Monday 30 December 2019

Canvassing the Evidence with Hume

Posted by Allister Marran
I have seen it a hundred times, with people both close to me and those who are simply on the periphery of my social orbit.
The recipe is simple. Take someone with a very slight lean or interest towards an ideology, interest or political affiliation and then attack them for this belief. Show them their folly and use reason and facts to challenge their personal choices.

Fence sitters may fall either way, sometimes adjusting their world view to come into line with the group pressuring them, or more likely they begin stoically digging in and taking a more active interest in what previously was only a minor distraction.

Very quickly you will radicalise the very people you are trying to deprogram.

 The Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote,
‘Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.’
And, hardly remembered, he wrote in the same paragraph, 
'Nothing can oppose or retard the impulse of passion, but a contrary impulse.’
When a person feels cornered they feel immense cognitive dissonance, and usually revert back to an instinctual basic point of reference. This includes feelings of anger, aggression, confusion and often bigotry, as one turns to similar minded people and groups to defend oneself in an us vs. them strategy.

Russia and China (among others) are looking for a competitive advantage in the world, and are struggling to find traction and relevance when on a level footing with established democratic countries and capitalist trading blocks.

They have realised that they can leverage social media to destabilise Western democracy and use the confusion and chaos to up their own standing economically and politically.

All they have done is use a Twitter bot army and a few strategically placed and paid for Facebook campaigns to decimate social cohesion in the west.

Let me tell you, Russia has no interest in who wins the US election, or who is the UK Prime Minister. They just want the citizens of the old democratic order fighting amongst each other.

Mission accomplished.

In retrospect, maybe they should not have pursued President Trump's impeachment, but rather Republicans and Democrats should have passed laws to stop the radicalisation of splinter groups through social media. Fight Russia through unity instead of division.

If you look at the world and see where radicalisation ends in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel, Syria and many other countries with massive disenfranchised and radicalised populations or minorities, it's easy to see how minor policy disagreements and political disparities could end up escalating into something far worse, akin to a civil war or revolution.

What would Hume have said to it all, the philosopher of whom the economist Adam Smith thought of as 'approaching as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man' as he thought possible? 

Hume was wary of contrary impulses, of the kind we have just surveyed. He wrote,
‘Does a man of sense ... canvass particularly the evidence? I never knew anyone, that examined and deliberated about nonsense who did not believe it before the end of his enquiries.’
Hume might have told us to make an end to the contest over people's opinions. There are more important things to do, which are dealt with more profitably and practically. It's time to move on.


Keith said...

There’s much of significance in Allister’s essay to think about, including this: ‘In retrospect, maybe they should not have pursued President Trump’s impeachment’.

To the preceding quote’s point, there arguably are reasons that some scholars of history and government, national policymakers, and members of the electorate writ large might propose for the process of impeachment (that is, indictment) to have occurred, apart from mere Jacobin partisanship.

These considerations include the constitutional provisions that spell out what’s impeachable; the concept that presidents are not above the law, and how these putative limits apply; executive versus legislative powers, and maintenance of the balance of their respective constitutionally defined authority; the political and philosophical concerns and intent of America’s Founding Fathers; establishment of the first draft of a historical record of alleged presidential actions, for future Americans to mull; and so forth.

Including, of course, the purported seriousness of the charges brought against the president — abuse of power and obstruction of Congress — and whether American citizens believe the charges (1) matter, (2) are merited in this instance, and (3) rise to the U.S. Constitution’s wording. (Other articles of impeachment were considered, besides these two, but the decision was to leave them out.)

If interested, the relevant constitutional wording is: ‘The president, vice president, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for, and conviction of, treason, bribery, and other high crimes and misdemeanors’. A bramble patch of words left for interpretation — especially the somewhat obscure ‘other high crimes and misdemeanors’ — with the Federalist Papers and other records as grist.

These matters are currently being hotly debated, albeit largely along party lines. Neither side has yet convinced the other of their arguments’ wisdom — and might never. There are no glimmers yet of that pending eureka moment.

As of my writing this comment, the U.S. House of Representatives, which impeached the president on December 18, has not yet handed the two articles of impeachment (equivalent to an indictment, not conviction!) over to the U.S. Senate (for the trial). That’s pending — held in suspension, over differences of how the Senate should proceed — but the hand-off could happen any day.

Martin Cohen said...

Interesting to see the additional line of the famous Hume quote on reason and the passions!

And certainly, Allister is on the theme of the moment here. BBut, but... I don't really agree with where the post takes us. Allister says - I think - that reason would lead us back to social harmony again. I don't think this can be assumed though. What we have in Western societies is a polarisation driven by the old human passion 'greed' (envy), and a dismantling of what used to be called the 'post-war consensus'. The one that said everyone deserved free education and healthcare, and access to housing and meaningful employment. Instead, we have a celbration of success which is calimed to refect 'merit' (shades of the old Protestand work ethic) and disdain for the unsuccessful, and indifference to their fate. This polarisation is not only not against reason, but actually celebrates a kind of utilitarian reason. What opposes it is our sense of human dignity, our ideas of social obligations. Take Trump, for example. He offers people a small cut in taxes, and proposes to build a wall to keep out Mexicans. These are rational in the sense that they are policies seeking to achieve certain ends. What is missing is the humanity, the values.

Martin Cohen said...

On the impeachment issue, I think the argument that most resonates is 'if what Trump has done is not impeachable, then nothing a President does will be in the future'. In other words, the policy of impeachhing him is bound to fail, and surely divides society more. However NOT pursuing impeachment might have worse consequences by creating exactly the kind of all-powerful monarch the Founding Fathers wished to prevent. (And we've seen how Trump and the Republicans have already - and openly - attempted to pack the Supreme Court with political followers, and gerrymander the popular vote too.) Truly, the US is experiencing an existential crisis. Just like the UK!

Keith said...

‘[O]r more likely they begin stoically digging in….’ In light of the sadly irresistible power of that decades-old famous — infamous? — notion ‘confirmation bias’, I suspect this claim is spot-on.

‘Let me tell you, Russia has no interest in who wins the U.S. election….’ To your follow-on point about Russia sowing the seeds of disruption, disunity, dissonance, and disinformation within the populations of the liberal democracies of Western Europe and North America, whom it regards as a geopolitical nemesis, I think there’s common agreement. Whether, however, the Russian president and members of the Duma are interested or disinterested in who’s the U.S. president, I think this reaches beyond mere disruption and depends on how the current crop of presidential candidates are seen by Russia as potentially protagonistic or antagonistic toward Russian interests. One point of view is that, over the last almost-three years, Russia developed a symbiotic affiliation with the current U.S. president (a now-known quantity), to the former’s perceived advantage; to that extent, Russia does, arguably, have an ‘interest in who wins the [2020] U.S. election’. We can but read the tea leaves.

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