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

Belief is quan­ti­ta­tive, and just as it is pos­si­ble to make over­con­fi­dent as­ser­tions rel­a­tive to ones an­ti­ci­pa­tions, it is pos­si­ble to make un­der con­fi­dent as­ser­tions rel­a­tive to ones an­ti­ci­pa­tions. One can wear the at­tire of un­cer­tainty, or pro­fess an ag­nos­ti­cism that isn’t re­ally there. Here, Ill sin­gle out a spe­cial case of im­proper un­cer­tainty: the dis­play of neu­tral­ity or sus­pended judg­ment in or­der to sig­nal ma­tu­rity, im­par­tial­ity, or a su­pe­rior van­tage point.

An ex­am­ple would be the case 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, the prin­ci­pal 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.”1 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 the prin­ci­pal’s 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 mere ar­guer.2

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 be­lief, too, must pay rent in an­ti­ci­pated ex­pe­riences, and it 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!”

It may be use­ful to ini­tially avoid us­ing is­sues like abor­tion or the Is­raeli-Pales­ti­nian con­flict for your ra­tio­nal­ity prac­tice, and so build up skill on less emo­tion­ally charged top­ics. 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 Han­son 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.3

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

In sum, 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.

1 Paulo Freire, The Poli­tics of Ed­u­ca­tion: Cul­ture, Power, and Liber­a­tion (Green­wood Pub­lish­ing Group, 1985), 122.

2 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.

3 See Han­son, “Policy Tug-O-War” (http://​​www.over­com­ing­​​2007/​​05/​​policy_ tu­gowar.html) and “Be­ware Value Talk” (http://​​www.over­com­ing­​​2009/​​02/​​the-cost-of-talk­ing-val­ues.html).