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Liberal or Conservative, You're Probably Irrational

27/05/2014 15:47 BST | Updated 27/07/2014 10:59 BST

In light of the European elections, and the ideological cacophony that has resulted, it is worth shining a pessimistic light on our political allegiances. There's a reason that the population of leafy suburbia usually vote Tory, whilst inhabitants of liberal hotbeds known as universities are more likely to decry UKIP's fascist agenda. Our position on the political spectrum seems inexorably contingent on our environment, and this should make us doubt every one of our convictions.

We pride ourselves on our rationality and reason. We engage in heated debates with incorrigible morons who hold views contrary to our own and dismiss their views as irrational. We convince ourselves that, as far as possible, our opinions are based on evidence and facts rather than the question-begging, subjective nonsense on which other people base theirs. We are quite probably wrong.

It's called the genetic fallacy - the claim that one's argument is sound or unsound on the basis of its origins rather than on the merit of its premises. If, for example, I were to tell you that your belief that Jesus died for your sins is false because your parents also believed it and your society believes it, I would be committing this fallacy since the fact that your parents or society also believe it doesn't have any bearing on the truth of the claim. Sound reasonable enough? Well I think there is more to be said about this ostensible fallacy and its implications for our identity as rational creatures. But first, a minor digression.

For much of my life I have been implacably vociferous about my opinions on certain topics. In my liberal, left-wing youth, all adherents to right wing beliefs were greedy Nazis who would love nothing more than a Dickensian hellhole where they could joyfully trample on the poor while preaching that Jesus is love. More recently I have been vehemently right of centre, disgusted by the left's ignorant and populist appeals to those poor sods less educated in economics. I have been a pious Muslim in the past, and an atheist bitterly critical of religion shortly after, and now an agnostic leaning toward atheism but sympathetic to religion.

At every point in my life, I have been so utterly sure of my beliefs to the extent that I could not even begin to comprehend the opposing view. I could go on believing at each stage that I have been woefully mistaken in the past and that I am now finally enlightened, or I could take a step back and reflect on what this tells me.

Back to the genetic fallacy. I hardly need to cite evidence that we tend to hold similar political, religious, and ethical views as our parents, guardians, peers, or society. There is a well-documented correlation between our opinions and the opinions of those who exert the most influence on us. Since many beliefs are contradictory, they cannot all be correct. In some cases only one of a smorgasbord of beliefs can be true. So now let me once again commit the fallacy by telling you that you are probably mistaken in your extreme liberalism, because your parents were extreme liberals too and you have grown up in a liberal society. Let me further point out that had you been brought up in the 18th century, or in Saudi Arabia, you would almost certainly be far more conservative than you are now.

Of course it's possible that it is the most improbable of conincidences that your apparent source of influence also shares the correct conclusions you have independently reached. It is also possible that, by extraordinary luck, you were born to parents and a society which have progressed to a higher point of understanding than other cultures and eras such that their influence upon you has nevertheless led you to the correct conclusions. But this does not explain the large variation even among liberals/conservatives on small beliefs, and the correlation that still exists between our views and the prevailing norms of the environment in which we grew up with respect to these differences. Moreover, it's very bold, and probably foolish, to proclaim that we have now reached the very peak of wisdom, and that any changes in our attitudes or beliefs occuring in future will be a departure from this peak and therefore incorrect.

What all this should tell us is that our beliefs are hugely influenced by non-rational factors. In other words, while we think our beliefs are based solely on reason and evidence, we are burdened by a substantial influence from our emotions; our willingness to accept certain arguments on the basis of the source; our willingness to appraise evidence more favourably because it confirms a pre-conceived conclusion, etc. Whether you have managed to break free from the prevailing norms of your current environment's influences upon you or not, you are still lumbered with this large, non-rational bias in your mental faculties that is so very apparent in our species when we look at the historical and geographical spread of our beliefs.

In fact, this is precisely what we should expect given evolution by natural selection. The blind force of natural selection cares only about how successful you are at reproducing; all other things are secondary. So our apparent rationality is only useful insofar as it has been a useful aid to reproduction and child-rearing. But if our senses and mental faculties have only evolved for pragmatic reasons, there is no good reason at all to think that our pragmatic understanding of the world should coincide with the true nature of the world. If it is more helpful to see that something is X rather than Y, even if in reality it is the latter, selection pressures will ensure that only those who see it as X will live on. Why should we assume that having a good understanding of the true nature of the world should confer the greatest advanatage? Consider psychological defence mechanisms such as denial, whereby our brains refuse to acknowledge the gravity of our situation so that we may continue functioning effectively. Examples of such psychological defence mechanisms are rife in the literature, and give us a very clear indication that we have evolved for pragmatism not ontology.

What options then are available to you when you are arguing so passionately about abortion with that nut job opposite? Either there is in fact no objective truth to many of the things on which we hold opinions, and therefore our irrationality doesn't actually matter all that much, or there is a fact of the matter, but given our obvious non-rational bias, we should be pessimistic about ever being able to reason our way to the truth. With either of those options, what is most important in light of the above is that we show some humility in the voicing of our opinions. I have so often been anything but humble in my beliefs. But with my increasing pessimism in my own rationality, I am starting to see the value of humility however sure I am of my opinion. Hopefully some of this pessimism has rubbed off on you over the course of this post.