Working with Tribal Minds
Arnold Kling has a fabulous essay in The American today. Kling, a libertarian economist, read The Righteous Mind closely and has understood it perfectly. He accepts the idea that our tribal minds make it hard for us to reason well, and then he tries to figure out what we can do to improve matters. Here is a brief summary of the essay, in Kling’s own words:
What I take away from Haidt is the hypothesis that our capacity to think about moral and social problems evolved from an ability to rationalize our actions. Thus, our capacity to rationalize our moral and political beliefs is much greater than we realize; conversely, our capacity for detached reasoning about moral and political issues is much less than we realize. The fact that we rationalize more readily than we reason helps to sustain political polarization.
Political polarization is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, there are some issues, notably the unsustainable fiscal path of the budget of the United States going forward, which require compromise.
Second, the environment for political discourse is very unpleasant. Rather than try to engage in constructive argument, partisans make the most uncharitable interpretations possible of what their opponents intend.
In the remainder of this essay, I propose some techniques to check this tendency toward extreme partisanship. I think that adoption of these would improve the atmosphere for political debate.
The first is to take opposing points of view at face value, rather than attempt to analyze them away reductively. A second proposal is to police your own side, meaning that one should attempt, contrary to instinct, to examine more critically the views of one’s allies than the views of one’s opponents. The third proposal is to “scramble the teams” by creating situations in which people of differing political views must work together to achieve a goal requiring cooperative effort.
I agree with Kling’s three proposals. I think one can accept my thesis that one’s opponents arguments are generally post-hoc rationalizations, while still accepting that these rationalizations offer moral arguments that your own side should try to understand. As for policing one’s own side: I think this would help each side in the long run, by helping it to make better arguments that might appeal to non-partisans. It’s very hard to do, especially in the thick of battle. But any team that allows terrible arguments to go unchallenged routinely discredits itself in the eyes of outsiders. Scrambling the teams is the best idea of all. At CivilPolitics.org, we believe that strengthening interpersonal relationships is among the best ways to open minds and improve political civility.
Thank you Mr. Kling!