Kansas Progress Institute

Ad Astra Per Aspera ~ To the Stars Through Difficulties

Endemic Errors in Right Wing Thinking

Posted on November 22, 2016

By David Burress

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.

1 thought on “Endemic Errors in Right Wing Thinking”

  1. Mauro Nobre replied: I would add two things that are critical to understanding the current GOP, and their obstructionism during the Obama administration.
    First, there is religious dogmatism. A very large majority of Republicans believe the Bible is the word of god, and believe in god’s existence. God being the all powerful creator of everything, and the supreme lawgiver, his law is supreme and trumps secular law. Republicans take policy positions based on their religious beliefs, and are not willing to compromise because god’s law is supreme. They see themselves are the historical agents of god’s will. This is incompatible with liberal democracy, and with pluralism, in which “tribes” with distinct values cooperate within the bounds of civil society. They are leading this country toward a theocracy. That is in fact explicitly what many of them call for, and what many others are willing to accept. Islam is very dangerous for the same reason. This is why they see Islam as their main rival and competition. They are fighting against secularism and against other religious dogmas for supremacy.
    The second point is closely related to this religious fundamentalism, but does not require religion necessarily. That is their rejection of pluralism, or multiculturalism. Liberal democracy is predicated on freedom of conscience. That is, it is fundamental for people’s happiness to be free to believe and advocate for their own values and opinions. Liberalism is precisely the view that this liberty to think, believe, and advocate for one’s own values and opinions is fundamental. If this is not a central organizing principle of government you will have radicalized factionalism, civil war, and persecution of minorities. Liberalism was an answer to centuries of religious wars and persecution. The idea is that though civil society contains different tribes with their own fundamental beliefs and values, they all cooperate by creating a government that is neutral with regard to those values and beliefs. This neutrality implies a strict separation of “church” and state. A large percentage of Americans have forgotten the centuries of religious wars and persecution, and they are actively working toward establishing a Christian theocracy. They have already infiltrated key institutions of government. They have already enacted into law multiple elements of their doctrine, imposing their beliefs on a multicultural population. They are directly attacking multiculturalism, and by extension classical liberalism. And now they have control of the three branches of government.
    The way to deal with this is to directly attack and undermine their religious beliefs. Not to deny them the right to have and exercise them, but to delegitimize the epistemological authority of their beliefs. And to insist on a very strict separation of church and state, by defending the principle of government neutrality, and by sabotaging the epistemological status of their dogmas within the political sphere. Liberals have been their own worst enemies in this battle. They are so focused on protecting people’s freedom of religion that they completely surrender the reins of power to the very people who want to take control of the government precisely in order to overthrow the liberal compromise of a neutral government which is the necessary condition for the very existence of freedoms in the first place. That is why I am so frustrated with people who don’t recognize the threat posed by religion, both Christian and Islamic – as well as Judaism in Israel.

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