I think we would all get along a lot better if we were rational, but not because we would all be in complete agreement if we were rational.
Rationality is a tool for getting what we want. Rationality tells us how the world is, and what the results of our actions are likely to be. Debates over how the world is and which strategies will be more effective might be settled more quickly if we were all rational. However, rationality doesn’t determine which results are most desirable to us. Even if we were all ideally rational, we probably wouldn’t all converge on the same set of behaviors and policies.
Given that we have individual tastes and desires, why do I suspect that we would get along better if we were more rational?
The short answer is that I think we adopt on different attitude to opponents who we regard as rational rather than irrational.
Manufacturing our own facts
Our naive trust in the facts is informed by our political sensibilities. This much isn’t mere opinion. There have been hundreds of studies of cognitive dissonance, and the results are unambiguous.
We all suffer from a degree of wishful thinking. When our opponent cites a study to support his political agenda, we immediately doubt the cited study. If we’re opposed to an economic policy, we’ll impulsively be less likely to trust the evidence in favor of the policy. And if we support an environmental policy, we’ll be much more credulous about factual claims that look like rationales for the favored policy. This is an unfortunate fact about the way we humans look at the world. We distort the facts to fit our wishes. The cognitive dissonance that alerts us to contradictions is also prone to throw out contradictory facts instead of opinions.
If we were more rational, we would be able to separate evaluations of fact from evaluations of policy. We would be less fearful of the consequences of accepting true claims, or rejecting false ones.
At this point, you might ask, if a study shows that our favored policy doesn’t work, isn’t that a genuine reason to fear the study?
Well, if the study is misleading, and shows that a policy is effective when it isn’t (or vice versa), that’s a genuine reason for concern. However, our knee-jerk reaction to factual claims often causes us to miss the real motivation for our political inclinations.
Are facts even relevant to ideology?
Try this experiment. Think of a political issue about which you feel strongly. Perhaps, global warming legislation, abstinence-only sex education, flat taxation, mandatory sentencing, or something like this.
Now, think about the scientific evidence that relates to the policy, and why you think the evidence backs up your position.
Finally, imagine what you would do if the evidence didn’t support your ideology. You will probably find that your ideology is primarily motivated by something other than the evidence in question. For example, studies that tell us about the effects of abortion on society are virtually irrelevant to proponents on either side of the debate. Proponents of abortion rights won’t be swayed by evidence that abortion leads to statistically negative outcomes, and detractors won’t be swayed by evidence that abortion leads to positive outcomes. Yet, this doesn’t stop either side from promoting and defending studies that talk about the statistical social of psychological consequences of abortion.
We all reserve the right to vote for a given policy on the basis of ideology alone. I’m not saying we ought to do this, but rather that it is okay to acknowledge this fact if it reduces our fear of looking honestly at the evidence. Sometimes, we don’t have to give up an ideology if the facts don’t go our way. Once we come to terms with our true motivations, we can be more honest about the facts. And an ability to look fairly at the facts makes us more rational.
Irrationality and coercion
A clear separation of facts and ideology can have secondary effects. To begin with, ideology isn’t only a matter of taste. Once we have a clear evaluation of the facts, our ideology may well change through reflective equilibrium. This can happen if our ideology was propped up by denials or irrational fears that pass in light of new evidence. Perhaps, we’ll retain our ideological stance, but be less committed to it.
After spending time isolating my ideology from the facts, I have noted a change in the way I react the positions of people with different ideologies. It becomes easier to see where my political opponents are coming from. It has become possible to imagine a political opponent who is rational!
In my experience, the way I interact with opponents who I believe to be rational is different from the way I interact with opponents who I believe to be acting irrationally. When an opponent is irrational, I feel an impulse to coerce the opponent into correct thinking. The opponent cannot be reasoned with, so force (or force of law) is the most suitable option. However, when I can see my opponent as rational by his or her own values, then I feel much more amenable to a negotiated compromise.
What do you think? If your opponent is rational by his or her own values, does compromise sound more appealing?