Tyler Cowen comments on the comments on his blog:
Imagine if I wrote a post that just served up a list like this:
The people who deserve to be raised in status:
Norman Borlaug, Jon Huntsman, female Catholics from Croatia, Scottie Pippen, Yoko Ono, Gordon Tullock, Uber drivers, and Arnold Schoenberg,
The people who deserve to be lowered in status:
Donald Trump, Harper Lee, inhabitants of the province Presidente Hayes, in Paraguay, doctors, Jacques Derrida, Indira Gandhi, and Art Garfunkel
You might get a kick out of it the first time, but quickly you would grow tired of the lack of substance and indeed the sheer prejudice of the exercise.
Yet, ultimately, the topic so appeals to you all. So much of debate, including political and economic debate, is about which groups and individuals deserve higher or lower status. It’s pretty easy — too easy in fact — to dissect most Paul Krugman blog posts along these lines. It’s also why a lot of blog posts about foreign countries don’t generate visceral reactions, unless of course it is the Greeks and the Germans, or some other set of stand-ins for disputes closer to home (or maybe that is your home). Chinese goings on are especially tough to parse into comparable American disputes over the status of one group vs. another.
I hypothesize that an MR blog post attracts more comments when it a) has implications for who should be raised and lowered in status, and b) has some framework in place which allows you to make analytical points, but points which ultimately translate into a conclusion about a).
Posts about immigration, the minimum wage, Greece and Germany, the worthiness of entrepreneurs vs. workers, and the rankings of different schools of thought or economists all seem to fit this bill.
Sometimes I am tempted to simply serve up the list and skip the analytics.
Tyler is right that debate is often for the sake of the end of raising or lowering the status of various groups or individuals. More importantly, though, it is also often a motive for belief in the claim that would tend to do this.
This is frequently the case in political discussions, as Tyler notes. Bob Seidensticker provides a good example of this in a post on same sex marriage:
These Christian leaders see themselves as fighting the good fight, but how will this fit with the judgment of history?
Here’s one answer. Jennifer Morse, president and founder of the Ruth Institute (“Helping the Victims of the Sexual Revolution”), was asked if she feared being embarrassed by the seeming inevitability of same-sex marriage. She replied:
I am not the slightest bit worried about the judgment of history on me. This march-of-history argument bothers me a lot.… What they’re really saying is, “Stop thinking, stop using your judgment, just shut up and follow the crowd because the crowd is moving towards Nirvana and you need to just follow along.”
You’ve got to admire that. She’s standing up for what she feels is right, unconcerned about whether it’s popular or how history will judge that position.
But let’s not pretend that the judgment of history is irrelevant. Remember George Wallace’s infamous 1963 declaration, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” Was Wallace fighting the good fight with his stand for racial segregation? He would’ve said yes. History says no.
Those opposed to freedom for Southern slaves, women’s suffrage, and minorities’ civil rights were all fighting the good fight, like those opposed to same-sex marriage today. Just remember that history wins in the end.
Indeed, Jennifer Morse does think about the evaluation of history, it’s just that she thinks that she’ll be on the right side of it:
[Same-sex marriage proponents] are the ones who are going to be embarrassed. They are the ones who are going to be looking around, looking for the exits, trying to pretend that it had nothing to do with them, that it wasn’t really their fault.
No one fighting the good fight thinks that they won’t eventually be judged on the right side of history. I’ll propose that as the definition of fighting the good fight: taking a minority position now that you think will eventually, if only decades in the future, be seen as the morally correct one.
And there’s the problem—reading the tea leaves to see where society is moving. There is no reliable route to objective moral truth (I argue that what we imagine as objective moral truth is actually just widely shared or strongly felt moral beliefs). There is no celestial library where the answers to all moral questions are in a big book. The judgment of history is the best we’ve got, and we fool ourselves when we think that moral rightness is determined by anything more lofty.
It might seem shallow to base one’s moral convictions on what society will conclude fifty years in the future rather than on one’s conscience today. But make no mistake: the strength or sincerity of your convictions—about same-sex marriage or any moral issue—are irrelevant. Your stand today will be judged by the conclusions of that future society, and being on the right side of history is all that ultimately matters. Lose that, and you’re just another George Wallace.
Seidensticker makes his motives clearer than most by the denial of the existence of objective moral truth. According to him, objectively there is no true answer to the question of whether same sex marriage should be permitted or forbidden. Thus he concludes that it is important to “read the tea leaves” about “where society is moving,” so that we can hold the position that most people will hold in the future.
The purpose of this would be to raise our personal status, by having people in the future think well of us, and to lower the status of other people who thought differently. In Seidensticker’s case in particular, his concern is to raise the status of atheists and to lower the status of Christians and of religious people in general. According to him, it is “worse than you think” to be on the “wrong side of history,” because ultimately status is the only issue here.
In reality, of course, the “judgment of history” does have some weight because of the nature of progress in truth. But this is not an absolute weight, because such progress is not guaranteed, and especially over a short period of time such as a few decades. In contrast, far from making it more important, Seidensticker’s position actually would imply that future opinion has no weight, from the standpoint of truth. If there is no objective moral truth, the fact that some people in the future will mistakenly suppose that I was wrong in my morality (since I was neither right nor wrong) is basically meaningless.
In other words, Seidensticker’s position on same sex marriage is only intelligible as entirely motivated by status seeking, and in no way by truth, and he essentially makes this point himself.
We saw earlier that in many cases, we do not personally verify the truth of our beliefs, but trust some body collectively to present us with the truth of the matter. Trusting a certain body of people, and not trusting others, however, will tend to raise the status of the people who are trusted, and lower the status of the people who are not trusted. Consequently, a desire for raising the status of certain groups will often manifest itself by believing the claims of that group, and a desire to lower the status of certain groups will often manifest itself by disbelieving the claims of that group.
This often occurs in the evaluation of conspiracy theories. It seems that most theories of this kind are actually false, and so before investigation it is usually better to give the benefit of the doubt to the position that the theory is false.
For example, some people say that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and consequently should be considered ineligible for the presidency according to the constitution of the United States. I have not investigated this claim, and I assume that it is false, based on the fact that most such claims seem to be false. However, the claim is surely not crazy or insane in the way that many people suppose. Suppose that Barack Obama was not born in the United States, and that this fact was noticed by someone on his team while he was running for president. If he were already in the situation where being elected president was a reasonable possibility, what is the probability that he and his team would attempt to hide the fact that he was born outside the United States?
It would be unreasonable to estimate less than 10% for this probability. It might be reasonable to give a much higher estimate, such as 75%. In any case, the probability of the conspiracy theory will end up being not dramatically lower than the prior probability that he in fact was born outside the United States, and there is no special reason for this prior probability to be particularly low.
But people notice that this claim would seem to vastly lower the status of Barack Obama, his team, the United States government, and perhaps of Democrats in general, and for these reasons they say that this theory is insane and crazy. It is not, even if it is false.
In other words, the fact that such theories in general do not seem to be correlated much with truth confuses the matter to some extent, and thus people who are in fact motivated by status appear to be motivated by truth more than they actually are.