Monday, June 8, 2009

For Reasoned Dialogue

I think a close cousin to the genetic fallacy is lurking in David Hume's discussion of "conservatism as disposition" -- or maybe it's just rank fatalism:

What is the moral, so to speak, of these research projects? One implication is that much political talk (though not all) about the axioms which drive our orientations are simply plausible stories which our conscious pre-frontal cortex generates as a “reasonable” facade on top of deeper emotionally driven commitments. The model that politics derives from explicit principles, as opposed to intuitive dispositions, naturally results in attempts of reasoned “dialogue.” But talking may ultimately be as futile as a discussion about why two individuals differ in their preference for the taste of watermelon.
There is a basic confusion between inputs and outputs here: what politics "derives from" is not as important as where it arrives, nor are we doomed to commitments that are as shaky as the inputs that gave impetus to them. There are steps between impulsive inclination and final conclusion, and these steps make all the difference.

To extend Hume's watermelon image: people seem to have a strong inclination to favor foods loaded with sugar and fat. Most people, left to nothing more than their base inclinations, would choose the chocolate ice cream over the wedge of watermelon. That's the trouble with base inclinations!

People exposed to "reasoned dialogue" on food intake can gain a clear understanding of the importance of good nutrition, and the consequences of following nothing but base inclinations in eating. They will never outright reverse the preference for ice cream over watermelon, but they can, with the application of discipline and reasoning, form better habits.

Politics and all areas of belief can work the same way. It's useful to know how and why people form their ideas, convictions, beliefs, etc.; it's useful to know (if true) that some ideas are more firmly fixed than others. It does not follow that rigorous examination of ideas is futile. People can be firmly, stubbornly convinced about something and yet be wrong about it, and reasoned dialogue is the way they'll winnow the true and valuable from the false and meretricious.

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