Pick Your Principle

18 Feb
“My whole take on the gay rights issue, particularly gay marriage, is, let’s be honest, if you’re against gay marriage, you just don’t like gay people and you want to stick it to ’em.  And I’m not saying that I wouldn’t do the same thing if I was presented with similar opportunities.  If there was a law up for debate where it was like – ‘hey man, do you think guys that wear tight t-shirts and get bottle service at nightclubs should be allowed to own property?’ – I’d be like, “No!  @$#@ those guys!  Yeah, uh, it violates the sanctity of owning property and it says in the Bible that they’re douchebags.  Whatever I need to say so you don’t think this is coming from purely a place of hate.”

Aziz Ansari, Intimate Moments for a Sensual Evening

(warning: video contains explicit language)

Comedian Aziz Ansari. Photo by Priyanka Reddy.

Apart from its humor, what can we take from this segment of Aziz Ansari’s comedy routine?  Believe it or not, Ansari’s observation comedically expresses similar points to those made by Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto in their article Preference, Principle, and Casuistry. The joke begins with the claim that those who are anti-gay-marriage are making policy judgments based solely on their emotions – hatred, in this case.  This, according to Knowles and Ditto, is one of two ways of explaining a given policy stance and is the one favored by observers critical of another’s position.  The other stance, usually taken by the actors themselves, is that political positions are derived from moral or intellectual principles.  The actors themselves prefer this stance because “explaining one’s views in terms of principles confers an air of objectivity by omitting the self and all its many preferences.”

The second half of Ansari’s joke departs from Knowles and Ditto, inasmuch as he shows an awareness of the implausibility of the “principles” which he facetiously asserts support his own absurd conclusion about property ownership.  In reality, actors seek to maintain at least an “illusion of objectivity” about the nature of their judgments.  That is to say, “most people, most of the time, desire an accurate view of the world,” and as such, are constrained by the plausibility of the principles they use to support a policy position.   Emotions can only support a position to the point that the position can be plausibly justified by means of principled-reasoning; on this view, “the primary role of moral reasoning…is to provide post hoc intellectual justification if one’s initial intuitions are challenged by others.”  In seeking the moral principles to buttress a policy stance, actors go “about the process in a biased fashion such that certain principles are ‘favored’ in a given judgment context because they are consistent with, and provide intellectual support for, the conclusion that is most preferred in that context.”  In other words, humans have access to a wide range of principles, and will (subconsciously) choose those principles that most support their desired outcome – as opposed to choosing the outcome that most supports their moral principles.

In this way, actors can give principle-based rationales for their positions, while their opponents implicitly reject, discount, or redefine those principles (because they are inconsistent with their own desired outcome) and instead allege that the decisions are being made solely on preferences (whether preferences themselves are an inherently flawed tool for decision-making is also discussed by Knowles and Ditto, but is beyond the scope of this post).  We see disputes in this form quite often in the real world, and I will highlight some examples below.

By Nick Anderson of the Houston Chronicle

On February 10th, 2011, the State of Arizona announced its intention to countersue the Federal Government for failing to enforce immigration laws, bringing SB 1070 back into the spotlight.  The controversial Arizona law, which, among other things, would require immigrants to carry their papers at all times, sparked heated debate from actors on both sides of the issue.  Supporters of the law invoked principles to justify their stance.  Glenn Beck, for example, argued that the discussion should be about equal justice and the value of citizenship.  Meanwhile, many of the law’s detractors chalked up political support for the bill to self-interest: “Republicans worry that if they don’t support these kinds of bills, they will face challenges [sic] in the primary who will call them weak on immigration.”

Glenn Beck

Importantly, according to Knowles and Ditto, notions of equal justice and the benefits conferred by citizenship may not be principles that Beck would value as highly in other contexts, particularly if those principles do not support his desired end.  This is not to say that Beck does not truly believe in those principles, but rather that his choice of which principles or ideologies to give weight to is shaped by his affective preferences in the particular context.  For example, Beck’s stance on welfare is that the poor are generally unwilling to work, and as such, are not deserving of government assistance.  Note that his stance here relies on a principle of “hard work”, yet does not at all entertain notions of the inherent rights of citizens to, for example, have food and shelter.  Note further that in the case of illegal immigration, the fact that many illegal immigrants were indeed “working hard” was trumped by the fact that they were not citizens – and further, the fact that they were working hard was cited as another reason to have stronger immigration laws, as illegal immigrants are purportedly stealing jobs from Americans.  In different contexts, Beck gave the same principles different weights in order to reach an emotionally satisfying conclusion.

One final word:  This is certainly not an indictment of Glenn Beck (or any political party or group) – Beck is just someone with strong, public stances on many issues and thus lends himself to a detailed analysis.  Knowles and Ditto’s point is that all actors invoke principles selectively in a way that allows them to reach their preferred result while maintaining the illusion of objectivity.

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4 Responses to “Pick Your Principle”

  1. Rachel Funk February 12, 2011 at 8:25 am #

    I wonder if this “illusion of objectivity” phenomenon is limited to Western nations, given the ridiculously high premium we put on rationality, or whether we would find this in other parts of the world as well, where there is a greater acceptance of, if not irrationality, at least non-rationality. That is, is this a universal trait of humanity, or is it more culturally-based?

  2. Jon Hanson February 14, 2011 at 12:24 pm #

    Really enjoyed this post. To be clear, are you saying that this is not an indictment at all, or not an indictment of one prominent public figure? Seems to me that it is, or should be, an indictment of sorts on the system.

    Consider how your post might connect with next week’s reading by Kennedy & Pronin.

    In response to Rachel’s question, my (uninformed) sense is that the confabulation is a general tendency (or at least more general than modern, rationalist Western cultures), but that the ingredients change. Instead of appeals to objective reason, another culture (or group within this culture) might make appeals to the bible or some other relevant authority which, itself, is subject to many interpretations and, hence, confabulations. (I suppose that brings us back to Aziz Ansari’s quotation.) I’d be interested to hear what others thought.

  3. Michael Lieberman February 14, 2011 at 3:35 pm #

    I meant that this was not an indictment of any one particular public figure. I see your point about how this may be an indictment on the system, but to the extent that these processes operate subconsciously, I have a hard time assigning blame to actors or institutions who function on some form of this preference-based reasoning. That is to say, if the hypothetically “better” system in which decisions are driven solely by principle runs counter to the very functioning of the human brain, its seems unfair to reject our current system as suboptimal when no better system is available to us.

    It is, though, a criticism of our own perception of the system in that there are benefits to wider understanding of how these policy preferences are formed, even if we are unable to change that formation process. Even if we are unable to change how we think, we should at least be aware of the forces that dictate how we think, which may, in turn, allow us to be more critical of our own initial preference-based intuitions.

  4. Joan Cassie Mathias February 18, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    Resisting the temptation to call Aziz out on his Parks and Recreation character Tom Haverford’s love of The Snake Lounge, I think your post raises many interesting points. Aziz’s comedy routine could also be considered in light of Kennedy and Pronin’s applications of Bias Perception and the Spiral of conflict. For example, as your post describes, people who are against gay marriage may perceive their views as unaffected by the influence of biases, leading to what Kennedy and Pronin refer to as a bias blind spot. Then, the hostile media effect may augment those biases (i.e., viewing news coverage in favor of gay marriage as biased against one’s own side). Theses biases continue to operate unconsciously (or, perhaps, very consciously in some anti-gay-marriage activists…wait,did I just find myself guilty of a bias blind spot in a comment about bias blind spots?) But, anyways, as Kennedy and Pronin suggest, as these biases deepen, the disagreements become more hostile and the conflicts spiral. This may explain why issues such as gay marriage are often so controversial and antagonist, politically and socially.

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