Rationally Speaking I

Listening to a Rationally Speaking podcast, from which I occasionally glean historical, scientific, or philosophical tidbits. The “professional philosopher” Pigliucci is far more annoying than his co-host Galef. If she holds hard-left views, she’s pretty good about not passing them for the obvious rational outlook; Pigliucci — not so much.

The podcast in question features a question-answering session. Question: how can we get our politicians to enact laws based on rationality? As the two hosts mull this one over out loud, neither of them mentions the painfully obvious. Namely, that politics is more about values than rational decisions based on empirical observations.

Take the death penalty, for example. We can argue till we turn blue in the face about whether the data shows that capital punishment has a deterrent effect on crime, or the opposite (which would be, I suppose, that it encourages more crime?). I tend to lean towards the former based on some first-principles arguments: experiments show that when a person is handed an object that turns out to be unexpectedly hot, the probability of his dropping the object is inversely proportional to the object’s perceived value. The argument then goes to say that if even such a visceral, automatic reaction is tempered by a cost-benefit analysis of some sort, then the same should apply to crimes of passion. I concede that there is a cute first-principles argument against the death penalty as well: if sane, rational people won’t commit capital crimes for fear of being executed, then the only people who commit such crimes will, by definition, be insane — and hence the usual notions of justice, personal responsibility, retribution do not apply. Cute, but not terribly compelling (don’t want to get side-tracked picking it apart).

My point is that I don’t care about the actual raw data on death penalty and crime deterrence (not that there is any such “raw” data — this issue is notorious for allowing the same numbers to be interpreted in radically different ways). The numbers are incidental: we are arguing about values.

Gun control is a similar issue. Here, I believe the numbers are strongly on my side (guess which one that would be?). But ultimately, it’s about values. Do you want the government to have a monopoly on violence or do you want citizens to lawfully defend themselves, with lethal force if needed? Values!

So yeah, I’m a bit shocked to see that philosophers who set out to educate the public completely miss this point. Perhaps they believe that the Left values are rational. There’s that Right vs. Left difference again. The Right can readily concede that there are competing values without invoking rationality. Communism is a set of values (it’s also a set of claims about human nature that has been empirically brutally, totally and repeatedly debunked). For the Left, the other side isn’t just misguided. They’re irrational, mentally ill, evil.

Update: further in the podcast, they do mention something about “value-laden premises”. Then Pigliucci went on a rant about climate-change denialists. It’s always skeptics on one side and denialists on the other, isn’t it? The science regarding recent human evolution (aka human biodiversity) seems pretty unambiguous. Yet Pigliucci &co proudly proclaim themselves to be skeptics (till the bitter end, I presume). The guy even had the temerity to smear evolutionary psychology as a pseudo-science. Hear that, Steve?

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