February 19, 2004

Government is Cognitive Dissonance

Posted by shonk at 08:22 PM in Politics | TrackBack

Yesterday, John Venlet posted a link to “Before Teaching Ethics, Stop Kidding Yourself”, by Gordon Marino, professor of philosophy and director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at Saint Olaf College, an interesting critique of ethics workshops and the “ethics industry”. For example, this is, in my view, dead-on:

Ethics missionaries are driven by the assumption that improving our moral lives is a matter of developing our conceptual understanding and analytical acumen. The fantasy seems to be that if up-and-coming accountants just knew a little more about ethics, then they would know better than to falsify their reports so as to drive up the value of company stock. But sheer ignorance is seldom the moral problem. More knowledge is not what is needed. Take it from Kierkegaard: The moral challenge is simply to abide by the knowledge that we already have.

What really interested me, though, was near the end of the article, where Marino suggests that a lack of discussion of the impediments to ethical living, most notably self-deception, is a fundamental flaw in the ethics workshop approach. On the topic of self-deception, Marino specifically mentions Leon Festinger’s theory of cognitive dissonance:

Festinger taught that when we hold conflicting beliefs, we are motivated to change them in predictable directions. For example, suppose you would like to believe that you are a compassionate individual who is willing to help the poor. At the same time, you think that it would be nice to have lower taxes, and you are convinced that the welfare system increases the government’s draw on your wallet. If Festinger is right, you might be inclined to try to convince yourself that the welfare system has to be cut, not because you want lower taxes, but because having fewer welfare benefits will motivate people to find jobs. Cutting benefits would be for their own good.

I tend to agree that humans are capable of remarkable rationalizations of non-rational beliefs, but, as I usually do, I want to discuss the specific example I’ve quoted rather than the general theory, because I think it leads to an interesting line of thought.

Specifically, I want to argue that many people countenance wealth redistribution and other government programs precisely because of a sort of self-deception or cognitive dissonance. Most people, rightly or wrongly, think they have some obligation to help others, especially those who are poor or disadvantaged. Not everybody, of course, but certainly most people. On the other hand, most people don’t expend a lot of effort actually helping the poor: maybe they want to spend their money on themselves, maybe they don’t want to get dirty serving food at soup kitchens, maybe they simply don’t have enough time; there are any number of more or less valid reasons. This creates the classical Festinger cognitive dissonance situation: ethically we want one thing, but practically, we want something else. So what happens?

Well, from where I sit, the most popular solution seems to be “let the government take care of it”. Rather than take some accountability for the action demanded by their ethics, people would rather quash their ethical misgivings via a government program. The inaction is then justified and rationalized: “Well, I’m paying my taxes, aren’t I? Ain’t that helping people?” Whether it is helping people or not is, of course, a highly contentious issue, but I don’t think anybody, no matter what their political beliefs, would dispute this: if each and every person dedicated the same amount of resources he currently pays in welfare-directed taxes to “helping the poor”, the poor would be much, much better off than they currently are. (I put scare quotes around “helping the poor” because definitions vary widely, depending on your political and economic ideologies; that being said, I’m confident that under almost any such definition, other than the “compassionate” eugenics one, my statement still holds)

The point is this: though there are undoubtedly many reasons for welfare systems, one of the primary ones is that a state-run welfare system assuages the ethical guilt felt by a large segment of the population.

With this framework in mind, let us turn to a specific example: Gregg Easterbrook’s column/blog entry “Poverty: Blame the Middle”, specifically this paragraph:

No, I won’t blame the greedy rich and the hypocritical politicians for the continuation of poverty amidst plenty, because this shifts attention away from the group that is most to blame: typical Americans. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that endlessly demands new government benefits for itself, locking up public funds that could otherwise help the impoverished. It is the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority that does not pressure politicians for higher minimum wages or similar reforms, because the country’s middle-class, middle-income majority—much of which boasts of being Christian—doesn’t care what happens to the forgotten poor at the bottom, or even likes the poor kept that way, as this ensures a cohort of lawn workers and burger-flippers who will accept low wages.

Aside from the fact that, as Bill Russell points out, Easterbrook’s economics are suspect, what’s really apparent is that Easterbrook thinks that people, especially Christians, have an ethical obligation to help the poor through government programs. As Russell says:

It is disappointing for such a smart man and great writer to take the position that those who disagree with him are morally inferior. It is even more disappointing for him to argue that Christians have a moral obligation to help the poor via the coercion of government. That is a big leap from Christian philosophy, which I understand to encourage voluntary acts of charity and compassion. If anything is morally repugnant, it is Easterbrook’s interpretation of Christianity, under which Gregg Easterbrook determines what is compassionate, and then forces everyone, at gunpoint if necessary, to pay whatever he determines to be “fair” wages and taxes.

In my view, what Easterbrook has done is take the cognitive dissonance discussed above a step further: not content just to let government action substitute for his own ethical responsibilities, he’s actually made government action an ethical responsibility in its own right. Rather than noting that it’s a shame that poverty still exists in our society and making the entirely reasonable argument that people ought to heed their ethical responsibilities by dedicating more of their resources (time, money, labor, whatever) to helping the poor, he’s arguing that people have an ethical responsibility to make government help the poor. That is to say, Easterbrook believes that this self-deceptive rationalization is an ethical responsibility. I hardly need to mention that Easterbrook is far from alone in this opinion.

So what’s my point? Simply this: if you have an ethical obligation, government action does not relieve you of that obligation and is not a substitute for acting on that obligation. So let’s stop deluding ourselves.


The more Kierkegaard enters into the lexicology of ethics debates the better as far as I am concerned, but it is rather despicable in my opinion that a man who has devoted his entire life to the study of Kierkegaard should attribute to Kierkegaard, who in turn devoted his life, like Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas before him, to the task of taking Greek philosophy, specifically Socratic ethics, to a point of religious transcendence, this seeming show of being merely an exhorter of applied ethics.

Posted by: Curt at February 19, 2004 08:45 PM

Dude, relax. I understand your criticism, but I think you're reading too much into the column. As I read it, he's just saying "I think Kierkegaard has an interesting perspective on this", rather than "this is Kierkegaard's only interesting perspective".

Posted by: shonk at February 19, 2004 08:59 PM

Shonk -

Your conclusion is dead on. Dead on.

Posted by: John Venlet at February 20, 2004 11:43 AM

Shonk -

Your conclusion is dead on. Dead on.

Posted by: John Venlet at February 20, 2004 11:43 AM

Over at The Picket Line (http://www.sniggle.net/Experiment/) today, I note that the Catholic Church of England and Wales has just issued guidance about taxation - declaring it a wonderful way for Christians to "love thy neighbor."

Posted by: David Gross at February 25, 2004 12:51 AM

Yeah, I had actually seen a news article on that today. Unfortunately, I haven't had enough time to write a proper response.

Posted by: shonk at February 25, 2004 01:04 AM