July 28, 2006

Self–deception

What happens when you make yourself believe something that deep down you know cannot be true?

This question has occurred to me a lot this week reading debates about what Israel is doing, but I think the same question can be asked about Blair and the loyal New Labour MPs.

Blair, for whatever reason, felt he had to go along with America in invading Iraq and Afghanistan. Of course, like any sane person, he recognized that this was wrong. So in order to do it, I think he must have gone through some (probably agonizing) internal process. He had to do this to maintain a consistent image. If he was just pretending, he might slip up and reveal himself.

New Labour MPs have had to go through a similar process. For them they must do what Blair and co tell them even though they know that it's the sort of thing a Tory government would do not a Labour government.

Finally, supporters of Israel's behaviour must have done something similar to themselves.

So what are the consequences of this sort of behaviour? The first is one that is related to mathematical logic. If you assume any particular false statement is true, you can prove any other false statement to be true. Bertrand Russell gives the example of a proof that he is the Pope if you assume that 2=1. It starts by saying that the Pope and Bertrand Russell are two. But two is one, and so the Pope and Bertrand Russell and one, and therefore Bertrand Russell is the Pope.

Now, I don't believe that morality has a coherent mathematical logic, but I wonder if a similar effect applies. If invading Iraq is assumed to be right, then the reasons for not invading Iraq must be false. For Blair, this goes further. If we assume that America is right in all things, particularly relating to terrorism, then in some sense the reasoning (to the extent that the word applies) of the Bush government must apply. It follows that we too must have these authoritarian laws.

Blair of course is a professional politician so it can be tricky to catch him out when he's doing this sort of thing, although I think there have been instances. But, random people on the internet talking about Israel are generally not professional politicians, and are much less guarded about what they think, feel and say. On one web forum I was reading, an individual who is usually very rational, discussing scientific and philosophical matters coherently and clearly, was brought to saying, in the course of a long discussion of the rights and wrongs of what Israel is doing, that the concept of war crimes was meaningless. The way the discussion went, he couldn't argue anything else because it was clear that some of Israel's actions have been war crimes. The knock on effect of this sort of thing is probably apparent. If the notion of war crimes must be meaningless, then the notion of international law must also be meaningless. Organisations such as the UN must be fundamentally flawed, and we are brought to the position of might is right.

The other consequence of this sort of act of self deception that I can think of is that people who practice it cease to make sense. Their grasp of basic logic and common sense, which was previously apparently secure, becomes tenuous. They begin to feel comfortable with non sequiturs, evasions, conflation of concepts, and doublespeak. The question is: if they talk this way, do they begin to think this way? If our prime minister was ever able to reason correctly, is he still able to?


- 6 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. One problem policymakers face is that they're not rewarded for making hedged statements and conveying the uncertainty surrounding decision making. To garner support, Blair must say he's fully confident that situation x will be resolved in some time frame. Votes would be harder to come by and appealing headlines much rarer, if Blair said "Success in Iraq is not guaranteed, but I think we'll be out of there next year with 53% certainty". Categorical assertions are the norm and the logical policies that follow from such bold statements aren't always desirable.

    I also agree that this pattern will impact one's thinking. For anyone of conscience, strong dissonance between words and actions/underlying beliefs can be a painful thing to handle over long periods of time. Political and reputation constraints mean beliefs are easier to change than past statements. I doubt the ability to think sensibly about other issues would be compromised though. For example, I'm sure Blair would be fully alert to non sequiturs, evasions and doublespeak coming from the mouths of Conservatives or LibDems on issues not as emotionally charged as Iraq.

    28 Jul 2006, 14:28

  2. First paragraph, completely agreed.

    "Political and reputation constraints mean beliefs are easier to change than past statements."

    I can certainly see your point, but I wonder if this is true. I mean, if you read things that Blair and Brown wrote when in opposition for example, the contrast with what they say now is quite outrageous.

    "I doubt the ability to think sensibly about other issues would be compromised though."

    For a normal lie, I'd be inclined to agree. But when the consequences of your lie are thousands of deaths, and you must have known that that was going to be the consequence?

    30 Jul 2006, 03:46

  3. Mikey

    The only time politicians get near to telling the truth is when they are telling you that other politicians are lying.

    05 Aug 2006, 16:36

  4. Tax Rebate

    Very good one Mikey! Politicians are boring!

    29 Nov 2006, 22:17

  5. Roman blinds

    orange?

    24 Jan 2007, 00:48

  6. Mike

    “can certainly see your point, but I wonder if this is true. I mean, if you read things that Blair and Brown wrote when in opposition for example, the contrast with what they say now is quite outrageous.”

    Yep, but when did that bother people in the political profession! !

    15 Mar 2007, 20:10


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