Moral heuristics, public policy, and self-defeating tribalism
Both commenters and Brad DeLong respond wonderfully to my previous piece. DeLong didn’t quite get what I was trying to say, which is very much my fault and not his. His recent piece pushed my one neuron past its activation threshold, triggering an ejaculation of pent up griping and theorizing. Let me put a bit of order to things.
I am not taking issue with DeLong’s position on, for example, the advisability of pulling government spending forward, despite conventional virtue that suggests a cash constrained family ought to “tighten its belt” in difficult times. On the contrary, DeLong and Krugman aroused my pique because I largely agree with them on the substantive issues.
Basically, I am upset about the manner in which “my side” is making its arguments. Not because our approach is mean or uncivil (it’s not especially), but because it is ultimately self-defeating.
My evaluation is based on a view of how human beings regulate social conduct. I think we do so primarily via moral heuristics. Those heuristics both shape and are shaped by reason. But our moral intuitions are more durable than reasoned conjectures, and more pervasive in guiding how we actually behave. Importantly, I think that moral heuristics are socially determined and malleable. I think we all become very different people when we immerse ourselves in different communities, and that individually and collectively our moral heuristics do change over time.
I think that “my side” fetishizes certain modes of reasoned thought, and is (unconsciously) disdainful of moral heuristics. Ironically, but very humanly, our own behavior is overwhelmingly determined by moral heuristics that include tribalism and unexamined conventions about the bounds of legitimate choice.
Our biases and blindspots lead us to reason and communicate with one another in a very specific way, and to ignore and ridicule those who cannot do so or who express ideas beyond our conventional limits. That’s bad for a few reasons. First, it can lead us substantively astray: we are subject to groupthink. Secondly, even when we arrive at good conclusions, we forget that converting those conclusions into durable policy requires that moral intuitions consistent with our views become widely distributed and socially reinforced.
We are in competition with other groups who have their own biases and blindspots, and their own cherished modes of reasoning. Some of that reasoning may be inferior to our own in terms, for example, of describing and predicting empirical phenomena. However, some of our competitors do not disdain moral heuristics, but habitually devote themselves to promoting moral intuitions that become stable and self-reinforcing.
“My side” consequentially errs by turning its particular mode of reasoning into an exclusionary totem of affiliation and ignoring the disconnect between its own conclusions and widely held intuitions of the polity. We win in our own estimation of course, and sometimes we win political battles. But our victories are unstable and must be endlessly refought when they are not reinforced by widely shared moral views. Sometimes winning itself reshapes the moral landscape. But sometimes it does not. And very often we cannot win at all, because we fail to communicate with those outside our tribe.
We are not as smart as we think we are. Our disdain for moral intuition can lead us to behave in ways that are actively harmful, for example when we impose “reasoned” policy but fail to address moral concerns or reconcile moral intuitions. That gets experienced as a form of violence. Often our elaborate reasoning is cartoonishly simple compared to rich contingency of moral heuristics. Conversely, we frequently trumpet as reason what are really parochial moral ideas dressed in symbols. Outcomes are better when we allow moral intuition and reasoned argument to percolate together and influence policy.
It would be possible for “my side” to successfully contest the sphere of widely held moral intuitions, especially when our ideas are actually good. Human beings are capable of moral ideas that are fine-grained and context dependent. Subtle and complex policy can be made morally intuitive, with some effort and attention.
But often we don’t even try. We shoot ourselves in the foot by lampooning moral intuition and elevating reason, by reveling in cleverness and using our mastery of the counterintuitive as a status marker and badge of authority.
We thus cede the realm of moral intuition to those we disparage as cretins and demagogues. And we whine about that, with self-righteous superiority. Our lamentations become another token of status and affiliation.
I view this as counterproductive. I think we should behave differently.
I hope this helps to clarify my previous piece. Again, I want to emphasize that I like DeLong and Krugman and very often agree with them. To the degree that I went off on them personally, I apologize. But I hope readers will understand why, in light of the points above, I dislike phrases that signal affiliation with policy elites (“bipartisan technocrats of the center”, “reality-based community”) and arguments that disparage moral intuition while inviting the clever to delight in mastery of the counterintuitive. (p.s. I am sure I am a hypocrite, and have done all the things I claim to dislike. oh well!)