Friday, March 19, 2004

Liberalism and fallibility

Sock Thief has replied to my piece on Liberalism, "false consciousness" and deception, but unfortunately has missed the point. It is not Pinker who is the target of my post, but Sock Thief himself - and in particular, his claims linking liberals with the sort of thinking Pinker criticises.

In my post, I took those claims at face value, and (I think) showed that they are not a problem for liberals. Unfortunately, Sock Thief seems to have focused on some superficialities rather than the substance. Just to make this clear, I am not committed to the view that we are all credulous morons or subject to constant mind control. I do however think that we can be fooled, and that sometimes we can be convinced to change our minds, reprioritise our goals, or pursue a course of action that we would otherwise abhor by lying, deceit, or manipulation. This is not because we are stupid; it is because we are fallible. Recognising this fact isn't illiberal - but denying it is irrational, and somewhat curious for someone who talks so much about taking account of our nature.

Not that any of that actually matters - because unwrapped from all its packaging, the key point is this:

Even if people do suffer from "false consciousness" or are subject to propaganda, deceit and manipulation, the fundamental tenent of liberalism - that people are the best judges of their own desires and interests - rules out second-guessing them.

Note the "even if". It's not a problem for liberalism if propaganda works - and it's even less of one if we accept Sock Thief's belief that it doesn't.

Sock Thief also seems to think I need to explain how people arrive at particular political opinions. I don't think so. Liberalism doesn't need a "thick" theory of human psychology and nature; all it needs is the belief that adults have interests, desires and goals and are capable of deciding between them1 - which is supported by Pinker. How we make decisions is pretty much irrelevant. You can decide which political party to support by prolonged rational deliberation, you can ask the first person you bump into on the street, you can flip a coin for all liberals care - what's important is that it is your decision. Others may think that it's weird, ill-informed, selfish, or grossly mistaken - even that the axioms it is based on are morally reprehensible - but (subject to Mill's Law, of course) they cannot interfere. "Respecting someone's decisions" means noninterference, not approval, and carries no burden of politeness.

This also explains how I can reconcile believing that politics is something that people can reasonably disagree over with calling people wankers: people can reasonably disagree because politics is about what we want and they have different interests and goals - but that doesn't mean I have to approve of those interests or goals.

1 coupled with a moral argument leading to the conclusion that people are the best judges of their own interests. This could be Naturalistic, grounded for example in the fact that people tend to get upset when second-guessed, it could be Kantian, grounded in the Categorical Imperitive, or it could rely on some other moral scheme.