Sunday, May 6, 2012

Hypocrisy and the Three Levels of Concern

Hypocrisy has been the favorite accusation in political discourse for at least a century, probably for longer.  Warren Buffet and Stephen King are the latest having said accusation hurled their way, regarding their incessant pleading to 'tax us more'.  The typical rejoinder is, 'why, if you think you ought to be taxed more, don't you simply voluntarily give more of your money to Leviathan?'  After all, he'll gladly take your personal check and has a bottomless appetite for filthy lucre.  Given their stony silence to such retorts, the volley of hypocrisy is let fly, often before the silence can be reasonably described as stony.

I'm going to argue that hypocrisy probably really isn't the best descriptor of Buffet and King's behavior.  It can certainly be criticized, rather vehemently I might add,  but the true offense is considerably more complex than simple hypocrisy.

Let's go first to what I'll call the three levels of concern.  For this purpose, I'll call them the transcendental, the existential, and the preferential.  Let's start with the existential.  It's pretty easy to define:

A concern is existential if you view it as being a matter of life and death, or at minimum a long term threat to your (and/or your descendants') continuing existence as you know it.  Two great examples are the concern of nuclear annihilation or the loss of demographic hegemony.  Both are still very live concerns---did you think that with the supposed end of the Cold War that the first concern was no longer with us?

Next we'll move to the transcendental concern.  This sort of concern trumps even existential concerns, because the person with a bona fide transcendental concern believes that DEUS VULT!  GOD WILLS IT!
You can of course pick the deity or abstract philosophy of your choice here, and many do.
One of my central arguments here at the Chariot is that the overwhelming majority of concerns that people attempt to pass off as transcendental aren't actually transcendental for them, or for the vast bulk of their supporting coalition.

Instead, what they are is preferential.  A preferential concern is one that is below existential.  It is a concern of preference.  For instance, Warren Buffet might genuinely believe that the US would be 'better' if all people remotely nearly as rich as he is had to pay higher taxes.  He might even make arguments based on utility or universalism or the like.   When I'm in a particularly charitable mood, I might even infer some implicit premises in his proposal, like---said proposal needs to be mandatory and not voluntary or stingier folks than me might gain a leg up on the status ladder.  When I'm feeling less charitable, I read the pleading as 'look at me, I'm SO High Status I can afford to blow smoke about wanting higher taxes that my minions will insure that I Never Pay'.
But either way, it's a preferential level argument.  Warren Buffet, little as I may like him, is not Al Gore.

Al Gore, by contrast, advances an argument that everyone is going to perish in the Fires of Hell (ok, he calls it Global Climate Change) unless his agenda is adopted.  We'll leave aside that those who developed his agenda do not believe it would be sufficient to stave off the supposed doom even if adopted with perfect alacrity and perfect compliance.

But then he goes and amasses a carbon footprint far and away exceeding the combined total I wager of all of the blogger households that interlink with this one.  How can this be?

Were this a genuine transcendental or even existential concern to him, we would expect much different behavior. 
For instance, the person who believes that God Wills that he tithe from his income does not fail to do so based on the fact that the average person only contributes 2-3% to charity in the US.  He simply obeys God, or whatever transcendent entity or philosophy that he actually believes in.  Similarly, the man who believes that the world will end or radically change unless X is done either prepares for said end or change or works towards doing X, regardless of whether his plea falls on deaf ears.

But saying, I think it would be more optimal if we did X than what we're presently doing doesn't sound all that sexy does it?  We reach for the moral argument when we ourselves don't really believe it because experience and our zeitgeist seem to dictate that it will be more effective.

Insisting that everyone clothe their self-interest in sanctimonious sophistry simply makes liars of us all.  Furthermore, for those issues which actually ARE existential or transcendent, the constant 'crying wolf' drains any currency that they might otherwise enjoy.

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