Tag Archives: politics

Where Plato Meets Hobbes

In many ways, Plato and Hobbes couldn’t be more different. Plato was an idealist, and Hobbes was a materialist. Plato advocated free will, and Hobbes was a determinist. And, famously, Plato believed in the Forms, whereas Hobbes was a staunch nominalist. But despite their differences elsewhere, the political philosophies of Plato and Hobbes are strikingly similar.

Plato advocated a dictatorship ruled by philosophers, on the grounds that philosophers alone have cognitive access to the Form of the Good. If a philosopher is given intensive training and education over the course of decades, he will be able to pierce the veil of perception and see what is really good. And once he has mystic insight into what is good, there is no reason why he shouldn’t use force to get any misguided citizens of the Republic who disagree to obey him.

Hobbes’ dictatorship was not ruled by mystics, like Plato’s. Instead, Hobbes, claiming to be an advocate of science, advocated a dictatorship run by arbitrary whim. Words like “good” and “justice” are controversial, and there is no objective way to settle disputes about these ideas, since they are subjective. So, according to Hobbes, everyone should submit to an all powerful Leviathan out of fear of anarchy, and just agree to treat the ruler as right by definition.

Why did Plato and Hobbes both end up advocating tyranny, even though they disagreed on so many points? The answer is that, although they might superficially look like opposites, mysticism and subjectivism can both lead to tyranny in practice. Mysticism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by mystics, whereas subjectivism can lead to a dictatorship ruled by the feelings of the dictator.

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Persuasion

It is frequently said that people rarely change their minds about politics because they insulate themselves from information that contradicts their point of view. According to the Oxford Handbook of Political Psychology, however, recent research shows that this is not true. People don’t insulate themselves from contrary points of view, they just subject arguments against their worldview to much harsher criticism than arguments favorable to their worldview.

This is why presidential campaigns result in very little overall persuasion. That doesn’t mean that there is no point in having the campaigns, though, because they serve a useful reinforcing effect for people who agree with the candidates. People need to know that there are other people who agree with them.

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Comments on Self Deception

There is a psychological phenomenon that I think is responsible for at least some of the persisting disagreement around philosophical, political, and religious issues. Philosophers refer to it as self deception.

The idea is that when we are attached to a position and are confronted with a criticism of it, we have the ability to push the criticism away rather than thinking about it carefully and honestly. We can do this by simply directing our attention away from the criticism or by brushing it off with some sort of facile criticism that we know on some level isn’t very good. The effect of our action here is to hide the criticism from ourselves because, after it is done, we forget about the criticism and carry on as if it was never presented.

If someone does this frequently, then their view will eventually be completely immune to criticism, because they will have hidden all of the objections to it from themselves. Their view will seem as clear and obvious as the morning sun, even though it is beset by problems on every side. Future criticisms will meet the same fate, since the person in question has established a habit of brushing away criticisms without serious consideration. (I think anyone who has spent any serious time arguing about religion or politics on the internet has met people like this.)

The problem is that to the person who has deceived themselves, their view looks exactly the same as a view that has been established. A view has been established, in general, if there are strong arguments for it and no serious objections to it. This is how a position looks to a person who has deceived themselves, because they have made themselves believe that the arguments in favor of their position are strong and the arguments against their position are weak.

This leads to a practical problem. How can we be sure that we aren’t deceiving ourselves about a political or religious issue that is important to us?

One method that might help is to sit down and explain your position from the beginning. A recent psychological study found that people who held extreme political views often became significantly less confident of their views after they were asked to explain their position step by step, listing every causal connection that their view presupposed. This is consistent with other studies that have found that people become less confident of their understanding of everyday objects like toilets or door handles when they are asked to give a mechanical, step by step description of how the object in question works.

Another method that might help is to write down objections to your position as they occur to you to help prevent you from forgetting them. Darwin allegedly used this method to avoid forgetting objections to the theory of evolution while he was gathering evidence for it.

Neither of these methods is infallible. There are people who can explain their position from the beginning and who write down all of the objections they come across who nevertheless hold absurd and disingenuous views. However, if you are generally honest, being a little more methodical might help you recognize problems with your position that you would otherwise have brushed away.