On “Feels-Based” Policy

Your rights end where my feelings begin

Right-wingers often claim that Leftists, especially the campus left, decide political questions based mainly on feelings, as opposed to their own supposedly hard-nosed evaluation of the facts. The charge isn’t entirely unfair, but it’s not quite accurate either.

Facts and Feelings

First, the charge imagines some sort of two-mode decision module in the brain: decisions can be made on the basis of logic, or on the basis of feelings.

This isn’t a particularly accurate picture of human decisionmaking. As David Hume taught us, facts and logic alone never tell you how to act. What exists never tells you what’s valuable.

tfw high-intelligence and high-empathy

In fact, far from a tradeoff between fact-based decisionmaking and feeling-based decisionmaking, the two are very much part of the same process. Cognitively speaking, the capacity for abstraction – the ability to use logic and synthesize facts effectively – is based in the part of the brain that allows us to imagine what other people are thinking. Contrary to the image of the brilliant sociopath, empathy and intelligence usually go hand in hand.

Decisionmaking always happens on the basis of both facts and feelings. In this sense, left-wing policy is and can be no more or less “feels-based” than right-wing policy in the sense of relying disproportionately on one rather than the other. In fact, all else equal, someone with greater empathy is more likely to make better fact-based decisions as well.

Rationalism and Values

But, of course, all else is not equal.

Long-standing cultures all have a rich set of values which very often conflict with one another. They cannot be logically reconciled to each other. And yet, any culture which survives long enough to commit its wisdom to paper will have some such set. Let’s think of these as the “feelings” that we can choose from to make political decisions.

Empathy and justice are two such values. To take one as absolute is to destroy the other, though they can be subordinated to a third principle (for example public order, though this will have its own opposing principle).

The fact that all cultures have such a set of irreconcilable values strongly suggests they’ve been selected for. Cultures that try too hard to reconcile them to each other, or to elevate one at the expense of the other, die out. What’s left is cultures with a broad set of irreconcilable values.

The argument for “tension” between irreconcilable values strikes the analytical mind as mystical, and indeed it is often justified mystically. It is necessarily unconvincing in particular cases, so far as convincing is the result of an analytic argument. And yet, in principle at least, it is nothing more than an evolutionary argument that the process of cultural evolution has bestowed a set of practices whose contours are more complex than the conscious mind can rationally justify. And indeed, given the fact that social cooperation is never completely incentive-compatible, we should expect this to always be the case! A group of perfectly rational and self-interested beings could never form a society, and for this reason human society must always rest on some set of values that can be reconciled in practice, but not in theory.

This all being established, back to the original question.

The charge of feelings-based policy hits on a side effect of the high-intelligence-high-empathy dyad: reductionism and rationalization. Especially in a Western context where syllogistic and analytic logic is prized, the temptation is to reduce all values to a manageable and internally consistent set, which usually entails the selection of a single superordinate value. Fundamentalists both right and left, again contrary to the received wisdom and in contrast to mere extremists, tend to be above average intelligence for this reason.

So again, left-wing political decisionmaking isn’t based more or less on feelings than right-wing political decisionmaking. But it is based on fewer and more focused feelings, and perhaps for this reason a more internally consistent set of feelings.

In the case of the campus left, empathy has metastasized and cleared away any other values to which it is not reconcilable. In the name of empathy and inclusion, the grounds of social cooperation are being torn asunder: not only must we not punish those who defect from the norms of civil society; we must punish those who suggest defectors ought to be punished!

Cultural selection always weeds out such metastatic memes in the long run, which is to say they cannot sustain a civilization. One must hope in this case it does not also bring with it everything valuable in Western liberalism.


CooperationCulture WarNormsPolicyPolitical EconomyF.A. HayekGary Miller


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