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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Knowledge instrumentalism: the world's worst idea

Political correctness is a form of instrumentalism in which truth is defined by political utility. But why would people believe in it?

C onsequentialism is the belief that an act is morally right if it produces a good result. Knowledge consequentialism as used here is the idea that something is true if believing it to be true produces a good result. A better term for it might be knowledge instrumen­talism. It is associated with the postmodernist pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty[1].

The classic example showing the bankruptcy of consequentialism is that an act would be morally right if it increased the number of goats in Texas. This example hinges on the question of how “good” is defined, which is widely regarded as the most boring question of all time.

One objection is that scientists can sometimes make advances by pursuing ideas that turn out to be totally wrong. Physicists use the metaphor of a hamburger needing a bun: the bun part isn't really true, but without it the truth would be indigestible or not understandable. While there may be some merit to this idea, the history of science shows that the reverse is more often true: in general, science advances in spite of false ideas, not because of them. Indeed, postulating that an accepted idea is false is a necessary step in devising an alternative explanation.

Utilitarianism presupposes that situations have only two alternatives. Should companies do animal testing or release potentially harmful products? Should you kill a baby or let it grow up to become the next Hitler? Should a self-driving car be programmed to run over six babies or six adults? Should the world abandon fossil fuels, as some school children suggest, to prevent some possible global warming? The world is not that simple.

If utilitarianism is boring, how much more so, you might think, is knowledge utilitarianism! Yet millions of people unwittingly practice it in the form of political correctness. In PC, you profess to believe something, not because you really believe it's true, but because you think the benefits of believing it outweigh the benefits of facing the truth. It is not just being ‘positive’; it is an instrumentalist version of truth.

Classic examples are “Islam is a religion of peace” and “Women are paid only 85% as much as men.” Their purpose is not to convey information, as they resemble slogans more than statements of fact, but to convince people to do what the speaker wants. To avoid cognitive dissonance, speakers may ignore empirical results that contradict what they are saying, in an effort to have one's cake, give all the cake to everybody else, and also eat all of the cake himself.

Since truth (or, in this example, conservation of cakeness) is therefore relegated to a side issue, instrumentalism naturally lends itself to an authoritarianism. If saying something one knows to be false is beneficial, it's even more beneficial to get everyone else to say and believe it as well. Because the brain automatically seeks truth, getting people to knowingly speak falsehoods can only be done by force and with threats to their livelihood.

But this immediately raises a new question: why would anyone think that pretending things are as we'd like them to be is a good idea? Surely they must realize that it only sets people up for disappointment. Does not believing in falsehoods inevitably lead one down a rabbit hole of self-contradiction?

The only way to avoid this is to promote a simple narrative whereby a fixed number of assertions are sanctified and reinforced by punishing dissent and rewarding statements of belief. In this way, apostasy becomes the ultimate crime. It becomes, as so many people have pointed out, a “religion.”

One example is the idea that everything that happens is a reaction to something someone in power did, said, or thought. Examples: Iran and North Korea are developing nukes because the US president is threatening them. People commit crimes because they are oppressed by those in power. In both cases, there is a tangible political benefit, sometimes indirect, to the speaker, but their main purpose is to reinforce the narrative.

Instrumentalist logic is also found among highly religious people. They will sometimes say that one should believe in the Bible, not necessarily because it's true (which, again, it may or may not be), but because doing so will have beneficial effects in society. It's another example where truth is defined in terms of the outcome rather than its intrinsic evidentiary value.

So, we have demonstrated that PC is a form of knowledge instrumentalism. It destroys creativity and produce cultural stagnancy—which the Soviet Union, Albania, and Communist China experienced in abundance—and we in the West are now observing in our own cultures.

Knowledge instrumentalism is different from motivated reasoning. In motivated reasoning, one convinces oneself of something because the consequences of the truth are unpleasant or because everyone else believes it. In utilitarianism, one considers the truth irrelevant.

The remaining question is: how much of the political reasoning we see today fits in those two categories? Judging from the widespread examples of them even in articles purporting to debunk them, I suspect the answer is very close to all of it.

sep 22 2019, 8:18 am. last edited sep 23 2018, 5:27 am

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