Everyone is the Hero of Their Own Story

19 Feb

Everyone is the hero of their own story, even if they don't actually wear a cape and tights.

It is a generally accepted proposition that reasonable people can disagree. At the same time, when we disagree with someone, we usually think that they are wrong. How on earth does that work? That is, how can we reconcile our belief that someone may be just as reasonable as we are, but wrong whenever he or she disagrees with us? Does it require us to have some implicit notion of infallibility? Or the conviction that the other person is usually reasonable, but in this case is just being crazy?

In my earlier post on system justification theory, I mentioned how people have a psychological need to think well of themselves and the people they associate with, what psychologists call ego justification and group justification, respectively. I also talked about how this can lead to cognitive dissonance when our beliefs diverge from our experience. But when it comes to beliefs about beliefs, we seem to lack any kind of reality check, so to speak, as long as we can find a sufficient number of people who agree with us. In other words, if I believe abortion is wrong, there is no thing in the real world that I can point to, as an empirical matter, to either confirm or deny my belief. Ethics just doesn’t work that way.

More on why I’m always right, after the jump.

And now for an anecdote: While at a conference on ethics, I came across a very conservative, very Christian young man whom I quickly discovered disagreed with me about everything (perhaps because I am neither conservative nor Christian). During the course of our conversation, I asked him why he was a Christian. He said, “Because I was raised that way.” Clever lawyer-in-training that I was, I responded, “So if you were raised Muslim, you’d believe that.” To which he replied, “Yes, but I’d be wrong.”

I think this person is an idiot. But I’m equally confident that he doesn’t think he’s an idiot. So we have a dilemma: which one of us is right? (Me, of course.) The problem, for lack of a better word, is that everyone is the hero of their own story. As Eric Knowles and Peter Ditto note in Preference, Principle, and Political Casuistry, we tend to see our own beliefs as grounded in objective, rational principles, and the beliefs of people who disagree with us as being the product of subjective, irrational preferences.

Of course, it does make sense that all of us always thinks we’re right — if we didn’t think we were right, we wouldn’t have that opinion/belief/value/what-have-you. And if we questioned our core values every time someone reasonable disagreed with us, we would go insane. Which may explain why most people tend to stick with others who share their views — it’s just easier. But unfortunately, there’s no direct correlation between easy and right (wouldn’t it be nice if there were?).

Cheering for niceness. Or some kind of sports team.

In fact, it’s not even clear that there’s such as thing as “right.” The late philosopher J. L. Mackie argued that, normatively speaking, saying “Murder is bad” or “Being nice to others is good” is pretty much the same thing as saying “Boo murder!” and “Yay niceness!” (I have a vivid memory of my philosophy professor comparing conflicting ethical beliefs to Red Sox fans versus Yankees fans at a baseball game.)

But I digress. The point is, the only perspective that we ever see the world through is our own. We can try to imagine ourselves in someone else’s shoes, but the fit isn’t there, especially when that person’s views (and shoe size) are radically different from our own. But we all have our own beliefs, and we all think we’re right. Not only do we all think we’re right, we think that we’re acting from principle and the other guy is acting from preference. But if the other guy thinks that he’s acting from principle, and we’re acting from preference… They’ve gotta be mutually exclusive, right?

Well, according to Knowles and Ditto, not necessarily. They argue that a preference-principle dichotomy is too simplistic to adequately explain human behavior. Instead, they posit a view they refer to as casuistry, in which both principle and preference play a role. Under this theory (if I may greatly simplify), we have a stock of internal principles from which we draw whichever ones best fit our preferences. But once we draw on a principle, or set of principles, they have a “half-life” (pg. 537), sticking around for a while and influencing our future decisions, even if our preferences might normally dictate otherwise. Knowles and Ditto use the example of a judge who uses the right to free speech as a principle justifying the decision to allow a civil rights rally, who then feels obligated to allow a Nazi rally on the same principle (pg. 538).

Moreover, although we tend to see preferences as being inherently illegitimate because they are not rational and objective, there is no intrinsic valence to preferences. For instance, I might have a preference that directs me to help old ladies across the street. Of course, I could rationalize it and say that, as a matter of deontological principle, it is good to help other people. But I could just as easily say that it’s everyone for him- or herself, survival of the fittest, etc., and use that as my working principle. At the other end, I might have a preference that directs me to be mean to puppies. What matters is the substance of the preference, not the mere fact that it’s a preference.

In short, sometimes we act on principle and sometimes we act on preference. Either way, I still think that guy’s an idiot.

3 Responses to “Everyone is the Hero of Their Own Story”

  1. Jon Hanson February 14, 2011 at 12:39 pm #

    Terrific post. And, of course, you’re right!

    Kennedy and Pronin’s chapter for next week will summarize work on what social psychologists call “naive realism” and the interpersonal dynamics the result from two people disagreeing while both believing themselves to be “right.” (Eventually, I may also assign some of my work with Adam Benforado on the topic.)

    • riopierce February 19, 2011 at 10:18 pm #

      Well said. I’m particularly intrigued by the fact that we tend to view principles as heroic and preferences as base. It’s not enough that we believe X, we have to believe it for the right reasons. I also think there’s an interesting divide between what we consider issues that need a principled explanation and those that it’s considered normatively acceptable to explain with a simple ‘I don’t like it.’ For instance, one can freely admit to not liking the taste of green beans simply because they don’t like the taste of green beans. An attempt to generate a more principled objection would probably be greeted somewhat derisively. It’s an interesting question at what point a principled justification becomes more palatable than a preferential one. For instance, in my experience, most vegetarians, when asked, why vegetarianism?, choose a principled response. A preferential response, in that situation, such as I don’t like the taste of meat, would be acceptable but somewhat less explanatory for the broadness of their stance. Interestingly, in the vegetarian example, may be the effect that principles, (such as a disdain for the environmental consequences of meat-eating) that start to affect your preferences, how much you actually like the taste of meat. If someone truly loves the taste of chicken, would the principles behind vegetarianism sway them? But if the principles of vegetarianism swayed them, would the chicken taste good anyway?


  1. kimberlycreates » Blog Archive » making peace - March 31, 2011

    […] I’m too Pollyanna, but I believe that people are, at heart, good. And that everybody is the hero of their own story. So we want to see ourselves as good. And when we see our worst behaviors mirrored back to us in […]

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