A friend’s dad is a hereditary member of the House of Lords. I stayed the night at his house not long after he had been re-elected after a period of absence. Out of politeness I asked to read his maiden speech. He began with some platitudes, echoing the comments of a few previous speakers and so on, and then in good faith went on to declare that he owned a private security company that worked on contracts for the Russian government. I think it’s probably customary for politicians to declare potential conflicts of interest in their maiden speeches.
Nothing could have prepared me for his concluding remarks which I remember almost verbatim: “And just to add an original point of my own, I feel we should follow the example of France and America in aligning our commercial and military interests.” And with that he sat down.
None of the subsequent remarks suggested even a modicum of concern about this. I was so startled I had to go back and re-read the exact words to make sure.
There was no escaping it. He was arguing, in broad daylight, in the place where big decisions are made in our name, that we should try and make money out of war.
I caught him just as he was leaving early next morning.
“No we wouldn’t go to war with profit as a motive,” he replied assuredly, briefcase in hand, the front door ajar, “but if we did decide to go to war for legitimate reasons then there’s no reason why we shouldn’t do business while we’re there.”
“But can’t you see how that could be abused?” I asked from the kitchen table, at pains to keep my voice even, “When the people who decide whether we go to war are the same people who would stand to profit?” I was looking at one of them.
“Yes I can see how it could,” he replied, pausing to think in a moment of honest reflection, “but I don’t think that’s how it works.” And with that he walked out the front door.
Reading this it must be tempting to assume that the man in question is thoroughly evil, or at best dangerously stupid. I assure you he is neither.
I am quite sure that he genuinely believed what he said about going to war for the right reasons; that he himself would never consciously have let his private security firm be a factor in a decision to vote in favour of an invasion. And, having this neatly sewn up in his mind, he honestly trusted other politicians to do the same.
I almost envy him. How wonderfully straightforward life must be for the man under the impression that everyone is quite capable of reasoning their way cleanly to the utilitarian decision when their own millions are at stake. How truly reassuring to believe that human rationality is a kind of objective force of its own, working for the pursuit of truth and the greater good, entirely independent of our self-interest.
The conversation revealed to me perfectly clearly how democracies can commit terrible acts without anybody being deliberately evil. Political debates are nuanced affairs with multiple factors and unforeseeable consequences. Sifting our way through the screaming cacophony of opinions in the media in search of the buried truth of the matter is a difficult and lengthy process which very few people undertake. In any given article 60% of people don’t read beyond the headline. Even for those who have the time and interest, an honest inquiry is sure to involve flux and vacillation before reaching anything remotely resembling a balanced view.
Far easier, and quicker, to read a headline or two and draw a straight line of argument between your bank account and one particular way of looking at things.
We delude ourselves that our political opinions are based on facts and logic. The truth is that in nearly all cases we ascertain the selfish position first and construct a rationalisation for it afterwards. And as soon as our viewpoint is well bedded, cognitive bias kicks in. We begin to read the world from that standpoint alone, selecting the facts to fit it until it becomes clear and unassailable.
We must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest is concerned.
I write about this story in the hope that it demonstrates the danger of placing too much faith in our reason. Rationality is the voice within our head. It is ego. As such it serves our self-interest first and truth second. Scientists are just people who have made a career out of aligning the two.
But most of us are not scientists, and politics is not particle physics. When it comes to politics we are never simply disinterested observers. Even when our pocket it not at stake there is still plenty to play for. After all, the airing of political views is socially strategic as much as anything else. Taking up a certain position can increase our evolutionary fitness by signalling our membership of an ‘in’ group. This is the intellectual 21st century equivalent of painting your face to identify yourself as member of a tribe. Both are attempts to solicit the co-operation of other members of that tribe or subculture. A common worldview thus acts as a kind of gravitational force which draws friendship groups together. This is why a big agreeathon can be so enjoyable: we are identifying and securing allies. It also explains why so few people are willing to stand out from the crowd.
Now in a way this is all blindingly obvious – it’s not a coincidence that rich people tend to be right wing. Nor does it twist one’s melon to realise that lefties stick to lefties like shit to a blanket.
The point I’m driving at is that we must mistrust our reason wherever our self-interest, material or social, is concerned.
When we’re really honest with ourselves, this extends to almost everything we are likely to hold an opinion about. Fine – so hold it all lightly. Be prepared to change your mind about everything at the drop of a hat. I change my mind about my free will, the free market and the existence of God about once a week. It’s fun – try it.
In a fast evolving world a closed mind is death.