The Political Brain & Inconsistency

One thing I love about the Daily Show is that Jon Stewart and his fellows take the effort to find videos which show the inconsistency of political figures. A recent episode featured a plethora of examples of such inconsistency.

The first part of the segment featured Karl Rove. When asked about Sarah Palin’s qualifications, he noted that she had been mayor of the second largest town in Alaska (with a population under 10,000) and is now the governor of Alaska. As such, his principle seems to be that experience as the mayor of a small town and as governor qualifies a person to be Vice President.

Interestingly enough, when Governor Kaine was being considered as a possible VP pick by the Democrats, Rove had this to say:

“With all due respect again to Governor Kaine, he’s been a governor for three years.  He’s been able but undistinguished. I don’t think people could really name a big, important thing that he’s done … [Kaine] was mayor of the 105th largest city in America. And again, with all due respect to Richmond, Virginia, it’s smaller than Chula Vista, California; Aurora, Colorado; Mesa, or Gilbert, Arizona; North Las Vegas, or Henderson, Nevada. It’s not a big town…So if he were to pick Governor Kaine, it would be an intensely political choice where he said, `You know what? I’m really not, first and foremost, concerned with — is this person capable of being president of the United States?'”

In this quote, Rowe seems to be following quite a different set of standards than he used to assess Palin. After all, Kaine (like Palin) was a mayor and is a governor. In fact, he was the mayor of a much larger city and is the governor of a more heavily populated state. If Rove had applied the same set of standards to both, they would either both be equally qualified or neither would be qualified.

Naturally enough, this sort of political “reasoning” is quite interesting and can be addressed philosophically.

It is tempting to respond to such inconsistency by simply rejecting what, for example, Rove said about Palin. However, to do so would be to commit one version of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. If a person makes inconsistent claims, then at least one of his claims must be false. However, the inconsistency does not (in itself) reveal which claim is in error. In this example, Rove is either mistaken about Palin or Kaine. This is because either being a mayor and a governor qualifies a person for the VP position or it does not. Not even Rove can have it both ways. Hence, he is wrong-but it must be determined whether he is wrong about Palin or Kaine.

It is certainly interesting to speculate about how intelligent people can hold such inconsistent views and apply their principles in such an inconsistent manner. It is, however, not surprising. When it comes to politics,  Mill seems to have gotten it quite right in his work on Liberty . He notes that “men very rarely chose a side because of a consistently held opinion about what is fit to be done by government.” The same can be said about the principles people use to assess political matters, such as the qualifications of a candidate.

In terms of why people are inconsistent, one possibility is that such people have poor memories. Perhaps, for example, Rove simply forgot the standards he used to assess Kaine when he went to assess Palin. Presumably people also forget that when they say something on television, it is recorded and can be replayed later.

Another possibility is that such people are simply poor at reasoning and do not grasp the concepts of consistency and inconsistency. As such, the sort of inconsistency presented by Rove and others is a sign of a cognitive defect. If so, they should seek treatment-perhaps it has an underlying medical cause.

A third possibility is that such people are simply ruled by their political passions. As such, they tend to “feel” rather than reason when it comes to political situations. For example, since Rove is a devoted Republican, his political passion might lead him to feel positive emotions for the Republican Palin and negative emotions for the Democrat Kaine. These emotions could cause him to regard Palin as qualified and Kaine as unqualified. Since his “judgment” is based on feeling (rather than a rational assessment) and he feels two different emotions, he would have no sense of inconsistency. If his assessment was based on a standard, then he would have (obviously enough)reached the same judgment for both Palin and Kaine.

A fourth possibility is that such people simply change their standards a great deal. In what can only be a series of amazing coincidences, they just happen to always change their principles in accord with their political views.

A fifth possibility is that such people say whatever they think will support the claim they are making at the time and they do not worry too much about what they say from day to day. In this case, such people do have a principle that they apply consistently: I will say whatever I think will support the claim I am making now.

While I have been using an example from the American right, the same sort of behavior occurs with equal frequency on the left. This sort of “reasoning” no doubt contributes to many of the problems in the world.

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