Love of Truth and Love of Self

Love of self is natural and can extend to almost any aspect of ourselves, including to our beliefs. In other words, we tend to love our beliefs because they are ours. This is a kind of “sweetnesss“. As suggested in the linked post, since we believe that our beliefs are true, it is not easy to distinguish between loving our beliefs for the sake of truth, and loving them because they are ours. But these are two different things: the first is the love of truth, and the second is an aspect of love of self.

Just as we love ourselves, we love the wholes of which we are parts: our family, our country, our religious communities, and so on. These are better than pure love of self, but they too can represent a kind of sweetness: if we love of our beliefs because they are the beliefs of our family, of our friends, of our religious and political communities, or because they are part of our worldview, none of these things is the love of truth, whether or not the beliefs are actually true.

This raises two questions: first, how do we know whether we are acting out of the love of truth, or out of some other love? And second, if there is a way to answer the first question, what can we do about it?

These questions are closely related to a frequent theme of this blog, namely voluntary beliefs, and the motives for these beliefs. Bryan Caplan, in his book The Myth of the Rational Voter, discusses these things under the name of “preferences over beliefs”:

The desire for truth can clash with other motives. Material self-interest is the leading suspect. We distrust salesmen because they make more money if they shade the truth. In markets for ideas, similarly, people often accuse their opponents of being “bought,” their judgment corrupted by a flow of income that would dry up if they changed their minds. Dasgupta and Stiglitz deride the free-market critique of antitrust policy as “well-funded” but “not well-founded.” Some accept funding from interested parties, then bluntly speak their minds anyway. The temptation, however, is to balance being right and being rich.

Social pressure for conformity is another force that conflicts with truth-seeking. Espousing unpopular views often transforms you into an unpopular person. Few want to be pariahs, so they self-censor. If pariahs are less likely to be hired, conformity blends into conflict of interest. However, even bereft of financial consequences, who wants to be hated? The temptation is to balance being right and being liked.

But greed and conformism are not the only forces at war with truth. Human beings also have mixed cognitive motives. One of our goals is to reach correct answers in order to take appropriate action, but that is not the only goal of our thought. On many topics, one position is more comforting, flattering, or exciting, raising the danger that our judgment will be corrupted not by money or social approval, but by our own passions.

Even on a desert isle, some beliefs make us feel better about ourselves. Gustave Le Bon refers to “that portion of hope and illusion without which [men] cannot live.” Religion is the most obvious example. Since it is often considered rude to call attention to the fact, let Gaetano Mosca make the point for me:

“The Christian must be enabled to think with complacency that everybody not of the Christian faith will be damned. The Brahman must be given grounds for rejoicing that he alone is descended from the head of Brahma and has the exalted honor of reading the sacred books. The Buddhist must be taught highly to prize the privilege he has of attaining Nirvana soonest. The Mohammedan must recall with satisfaction that he alone is a true believer, and that all others are infidel dogs in this life and tormented dogs in the next. The radical socialist must be convinced that all who do not think as he does are either selfish, money-spoiled bourgeois or ignorant and servile simpletons. These are all examples of arguments that provide for one’s need of esteeming one’s self and one’s own religion or convictions and at the same time for the need of despising and hating others.”

Worldviews are more a mental security blanket than a serious effort
to understand the world: “Illusions endure because illusion is a need
for almost all men, a need they feel no less strongly than their material needs.” Modern empirical work suggests that Mosca was on to something: The religious consistently enjoy greater life satisfaction. No wonder human beings shield their beliefs from criticism, and cling to them if counterevidence seeps through their defenses.

Most people find the existence of mixed cognitive motives so obvious
that “proof” is superfluous. Jost and his coauthors casually remark in the Psychological Bulletin that “Nearly everyone is aware of the possibility that people are capable of believing what they want to believe, at least within certain limits.” But my fellow economists are unlikely to sign off so easily. If one economist tells another, “Your economics is just a religion,” the allegedly religious economist normally takes the distinction between “emotional ideologue” and “dispassionate scholar” for granted, and paints himself as the latter. But when I assert the generic existence of preferences over beliefs, many economists challenge the whole category. How do I know preferences over beliefs exist? Some eminent economists imply that this is impossible to know because preferences are unobservable.

This is very similar to points that I have made from time to time on this blog. Like Caplan, I consider the fact that beliefs have a voluntary character, at least up to a certain point, to be virtually obvious. Likewise, Caplan points out that in the midst of a discussion an economist may take for granted the idea of the “emotional ideologue,” namely someone whose beliefs are motivated by emotions, but frequently he will not concede the point in generic terms. In a similar way, people in general constantly recognize the influence of motives on beliefs in particular cases, especially in regard to other people, but they frequently fight against the concept in general. C.S. Lewis is one example, although he does concede the point to some extent.

In the next post I will look at Caplan’s response to the economists, and at some point after that bring the discussion back to the question about the love of truth.

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2 thoughts on “Love of Truth and Love of Self

  1. […] Some days ago I asked how we can determine whether we really love the truth or not. Bryan’s Caplan’s account of preferences over beliefs and rational irrationality indicates there may be an additional impediment to answering this question correctly, besides the factors mentioned in the first post. I may care more or less about the truth about various issues, especially depending on how they relate with other things I care about. Now consider the difference between “I have a deep love for the truth,” and “I don’t care much about the truth.” […]

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