I have been intrigued by the idea that what we need now is deeper political thinking, that starts with understanding those principles of government which the Tea Party and other libertarians have tossed aside. When I am absolutely astounded by the stupidity of current political rhetoric I dream of a movement that engages all of us in dialogue about fundamental political ideas: A science cafe focused on philosophy and government that would lead us to the promised land of engaged, deliberating citizens.
I wake from this dream and discard it because I doubt that enough of us are truly motivated by political principles and interested in principles as a basis for political decisions. There is considerable evidence that what we profess philosophically in politics is a poor guide to the specific policies we prefer. Americans have been called philosophically conservative, but “operationally liberal“. When asked about specific problems we expect government to be part of the solution. On the other hand, we, large majorities of us, profess to support limited government and minimal taxation.
In Philosophy Shapes Politics Zack Beauchamp discusses the possibility that the political ideas we hold may motivate our views of government policies and programs. He borrows the concept of motivated reasoning to explain how.
To get us started he uses an example from the kitchen:
…. motivated reasoning theory claims that, instead of using reason to get to the truth of the matter, we use it to get to the conclusion we want to reach. For example, if I really want sour cream on my Chipotle burrito, I won’t reason towards the truth on the health impact of sour cream, because that would move me away from my desire to get tasty sour cream. Rather, I’ll convince myself it’s not so bad for me (I exercised today! It has protein!) so I can get what I want.
This type of thinking is sometimes called a rationalization. We are only pretending to search for reasons that will determine a decision. How would motivated reasoning work in politics?
If we believe in an enforceable right to health care as an extension of our antecedent moral beliefs …. we want the government to be able to ensure greater access to better health care. If we think people have a right to keep fairly earned money on libertarian grounds, we want the government to respect that person’s right to their money.
In other words, our philosophical commitments might be motivating our policy views.
People who believe in a moral right to health care want to accept the claim that the government can effectively provide people with health care, as that would allow the government to be able to bring about the state of affairs they want. People who oppose taxation on moral grounds are more likely to accept supply side arguments that taxation (sic, tax cuts –wh53) will raise government income so as to eliminate arguments against the outcome their political philosophy inclines them to prefer.
If this is all true, then commitments to principles matters, and how we “think about principles” matters. Philosophic discussion is not useless! I can dream again!
Beauchamp adds, of course, (some of you have already arrived at this conclusion) —
Unless, of course, people come to philosophical views based on another, more basic desire (rich people are opposed to taxation because they want their money).