Policy positions are, at heart, an existential choice

Policy positions are, at heart, an existential choice

Periodically someone will publish the results of a study suggesting that “we” are smarter than our political enemies. Liberals are more open to new ideas, conservatives have more common sense – somehow the idea that our political beliefs are determined by our IQ lets some of us sleep easier at night.

Daniel Klein isn’t one of them. The author of a 2010 study showing that conservatives are smarter about economics than liberals, Klein has publicly retracted his own study after conducting follow-up research. It turns out that conservatives correctly answer questions whose conclusions back up conservatives views on how the world works … and liberals correctly answer questions who conclusions back of liberal views of how the world works. And everyone is bad at answering questions that challenge their assumptions.

Klein writes: “The proper inference from our work is not that one group is more enlightened, or less. It’s that “myside bias”—the tendency to judge a statement according to how conveniently it fits with one’s settled position—is pervasive among all of America’s political groups.”

It would be nice if we could do away with the idea that people who disagree with us are of necessity stupid, or immune to evidence: the current Pope is brilliant, as is Richard Dawkins. Barack Obama is extremely intelligent, as is Mitch Daniels. Attempts to reduce their choices to a deficiency of capacity is a kind of dehumanization: it’s not their fault, they can’t help themselves.

Any debate that does this is fundamentally dishonest: we all have agency. To deny it of our opponents is, deep down, a refusal to engage.

But these results also suggest that, at heart, the reason why we believe what we do about politics and public policy has less to do with cold calculations and more to do with our fundamental values: at some point we decide the world works a certain way, and our intellectual opinions follow.

Our politics, then, are a manifestation of our existential choices. Realizing this could do a great deal to cool down the overheated rhetoric that has so often come to replace public debate: we will never be able to change someone’s mind unless we can truly understand how (and why) they choose to live. The more hostile we get, the less likely we are to see what’s right in front of our opponents’ eyes.

What we must not do is use the existence of “myside bias” to give up on debate. Because no existential choice is set in stone: we make choices every moment of our lives, and people do indeed “change their minds” when exposed to new evidence. Klein himself proves that.

Noted ethicist (and Saybrook University faculty member) Marvin Brown has pointed out the fact that values are not, at heart, questions of intellect doesn’t absolve us of the need to develop our intellects. We still need to have a way of reaching out to people we disagree with, and the realm of logic and evidence is where those first encounters happen.

What Klein’s courageous admission has shown us is that the purpose of intellectual debate is not just to understand policy and politics, but to better humanize the people who make these choices – including ourselves.

— Benjamin Wachs

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