Base your self-esteem on your rationality

post by ThePrussian · 2015-07-22T08:54:32.757Z · score: 0 (20 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 26 comments

Some time ago, I wrote a piece called "How to argue LIKE STALIN - and why you shouldn't".  It was a comment on the tendency, which is very widespread online, to judge an argument not by its merits, but by the motive of the arguer.  And since it's hard to determine someone else's motive (especially on the internet), this decays into working out what the worst possible motive could be, assigning it to your opponent, and then writing him off as a whole.

Via Cracked, here's an example of such arguing from Conservapedia:

"A liberal is someone who rejects logical and biblical standards, often for self-centered reasons. There are no coherent liberal standards; often a liberal is merely someone who craves attention, and who uses many words to say nothing."

And speaking as a loud & proud rightist myself, there is more than a little truth in the joke that a racist is a conservative winning an argument.

I've been puzzling over this for a few years now, and trying to work out what lies underneath it.  What always struck me was the heat and venom with this kind of argument gets made.  One thing has to be granted - the people who Argue Like Stalin are not hypocrites; this isn't an act.  They clearly do believe that their opponents are morally tainted. 

And that's what's weird.  Look around online, and you'll find a lot of articles on the late Christopher Hitchens, asking why he supported the second Iraq war and the removal of Saddam Hussain.  Everything is proposed, from drink addling his brain, to selling out, to being a willful contrarian - everything except the obvious answer: Hitchens was a friend to Kurdish and Iraqi socialists, saw them as the radical and revolutionary force in that part of the world, and wanted to see the Saddam Hussain regime overthrown, even if it took  George Bush to do that.  No wishing to revist the arguments for and against the removal of Saddam Hussain, but what was striking is this utter unwillingness to grant the assumption of innocence or virtue.

  I think that it rests on a simple, and slightly childish, error.  The error goes like this: "Only bad people believe bad things, and only good people believe good things."

But even a basic study of history can find plenty of examples of good - or, anyway, ordinary - chaps supporting the most apallingly evil ideas and actions.  Most Communists and Nazis were good people, with reasonable motives.  Their virtue didn't change anything about the systems that they supported. 

Flipping it around, being fundamentally a lousy person, or lousy in parts of your life, doesn't proclude you from doing good.  H.L. Mencken opposed lynching in print, repeatedly, and at no small risk to himself.  He called for the United States to accept all jewish refugees fleeing the Third Reich when even American jewry (let alone FDR) was lukewarm at best on the subject.  He was on excellent terms with many black intellectuals such as W.E.B DuBois, and was praised by the Washington Bureau Director of the NAACP as a defender of the black man.  He also maintained an explicitly racist private diary.


The error that I mentioned leads to Arguing Like Stalin in the following way: someone looks within himself, sees that he isn't really a bad person, and concludes that no cause he can endorse can be wicked.  He might be mistaken in his beliefs, but not evil.  And from that it is a really short step to conclude that people who disagree must be essentially wicked - because if they were virtuous, they would hold the views that the self-identified virtuous do.

The heat and venome becomes inevitable when you base your self-esteem on a certain characteristic or mode of being ("I am tolerant", "I am anti-racist" etc.)  This reinforces the error and puts you in an intellectual cul de sac - it makes it next to impossible to change your mind, because to admit that you are on the wrong side is to admit that you are morally corrupt, since only bad people support bad things or hold bad views. Or you'd have to conclude that just being a good person doesn't put you always on the right, even in big issues, and that sudden uncertainty can be just as bad.  Try thinking to yourself that you - you as you are now - might have supported the Nazis, or slavery, or anything similar, just by plain old error.

Self-esteem is hugely important.  We all need to feel like we are worth keeping alive.  So it's unsurprising that people will go to huge lengths to defend their base of self-esteem.  But investing it in internal purity is investing it in an intellectual junk-bond.

Emphasizing your internal purity might bring a certain feeling of faux-confidence, but it's meaningless ultimately.  Could the good nature of a Nazi or Communist save one life murdered by those systems?  Conversely, who care what Mencken wrote in his diary or kept in his heart, when he was out trying to stop lynching and save Jewish refugees?  No one cares about your internal purity, ultimately not even you - which is why you see such puritanical navel-gazing you see around a lot.  People trying to insist that they are perfect and pure on the inside, in a slightly too emphatic way that suggests they aren't that sure of.

After turning this over and over in my mind, the only way I can see out of this is to base your self-esteem primarily on your willingness to be rational.  Rather than insisting that you are worthy because of characteristic X, try thinking of yourself as worthy because you are as rational as can be, checking your facts, steelmanning arguments and so on.

This does bring with it the aforementioned uncertainty, but it also brings a relief.  The relief that you don't need to worry that you aren't 100% pure in some abstract way, that you can still do the decent and the right thing. You don't have to worry about failing some ludicrous ethereal standard, you can just get on with it.

It also means you might change some minds - bellow at someone that he's an awful person for holding racist views will get you nowhere.  Telling him that it's fine if he's a racist as long as he's prepared to do right and treat people of all races justly, just might.



Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2015-07-22T11:22:28.956Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

One issue is that if you base your self-esteem on your rationality, that might make it more difficult to notice flaws in your rationality, for the same reasons as basing self-esteem on being a Nazi might've made it more difficult for historical Nazis to notice the issues. Hence the idea of keeping identity small, not including important things in it, to avoid that particular cause of misperceiving them.

See Cached Selves for more details. There does seem to be an important difference between the usual ideologies and technical subjects, in that ideologies allow much more wiggle room, which might be at the heart of the problem, see Ethnic Tension And Meaningless Arguments. Sidestepping that sort of vagueness by making sure a few key ideas remain clear is also the approach explored in Yudkowsky's How To Actually Change Your Mind, for example see The Scales of Justice, the Notebook of Rationality and Human Evil and Muddled Thinking.

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-07-22T13:42:02.870Z · score: 5 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Could be two different uses of the word rationality. There are certainly those who call themselves "reality based" or whatever and therefore assume that everything they assert is rational and scientific. But if you invest yourself in "doing rationality" rather than "being rational" you might do better.

comment by AlexanderRM · 2015-08-04T03:53:16.521Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I think that might help somewhat- thinking of rationality as something you do rather than something you are is definitely good regardless- but there's still the basic problem that your self-esteem is invested in rationality. Rationality requires you to continually be willing to doubt your core values and consider that they might be wrong, and if your core values are wrong, then you haven't gotten any use up to that point out of your rationality. I don't think it's just a matter of realizing your were wrong once and recovering self-esteem out of the fact that you were rational enough to see that- ideally you ought to constantly consider the possibility that everything you believe might be wrong.

Now, if you can get up to the level of thinking I just described, that's probably still a lot better than basing your self-esteem on specific political views. It just doesn't totally solve the problem, and you need to be aware that it doesn't totally solve the problem.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-07-22T13:50:26.338Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

What exactly do you mean with "doing rationality"?

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-22T22:46:59.355Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

See: this entire site.

comment by Sniffnoy · 2015-07-22T21:59:33.919Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Remember also the void!

comment by William_Quixote · 2015-07-23T15:41:35.798Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

People should base self eating on accomplishment not rationality. It is very easy to be wrong about internal mental states, it's much harder to be wrong about real world observables.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-07-22T22:47:40.444Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I don't think you can really generalize anything sociological from Online Liberals You Don't Like, due to selection bias.

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-07-29T11:58:06.039Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I should have made it clear - when I was referring to the articles on the Hitch, they were usually from respectable news organizations such as The Guardian or Salon - and so on.

In case it wasn't clear (reviewing the article) I was quoting Conservapedia as an example of this kind of bad arguing, bad reasoning.

comment by CCC · 2015-07-29T13:52:24.389Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Alright, so, as I understand your essay, your essay essentially comes in two parts.

Part one consists of the bulk of your essay, and describes in some detail why it is a bad idea to base your self-esteem on some concept of inherent purity or goodness. You argue it well, and you make several good points.

Part two, however, consists of only the last three vague paragraphs, and claims that you should rather base your self-esteem on your willingness to be rational. It does not state why. It looks like, having finished with part one, you were looking for something to base self-esteem on and just grabbed the first thing to come to mind. Why should I not rather base my self-esteem on the number of socks that I own, or on the size of my house, or on the number of scientific papers that I write?

In effect, you're saying "A is incorrect therefore Q", while failing to even consider options B, C, D, etc.

comment by Viliam · 2015-07-28T07:45:27.607Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Meta: I really really like the ideas in the article, and they are important ones, but the style is... actually also very good, just... uhm... too inflammatory compared with the local norms.

Not sure what to say here, lest I sound like a Muslim saying: "You know, that picture of Mona Lisa is really nice, it just requires a few little modifications to conform to my faith, such as hiding the face of the lady."

Maybe just: please post on your own blog, then link here; and perhaps try to separate different ideas into different posts or at least clearly titled sections ("why are people sometimes prone to believe those who disagree with them are evil, and attribute them the worst reasons ignoring the obvious ones", "choose your identity wisely").

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-07-29T12:02:10.968Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I was wondering why it got downvoted so much. Did you mean the post over at my blog, or this post here? I'm really not sure what's so inflammatory about this post - I was just trying to explain an idea.

comment by Viliam · 2015-07-29T14:22:35.764Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I meant this post here, because this is the one you have posted here. However, if you would post here the other one, I would mean that one too.

Essentially, you should separate your main point from the specific political examples, and preferably use historical examples that no one cares about deeply. Mixing logic and emotionally powerful political examples together has the effect that people who don't share your political opinions may stop listening to the logic. Even the people who do share your political opinions may stop listening to the logic and just enjoy the fact that they found someone who agrees with them.

There is an evolutionary reason for this -- when politics get debated, joining the winning side makes you more likely to survive and reproduce than focusing on being right; especially in an ancient environment. (Yeah, maybe your leader proposes something that will make you all starve in winter; but if you oppose him now, you may get killed now, which is even worse for you.) As much as we try to avoid this effect, it exists. So it is better to get our points across without activating the "I have to join the winning side or die" circuits of our brains too much.

The downvotes without explanation are probably because people who are offended by your examples (because they disagree with you politically) just downvote and leave, and only those not offended remain and participate in the discussion.

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-08-01T04:45:31.304Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks, that is good advice. Honestly hadn't thought of that - oh well. Errare humanum est and all that...

comment by LessWrong (LessWrong1) · 2015-07-22T20:08:57.679Z · score: 1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I wanted to post a comment about my disagreement with many "self-[stuff]" concepts, that are so commonly appear in various self-help media. I consider them extremely harmful. To me, those concepts are on the same plane as any spiritual stuff.

But I can't really write a more detailed comment than the paragraph above because.. I never really thought about self-esteem before I heard the word and subsequently the definition. From what I see though, it's seemingly a never ending maze of finding something.. but.. I can't be sure of what to find and where to find it. There's a very noticeable lack of clarity, as if magic is supposed to happen by invoking certain rituals. At least it's how the self-help books describe it. In practical terms, I seem to lack any perception of self-esteem.

Does anyone else share the same sentiment?

comment by cameroncowan · 2015-07-24T04:09:35.518Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Self-esteem is just how you think about yourself and how you view your interaction with the world as well as the conceptions you have of yourself that make up your internal dialogue about yourself. It is deeply cultural and is also based on a host of things like how you grew up, your perceived gender, and much more. If you don't have a very high opinion of yourself it can be hell to raise it. In fact, I would say that if you don't start out with a decent amount of self-esteem it's about impossible to build back up. Indeed the old saying goes, "It's easier to raise quality kids than fix broken adults."

comment by LessWrong (LessWrong1) · 2015-07-24T16:45:22.521Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In fact, I would say that if you don't start out with a decent amount of self-esteem it's about impossible to build back up.

I guess I'm not a good representative if this is true on average. I'm not experienced enough with psychology/neurology to actually suggest anything. On the other hand I could but it's not that the odds are against me, they're totally unknown to me.

comment by cameroncowan · 2015-08-08T06:50:56.387Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I would say at least in cursory observations of people that is true, but then I also think there is environmental considerations. Broken people tend to hang out together creating a greater case for it. Well-adjusted people tend to hang out with like people. I'm sure that if I were a totally well-adjusted person and hung out with less damaged souls then I would have an idea of it being far lower or very exceptional. Whereas, because I tend to hang out with people that have similar backgrounds to my own it seems higher. Its the fish tank effect.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-07-22T13:45:55.841Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Hitchens was a friend to Kurdish and Iraqi socialists

Do you mean he actually had personal relationships with those people?

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-07-29T11:59:16.394Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Yes, as a matter of fact. He often travelled in Kurdistan, had Kurdish "comrades" as he called them, and championed Jalal Talabani.

comment by David_Bolin · 2015-07-22T13:22:55.233Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you're really honest about your willingness to be rational, it seems like this could be kind of depressing.

comment by ThePrussian · 2015-07-22T13:38:45.624Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Could you expand on that? I'm not sure I follow...

comment by David_Bolin · 2015-07-23T02:29:31.132Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Human beings are not very willing to be rational, and that includes those of us on Less Wrong.

comment by ChristianKl · 2015-07-22T13:43:41.834Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If one bases one's self-esteem on one's rationality and one is a human who's frequently doing things that are not rational, being honest about one's state is depressing.

comment by cameroncowan · 2015-07-24T04:07:04.335Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

We aren't always rational, we do things that make us comfortable and keep us safe and able to function. I think if we died our ego and super ego to rationality we all might as well have a mass suicide party and go together because that's about the mood we would all be in.

comment by cameroncowan · 2015-07-24T04:05:36.029Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think this stems from the idea that, "I'm ok" which is the basis of most people's conception of themselves. As long as they are, "OK" then their opinions stem from that simple idea. In order to change that you have to give them something compelling that will leave them being "OK" (or safe) but will modulate their opinion on things. It really has to do with what motivates people and how they look at the world around them. Then, you have to meet them where they are in their experience. I can deliver a message 9 different ways and get 9 different responses. At scale that's huge. This is why we have so many channels and so many ways of saying the same thing. I know people that will never like black people because they got harassed in highschool. Look at how insular the techworld is to non-tech people and people of color. Think about communities where people focus on personal development and advancement. All in all, none of this will change until you understand what motivates people and make your argument align with where they live and realize that there are some people that will never change because to give up their beliefs means that they might die/not exist in their private internal space of, "I'm ok."

My mother would rather keep her prinicples of being against homosexuality than accept her son for who I am. That's just life.