Posted by: CJ | April 28, 2009

Mathematics, Ethics, Arguments

As long as I’m on the topic of utilitarianism, I should mention a connection I made yesterday between a utilitarian post and something that annoys me about a lot of political pundits.

I was reading this post at Less Wrong, a utilitarian website. A summary of the post is given by a quote at the beginning.

“If you’re interested in being on the right side of disputes, you will refute your opponents’ arguments.  But if you’re interested in producing truth, you will fix your opponents’ arguments for them.  To win, you must fight not only the creature you encounter; you must fight the most horrible thing that can be constructed from its corpse.”

While I dislike the question posed in the introduction of the post and I dislike the idea that one can rationally study ethics,  I must admit that I’m really impressed with the level of depth to the questioning and searching by the author. He/She/It really tries his best to construct the best possible arguments his opponents could use, and furthermore bases the entire article around the premise that this is what one should always do. Like the quote says, this is what someone really interested in truth does.

How does this relate to political pundits? Well, that’s pretty obvious, but I’ll be pedantic and explain anyways. I was reading these three posts from Megan McArdle: Post 1, Post 2, Post 3. The exact content of the posts is somewhat immaterial, but she was pointing out that a certain sort of argument against torture based on it’s ineffectiveness wasn’t a very good argument. Now, she’s right, the argument she discusses wasn’t a very good argument. But, the argument she discusses wasn’t one she could point to anyone specific (or high-profile) making, nor was the best (or even a decent) construction of an effectiveness argument. She was picking on an argument she knew she could beat because she wanted to be right. Even worse, it’s typical in such posts to knock down some mediocre and slightly (or more) unrepresentative argument, but not highlight the good ideas or how they might be added to existing proposals or at least point out why even the good ideas are infeasible. I sorta expect more from people being paid to do this shtick.

And then I realized how much this generalizes. The best political pundits and policy makers, the ones I truly enjoy reading and whose value to society is truly immeasurable, look for the truth. But a lot of people in politics make their careers out of being right, not furthering the discussion.

This is obviously not a new thought or insight. But it is worrisome when I realize how much it can apply to people I read on a daily basis. Even how much it applies to relatively highly educated people who are key contributors to policy discussions. This is one of the more depressing thoughts I’ve had lately.

I want more intellectually honest & intellectually curious pundits and public policy people. I want more rational public policy people who know enough logic and science to know a good argument from a bad one. Not just the winning arguments from the losing ones.

I might as well just want a pony.



  1. Well, that’s pretty obvious, but I’ll be pedantic and explain anyways.

    that’s the funniest line I’ve read in a long time!

  2. I want a pony. Or at least the strength of a pony. Both would be great, though.

    I have some issues with how you other and demean people outside of the gender binary: “He/She/It.” While I applaud your efforts of inclusion, you might as well as have said, “He/She/Maladjusted-Freak-That-Can’t-Be-Like-Most-Other-People.”

  3. Devin! Great to see you here. And while I could have been more inclusive, by following your suggestion wouldn’t I have to write “He/She/Tranny/Maladjusted-Freak-That-Can’t-Be-Like-Most-Other-People/Maladjusted-Freak-That-Is-Just-Like-Other-People”? I’m not sure where it would end, really. Better to just call them all It.

  4. Also, I don’t have a pony. But if you found a riding crop and a saddle you have a significant other.

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