Avoiding the Study of Being Sincere

post by Vaniver · 2011-01-07T08:10:33.269Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 7 comments

This is a mind-dump of sorts: I don't expect I can make a top-level post of this without extensive external input, and am not sure there's anything interesting here. But the possibility seems high enough to consider it openly (and if someone else sees something here they can run with, go for it).


I can't reproduce the entire train of thought (though a lot of it was based on thinking about Joseph Smith and Mormons), but I was just struck by something: the difference between the study of being sincere and the study of revolutions.

Most people spend their time thinking about sincerity: what do I like and dislike? What would a utopia look like? It's primarily speculation about and statement of desires, which are relatively easy to determine and manufacture. I should be clear here that I'm not talking about the study of lying or persuasion, but of your belief about something in particular: in truly believing something and that belief having power over you. I've read somewhat frequently around here people swearing on their 'strength as a rationalist', a phrase that utterly fails to move me but apparently does move them. I am not sincere about rationalism the way they are; that's what I mean by being sincere (does anyone have another word they would recommend I use instead?).

Studying revolutions, however, seems almost entirely different. It's not a question of like and dislike, but effective and ineffective. Rather than focusing on outcomes, it focuses on processes (judged by their outcomes). While morality is a central fixture of sincerity, amorality is a hallmark of effective revolutionaries- any moral actions are justified by amoral reasons.

Every distinction wants to be a dichotomy, but obviously that is not the case here- it's easy to be both sincere and a revolutionary (though a fairly large set of beliefs are difficult to be sincere about while a revolutionary).

The first example is a simplified one: the American and French revolutions of 1776 and 1789. The Americans talked a lot about checks and balances; the French talked a lot about liberty and brotherhood. Their outcomes suggest not that liberty or brotherhood are bad things to talk about, but that not talking about checks and balances is a terrible idea. The Americans were interested in the method of government while the French were solely interested in the outcome of government.

The relationship to rationalism is fairly clear: being rational is often the analog of studying revolutions. The question isn't "what belief would make my map the prettiest?" but "what belief best links up my map and the territory?" Indeed, when sincerity and efficacy conflict rationalism is explicit in supporting insincerity. It seems like one could go so far as to turn the distinction around: "sincerity" is what happens when you just have fervor, but "revolution" is what happens when you have fervor and rationality.

Perhaps thinking along these lines is useful simply as a warning? Mastery without intentions is empty, but intentions without mastery dangerous. Grow both your mastery and intentions, not letting a deficiency in one swallow your efforts in the other.


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comment by Nornagest · 2011-01-07T19:57:02.746Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Americans talked a lot about checks and balances; the French talked a lot about liberty and brotherhood.

Different political situations. Even before the revolution, the American colonies had pretty much functional governments at what we'd now call the state level; the political problem that needed to be solved after the revolution related mainly to how those colonies could be integrated into a national government. Most of the famous documentation relating to the process (and most of our present-day impression of an emphasis on checks and balances) comes from the second attempt at doing so; the first lasted only a few years.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, was attempting to build a new system from the ground up, and was concerned with ensuring that that system would emphasize individual rights rather than the ancien régime's hierarchy -- a concern that reflects itself in the rhetoric of the time.

comment by Jack · 2011-01-07T09:58:00.950Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I still don't understand the Sincere-Revolutionary distinction.

comment by ShardPhoenix · 2011-01-07T12:04:41.035Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems similar to idealism vs. pragmatism, or Hanson's Far vs. Near.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-07T17:53:24.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Idealism vs, pragmatism is a much clearer way to put it, I think. I'll have to give it some thought to see if there's anything else that doesn't cover, but a first pass suggests that's it.

comment by TheRev · 2011-01-10T08:57:20.464Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

amorality is a hallmark of effective revolutionaries

Says who? Sure there are amoral revolutionaries, but some acted in fairly moral ways, and many more at least sincerely believed they were acting in the common good. And even the amoral revolutionaries drape their selfish motives in the language of morality.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2011-01-07T12:46:51.015Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Somewhat too mind-dumpish.

comment by Vaniver · 2011-01-07T17:51:58.169Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for the feedback!