Tuesday, February 10, 2015

You have to pass the smell test

If you tell me that you're morally opposed to X, but are likewise opposed to passing legislation that would outlaw X, chances are I'll take you seriously. Really, I'm in that same position myself, and I think most people are. I'm morally opposed to everything I'm aware of Charlie Hebdo doing, but I've got a free speech commitment that rules out censoring them - even if I think they're quite literally a hate group, publishing hate speech, of the variety that happens to zero in on a group of people I find myself being part of.

Examples like this can be multiplied. Even if I don't disagree with the issue in question, I can conditionally find it easy to believe that someone really holds such a view, despite my disagreements with them. I'm not going to automatically dive to a claim of bad faith.

This is a common enough attitude - most people seem to hold to something like this, since just about everyone finds SOMEthing repugnant that they nevertheless can't imagine themselves outlawing. Maybe they think the law would have no effect, or even a detrimental effect. Maybe they hold some principle that requires tolerance in the public sphere. Maybe a bunch of things, or a mix of things.

So how is it that I can doubt the sincerity of, say... Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi when they talk about being faithful, loyal Catholics who are morally opposed to abortion, but who nevertheless defend 'a woman's right to choose' legally, right up until the latest, fringest of the fringe cases?

Simple: I am not completely fucking blind, nor do I feel the need to pretend that I am.

This is something that really seems to throw most people: the idea that you don't have to automatically take a person's word about their beliefs and commitments, especially if they behave in such ways that give the strong impression that they are bullshitting you. I maintain that Pelosi and Biden are full of shit, and they act like as much.

'But wait!' comes the reply. 'You're not psychic. You're not God! You can't peer into their very souls and tell what they REALLY and TRULY think with utter accuracy. You could be wrong! Maybe they mean every word they say!'

Yeah, but the thing is: I don't need utter certainty that I'm correct in order to reasonably suspect a given state of affairs is most likely true, based on the evidence I have. By the by: 'things people say and do' works mighty well as far as giving an insight into true thoughts, beliefs and attitudes goes. Brian Williams may be utterly sincere in his explanations of his discrepancies - hell, he may have actually been on a helicopter that got shot down, because I'm not God and I can't peer into people's souls. But as it stands, I think I'm well within my rights to suspect he's just a bullshitter.

To give an anecdote: I once was talking with a (naturalist, atheist) friend about abortion. Well, less talking, more like going at it cobra-and-mongoose style. At one point I remarked that materialist atheists are quite at home with butchering infants by the millions, at which point they reared up: how DARE I suggest they're morally OK with abortion. Typical theist, I think that only God-believers have a lock on morality, and just because he's an atheist doesn't mean he accepts abortion.

I replied - man, I've seen you talk about this. Abortion comes up and all you ever talk about is 'reproductive freedom'. You're in favor of it being legal in every fucking case, and I have yet to see you ever criticize abortion. They pull the same card: 'You're not psychic! You don't know what I think! Just because I'm an atheist, just because I'm in favor of it being legal, doesn't mean I accept abortion morally!'

I say, yeah, but I've seen your track record on this topic. But finally, I decide, okay - you tell me. When ARE you morally opposed to abortion? You tell me, right now, ANY situation in which a woman procuring an abortion is behaving immorally. Let's really see where you stand.

So we wait. And a couple moments later they say, well, you know, they can't think of any situation like that right now, but that doesn't necessarily mean that they'd not have a moral problem with it in every possible situation. Why, maybe there's a hypothetical case they have yet to even think up where they'd find it wrong.

Maybe. But also, maybe they were full of shit.

The reason I bring this up is because I come across a lot of people who treat reasoning in this way as verboten. The very prospect of questioning someone's sincerity, regardless of the evidence onhand, is just ruled out as being crass, or far too rude. We're not psychics, we can't peer into people's souls, we can even be wrong. And shouldn't we focus on arguments, rather than on personalities? Arguments stand or fall regardless of who's giving them, after all.

But in a culture war, there's more than arguments at play. There's perceptions. There's morale (as opposed to morals). There's deception, and discord, sockpuppetry, and more. And perhaps most important of all - in philosophical and metaphysical topics, which moral discussions often come back to, the need for sincerity and mutual respect on the part of all participants is paramount, to a degree greater than in other fields of discussion. The sooner you realize you're talking to someone who is shamelessly bluffing you, the sooner you can either move on to a better conversation, or figure out what their real aim is and take the appropriate steps.

Simply put: there's no moral upside to endlessly giving the benefit of the doubt, unto stupidity. It's acceptable, reasonable, even important to ask if someone passes the smell test when it comes to laying out their beliefs. Keep this in mind, and act accordingly.


BenYachov said...

Fundamentalist Atheist kills Muslims.



Syllabus said...

The problem I take with that argument is that, if they're Catholics, and assent to the teachings of their Church, then they very literally think that abortion is murder. So the statement boils down to "Well, I'm personally opposed to murder, but I wouldn't want to oppose my beliefs on others."

Which of course is kind of ironic, given that these are the people who see no problem imposing their beliefs regarding healthcare on others. Or mandating how a baker or florist or photographer out to conduct their business. And so on.

Crude said...

Thanks, Ben. Interesting news.


I agree. But for me, what really always throws me is similar to what I wrote about. 'Morally opposed to abortion who think it should nevertheless be legal' people, in my experience, lock up and do the deer-in-headlights thing when you ask them to actually name when it's immoral for a woman to have an abortion.

Because... they're lying. It's a front. Except even paying lip service to the front would be a tremendous faux pas - it would be judging women for what they 'with their own bodies', so it can't even be faked anymore. Not with their name being attached to their words.

Andrew W said...

"Morally opposed but …" is usually easy to spot. The moral statement is clear - "X is bad", but then there's tension on the Law part - "Not sure how one would implement a law against it without creating worse side effects".

It's not that making X illegal is bad; it's that they can't think of a clean and practical way to do so that doesn't compromise some other principle.

Claiming you hold this position when you're not willing to say "X is bad" is sophistry. It's pretending your issue is pragmatic when you actually think that it is immoral to prevent X, which is morally exactly the opposite than the position you're trying to present.

Crude said...

Claiming you hold this position when you're not willing to say "X is bad" is sophistry.

This, I think, is key - and it's one advantage of the modern climate, at least for SJW topics. As recently as a couple years ago, SJWs were willing to lie shamelessly on these topics. But now? If you say you're against gay marriage, 'I was lying to save my position/election/position of influence!' won't save you. There's a zero-tolerance policy in effect for many people.

Syllabus said...

As recently as a couple years ago, SJWs were willing to lie shamelessly on these topics. But now? If you say you're against gay marriage, 'I was lying to save my position/election/position of influence!' won't save you.

And yet now, with the revelation that the President was most likely completely bullshitting everyone in 2008 and 2012 when he told everyone he thought marriage was between a man and a woman, there is a rather notable absence of pitchfork-bearing gay activists on his lawn calling him a bigot.

Crude said...


Obama's in a pretty unique situation. His presidency has straddled the dividing line between 'the time when gay marriage was very unpopular' to the unmasking of SJWs - and criticizing Obama is seen as empowering his enemies, precisely because of the position he's in.

I won't deny people will suck it up and accept what they take to be obvious lies in certain political situations. But elsewhere? Not so much.

To see something comparable - take a look at Dawkins. Exactly how much deviation from the SJW line on feminism did it take for him to go from 'Most brilliant living evolutionary biologist ever - nay, one of the most brilliant scientists alive!' to 'Ex-scientist who hasn't done anything in decades, he's embarrassing and also senile'?

laBiscuitnapper said...

The very prospect of questioning someone's sincerity, regardless of the evidence onhand, is just ruled out as being crass, or far too rude.

Which is odd because, although arguments should stand or fall alone, surely it's also important to consider the 'meta-argument' - the reasons why that person is reasoning as they are.

I'm not the greatest logician, but it's frustrating when people don't play fair. On a similar vein I had to disagree with someone at Church who kept saying one shouldn't 'question a calling', which I found strange firstly, because that's what discernment is and secondly because lots of people have false callings which aren't necessarily malicious, just a result of being full of Original Sin.

On the topic of abortion, I'm definitely one of those sophists who gets wary when it comes to legislation, but I do find it interesting how in SJW discussions I've been part of, that's never enough. Not that it matters as it's about not trying to please people, just attempting to put principles into practice. Still, it's interesting.