Friday 5 September 2008

Clustering of political beliefs

This is worth a read.

d. The clustering of political beliefs
Two beliefs are ‘logically unrelated’ if neither of them, if true, would constitute evidence for or against the other. Many logically unrelated beliefs are correlated—that is, you can often predict someone’s belief about one issue on the basis of his opinion about some other, completely unrelated issue. For example, people who support gun control are much more likely to support welfare programs and abortion rights. Since these issues are logically unrelated to each other, on a purely cognitive theory of people’s political beliefs, we would expect there to be no correlation.

Sometimes the observed correlations are the opposite of what one would expect on the basis of reason alone—sometimes, that is, people who hold one belief are less likely to hold other beliefs that are supported by the first one. For instance, one would naively expect that those who support animal rights would be far more likely to oppose abortion than those who reject the notion of animal rights; conversely, those who oppose abortion should be much more likely to accept animal rights. This is because to accept animal rights (or fetus rights), one must have a more expansive conception of what sorts of beings have rights than those who reject animal rights (or fetus rights)—and because fetuses and animals seem to share most of the same morally relevant properties (e.g., they are both sentient, but neither are intelligent). I am not saying that the existence of animal rights entails that fetuses have rights, or vice versa (there are some differences between fetuses and animals); I am only saying that, if animals have rights, it is much more likely that fetuses do, and vice versa. Thus, if people’s political beliefs generally have cognitive explanations, we should expect a very strong correlation between being pro-life and being pro-animal-rights. But in fact, what we observe is exactly the opposite.

Some clustering of logically unrelated beliefs could be explained cognitively—for instance, by the hypothesis that some people tend to be good, in general, at getting to the truth (because they are rational, intelligent, etc.) So suppose that it is true both that affirmative action is just and that abortion is morally permissible. These issues are logically unrelated to each other; however, if some people are in general good at getting to the truth, then those who believe one of these propositions would be more likely to believe the other.

But note that, on this hypothesis, we would not expect the existence of an opposite cluster of beliefs. That is, suppose that liberal beliefs are, in general, true, and that this explains why there are many people who generally embrace this cluster of beliefs. (Thus, affirmative action is just, abortion is permissible, welfare programs are good, capital punishment is bad, human beings are seriously damaging the environment, etc.) Why would there be a significant number of people who tend to embrace the opposite beliefs on all these issues? It is not plausible to suppose that there are some people who are in general drawn toward falsity. Even if there are people who are not very good at getting to the truth (they are stupid, or irrational, etc.), their beliefs should be, at worst, unrelated to the truth; they should not be systematically directed away from the truth. Thus, while there could be a ‘true cluster’ of political beliefs, the present consideration strongly suggests that neither the liberal nor the conservative belief-cluster is it.

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