On attributions of bad faith in policy debate

Last week’s Halbig decision elicited a lot of anger between left and right intellectuals. Brian Beutler called the decision:

a fundamentally dishonest solicitation of right-wing judicial activism

In the first sentence of his dissent, Judge Edwards accused the appellants and, by implication, his colleague Judge Griffith, of bad faith :

This case is about Appellants’ not-so-veiled attempt to gut the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“ACA”).

Conversely, conservatives had their eyeballs popping out of their heads in response to what they viewed as the feckless bad faith of liberal responses to Halbig. Liberals are just indifferent to what their own law actually said, because the text is absurd? The absurdity of the text reveals the infeasibility of the enterprise — and you’re calling that a typo?

I’ve nothing to say on the merits of these arguments (for that, read Nick!). But I don’t think attributions of bad faith should have much role in policy debates.

It’s not because I want people to be nice. Great scholars have done an immense service by cutting down preposterous fools and letting them bleed out on the floor. Chomsky’s review of B. F. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior is a classic.

Similarly, I’m not questioning the importance of a sincere motivation to be truthful. There are charlatans and liars. Look around.

My point is rather that it is in your interest to focus on intellectual opponents whom you have reason to take seriously and to then actually take them seriously. This is your best chance of getting near the truth.

Humanity’s natural mode of thought is self-serving misrepresentation of facts and inconsistency of argument. Read Dan Kahan on the distortions of ideologically-motivated cognition. But don’t read him to comfort yourself that others are knaves. Read him to get clear that you and I are likely the victims of our own intellectual self-deceptions.

How do we get outside of our ideological bubbles? Here is J. S. Mill:

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind… The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it. (emphasis added)

I find that my primary motivation for attributing bad faith is to escape the responsibility of answering a strong argument.

If you are in politics, you have to answer arguments by frauds. But if you are trying to get at the truth, that’s not your best move. If you believe that someone is arguing in bad faith, just stop reading them. We’ll all be forgotten, soon enough.


Thanks to Paul Kelleher for the pointer to Mill.

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