Friday, April 15, 2016

Transgressions in Reason

I have been distracted, as of late, by the political campaign.

And I have been wasting significant amounts of time engaged in discussions on Facebook that are likely never to be read in any detail or to change anybody's mind.

It makes me wonder why I do such things.

One of the situations that I have trouble turning away from are people who use faulty reasoning. I see a person offering a conclusion and evidence in favor of that conclusion, I see that the reasoning is flawed, and so I respond.

Here is an example:

There is an argument going around that a person should vote for Bernie Sanders because, currently, he polls better against likely Republican opposition. The idea being, "If you want a Democrat in the White House, rather than a Republican, then vote for Bernie Sanders, because he is more likely to beat any likely Republican."

There is a similar argument on the Republican side of the election. This argument claims that Republicans should support John Kasich in a contested primary over Cruz or Trump because he is polling better than they are against likely Democratic competitors. However, as with Sanders, the vast majority of people do not know who John Kasich is.

There will be a billion dollar campaign to define these candidates after the party conventions. Votes will be cast based on what people think of the candidate in October and November, not on what people think about the candidate today. The only way in which polls taken today will be relevant to the November elections is to the degree that one believes that these billion-dollar focus-group driven campaigns will be ineffective.

Today, what most people know (or think they know) about Sanders is that he is white, male, and probably a good Christian (based on the fact that most white males in America are Christian and assumed to be good) who has not said or done anything outlandish. So, naturally, he is to be preferred over the likes of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump - or over John Kasich who, though also unknown, is burdened by association with Cruz and Trump.

The same that can be said about Kasich. He also has said or done nothing that has drawn a lot of negative attention. That alone makes him superior to Clinton. It is not because he has made no embarrassing statements, but the embarrassing statements of somebody so far out of the running are not news and don't get reported.

Yet, they will not remain unknown once the individual has won the nomination and the individual becomes the focus not only of the daily news cycle but of whatever campaign can be brought against him.

And that is where the problem arises.

The use of such reasoning - the willful blindness to relevant facts - represents a failure of rationality.

I would like to add that the failure is to be found in the decision to ignore what is most relevant. The question to be answered is: "How will the opposition be able to define the unknown candidate in the months ahead, and what can be done to prevent it?" The person who is interested in whether this candidate will beat the opposition in November needs to be looking, not at these polls, but at the possible claims that the opposition will be able to make and promote through advertising in the coming months.

An argument can be made that this is a moral failure as well.

Or, more precisely, two moral failures.

One of these moral failures is grounded on the fact that irrational people make mistakes - and those mistakes often cause harm, sometimes quite significant harm, to innocent people. Even rational agents cause harm from time to time, but the risks are far lower. Consequently, people generally have many and strong reason to promote an aversion to irrationality by condemning those who abandon reason in favor of irrational defense of a cherished belief. The type of condemnation they have reason to give is moral. "You ought not to do that. A good person - a properly motivated person - would not do such a thing."

The other moral failure springs from the fact that people tend to believe what they want to believe. When people abandon reason, and when people embrace propositions where the evidence suggests the proposition is false, we have an opportunity to learn something about what the agent really wants. We have a reason to discover that what the agent really has is a want that people generally have little reason to promote.

So, we ask, "Why do people make this mistake?"

People make such a mistake because they become committed to the candidate winning above all else. What matters is that the candidate wins. What ceases to matter is that the candidate deserves to win. What matters is whether one can manipulate another person to support the candidate with logical tricks and half-truths. What ceases to matter is that truth and reason itself shows that there are good reasons to support a candidate.

The person who truly cares that a candidate of a particular party win the general election would want the belief that "supporting this candidate will make it most likely that the correct party will win the general election" is true. In wanting to know that this is true, the agent would look for good evidence and strong or valid reasoning. If, instead, the agent abandons good evidence and sound reasoning, he gives us reason to suspect that he really does not care whether, "supporting this candidate will make it most likely that the correct party will win the general election" is true.

I hold that there is some merit into trying to correct the mistakes in reasoning that one encounters among one's friends and family. We do, in fact, have many and strong reasons to build a society where people are better at drawing correct conclusions from available evidence and less likely to use or to fall for deceptive practices. We have reason to expose what agents really want as opposed to what they claim to want, and to use our tools of condemnation (or praise) appropriately.

To the degree that a person participates in these types of discussions, then one should condemn irrationality as well as bad motives.

But not to the exclusion of other things a person can and should be doing.

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