What Does Political Disagreement Reflect?

The same post I mentioned yesterday ends with a question: “If you’re going to argue that the case for property rights rests only upon consequentialist arguments…then the difference between  classical liberals and revolutionary Marxists such as myself comes down largely to merely empirical questions. Is this really the case?”

It’s an interesting question – both specifically about liberalism and Marxism/communism, and also more generally.

We can express the more general question rather like this: take some person whose beliefs you profoundly disagree with. Now take the most outrageous but still factual claims that they make. ‘If organised religion decays, society will descend into chaos’; ‘if the races are mixed too much, intellectual acheivement will come to a near-complete halt’; ‘if the rightful king is replaced by a government of mere commoners, their incompetence will lead to famine after famine’.

Now, suppose that this were factually true. If it seems (as I think it would) that you would then, in good conscience, have to accept at least the essentials of their position, then doesn’t that mean that your disagreement is based merely on the empirical fact that these things happen not to be true?

What this illustrates of course is that a distinction between ‘factual’ and ‘evaluative’ beliefs is at most a way of talking hypothetically about abstract extremes. That is, ‘factual beliefs’ are those things that hypothetically, people can all come to believe regardless of their values, and values are those things which, hypothetically, would divide people even if they both knew every single fact. But in practice we’re never anywhere close to either situation, so the two are all manged up together.

E.g., when someone says that most people are so foolish that without discipline and management they won’t get anything done, that’s only a factual claim at one level: it’s also layered on with emotions, value judgements, and various things that are not ‘factual’. And knowing the same facts, they might draw different conclusions than I would.

So our reaction won’t be that of a dispassionate enquirer hearing an alternative hypothesis, but more an emotional response to the non-factual elements of that belief. Of course, we also want to respond to it factually – if someone holds the right view for the wrong reasons, it’s still right. But the outcome of weighing the evidence is a judgement of the other person largely for the motives and values that we suppose have produced their beliefs.

One implication is that there are liable to be two sorts of people agreeing with any given conclusion: to borrow a phrase from Marxo-Freudian Erich Fromm, there are beliefs that “grow from a strong emotional matrix” and beliefs that are “an empty opinion”.

Between a classical liberal of the second sort, and a revolutionary Marxist of the second sort, Chris is probaly right that there’s only an empirical difference – or rather, a difference of empirical evidence, along with environment. Of course, there are probably relatively few of either sort of person around, because you’d rarely just ‘slip into’ revolutionary Marxism (in somewhere like Canada, that is – raised in the USSR you might well do).

But the difference between such people, where their views ‘grow from a strong emotional matrix’, is also precisely the difference between those emotional matrices, whatever they are. What is it about someone that leads them to look at things with an eye that sees vindications of capitalism, vs. looking a different way?

That’s a good question, with complicated answers that I’m largely ignorant of. Interestingly, of course, ‘value-judgements’ may not be all of it. For certain people, it seems likely that extreme right (i.e. fascist etc) beliefs and extreme left beliefs draw on some of the same ‘matrices’ – the good guys, the bad guys, the ongoing war, the need for resolute action that goes beyond debate, the history of struggle, etc. But other parts, which we might more strictly term ‘value-judgements’, are diametrically opposed.

Of course, one obvious variable that’s likely to have an effect is personal background – class, sex, race, etc. Different ideological approaches conform to the interests of different social groups. But how and by what mechanisms these interests are translated into beliefs is another complicated question on which I am largely ignorant.

A final note: there is a style of analysis, typical I think of the English-speaking against the continental academy, and of philosophy, and perhaps science, as against sociology or literary studies, which is most interested in talking in the two abstracted extremes – pure value-judgements, in philosophy, and pure facts, in science.

The contrary style, more what could be called ‘pomo’, seems to prefer to study the ‘raw data’ – ideological claims, themes, and motifs, and how people make use of them, without distilling them either into the purely factual or the purely evaluative.

The risk of the former is that what’s ‘abstracted away from’ may remain important, and exert an influence that is disavowed and un-scrutinised – political philosophers who focuses on ‘value judgements’ are liable to be biased by the factual assumptions they carry, while scientists (especially ‘political scientists’) may be uncritical of the values that inform their choices.

The risk of the latter is that by putting both factual truth and ‘moral’ truth aside, it can appear that they have disappeared entirely, and the moon is socially constructed, and the Rwandan genocide is merely ‘a different regime of truth’.

(I suspect you could put Marx and Foucault on the different sides of this contrast – for those who I know are interested in those two)

2 Responses to “What Does Political Disagreement Reflect?”

  1. Colm O'Connor Says:

    All very true. I find that there is a third characteristic of most ideological opinions. Along with “predictions” and “values” there is what the believer fails to consider, as what they do, since it exists outside of the framework of their particular ideology, and most ideological arguments form a “cake” of wrong predictions, bad values and carefully crafted ignorance, so it’s hardly any surprise that there’s never any resolution and nobody comes away any the wiser from them.

    It’s in the nature of certain ideologies to dwell on particular subjects, and perhaps have a very sophisticated view of them, while passing over others by forming an intellectual crutch that relieves them of the “responsibility” of thinking about them.

    They do this sometimes by ascribing everything outside of their model to some sort of axiomatic belief – e.g. “the market will take care of it”, “government is bad”, “a democratic worker’s council will solve that problem” (sorry, couldn’t resist a good snipe ;-)) or “god moves in mysterious ways”.

  2. links for 2009-09-08 « Rumblegumption Says:

    […] What Does Political Disagreement Reflect? « Directionless Bones […]


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