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February 06, 2004

Aempiricism, not arationalism

Jason Soon picks up on Steve Sailer's characterization of elements of the Right as "arational." I emailed Steve and suggested that "aempirical" might be a better term. It is important to frame what matters to individuals and political movements, because sometimes facts are not relevant and value judgements are paramount when making a decision. For instance, under the prodding of the Catholic conservatives National Review periodically seems to give some press to adult stem cells and their utility in research. Of course, the pro-lifers at National Review don't really care about the empirical reality of what they are reporting. They want to slant as far to the pro-adult stem cell side as they can, because they are pro-life as a matter of values. In contrast, I don't care if adult stem cells show promise. I would still favor work on fetal stem cell lineages until the superior utility of adult stem cells is established beyond a reasonable doubt, because I think fetuses are tissue rather than human beings. The empirical considerations are so much shadow boxing, as the principled opponents on either side of the "is-the-fetus-a-human" values judgement try to persuade the mushy-middle with empirical arguments. (The pro-choice side will tend to trumpet fetal stem cells more than empirical considerations might entail, of course).

On the related issue of Iraq, I think that there was a value judgement on the part of the neocons that coalesced with whatever instinctive decision GW Bush came to - and that the empirical arguments made were so much smoke. Some liberal hawks like Christopher Hitchens have been frank that as a matter of principle they would have preferred that the Iraqi people be rid of Saddam...and the lack of WMDs isn't that much of a concern as that wasn't the reason that they favored invasion in any case.

There are always some foundational issues that aren't going to be amenable to empirical refutation for any given individual. The problem arises when a given person is not wholly candid about the weighting of empirical and foundational/value considerations. It seems then that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea because it was moral, rather than being made retrospectively moral because it was a good idea. In contrast, the first Gulf War was made moral because it was a good idea (at least in the judgement of Bush I).

Posted by razib at 01:51 PM