Are Political Labels Uniquely IQ-Draining?
By Bryan Caplan
Bryan has sort of wrongly inferred that my aversion to
specifically political labels flows from a much more general aversion to
naming one’s convictions. At the limit, Bryan makes it sound as though I
have a beef with the whole idea of self-predication. I don’t. I am an
Earthling, a chordate, an Iowan, a compatibilist, and I’m not afraid to
say so!… But I think there’s definitely something special about
political ideology which tends to make it rather more central to our
self-conception than our positions on obscure philosophical questions.
The “something special”:
Politics just is coalitional conflict. A political label puts
you, like it or not, on a team in a number of disputes in which there
are significant real-world stakes. People therefore tend to see their
ideological affiliation as constitutive of their identity in a way their
opinion about the ontology of mental illness (to use one of Bryan’s
examples) isn’t. People advertise their politics by putting Che Guevara
and Murray Rothbard on t-shirts, but they don’t much advertise their
metaethics with Kant gear… Other
people are thus likely to see our politics as central to our identity,
and to see our attributed identity through the prism of their
politics. Self-labeling gives others permission to apply to us the label
we apply to ourselves, and (here is something I believe!) who we are is
to a large extent a complicated product of our reactions to social
Will greatly overstates his case. At minimum, he should have said “politics and religion.” There’s a good reason why the subtitle of Jonathan Haidt‘s The Righteous Mind is Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Namely: People forms emotional coalitions in both areas.
But it gets worse. While few people form emotional coalitions about abstruse subjects like meta-ethics, the reason is simply that few people care about the issue… if they’re even aware the issue exists. If you look at the subset of people who actually care enough about meta-ethics to have a position, though, the analogy to politics and religion is strong. People who believe in Kantian meta-ethics get emotional about their stance, and socially affiliate with like-minded people. Verily, with my own eyes have I seen meta-ethical coalitions in conflict.
I freely admit that there’s some variance. Consider Will’s list of labels: “an Earthling, a chordate, an Iowan, a compatibilist.”
No one cares about or affiliates on “Earthling” or “chordate.” Many
people do care about and affiliate on “Iowan,” but probably not
Will. “Compatibilist”? Few know the term. But if you’re able to explain compatibilism and its alternatives, you probably have some emotions about the topic and form some social bonds with like-minded intellectual allies against your wrong-headed opponents.
My point, to repeat, is not that people should ignore the dangers of emotional or social bias. The dangers are all too real, and lead many astray. But avoiding labels – political or otherwise – is a futile cop-out. The right lesson to draw is that people should choose their labels carefully. Those who choose well don’t just acquire insight. They also join the Coalition of the Insightful – the social network of people in the know. How can you distinguish the Coalition of the Insightful from the Coalition of the Not-So-Insightful? There’s no recipe, but you have to try.