By Bryan Caplan
I often argue that popular ideas are deeply mistaken. I attacked everything from nationalism and militarism to Tiger Parenting and labor market regulation. There’s one utterly corrupt outlook, though, that I almost never bother to criticize. As soon as I hear it, I instinctively tune it out, because you can’t argue with it. For want of a better phrase, I call this outlook “pious thinking.”
On my usage, there is nothing intrinsically religious about pious thinking. Yes, it’s prominent in moderate religious services. But it also dominates political speeches, public health campaigns, commencement addresses, and every Back-to-School-Night. Pious thinking has two key features. First, surrender to Social Desirability Bias – saying whatever sounds good on every topic, without bothering to check statements against the facts. Second, indifference to consistency – saying whatever sounds good on every topic, without bothering to check statements for internal consistency.
My most vivid experiences with pious thinking come from my K-12 years: The P.A. declaring things like, “Our school takes every effort to ensure every student a stimulating educational experience” – while requiring every student to take a health class that consisted almost entirely in copying sentences out of the textbook. Anyone who objected that copying sentences is less than stimulating received the pious reply: “Health is an essential part of our curriculum.” Similarly, the P.A. might announce, “Our school guarantees the safety of every student” – even though school rules against fighting automatically suspended the victim along with the perpetrator! Wouldn’t that strongly discourage reporting of violence? Pious reply: “Oh, it takes two to tango.”
As a practical matter, pious thinking is less harmful than taking bad ideas to their logical conclusion. Religions that say both, “Blasphemy must be illegal” and “We must respect freedom of conscience” commit less savagery than religions that say, “Blasphemy must be illegal, so to hell with freedom of conscience.” But intellectually, coherent-but-wrong views are at least manageable. They make definite claims, so it’s possible to disprove them. Pious thinking, in contrast, is irrefutable by design. If you score a telling point, pious thinking allows your opponents to claim they’ve agreed from the get-go. But that changes nothing. The status quo must go on… as long as it keeps sounding good.