Epistemology-Slinging At The OK Corral

Greg has chosen epistemology at 20 paces.  So be it.  Now, Greg has steady nerves and keen aim, so this doesn’t bode well for me.  But my Irish heritage has given me a genetic inability to duck a challenge.  All I’m hazarding, however, is public embarrassment, so here goes.

In Greg’s view of things, the cultural elite (no less than the gentleman watching Family Guy with a six-pack standing by) are insensibly marching in circles with too little thought given to where they have been and where they are going.  That is to say, they haven’t given enough attention to the effects of what they do, and so are not intellectually responsible for what follows.

This isn’t a cheap shot at those with whom we may disagree – he finds the same torpor on our side of the debate.  In fact, to his credit, Greg is actually offering ignorance as a defense against my charge that the cultural elite know their favored policies are causing harm:

Both Christian teaching and conservative beliefs about human behavior explain why we shouldn’t expect to find that our opponents are conscious of the destructiveness of their policies.

Greg says we need to, and can, break the cycle of unconscious destructiveness.  To this he adds an important caveat:

But we can’t do that if we live in a false reality where we imagine that our opponents are knowingly accepting the destruction of America as the price they pay for fidelity to their values. That picture strikes me as ludicrous.

That statement is why we are here at the OK Corral.  If it’s true, we have one type of conversation with our opponents (a la Kwai Chang Kaine and Grasshopper).  If it’s not, we have another (mano a mano over the relative importance of competing values).  Before the shootin’ starts, let’s take a look around at the lay of the land.

As we do our survey, we notice two important features of the landscape.  The first is that people are not epistemologically monolithic.  What they know is largely determined by who they are, their level of intelligence, and their motivation to know whatever it is we’re talking about.

Thus, it’s important to identify who’s doing the knowing, and what they are supposed to know.  For example, I wouldn’t expect a typical newsreader to know that the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policy increases the money supply without reference to increased economic production, thereby causing the value of savings to erode as inflation increases.  But I would certainly expect Ben Bernanke to know this.

The second feature our survey reveals is that we cannot always accurately predict all the consequences of our policies or ideas.  In some Rube Goldbergian sense, when I buy a bottle of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir, I am engaging inter-connected economic levers that reach across the country without even knowing what they are.  If my preference for that wine over one from Napa Valley causes the other winery to go out of business, this says nothing about whether I intended the other winery to fail.  My preference for Santa Barbara wines is not the proximate cause of the failure.  But it is the proximate cause for one bottle of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir sitting in my kitchen instead of on a store shelf.

So when we charge someone with understanding the destructiveness of a policy or idea, it is important we first do the epistemological match.  The first step is to look for people who are responsible for an idea or policy (or who advocate for it).  This gives us the assurance we are considering only those with a high motivation to know the nature of the idea or policy.  The second step is looking for a short proximal fuse between the policy they advocate and the consequence.  This gives us a rational basis for tagging the people under consideration with knowledge of their policies’ consequences.

That’s what the OK Corral looks like.  Greg’s hand is inching towards his epistemology, and his finger’s starting to twitch.  So it’s time to mix it up.

Greg said we could win over the cultural elite on topics like marriage by (for example) appealing to their concern for the poor, women, and children.  We would be doing a bit of jiu-jitsu – using their solicitude for these groups to demonstrate a need to change their policies.  This strategy only works, however, if the elite would not knowingly favor policies inimical to those groups.

Unfortunately, they do.  Let’s do some epistemological matching.  The media have made themselves the institutional defenders of the poor, women, children, and minorities.  Should they report on the end of the world, so the witticism goes, the headline would trumpet that women and children were hit the hardest.  So they wouldn’t give aid and comfort to something that would harm those groups, would they?

The rise of radical Islam shows that they would.  One of the central characteristics of this extreme theology is its misogyny.  The media, however, has been strangely silent on how destructive this is to women.  They’ve even gone beyond silence – they actually run interference for radical Islam, pleading for our tolerance and understanding of differing cultures.  The rights of women take back seat to a higher value (in their minds) – promoting and defending the multi-culturalism imperative.

We have an epistemological match!  The media is in a position to know about radical Islam, is motivated to know what it does, and there is a nearly instantaneous proximal fuse between the thing they advocate and the destructive effects for women.  Yes, we can safely conclude they know the destructive effects of their advocacy, and they pursue it anyway.  Why?  Because multi-culturalism is more important than its effects on women.

Shall we try another?  It’s an emotional one, but it is especially instructive.  Here we will match the Democratic Party, a major women’s organization, and a single-purpose special interest group to a policy deadly to children. The subject, as you might guess, is abortion.  The Democratic Party favors it, the National Organization of Women is adamantly supportive, and the National Abortion Rights Action League has the single-minded purpose of keeping it legal.

Each of these culturally-elite organizations has invested heavily, both in dollars and intellectual effort, in normalizing the practice of abortion, making it culturally acceptable.  An abortion, of course, involves taking the life of a human being.  And everyone involved in the subject knows it.  Not only is the proximal fuse short between the policy and the destructive consequence, it is simultaneous.  So we may safely charge them with knowingly favoring a policy that has as its primary purpose harming children.  Why?  To preserve sexual libertinism.  Another epistemological match!

We could do this all day long, but I think it makes the point, yes?  Culturally elite institutions, ones with a vested interest in knowing the effects of their preferred policies, will work to the disadvantage of women, children, and the poor when it will advance a more important objective.

They don’t need us to teach them that their policies cause collateral damage.  They already know.  If we are to make a difference, therefore, we have to convince them that the damage is a price too high to pay.  And that project is significantly different from Greg’s mission to simply put the collateral damage on display.

Let’s not step into the OK Corral thinking the cultural elite don’t know what they’re doing.  We’ll get epistemology-whipped.  And there ain’t nothin’ more embarrassing than that.

4 Thoughts.

  1. My work is done here. I remember, Dan, upon the acsension of The One, that you humbly emptied your scabbard and left your sword at my feet, thus ending our long debate – conceding that my dark misanthropic position (“people are stupid”) demonstrably prevailed over your more nobly held belief (“No, they just need more education”). Your differentiation of those who understand quantitative easing v. them that don’t proves the point nicely. But that leads to another question. While I understand and accept your premise of the knowing choice of the quantitative easer, what of them that don’t? Yes, the policy maker may be complicit, but can we ascribe the same perfidy to the unknowing sheep who simply follow their recommendations with little or no depth to their reason (if reason is even employed beyond “that’s who my dad voted for”)? Does it matter?

    • Geoff, that is an excellent question. The answer is that we cannot hold those who are not in a position to know to the same standard we hold those who are. In this limited sense I agree with Greg – they are susceptible to changing their minds should they get their hands on the right information.

      However, that leads to your “does it matter” question. And the answer to that is probably no. Under normal circumstances, it is the cultural elite that drive cultural change and development. If we reach the non-elite, but do not affect the elite, we probably aren’t going to move the needle.

      But because the elite know full-well what they are doing, we have only a limited ability to influence the course they are setting for our culture and its institutions. Which means we likely have to do today the same thing they did a few generations ago — create a cultural insurgency. Once different people occupy places of cultural influence, things will change.

  2. Dan has drawn our attention to a useful and important distinction between the knowledge of the cultural elites entrusted with the implementation of their policy proposals and the general populace. He also reminds us of the difference in the moral and ethical responsibility of the two groups.

    I wonder, however, whether Dan would absolve the unknowing quite so easily in other contexts. For example, it has long been held that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” In our society, this is generally accepted (however unevenly enforced) as a judicial precept. “But your honor, I did not know that possession of cocaine is against the law,” is not accepted as an excuse, whether or not the defendant’s statement is true.

    Can it plausibly be argued that there are certain subjects about which everyone in our society should have more than a passing acquaintence? Can it be plausibly argued also that failure to know something about those subjects does not excuse one from culpability for blindly following the cultural elites down a path to destruction?

  3. Pingback: Do They Know? How Do We Know They Know? | Hang Together

Leave a Reply