Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Ideological Ascent and Asymmetry

There's a certain dialectical move I sometimes see, wherein you criticize someone's political conduct as unreasonable on grounds that abstract away from the (first-order) details that they're actually responding to.  We might call this ideological ascent, as the critic insists on looking only at abstract features of the dialectical situation, e.g. the mere fact that it involves an "ideological disagreement", without any heed to the actual details of the dispute.

Ideological ascent seems to presuppose a symmetrical view of political/ideological merit: that "both sides" of a dispute are (at least roughly) equally reasonable.  This convenient assumption saves one from the hard work of actually evaluating the first-order merits of the case under dispute.  (See also: in-betweenism.)  Alas, people have been known to advance unreasonable political views from time to time.

Some moral principles can work while abstracting away from the first-order details.  For example, you probably shouldn't literally crucify your political opponents, flay them, or bury them alive, even if they've deliberately implemented objectively harmful policies.  The cases in which such violence would be justified are so rare that you likely don't need to get into the details of the dispute before criticizing someone who wants to literally crucify their political opponents.  Ideological ascent works for such easy cases.

You might also find the odd individual who is indiscriminately wrathful towards anyone who disagrees with them, no matter how minor the issue or how low the stakes.  In such a case, ideological ascent is appropriate because it really does seem that what this person is responding to is the mere fact of disagreeing with them, rather than anything that depends on the specific details under discussion.

But most real-life instances of ideological ascent aren't so clearly justified.  Instead, it involves complaints like: "I find it reprehensible to celebrate a death of anyone just because you disagree with them politically." (actual quote recently seen on Facebook)  This sort of remark strikes me as misguided because it seems extremely unlikely that the celebrants in question are so indiscriminate that they would really celebrate the death of anyone just because they disagree politically.  We all have significant disagreements with the majority of other people, after all, but tend to only celebrate the deaths of people we consider egregiously villainous.  So unless you take the extreme view that death should never be celebrated (which doesn't strike me as a very defensible view), a productive response instead requires substantive moral evaluation: what kind of harms did the deceased cause?  To what extent were they justified? etc.

We're naturally biased towards exaggerating the demerits of our political opponents, so it may well be that many such celebrants are in fact misguided and behaving inappropriately as a result.  But it's a substantive moral question that depends upon the details of the case.  A general caution towards epistemic humility never hurts, I guess, especially in the political arena where dogmatism and overconfidence run rampant.  But it would be a mistake, I think, to forsake all attempts at substantive normative judgment and accept only "procedural" principles (of the symmetrical sort that apply at the level of ideological ascent).  Some people are really bad, some even commit genuine atrocities, and it makes a real difference to how we should react when that's so.  The risk of misjudging the matter is a reason to judge carefully (and consider the criticisms of those who disagree with us), not a reason to refrain from judgment altogether.


  1. I think the most attractive version of this response amounts to a kind of broadly Rawslian, reasonable pluralism type idea. If we don’t want religious wars (or their secular equivalents), we need a set of cultural norms and institutions that allow people with pretty different political commitments to cooperate. Expressions of glee at the terminal cancer diagnoses of those we disagree with seems to me exactly the kind of thing that degrades those institutions. In the same way that I’d prefer we have strong norms against using violence to settle political disagreements—rather than treating questions about whether to injure or kill our political opponents as live options to be settled on a case-by-case basis by cost-benefit analyses—I’d prefer that we have strong norms against celebrating the suffering of our political opponents.

    1. Yeah, I'm inclined to broadly agree with that, though I wouldn't want to go so far as to suggest that the norm is exceptionless. The actual case I had in mind involved environmentalists expressing "Thank goodness that's over!" about David Koch's death, and referencing his history of funding climate denialism. While I don't know enough about Koch to have a firm view of that case, it at least strikes me as an open possibility that such a response is totally reasonable. Contrast that to, say, glee at the terminal diagnosis of a private citizen whom one regards as having said objectionable things about gender on twitter, which seems a very different kind of case.

      What's the relevant difference? There seem several relevant dimensions that might each contribute to a degree:
      (1) whether the target is a private individual or influential public figure
      (2) whether the positive emotional response is glee vs some more "seemly" response like relief (which maybe shouldn't be described as "celebratory" at all), or even, say, a sardonic "couldn't've happened to a nicer guy."
      (3) the stakes of the issue: degrading the environment for generations to come is pretty epic in scope, in striking contrast to nasty tweets.

      Curious what you think of the putative contrast.

      Anyway, I don't mean to suggest that "cost-benefit analysis" is needed in every case. It may often be pretty obvious that some case of gleeful politically-directed malice is inappropriate. There can be a strong presumption against it, in a way that's compatible with recognizing exceptions, and so thinking that the issue isn't settled at the abstract level of ideological ascent.

      (Indeed, ascribing absolute priority to civic respect itself arguably entails disrespecting those who are themselves civicly disrespectful, or undermining democratic-deliberative institutions, but that's a very different sort of argument from what I've been suggesting here.)

    2. Also worth adding that this was just one example of a more general phenomenon. Another recent example involved someone observing, "It's interesting how activism is selectively valorized or demonized based solely on whether that activism aligns with a certain set of beliefs." The striking thing about this is that the only way this observation could possibly be "interesting" is if one has somehow forgotten that political beliefs have content!

    3. Yeah I'm inclined to agree with all of that, including all three of the contrasts you draw, and the idea that it's uncontroversial that we should react differently to activism in support of the good, and activism in support of the bad.

      Still, I find the Koch case tricky. I agree that his funding of climate denialism will likely turn out to have been immensely harmful. But I also don't agree with the characterization of him as akin to a Bond villain; I'm not saying you were doing that in your post, but I've seen lots of it and I'm sure you have too. Climate denialism isn't his only legacy; plenty of good work comes out of Koch-funded institutions, and more generally, I think the background ideology animating the Koch brothers' donations--broadly laissez faire--should be seen as within the scope of the reasonable pluralism referenced above. In that respect I'd distinguish between the Koch brothers and the organizers of Unite the Right. So I do get uneasy when I see reactions to Koch's death that seem to me to erode the distinction between (let's suppose) mistaken but reasonable views about the proper scope of regulation on the one hand, and outright support for a white ethnostate--an ethnostate uninterested in making room for reasonable pluralism, or avoiding the kinds of sectarian conflicts that pluralism is meant to prevent--on the other.

  2. [Andrew Sepielli writes in:]

    I agree with all of this, although it seems to me that there's generally too little ideological ascent in our (philosophical) community, rather than too much -- at least on blogs, twitter, all of that. I think it's worth keeping the following in mind: Although anyone *can* use discursive "dirty tricks" to advance their agenda, these methods will be more appealing to people who are bad at thinking and empathizing -- i.e. just those people who are most likely to be wrong on the first-order issues. Additionally, it strikes me as misguided to try to justify one's dirty tricks by appealing to one's correctness on the first-order issues, given that it's at best an
    even-money proposition whether using these tricks is likely to advance one's position.


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