Endemic Errors in Right Wing Thinking
Posted on November 22, 2016
I don’t believe I have ever in my life had a truly satisfying argument with a traditional conservative or radical rightist. By “satisfying” I mean an argument not sidetracked by deep cognitive errors that, to my mind, should be unnecessary for making a conservative case. I am not referring to the inevitable shallow errors thrown up reflexively and massively by right-wing trolls–e.g. red herrings, evasions, ad hominems, unacknowledged shifts of position, circular arguments.
Instead I am referring to deep patterns of thought that well-educated people should have discarded during the 20th century. I am also not claiming that left-wingers never make these errors, or don’t have typical cognitive errors distinctive to the left (such as relativism). In addition I will admit that I have had discussions with rational libertarians who did not make these errors (even though I think they were utterly wrong about many matters of empirical economics, and also held unconscionable ethical values). I am also not claiming that every conservative makes every such error. My point is that these errors seem so endemic to the traditional right-wing mind set as to defeat rational discussion with other well-educated people. Here are some (not all) of the examples.
1. Linguistic essentialism. Rightwingers commonly believe that common-language words have have simple, core, widely known, true meanings, and that they understand those meanings, and you don’t if you disagree with them. Consequently they are unable to understand that scientific and philosophic language depends on freedom of stipulation–i.e. the speaker gets to define his terms. They have a hard time with metaphor and ambiguity, and they easily fall into fundamentalism and orginalism. So you get Scalia accusing you of not understanding the Constitution if you point out that the Constitution was written by men who accepted the common law tradition that laws get reinterpreted. And they accuse you of arguing semantics if you try to clarify meanings.
2, Monocausality. This error is practically universal in political discourse, but I think left-wingers are more likely than right-wingers to understand it when it is pointed out. The scientific reality is that nothing has a single or unique cause; every event has a large number of necessary causes. That is, change any one of numerous factors and a given event would not have happened. But right-wingers think otherwise. Consequently you get arguments like “Lots of whites could not be racists because they voted for Obama.” So why couldn’t a moderate racist let bread and butter issues overcome racism from time to time?
3. Rationalism. “Rationalism” is a technical term in philosophy that does not refer to reason as such. Instead it means a belief that certain important things can be discovered and reliably known without ever checking out any empirical facts (i.e. “a priori synthetic knowledge”). The opposite belief is empiricism. Here I am on shakier grounds, in the sense that many respected thinkers have not yet abandoned rationalism. Nevertheless, I do not think any rational case for rationalism as such has been left standing after 20th Century developments such as Goedel’s proof and the hypothetical-deductive understanding of science (as well as much else).
The bottom line is that nearly all right-wingers claim an a priori basis for some of their values and beliefs: “it’s in the Bible” or “it stands to reason.” Hence abortion is wrong “because God says so.” Many (not all) left-wingers don’t think that way. I for example claim human happiness as one of my ultimate values, partly because nearly everybody cares about human happiness and because most people care about the human happiness of at least some others and because I believe that caring about the happiness of others typically leads to a more satisfying way of life. If you do not value human happiness for all as an ultimate value, I would never say you are wrong, but I might say I don’t much like you and don’t much want to be around you.
All of these errors plus some others might be lumped together as “black and white thinking.” But I think a more careful dissection is needed to see what is really going on behind the thinking.