Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Two modes of self-deception (captured by David Hume & Upton Sinclair)

Earlier today Mark Kleiman and Jonathan Zasloff quoted two penetrating maxims about common mechanisms of psychological and ideological self-deception, one coming from David Hume and the other from Upton Sinclair.

Hume (quoted by Mark Kleiman):
It is natural for men to persuade themselves that their interest coincides with their inclination.
Upton Sinclair (quoted by Jonathan Zasloff):
It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
Both of these maxims are correct, insightful, and illuminating. But they are saying somewhat different things.

Upton Sinclair's maxim is one variant on the relatively familiar observation that our interests, real and perceived, often shape and distort our grasp of reality--in particular, they limit or interfere with our willingness to acknowledge facts that are inconvenient for our material interests and/or those of our paymasters. (Sometimes we do understand them and pretend we don't. But often self-conscious dishonesty, hypocrisy, or deception slides into self-deception.) I would guess that Upton Sinclair understood his maxim as a restatement of at least one aspect, or application, of a broadly Marxian notion of ideological mystification.

Hume is making a different and slightly more subtle point. Very often, when we want to do something because of impulse, inclination, habit, sentiment, wish-fulfillment or some other fairly non-rational or emotional reason, we convince ourselves that what we feel like doing is also in our interests--even when it's not. In this case, it's precisely the interests that are illusory, or at least distorted.

Hume's insight here is brilliant, and I would go so far as to say that his maxim is even more illuminating than Upton Sinclair's, since the mode of self-deception he's highlighting is often harder to recognize than the cui bono variety. It's important to recognize how often people who claim to be acting on the basis of hard-headed, cynical, calculating "realism" are really just being muddleheaded, self-indulgent, moralistic, or infantile--and are fooling themselves into believing otherwise. I suppose this mechanism is one example of what Freud called "rationalization." And one form it takes is what C. Wright Mills captured very nicely with his phrase "crackpot realism."

=> Both David Hume and Upton Sinclair are right, of course. These mechanisms may work in almost opposite directions, but the same people often exhibit both of them at different times--or even simultaneously.

Yours for reality-based discourse (which isn't easy),
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. One of Mark's readers reminded him of a related thought by Benjamin Franklin: "So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do."

P.P.S. And here is a very acute response and elaboration from Gerry Mackie, which he has kindly permitted me to quote:
At my age I can testify that there are at least 13 modes of self- deception. [JW: Only 13?]

As for the pursuit of interest, on the political blogs, left and right, the pseudosophisticates always say follow the money, or follow the oil. That is only penetrating the first veil. The second veil is to understand the place of passion, the third honor and shame, the fourth the intrinsically moral, the fifth collective fanaticism, and on.

So much nasty stuff in the world is not due to interest.
Correct--and important to recognize.