Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Conspiracies, Motives, And Hypocrisy

Just yesterday, longtime reader and frequent commenter Furball wrote as follows:

I think I know one reason why liberals win. This probably isn't new to you, but I want to explore it by talking to you about it.

Liberals win because we all sin.

That is, every Conservative has probably committed adultery or "lusted," or stolen or broken a commandment.

So liberals always have the argument that Conservatives are hypocrites.

Never mind that that presupposes we're supposed to perfect and that just by not being perfect, we "fail."

What liberals can do is negate the entire moral argument by pointing out that Conservatives have moral failings and yet "hypocritically" demand morality.

Or - as we've seen so often - "Since you did THAT, who are you to point fingers at US for THIS?"

To take the most obvious example, the Nixon stuff is supposed to be the cover and excuse for Clinton and Obama. "Hey! Look! He did it, so don't tell us how bad our guy is!"...

It's not just "moral relativism." What they're really saying is that ANY error of Conservatism (as in Bush promoting Medicare Plan D, or anything Conservatives might not like about his policies) is the SAME as any error of liberalism.

Indeed. Which compels me to resurrect my favorite Neal Stephenson citation:

"You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices," Finkle-McGraw said. "It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of climate, you are not allowed to criticise others -- after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?...

"Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others' shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all the vices. For, you see, if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour -- you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all the political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

"You wouldn't believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi....

"Because they were hypocrites... the Victorians were despised in the late Twentieth Century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefarious conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves -- they took no moral stances and lived by none."

"So they were morally superior to the Victorians -- " Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

"-- even though -- in fact, because -- they had no morals at all."

"We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy," Finkle-McGraw continued. "In the late Twentieth Century Weltanschaaung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception -- he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course. most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it's a spirit-is willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing."

"That we occasionally violate our own moral code," Major Napier said, working it through, "does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code."

"Of course not," Finkle-McGraw said. "It's perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved -- the missteps we make along the way -- are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."

[Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age ]

Furball agreed that Stephenson had captured the essence of the thing. But only this morning did it occur to me that the syndrome possesses a powerful coupling to the conspiratorialism that afflicts contemporary political thought.

First, that we might not be impeded by pro forma objections: Yes, there have been real conspiracies. Some might well be in motion today. But real conspiracies are usually much less important than a pervasive air of conspiratorialism, such that developments in law, policy, and politics cannot be discussed free of that association.

The reason is not far to seek: A conspiracy requires a commonality of motives. Conspirators work upon a common plan to effectuate a common end, which they all deem desirable. The sort of a posteriori pseudo-reasoning many persons employ works this backwards: If a particular development in public policy could plausibly suggest, given the "right" set of assumptions, that common motives might lie beneath it, the conspiratorially minded will immediately assume a conspiracy to bring that development about.

Persons educated in logic and aware of fallacious departures from it will recognize this as the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle. Proper deductive logic would run thus:

  1. Postulate: A conspiracy that applies stimulus S must intend result R.
  2. Observation: A conspiracy has been brought to light, and has applied S.
  3. Conclusion: Therefore, the conspiracy intends R.

Straightforward implicative / deductive logic! If P, then Q. P is true; therefore Q is true. But in the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle:

  1. Postulate: A conspiracy that applies stimulus S must intend result R.
  2. Observation: R has come about.
  3. Conclusion: There must be a conspiracy somewhere doing S!

Uh, sorry, that's not quite right. And unfortunately, the tendency to commit the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle isn't restricted to the Left. But this is really just prefatory.

Yesterday's satirical piece provoked quite a lot of email, much of which protested that I mustn't ridicule the real reason things are going to Hell in the proverbial handbasket. It was quite a torrent for a while, simultaneously entertaining and exhausting. As I don't have the time, energy, or patience to answer each of those missives individually, I hope the material above will be considered adequate.

The core point is as stated above: A conspiracy requires a commonality of motives. Thus, if you can't assemble a group with demonstrably common motives -- common enough, at least, to militate toward some well-defined end -- you can't identify (or produce) a conspiracy. However, in political discourse and maneuvering, such groups are easily identified. From these the conspiratorialist, in thrall to the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, "deduces" conspiracies, and thus succumbs to yet another logical sin: that of "proving too much." For in almost every case, the existence of the fallaciously inferred conspiracy would strongly imply still other developments that have not occurred.

The dedicated conspiratorialist waves such objections aside. "Wait for it," he might say. For his "inference" is something he needs -- indeed, something that much of Mankind has always needed and always will: a target at which to aim.

A conspiracy theory is merely a devil theory -- the attribution of some unpleasant development to an evil agency -- with multiple devils.

Accusations of hypocrisy take conspiratorialism to a dimension one step beyond the skeleton presented above. The accuser has assumed something the "basic" conspiratorialist has not: the existence of the common motives themselves. He doesn't trouble to search for and establish them; he merely assumes them and gallops on from there.

In the political realm, for example, one who claims that he wants "the poor" to be better off and therefore supports the expansion of the welfare state is a hypocrite if he really intends that "the poor" be worse off, that there be more of them, or both. We in the Right, viewing the destruction the expansion of welfarism has wrought, argue against its furtherance on that basis. When the left-liberal waves our arguments aside, the temptation to charge him with hypocrisy -- e.g., that he wants "to produce more government dependents" -- is very strong.

When we look through the other end of the telescope, we find the Left claiming that the Right, which rails against both illegitimacy and abortion on demand, must be hypocritical. Why? Because a large percentage of the babies aborted each year would be born to single mothers. So we can't really be opposed to both those things, because one mitigates the other. We must simply want to limit women's sexual behavior -- "to control women's bodies."

The strength of the temptation to make such accusations flows from the varying availability of objective evidence and the universality of Man's most important failings: his susceptibility to deceit and wishful thinking.

This is a large subject, well beyond my capacity to exhaust in a single essay, so allow me to close for today with just one more observation: A large group of persons might well contain persons with specific motives in common. The larger the group, the more likely that becomes, for any motive one might choose to specify. Thus, in a political family that wears a common appellation, the existence of subgroups with specific motives not shared by those outside their number becomes more plausible as the enveloping group grows. When we speak of "conservatives," "liberals," Republicans, and Democrats, the relevant groups are very large indeed.

That doesn't imply that hypocritical subgroups have significant power to sway the larger group. However, it doesn't imply that they don't, either. I hope to address this in my next.

More anon.

1 comment:

lelnet said...

Worth noting also, I think, that the common motive is a necessary condition for conspiracy, but not a sufficient one. Common motives are, as you point out, effectively ubiquitous...what conspiracy also requires is _ongoing coordination_ among the conspirators.

This is the missing element whose rarity undermines the plausibility of conspiracy theories, and whose difficulties -- both intrinsic and extrinsic -- undermine the prospects of success for conspiracies that actually do form.