Month: February 2015

Investigative Politics – An idea to reduce factionalism in political thought

If you’re in any way politically minded, you might have at least once experienced a certain special moment of weakness. It’s that special moment where you wonder why, after thousands of years of political thought, politics is one of the only human endeavours where we’ve managed to agree on basically nothing. Why is there only endless factional warfare without consensus or common ground? No-one seems to agree on anything much, and few people actually bother to listen or learn from eachother. Why is it so often the case in politics that the left neglects issues of security, while the right ignores social problems? Why are large corporations conspicuously absent from the libertarian narrative, while socialists seem to ignore the historical failings of governments? Are people’s differing interests irreconcilable? Is politics just a proxy for our deep tribalism? Maybe its the perversity of some human personalities, twisted by weakness, or fear, or genetics, or perhaps just neglect and childhood abuse? Well perhaps it is, so long as we’re talking about the other faction! If they weren’t busy being the source of all evil, the world would be just fine! Or perhaps not.

Today I’d like to try to emerge from our muddy factional existence just long enough to propose a better way to look at political difference. My explanation involves a human failing that I think is universal and not connected to just one political camp. Not only do I think its an important, underappreciated factor in our political failings, I think its a problem we can partially address.

To start us off I want to mention my previous post where I proposed a philosophical concept I call Comprehensive Morality. It roughly goes like this – people experience a specific subset of morally significant events, and these events in turn lead to them establishing a moral position or opinion. Or, to use an analogy, their moral experiences are the “data”, on which moral “hypothesis” are formed. However, once this moral view is established in the person’s thought, a kind of threat heuristic is formed in defence of that view. This creates bias in assessing new moral experiences and ideas. All new experiences are checked for whether they support the existing moral position, and if they threaten it in some way, they are downplayed, distorted, rejected, or quickly forgotten. Over time, we gain enough views for our overall moral positions to ossify. Our ability to think fairly about new moral information is constricted, and we become far more concerned with defending our moral position than refining it or learning.

I go on to suggest this state of affairs seems less than ideal, particularly if we imagine a more comprehensive morality that might form if we could escape this bias. In an ideal world our moral position would only be created after considering a much broader set of moral experience. We might instead want to reflect on the situations faced by a large, randomly selected cross section of humanity, before we decided, and especially before we advocated, a moral position that is supposedly an ideal state of affairs. We’d try to escape our own narrow position and instead consider, not so much people’s moral opinions, but their moral circumstances. Of course, there are many other factors to consider when considering what is right and what is wrong, but all other things being equal, it seems like comprehensive morality would be much more likely to get it right in comparison to constricted morality.

But what what happens if we take the general structure of this concept and use it to think about politics? Let’s try it:

  • A person encounters a politically significant experience. It could be anything from an exploitative business, an overbearing government or bureaucracy, a life ruined by discrimination, destruction of a community, or the break down in law and order.
  • The person reflects on their experience and forms a series of ideas related to the experience.
  • They may go on to try to formalise the problem and solution, for example by identifying causes, moving to an abstract representation, or assigning blame to culprits. Let’s call the result a political framework.
  • Due to the nature of human psychology, including the need to appear committed in the eyes of both others and one’s self, the framework creates a threat heuristic and bias that influences the way new political experiences and new political ideas are assessed.
  • If the new experience or idea threatens or diminishes the existing political framework, for example by suggesting they need to be balanced with some other consideration, there is a strong compulsion to reject the new political information. The rejection might be through downplaying, questioning motives, ignoring, distortion of facts, selective memory, or anything else that works.
  • Even neutral ideas may be rejected, because they are seen as a distraction or plot to foil the existing framework. Only a selected few of the new political experiences and ideas (let’s call them “allies”) are allowed through because they support or reinforce the existing framework.
  • Over time the person accumulates a group of allied ideas that rule out an increasing number of potential political concepts as unacceptable or even offensive.
  • Eventually almost all new political experiences or information is assessed on a friend/foe basis, rather than a true/false basis. The person’s political view becomes constricted. The bias is very difficult for us to detect in ourselves. We honestly feel the new concepts or experiences are simply incorrect, even at the height of our bias.
  • Combined with membership in a particular social circle and the groupthink that follows, this creates totally unshakable ideological positions. Engagement with others is not an exchange of ideas and experiences, but simply an attempt to fight off intellectual threats.
  • The resulting ideological camps are unable to function to effectively to solve human problems.

To put it simply, constricted politics is everybody’s common enemy, because it robs our ability to appreciate and weigh up problems beyond the first one or two we encounter. Now, I don’t want to claim that this problem of constricted politics is the only problem. There are plenty of other biases that influence human thought, such as conflict of interest, or motivated reasoning (wishful thinking), that would create a pretty amazing mess even if constricted politics wasn’t an issue. But I do think that constricted politics is a fairly serious problem in modern politics throughout much of the world. And as far as I can see, its an issue that get’s little attention.

Addressing a couple of objections

There’s three main arguments I think reasonable people might raise against this concept, and I’ll do my best to address each.

Firstly, it seems prudent to assume that the people interested in this idea of political constriction might not be evenly spread across the political spectrum. If that set of people tried to address the problem, for example by balancing their own Great Cause with the range of other legitimate causes out there, there might only to find that the other side just carried on being constricted and biased. The end result might be that their own dearest causes suffer, and the end result might be that we move away from the ideal, balanced position towards the constricted view of somebody else. This is a justifiable fear, because some ideologues just don’t reciprocate concessions, because, you know, they’re just right and you’re just wrong. You give an inch, they take a mile.

Yet we probably ought not to conflate two quite different objectives here. Firstly, there is the ideal, balanced political position we can aspire to pursue and intellectually discover. Secondly, there is the practical efforts we take to work on actual issues of contemporary concern. It’s the difference between knowing the path and walking it. The crucial link to make here is that until we gain the balanced political understanding that has fairly compared the variety of political issues, we don’t really know the correct direction in which to throw our weight. Once we’ve freed ourselves from contriction, then we are for the first time in a position to survey the existing political landscape and take reasonable measures to respond. And if we aren’t really interested in adopting a reasonable position to begin from, how can we expect to ever win over others to our way of thinking?

The second objection is that even if it was desirable to hold a more balanced political view, it might not be possible. After all, this is human nature and fairly fundamental aspects of psychology we’re talking about here. And none of us have experienced what all of us have – each political view is unique because we all face our own challenges in life. Perhaps we cannot change this at all.

One reason for thinking this might be that, given the length of human history, someone would have tried this and succeeded. However, I’ve be looking for similar ideas across the political spectrum for some time myself, and I’m afraid I don’t think anyone’s ever explicitly given something similar a go. We might imagine that political centrists constitute a partial attempt, but I think centrists are often those who choose the middle ground between the proposed solutions. Though that’s probably not an awful starting point, choosing the most moderate of proposed solutions isn’t the same as trying investigating a wide range of problems. There simply isn’t any group that’s empirically tested this path. However, it’s not all that hard to think of the examples of the opposite. We’ve all experienced the kind of person who’s up the other end of the scale. They’re obsessed with one single issue and view every other issue through that lens. And the extremism that results isn’t really much of a model for a thriving human society. So if we know narrow, constricted politics is usually quite harmful, then we’ve certainly got a strong hint that the opposite could be worth a look.

Finally, we might worry about the problem of dillution. Perhaps by combining a myriad of different ideas we might move towards to some sort of boring political orthodoxy where distinct concepts are lost into a pointless grey blur of “sure, everything matters”. This is particularly a risk if we get intellectually sloppy and start thinking that all ideas are valid (anyway, people who find politics boring should probably go live in a country where its not). Political factionalism isn’t neccessary for a plurality of novel ideas. Fields of endeavour where basically nothing of political or moral importance is on the line still have extremely vigourous deabtes and a great variety of theories and ideas. Take theoretical physics, for example. There’s relatively few political positions available on the rights of neutrons and protons, but there’s still a huge amount of ideas floating around in the field that the average person would probably find outlandish to say the least.

Investigating the next step

It would be fairly easy at this point to declare that the right answer is a “comprehensive politics”, and then declare to the world that we’re going to adopt this ideal (quick, before the other faction adopts it!). So because of the nature of political debate, “comprehensive” is not really the best word for us to start throwing around. It sounds like a pretty groan-worthy rhetorical tool. Everybody already thinks their view encapsulates a fairly comprehensive view of the problem. So instead what we’re really looking for here is a concept that captures the sense that everybody, including ourselves, is… well… wrong.

After all, the world’s problems aren’t naturally available to the human mind. We have to learn about them. We can’t appreciate the problems others faces unless we make a little effort to find out. We have to start with the assumption that we don’t naturally have access to the true political solution. This is our basic guiding principle: investigative politics. It’s the view that the time spent researching to improve our political views is worth at least as much as the time spent trying to convince other’s we’re right..

We don’t shy away from speaking our mind or making a stand – research in itself does nothing. But part of our task it to escape our own constriction, to escape our sheltered social circle where its taken for granted that this or that is the true problem. It’s the task of gaining some real perspective. Of researching, of comparing, of truely appreciating the various challenges facing humanity. Of understand the problems of the villager, the soldier, the activist, the agent, the farmer, the entepreneur, the worker, the elderly, perhaps even the ignoble politician. Of learning the moral circumstances, the strengths, the failings, the challenges faced by of those people, the countries, the social groups, the professions with whom we never really interact. Of recognising that our opponents sometimes have reasons, reasons we ought to understand, for being opposed. Of recognising the trivial and prioritising the significant. Of learning every mechanism or theory or idea that gives insight, while relentlessly pursuing, not assuming, the truth. Our task is a grand investigation, one that is never finished but which always bears fruit.

Investigative politics fixes a problem that would be elementary in any other area of life. Opinion ought to flow from the truth, the whole truth, and not the other way around. Of course, those who embrace it know they can’t wait for some final enlightenment before they act, but they make just as much effort searching the world and searching themselves for insight into the real problems are and what really offers a remedy. It’s not about trying to be one of the few who know they have the perfect solution. It’s about trying to be one of the few who recognise that they don’t. Freed from dogmatic self-assuredness, humanity’s genius might have its first chance to go to work, and we could truely emerge from the mud for the time in our long history.