putting, and conclude policies based on the belief that such a thing is acceptable are wrong, and that people who prefer those policies are open to moral critique. Likewise with policies motivated by other immoralities, such as collectivism and nationalism.

That’s the kind of moral judgment we ought to be making in politics. Unfortunately, too much of what passes for moral judgment is just a feather-ruffling means to inoculate one’s ill-considered beliefs against reasonable criticism. The line between the two can be difficult—and personally painful—to draw, but it’s safe to say that most of what passes for morality in political discourse falls on the wrong side of it.