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“Irrational” Values

August 21st, 2007 · 8 Comments

Liz at Yellow is the Color opens an interesting discussion of emotion and politics with this vaguely What’s the Matter With Kansas-flavored anecdote:

My professor told us this story (which I am now going to promptly butcher) about his time on the campaign trail. In 2004, he was going door-to-door campaigning deep in the backwoods of rural Mississippi (or Arkansas, or Louisiana, I forget which, but you get the gist). They were in a particularly poor neighborhood one day, where most of the residents lived in trailers. He approached an especially run-down trailer, with overgrown grass and trash on the front lawn, and knocked on the door. A woman answered, wearing a moo-moo (miu-miu?). “I’ve never honestly seen anyone in a moo-moo before this,” he said. The woman was holding a toddler on her hip; there was a teen girl behind her, holding a baby on her hip; and a few assorted children crouched behind her. Everyone looked ragged, malnourished. He started talking to the lady, and came to the question, “What is the single most important issue to you in the upcoming election?” Obviously, there were a lot of issues that probably concerned this lady’s life — the economy, obviously. Maybe better access to healthcare. Maybe the war in Iraq, since those fighting and dying disporoportiately come from poor families like hers. Maybe better public schools.

She furled up her brow and sneered a bit, my professor said, and answered him with absolute conviction: gay marriage.

My professor was flabbergasted. Gay marriage? “I can guarantee you that there were no gay people even out, let alone getting married, within 200 miles of her,” he said. But there she was, standing here in this trailer home with all these babies on her hips, ready to cast her vote for whatever candidate could assure her that, on his watch, no gays anywhere were going to be threatening her by walking down the aisle.

As I’m scarcely the first to note, I think there’s something amiss with these narratives insofar as they’re supposed to show how people are hoodwinked into “irrationally” or “emotionally” focusing on culture war issues, and so voting against their “real” interests. And one way to highlight that is to flip it around. Barring some midlife epiphany, I will never want a gay marriage for myself—is it somehow false consciousness if I nevertheless think this is an important issue on general grounds of civil equality? If I’m pretty confident that neither I nor most of my friends are in proximate danger of getting shipped off to Iraq, is the war’s ballooning cost the only rational grounds for my opposition to it? Are affluent liberals who think poverty is the most important issue similarly deluded, unless they’re just trying to reduce their chances of getting mugged?

I think the mistake is easier to make in the case outlined above if you’re disposed to regard the substance of the view in question—that gay marriage is some sort of threat to Western civilization—as stupid or irrational. But how salient an issue is and what position one takes on it are distinct matters. Whether you’re for or against gay marriage, you can regard it as relatively important or insignificant. Someone’s beliefs about the meaning or likely effects of gay marriage may be emotionally skewed or irrational, but the weight they then give the issue may be perfectly rational given those beliefs.

Tags: General Philosophy



8 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ben // Aug 21, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    I think a difference is probably the consequences of this stuff. If you’re a rich liberal voting for a politician who’s going to raise your taxes, thus being duped to vote against your own self interest, the downside is…paying more taxes.

    If you’re a single mom whose child has CHIP (or whatever) and you’re voting for a politician because he’s a good, Christian man, it’s probably bad times ahead.

    I think that’s what pisses a lot of people off when they think about this whole What’s the Matter with Kansas theme. Sometimes I share their anger, sometimes I think it’s condescending.

  • 2 Ben // Aug 21, 2007 at 1:42 pm

    Alright, I just realized I posted the most ovbious thing ever.

  • 3 Ben // Aug 21, 2007 at 1:43 pm

    An outsite, even.

  • 4 Liz // Aug 21, 2007 at 2:17 pm

    Well, that’s the good thing about Westen’s book on this subject is that while he does give examples like this, he doesn’t leap to the “Wow, aren’t people irrational” conclusion. Instead, he makes a convincing case for how voting based on emotions actually leads people to vote rationally, and in their own self-interest, albeit in a more circuitous way.

  • 5 Emma Zahn // Aug 21, 2007 at 3:38 pm

    Why not go for a simpler rationale?

    A woman, a girl, two babies and a bunch of children in a ramshackle residence. Under those circumstances I think I might be a little pissed off at both men and marriage.

  • 6 Mike // Aug 21, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Someone’s beliefs about the meaning or likely effects of gay marriage may be emotionally skewed or irrational, but the weight they then give the issue may be perfectly rational given those beliefs.

    But recognizing the irrational basis for belief doesn’t make that belief any less bat-shit crazy. It’s like someone saying they plan on paying their bills with the money they’re going to win in the lottery: yes, they might be convinced that *this* time their numbers are going to come up, but that doesn’t make the conclusion rational.

  • 7 Consumatopia // Aug 21, 2007 at 5:42 pm

    The difference between the homophobe moo-moo wearer and the gay-marriage lovin’ war hating redistributin’ rich, old, heterosexual is that the former’s life experience confronts them directly with evidence of far greater problems than gay marriage, while the latter isn’t really confronted with any problems and therefore is rational in going out to solve other people’s problems. Given diminishing marginal utility, the “voting against your own interests” line is a lot stronger against poor Republicans than against rich Democrats.

  • 8 Julian Elson // Aug 22, 2007 at 4:45 pm

    Well, I suppose my response to this would be that voting on the basis of self-interest in usually better than voting on the basis of immorality, but voting on the basis of morality is better than voting on the basis of either self-interest or immorality.

    Of course, from a libertarian perspective, the poor Republican gay marriage opponent and the rich liberal redistributionist are both supporting their respective candidates in response to immoral reasons, so I suppose the admirable people are poor anti-redistributionist libertarians.

    I suppose that puts some of us liberals — at least the ones prone to making simplistic “voting against self-interest = being duped” argument — in a rather cowardly light. What we should be saying is “hey moo-moo wearer! Stop your immoral opposition to same-sex marriage, and instead support a candidate who supports the morally just cause of same-sex marriage,” when instead we’re saying “hey moo-moo wearer! Stop caring about morality and try being more self-interested and greedy!”

    Well, there’s nothing wrong with appealing to self-interest per se, but it’s in a different dimension than moral concerns. If the moo-moo wearer supports Rudy Giuliani rather than John Edwards because she wants a tax deduction to cut her health care expenses, it’s proper to respond with “but you won’t save much money with that deduction, and Edwards’ health plan will be much better and more in your interest.” If she regards opposition to gay marriage as a moral issue, though, it’s not really germane, and a tad insulting, to say, “but your self-interest is better served by Edwards.” It’s like offering a bribe.

    This is all probably rather too idealistic though, almost as if I were following a Kantian view that there are only two possible motivations for any action.

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