Pre­tend­ing to be Wise

“The hot­test place in Hell is re­served for those who in time of crisis re­main neut­ral.”
-- Dante Aligh­ieri, fam­ous hell ex­pert John F. Kennedy, misquoter

A spe­cial case of adult­hood-sig­nal­ing worth singling out, is the dis­play of neut­ral­ity or sus­pen­ded judg­ment, in or­der to sig­nal ma­tur­ity, wis­dom, im­par­ti­al­ity, or just a su­per­ior vant­age point.

An ex­ample would be the case dis­cussed yes­ter­day of my par­ents, who re­spond to theo­lo­gical ques­tions like “Why does an­cient Egypt, which had good re­cords on many other mat­ters, lack any re­cords of Jews hav­ing ever been there?” with “Oh, when I was your age, I also used to ask that sort of ques­tion, but now I’ve grown out of it.”

Another ex­ample would be the prin­cipal who, faced with two chil­dren who were caught fight­ing on the play­ground, sternly says: “It doesn’t mat­ter who star­ted the fight, it only mat­ters who ends it.” Of course it mat­ters who star­ted the fight. The prin­cipal may not have ac­cess to good in­form­a­tion about this crit­ical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dis­miss the im­port­ance of who threw the first punch. Let a par­ent try punch­ing the prin­cipal, and we’ll see how far “It doesn’t mat­ter who star­ted it” gets in front of a judge. But to adults it is just in­con­veni­ent that chil­dren fight, and it mat­ters not at all to their con­veni­ence which child star­ted it, it is only con­veni­ent that the fight end as rap­idly as pos­sible.

A sim­ilar dy­namic, I be­lieve, gov­erns the oc­ca­sions in in­ter­na­tional dip­lomacy where Great Powers sternly tell smal­ler groups to stop that fight­ing right now. It doesn’t mat­ter to the Great Power who star­ted it—who pro­voked, or who re­spon­ded dis­pro­por­tion­ately to pro­voca­tion—be­cause the Great Power’s on­go­ing in­con­veni­ence is only a func­tion of the on­go­ing con­flict. Oh, can’t Is­rael and Ha­mas just get along?

This I call “pre­tend­ing to be Wise”. Of course there are many ways to try and sig­nal wis­dom. But try­ing to sig­nal wis­dom by re­fus­ing to make guesses—re­fus­ing to sum up evid­ence—re­fus­ing to pass judg­ment—re­fus­ing to take sides—stay­ing above the fray and look­ing down with a lofty and con­des­cend­ing gaze—which is to say, sig­nal­ing wis­dom by say­ing and do­ing noth­ing—well, that I find par­tic­u­larly pre­ten­tious.

Paolo Freire said, “Wash­ing one’s hands of the con­flict between the power­ful and the power­less means to side with the power­ful, not to be neut­ral.” A play­ground is a great place to be a bully and a ter­rible place to be a vic­tim, if the teach­ers don’t care who star­ted it. And like­wise in in­ter­na­tional polit­ics: A world where the Great Powers re­fuse to take sides and only de­mand im­me­di­ate truces, is a great world for ag­gressors and a ter­rible place for the ag­gressed. But, of course, it is a very con­veni­ent world in which to be a Great Power or a school prin­cipal.

So part of this be­ha­vior can be chalked up to sheer selfish­ness on the part of the Wise.

But part of it also has to do with sig­nal­ing a su­per­ior vant­age point. After all—what would the other adults think of a prin­cipal who ac­tu­ally seemed to be tak­ing sides in a fight between mere chil­dren? Why, it would lower his status to a mere par­ti­cipant in the fray!

Sim­il­arly with the revered elder—who might be a CEO, a pres­ti­gi­ous aca­demic, or a founder of a mail­ing list—whose repu­ta­tion for fair­ness de­pends on their re­fusal to pass judg­ment them­selves, when oth­ers are choos­ing sides. Sides ap­peal to them for sup­port, but al­most al­ways in vain; for the Wise are revered judges on the con­di­tion that they al­most never ac­tu­ally judge—then they would just be an­other dis­putant in the fray, no bet­ter than any other mere ar­guer.

(Oddly, judges in the ac­tual legal sys­tem can re­peatedly hand down real ver­dicts without auto­mat­ic­ally los­ing their repu­ta­tion for im­par­ti­al­ity. Maybe be­cause of the un­der­stood norm that they have to judge, that it’s their job. Or maybe be­cause judges don’t have to re­peatedly rule on is­sues that have split a tribe on which they de­pend for their rev­er­ence.)

There are cases where it is ra­tional to sus­pend judg­ment, where people leap to judg­ment only be­cause of their bi­ases. As Mi­chael Rooney said, “The er­ror here is sim­ilar to one I see all the time in be­gin­ning philo­sophy stu­dents: when con­fron­ted with reas­ons to be skep­tics, they in­stead be­come re­lat­iv­ists. That is, when the ra­tional con­clu­sion is to sus­pend judg­ment about an is­sue, all too many people in­stead con­clude that any judg­ment is as plaus­ible as any other.”

But then how can we avoid the (re­lated but dis­tinct) pseudo-ra­tion­al­ist be­ha­vior of sig­nal­ing your un­biased im­par­ti­al­ity by falsely claim­ing that the cur­rent bal­ance of evid­ence is neut­ral? “Oh, well, of course you have a lot of pas­sion­ate Dar­win­ists out there, but I think the evid­ence we have doesn’t really en­able us to make a def­in­ite en­dorse­ment of nat­ural se­lec­tion over in­tel­li­gent design.”

On this point I’d ad­vise re­mem­ber­ing that neut­ral­ity is a def­in­ite judg­ment. It is not stay­ing above any­thing. It is put­ting forth the def­in­ite and par­tic­u­lar po­s­i­tion that the bal­ance of evid­ence in a par­tic­u­lar case li­censes only one sum­ma­tion, which hap­pens to be neut­ral. This, too, can be wrong; pro­pound­ing neut­ral­ity is just as at­tack­able as pro­pound­ing any par­tic­u­lar side.

Like­wise with policy ques­tions. If someone says that both pro-life and pro-choice sides have good points and that they really should try to com­prom­ise and re­spect each other more, they are not tak­ing a po­s­i­tion above the two stand­ard sides in the abor­tion de­bate. They are put­ting forth a def­in­ite judg­ment, every bit as par­tic­u­lar as say­ing “pro-life!” or “pro-choice!”

In­cid­ent­ally… this is not an in­vit­a­tion to start talk­ing about abor­tion in the com­ments, or Is­rael and Ha­mas either. Over­com­ing Bias isn’t for hav­ing that par­tic­u­lar dis­cus­sion; there are other for­ums which deal with those per­fectly le­git­im­ate top­ics. Maybe if Less Wrong got large enough… but not now.

But it’s not that a ra­tion­al­ist is too ma­ture to talk about polit­ics. It’s not that a ra­tion­al­ist is above this fool­ish fray in which only mere polit­ical par­tis­ans and youth­ful en­thu­si­asts would stoop to par­ti­cip­ate.

As Robin de­scribes it, the abil­ity to have po­ten­tially di­vis­ive con­ver­sa­tions is a lim­ited re­source. If you can think of ways to pull the rope side­ways, you are jus­ti­fied in ex­pend­ing your lim­ited re­sources on re­l­at­ively less com­mon is­sues where mar­ginal dis­cus­sion of­fers re­l­at­ively higher mar­ginal pay­offs.

But then the re­spons­ib­il­it­ies that you depri­or­it­ize are a mat­ter of your lim­ited re­sources. Not a mat­ter of float­ing high above, se­rene and Wise.

Ad­ded: My reply to PG’s com­ment on HN seems like a sum­mary worth re­post­ing: There’s a dif­fer­ence between:

  • Passing neut­ral judg­ment;

  • De­clin­ing to in­vest mar­ginal re­sources;

  • Pre­tend­ing that either of the above is a mark of deep wis­dom, ma­tur­ity, and a su­per­ior vant­age point; with the cor­res­pond­ing im­plic­a­tion that the ori­ginal sides oc­cupy lower vant­age points that are not im­port­antly dif­fer­ent from up there.