Was Kavanaugh Guilty?

No, I am not going to answer the question. This post will illustrate and argue for a position that I have argued many times in the past, namely that belief is voluntary. The example is merely particularly good for proving the point. I will also be using a framework something like Bryan Caplan’s in his discussion of rational irrationality:

Two forces lie at the heart of economic models of choice: preferences and prices. A consumer’s preferences determine the shape of his demand curve for oranges; the market price he faces determines where along that demand curve he resides. What makes this insight deep is its generality. Economists use it to analyze everything from having babies to robbing banks.

Irrationality is a glaring exception. Recognizing irrationality is typically equated with rejecting economics. A “logic of the irrational” sounds self-contradictory. This chapter’s central message is that this reaction is premature. Economics can handle irrationality the same way it handles everything: preferences and prices. As I have already pointed out:

  • People have preferences over beliefs: A nationalist enjoys the belief that foreign-made products are overpriced junk; a surgeon takes pride in the belief that he operates well while drunk.
  • False beliefs range in material cost from free to enormous: Acting on his beliefs would lead the nationalist to overpay for inferior goods, and the surgeon to destroy his career.

Snapping these two building blocks together leads to a simple model of irrational conviction. If agents care about both material wealth and irrational beliefs, then as the price of casting reason aside rises, agents consume less irrationality. I might like to hold comforting beliefs across the board, but it costs too much. Living in a Pollyanna dreamworld would stop be from coping with my problems, like that dead tree in my backyard that looks like it is going to fall on my house.

Let us assume that people are considering whether to believe that Brett Kavanaugh was guilty of sexual assault. For ease of visualization, let us suppose that they have utility functions defined over the following outcomes:

(A) Believe Kavanaugh was guilty, and turn out to be right

(B) Believe Kavanaugh was guilty, and turn out to be wrong

(C) Believe Kavanaugh was innocent, and turn out to be right

(D) Believe Kavanaugh was innocent, and turn out to be wrong

(E) Admit that you do not know whether he was guilty or not (this will be presumed to be a true statement, but I will count it as less valuable than a true statement that includes more detail.)

(F) Say something bad about your political enemies

(G) Say something good about your political enemies

(H) Say something bad about your political allies

(I) Say something good about your political allies

Note that options A through E are mutually exclusive, while one or more of options F through I might or might not come together with one of those from A through E.

Let’s suppose there are three people, a right winger who cares a lot about politics and little about truth, a left winger who cares a lot about politics and little about truth, and an independent who does not care about politics and instead cares a lot about truth. Then we posit the following table of utilities:

Right Winger
Left Winger
Independent
(A)
10
10
100
(B)
-10
-10
-100
(C)
10
10
100
(D)
-10
-10
-100
(E)
5
5
50
(F)
100
100
0
(G)
-100
-100
0
(H)
-100
-100
0
(I)
100
100
0

The columns for the right and left wingers are the same, but the totals will be calculated differently because saying something good about Kavanaugh, for the right winger, is saying something good about an ally, while for the left winger, it is saying something good about an enemy, and there is a similar contrast if something bad is said.

Now there are really only three options we need to consider, namely “Believe Kavanaugh was guilty,” “Believe Kavanaugh was innocent,” and “Admit that you do not know.” In addition, in order to calculate expected utility according to the above table, we need a probability that Kavanaugh was guilty. In order not to offend readers who have already chosen an option, I will assume a probability of 50% that he was guilty, and 50% that he was innocent. Using these assumptions, we can calculate the following ultimate utilities:

Right Winger
Left Winger
Independent
Claim Guilt
-100
100
0
Claim Innocence
100
-100
0
Confess Ignorance
5
5
50

(I won’t go through this calculation in detail; it should be evident that given my simple assumptions of the probability and values, there will be no value for anyone in affirming guilt or innocence as such, but only in admitting ignorance, or in making a political point.) Given these values, obviously the left winger will choose to believe that Kavanaugh was guilty, the right winger will choose to believe that he was innocent, and the independent will admit to being ignorant.

This account obviously makes complete sense of people’s actual positions on the question, and it does that by assuming that people voluntarily choose to believe a position in the same way they choose to do other things. On the other hand, if you assume that belief is an involuntary evaluation of a state of affairs, how could the actual distribution of opinion possibly be explained?

As this is a point I have discussed many times in the past, I won’t try to respond to all possible objections. However, I will bring up two of them. In the example, I had to assume that people calculated using a probability of 50% for Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence. So it could be objected that their “real” belief is that there is a 50% chance he was guilty, and the statement is simply an external thing.

This initial 50% is something like a prior probability, and corresponds to a general leaning towards or away from a position. As I admitted in discussion with Angra Mainyu, that inclination is largely involuntary. However, first, this is not what we call a “belief” in ordinary usage, since we frequently say that someone has a belief while having some qualms about it. Second, it is not completely immune from voluntary influences. In practice in a situation like this, it will represent something like everything the person knows about the subject and predicate apart from this particular claim. And much of what the person knows will already be in subject/predicate form, and the person will have arrived at it through a similar voluntary process.

Another objection is that at least in the case of something obviously true or obviously false, there cannot possibly be anything voluntary about it. No one can choose to believe that the moon is made of green cheese, for example.

I have responded to this to this in the past by pointing out that most of us also cannot choose to go and kill ourselves, right now, despite the fact that doing so would be voluntary. And in a similar way, there is nothing attractive about believing that the moon is made of green cheese, and so no one can do it. At least two objections will be made to this response:

1) I can’t go kill myself right now, but I know that this is because it would be bad. But I cannot believe that the moon is made of green cheese because it is false, not because it is bad.

2) It does not seem that much harm would be done by choosing to believe this about the moon, and then changing your mind after a few seconds. So if it is voluntary, why not prove it by doing so? Obviously you cannot do so.

Regarding the first point, it is true that believing the moon is made of cheese would be bad because it is false. And in fact, if you find falsity the reason you cannot accept it, how is that not because you regard falsity as really bad? In fact lack of attractiveness is extremely relevant here. If people can believe in Xenu, they would find it equally possible to believe that the moon was made of cheese, if that were the teaching of their religion. In that situation, the falsity of the claim would not be much obstacle at all.

Regarding the second point, there is a problem like Kavka’s Toxin here. Choosing to believe something, roughly speaking, means choosing to treat it as a fact, which implies a certain commitment. Choosing to act like it is true enough to say so, then immediately doing something else, is not choosing to believe it, but rather it is choosing to tell a lie. So just as one cannot intend to drink the toxin without expecting to actually drink it, so one cannot choose to believe something without expecting to continue to believe it for the foreseeable future. This is why one would not wish to accept such a statement about the moon, not only in order to prove something (especially since it would prove nothing; no one would admit that you had succeeded in believing it), but even if someone were to offer a very large incentive, say a million dollars if you managed to believe it. This would amount to offering to pay someone to give up their concern for truth entirely, and permanently.

Additionally, in the case of some very strange claims, it might be true that people do not know how to believe them, in the sense that they do not know what “acting as though this were the case” would even mean. This no more affects the general voluntariness of belief than the fact that some people cannot do backflips affects the fact that such bodily motions are in themselves voluntary.

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