The Philosopher and the Lawyer

Were I a New York Times columnist (an old man can have delusions of grandeur, can’t he?) I would most resemble Thomas Edsall, who we’re told writes about politics, demographics, and inequality, but from my perspective writes on scholarly research about politics, demographics, and inequality. I read his columns primarily for links to source material I never would find on my own, because like him, I’m a glutton for that stuff.

In his latest column, Edsall cites an upcoming study that arrives at a familiar conclusion: “the belief that beliefs should change according to evidence was robustly associated with political liberalism, the rejection of traditional moral values, the acceptance of science, and skepticism about religious, paranormal, and conspiratorial claims.” It’s tempting to respond well duhhh!, but Edsall mentions related studies that came to different conclusions. Still, the preponderance of evidence, including this new study, supports the position that liberals are heavily fact-driven.

That matters to me because I’ve repeatedly referred to the authoritarian right’s behavior as maladaptive. That’s primarily because I see authoritarian behavior as driven by negative emotion rather than fact. An immediate example is the refusal to wear masks during the pandemic. The most dangerous example is the denial of climate change. Both are what Carlo Cipolla would call stupid: producing a loss for the self and others. Hence, maladaptive.

Yet the real find in the study was the authors’ distinction (which didn’t originate with them) between two types of reasoning. The purpose of philosophical reasoning is “to form accurate beliefs.” The purpose of legal reasoning is “to form arguments to convince others.” I hadn’t broken those apart before, or defined them so succinctly.

Although all reasoning may be flawed, philosophical reasoning is less likely to be so. As philosopher and essayist Agnes Callard puts it in another Times op-ed (if you’re into the cancel culture controversy, I recommend it), “Philosophers hold up as an ideal the aim of never treating our interlocutor as a hostile combatant.” Philosophical reasoning is not a fight, but a mutual critique that helps all participants advance toward truth.

Legal reasoning, on the other hand, is a form of motivated reasoning: you start at your desired conclusion and work back to a rationale that justifies it. Legal reasoning may also advance you toward truth, but if it does, that’s a bonus.

From reading the study I realized that I use both: philosophical reasoning to figure out what I think and lawyerly reasoning to convey what I think. Together they make me the person and writer I am.

But as all these studies concede, reason sits perilously atop a brittle foundation of emotion. The great Daniel Kahneman notes in Thinking, Fast and Slow that we are emotional creatures who think, not thinking creatures who feel. That’s as true of me as anyone. Beneath the calm exterior I often cycle through depression, anger, fear, envy, or some combination thereof.

Emotion isn’t all bad, though! My predominant emotion these days is gratitude — and in that spirit I offer the following video from my favorite band, the San Francisco Symphony. It’s less than four minutes long. The first couple of times I watched it I cried happy tears, because it’s fun and life-affirming and exactly what we need in a period when arrows seem pointed at our heads and there’s no resolution in sight. Turn it up loud and enjoy!

Statue of Baruch Spinoza in The Hague, The Netherlands. When I (briefly) studied philosophy, he was one of my favorites.

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