Hold yourself to a common standard

I’m back to the topic of an ideal conversation with a conspiracy theorist. Sorry.

One rule that would be good to establish at the outset of such a conversation is the commitment for each participant to hold to a common standard.

I’m not saying that the two should share a common standard, though I know that might be the obvious way to read what I said. What I mean is merely that each participant ought to commit to avoiding the use of double standards in evaluating arguments.

Obviously it would be fantastic if the two sides could agree on a common standard of evidence and argumentation, and in a lot of debates that might indeed be required for the possibility of a resolution of any sort. For a discussion with a conspiracy theorist, however, even this minimal commitment should be more than enough to give a very decisive advantage to the person who is not a conspiracy theorist.

“But don’t you think it’s possible that leftists or undercover federal operatives infiltrated the crowd and are responsible for all the bad things that my side supposedly did?” Well, I think it could be possible, but if “possible” is all it takes for you to be convinced that something happened, let’s remember it’s also entirely possible that no such infiltration took place.

“But there are scientists with plenty of detailed arguments about why the virus isn’t dangerous and why the vaccine is killing people.” Sure. But if scientists and arguments are what impress you, then no doubt you will be completely overawed by the much greater number of scientists and peer-reviewed scientific publications arguing that the virus is not harmless and the vaccine is comparatively and convincingly far more beneficial than it is risky.

“But there are drug companies that stand to profit, and politicians who benefit, and lots of public figures who are worried about their reputations, so you can’t trust the people on that side of the argument.” Okay. But then we can’t trust your side either, where there are people selling ineffective and overpriced supplements for great profits, where politicians are doing huge fundraising and getting decisive advantages in primary races by winking to the conspiratorially minded, and where loads of public personalities could not speak out against the conspiracies without being abandoned and even threatened with harm to themselves and their families by the audiences they depend on – right?

Anger causes error

There are times when it is appropriate to feel anger, in a reasonable degree of intensity.

But anger doesn’t help us think more clearly, or leave our thinking unaffected. It warps our ability to think well.

Aristotle compares the person in a rage to the person who is drunk, and says that both kinds of person are partly excusable for their bad actions, because they aren’t fully in control of themselves, but not entirely excusable.

Does that ever resonate. When I think back on things I’ve said and the ways I’ve acted when in the grip of anger, it definitely feels, in hindsight, like I was as much under the power of a foreign influence as when I’ve been drunk. Much of your brain seems to power down, your body feels different (especially the head and neck and chest, I think), your vision constricts, you stop hearing things outside the object of your anger.

And just like when you are drunk or dreaming, this altered state and these restricted capacities are not easily recognized in the moment, but only afterward, thinking back with a cooler head.

In the moment, we have no doubt that we are quite rational, clearheaded, fully righteous; if we weren’t all those things, after all, how could we be so sure that our anger is entirely justified?

Not everyone is so susceptible to the suggestions of rage as to need anger management classes of the sort that I believe courts sometimes prescribe. But all except the most virtuous of us are more or less close to being that far gone. All of us need to work at controlling our anger better when it does arise so that we can think we’ll and act justly, and at being able to hear people when they tell us we are being too angry or emotional. It is much easier (at least for most of us) to choose not to get drunk, than to choose not to grow angry when provoked. I’ve been lucky to have been born with a milder disposition overall than many of the people I’ve known, but I am well aware that this exhortation applies to me just as much as anyone else.

It is a vitally important task, and not an easy one. The sooner we get working on it, the more progress we will be able to make, and the more regrettable words and deeds we will be able to avoid going forward.

Conspiratorial doubt

To doubt things is not always bad. Indeed, it can be very good.

If there is inadequate evidence for a belief, then we should seek what good evidence there is, and adjust our conclusions accordingly.

Conspiratorial thinking is notoriously full of doubt. (I was about to say it is notoriously “dubious,” which would also be accurate, but not quite what I was trying to say here.) That is not the problem.

The real problem with conspiratorial thinking is not its doubt but its credulousness. Conspiratorial thinking not only rejects conclusions that have a great deal of high-quality evidence, but it also must embrace alternative conclusions, which are based on much weaker evidence and argumentation.

It is well enough to reject the conclusions of a peer-reviewed paper, or of an expert, or even of an expert consensus (although, as I’ve said elsewhere, there isn’t much that is more reliable for a non-expert than an expert consensus on a matter relevant to their expertise). But to reject that on the one hand, and then to accept the testimony and interpretations of random social media users or of conspiratorial celebrities hungry for attention, does not make much sense at all, to put it kindly.

So then let’s agree to be doubtful, and to replace beliefs grounded in bad evidence with beliefs that are based on the best evidence, and see where that procedure leads us.

But we must agree to follow our doubts into a search for the best evidence, and not just for other evidence, for evidence more amenable to our preferred conclusions. The latter is a waste of time, and worse, a method for increasing confusion and error. If something like the consensus of experts is not compelling enough for you, fine; but you must tell me what higher plane of evidence it is that you take to be authoritative, before we can replace our weaker conclusions with better ones.

Stop changing the subject

I’ve reflected a few times, here, on the conversations I had about conspiracy theories with a very rightwing friend who no longer deigns to communicate with me. I find myself wondering, every so often, how we might have conducted our conversations differently and more productively, mainly so that if I end up in a similar situation again in the future with someone else or even with the same friend if we ever reestablish contact (and I feel quite sure that sooner or later I will indeed end up back in the same situation) I might be better prepared to handle my side as well as I can.

One thing that I found with him, and that I’ve found speaking with many others on a variety of topics (both on the right and on the left) is that if there is freedom to leap from one argument to another to another, without ever dealing properly with any one of them, it tends to end badly. When someone is trying to convince me of something, using arguments that are easily shown to be unconvincing, it seems to be instinctive to take up a strategy of bounding across innumerable arguments so that the weakness of each never has a chance to be fully manifest, and so that the sheer quantity may appear to be its own kind of proof (as if a mountain of garbage were any less putrid than a single item).

Arguing by constantly changing the subject is the last refuge of people who refuse to admit their ignorance and errors.

As soon as I notice this happening, I should insist on putting a stop to it. My zealous and proselytizing friend may choose the topics we will discuss, that’s no problem, but each topic must be dealt with adequately, and we must both agree that it is dealt with adequately one way or another, before the next one is broached.

Perhaps one consequence of this is that the person on the other side will attempt to choose only the strongest arguments to focus on first, rather than choosing topics which will most clearly show the weakness of the position and which will be most painful for the other person to see explored at length.

And if the strongest arguments are agreed to be unconvincing, perhaps the other person will have a glimmer of a hope of recognizing that the belief that is based on those arguments is unsupported and not worthwhile. I do not hold out much hope of the conspiratorial person being able to recognize the error of their ways by means of rational discussion, but at least it will be a small possibility, rather than no possibility at all.

If, at the end of our discussion of a topic, I have in good faith shown the reasons why I don’t find the argument convincing, and if the other person can agree that in fact it wasn’t, in itself, adequate to the task of convincing me (and we will have to do this, or else find ourselves at an impasse and unable to move to the next topic), this will also be less frustrating for the other person. The alternative, of telling me constantly, “Well you’re clearly wrong but enough of that, let’s talk about this other thing” without adequately answering my objections, will lead the other person to feel I have been obstinate in rejecting all the good arguments I have heard, which is not true but is an understandable feeling.

And if there are indeed merits to the argument, then sticking with it will enable me to see why my objections might have been misplaced, which is surely desirable for both of us.

To refuse to agree to this shows nothing but a lack of faith in one’s own evidence. Thus, whether they agree to this rule or not, I will have learned all that I need to know about what they have to say, one way or another.

Parenting and emotions

Parenting has drawn out some of my emotions, and particularly my best emotions, in a powerful and somewhat unexpected way. It has snuck up on me. I feel pride and delight in a measure that I have rarely ever experienced.

That is not to say that my emotional life was entirely arid before children. Especially as a teenager I remember being buffeted by and attracted to powerful emotions. In young adulthood I was drawn to things that evoked awe in me, and in hindsight I can see how much of my thinking was undergirded with anger and bitterness of one sort or another. Fear, of course, is ever-present to one degree or another for us as finite humans. But perhaps it was all somehow more artificial, formulaic, and limited, before.

My emotional response to being a parent has grown with my children. When they were first born, I was glad to be a dad but my emotional response was overall fairly moderate. But as they grew, and their own emotional life developed, and their rudimentary moral psychology began to appear, my emotional engagement with them has similarly grown.

I feel pride when they do the right thing, especially when it is hard for them to do. I feel delight in their joys. I feel anguish for their inner conflicts.

I have also been more sensitized to the primal emotional life of my children, and have tried to shape those currents in ways that are gentle and encouraging. (I must admit that my suspicion is that we parents have less influence on our children than we like to think, and so a large part of what I have to say on the subject may tell more about the good fortune I’ve had to be a father to such good children, than about any special competence I have as a parent.)

I find myself sympathizing with their emotional responses, and trying not to change their emotions, not to make them feel or stop feeling particular feelings, but more to shape the way they interpret and experience those emotions. I don’t want them to deny the way they are feeling, but to be able to recognize it and deal with it in an intelligent, authentic, honest, virtuous way.

That’s something a bit new for me as well. Often, perhaps typically, I aim to keep some distance from the emotional lives of others. I know myself well enough to recognize that I can get caught up in the violent emotions of others, and so I have developed an instinctive emotional separation, a calmness that resists the turbulence around me. Even as I might speak and act sympathetically in the course of a conversation, I am internally resisting having too much actual sympathy and the resultant complications. It’s been a prudent and strong way to respond to a great many situations. But I have without effort found myself relating differently to my own children, and that’s been a real joy as well, somehow.

Abstract fascination with extremists

I go through phases where I watch videos on YouTube from Vice News about far right extremists and American militias and such. For some reason I’m fascinated with it. I find that I have strongly mixed and contradictory feelings about the subject.

On the one side, I dislike a very great deal of what these groups and individuals stand for, and find myself deeply unimpressed with the quality of thinking evinced among representatives of this tradition. That’s why I tend to consume reporting about them rather than anything produced by them.

It makes me sick, and violently repelled, to hear the way these folks justify their actions and projects. In everything I have found so far there is a deeply conspiratorial way of thinking, largely out of touch with reality, divorced from what is known and knowable. There is also frequently a hateful side to it, hatred directed toward the weak and the unfortunate, hatred, that is, which is turned against those least deserving of it.

When I meet the sort of person who believes the sort of things used to justify extremism, my reaction tends to fall somewhere between amusement and annoyance and anger.

But strangely, there’s something about the extremists that I also find compelling and somehow haunting.

I think part of it is the type of purpose and community that they have. I can see why some people are drawn to them. It’s a unique thing that is not widely found in modern, liberal nations. They have torn off the limiting comforts and amusements of our contemporary economy, have broken out of the bland niceties prescribed by today’s social code. They aren’t just passing time and getting by, trying to win a game that doesn’t matter.

There’s more to it. It’s hard to put my finger on. I think if society falls apart (a possibility that doesn’t seem so ridiculous here in the 2020s), the people who did things properly, who got a good job and a nice house and a couple cars and watched tv and went on vacations, will probably not be in a good place. The extremists, because of the activities they participate in and the knowledge they study, might be much better off. What do we do with that fact?

Two favourite lessons from philosophy

I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy, for quite a number of years now. There are a number of teachings or lessons that I’ve absorbed, that have shaped me pretty deeply and that have influenced my decisions even at pretty key moments in my life.

There are two teachings in particular, however, that have most profoundly impressed me from the very first moment I encountered them, and which have ever since been never very far from my thoughts. They are fairly similar to one another in a certain respect, but they are also distinct enough from one another that I feel they can’t really be combined into a single thought.

The first one is from Plato. It strikes me as being almost the most daring and brilliant thing that could be said about morality. I can’t justify that claim, but it is the way it seems to me.

It is better to suffer injustice than to commit injustice. This is not the way it seems to us by nature, but I would hesitantly say that if we believe morality is anything more than a polite fiction, we cannot help recognizing the truth in it, at least on some level. And to hear this explicitly articulated and to accept it as true and important, is to turn one’s whole world upside down. If there is only one thing I wish everyone could learn from the philosophers, this would be it.

The second teaching I picked up from Elizabeth Anscombe, from what she says about the doctrine of double effect. I know she would say it wasn’t original to her, but I have found it nowhere else so clearly and compellingly communicated.

Evil consequences entail no guilt for a good act, and good consequences impart no merit to an evil act. People certainly seem, in general, not to accept this as a trustworthy moral principle, even including many people of good character who have thought carefully about moral philosophy. It is counterintuitive to think that it is more important to do the virtuous thing than to protect the people who might be harmed by the effects of a virtuous act. From a consequentialist standpoint, it seems like someone acting thus would only be privileging the feeling of their own clean conscience over the more significant pains suffered by the affected parties. I’m sympathetic to that. Still, Anscombe here seems to me courageously and clearly right. Better to let the whole world perish as the result of a virtuous act than to enter willingly into vice, even if that vice could rescue all of a human species on the brink of destruction. Morally speaking, we should never look to the foreseeable effects to evaluate a given act.

For someone to embrace these two teachings is, I believe, a sure path to virtue and happiness, an escape from confusion and vice. I don’t think many have accepted them, and I’m not even confident that most could accept them, in the world we inhabit. But I can hardly think of anything more important and valuable for us to absorb. So, at least, it has seemed to me.

Zombie Apocalypses

Rousseau proposes in the Emile that it would be a good idea to guide young people to think about the Robinson Crusoe scenario. If you were stuck on a deserted island with minimal materials and tools, what would you do? What would you need to know how to do?

We aren’t entirely without that precise story in our day, but it is much less common, much less intriguing to us somehow. Instead, we have zombies.

Zombie apocalypses are a much more common story type today. There’s something about them that captures our imagination.

What if civilization ended overnight? What if we couldn’t buy food and supplies at the store but suddenly had instead to make, steal, or go without the things we wanted? What if our political structures abruptly disappeared and were replaced with lawlessness and the right of the strong? What if we were no longer protected by the police anymore but had to defend ourselves against hostile multitudes? What if the roads and buildings of our cities were to be overgrown, reclaimed by the wilderness?

People want to think about these things. People use fictional scenarios to work through some of the skills and precautions they might want.

I have one friend who says that the reason he buys guns is because you can’t buy zombie apocalypse insurance, and guns are the closest you can get to such a thing. Now, my friend isn’t literally worried about zombies. But he does seem to worry, to a greater or lesser extent, about the end of civilization.

And that’s a somewhat reasonable thing to worry about.

We should enjoy the benefits of the heritage we have received, but perhaps we should take care not to take it for granted. There have been many times when a “civilized” place has become suddenly lawless, right up to the present day. It might be less likely in some places than others, but nowhere is entirely safe from it.

Perhaps, then, as long as we don’t get overexcited about it, allowing our imaginations to play over the possibilities of a zombie apocalypse is not an entirely worthless exercise.