Friday, April 20, 2012

The Psychology of Conviction

"What's wrong with our politicians these days," one hears often, "is that they have no convictions."  This familiar complaint gets at a real problem.  So many politicians are unprincipled, in the sense that what drives them is exclusively their own short-term interest.  They will say anything to get elected, no matter how outrageous, or how little they believe it themselves.  We can and should detest this.

We should not, however, let our justified indignation mislead us into thinking that we simply want politicians who are "principled."  Why not?  It's easy to think of people who are sincere and "principled" in a sense, but who hold utterly wacky views, and refuse to subject these views to examination and evidence.  Such types might in fact be more dangerous than their unprincipled counterparts.  

"After all, it is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have a man roasted alive because of them."  This line from Montaigne should not be forgotten.  Nor should these ironic words from C.G. Jung: "Even the holy Christian church, which is the incarnation of divine love, burnt more than a hundred thousand of her own children alive."  There is little or nothing admirable about the mere fact of having convictions.  The problem with Anders Breivik is not that he has no convictions.  It is not that he is unprincipled or insincere.  Nor is it that he is insane, in the clinical sense (if there is such a thing).  That's an extreme example, but it illustrates the point well.  

Nietzsche speaks to the issue: “This is our conviction: we confess it before all the world, we live and die for it.  Respect for all who have convictions!  I have heard that sort of thing even out of the mouths of anti-Semites.  On the contrary, gentlemen!  An anti-Semite certainly is not any more decent because he lies as a matter of principle."  One might take Nietzsche's point to be that content is more important than sincerity.  Someone who does something good, whether on principle or out of expediency, is preferable to someone who does something wicked but on principle.  Sincerity, if it is a virtue at all, is not the highest virtue.  Insincerity, though almost certainly a vice, is yet not the worst vice.

Nietzsche’s emphasis, however, is a little different.  He seems to think that one can be fully sincere, fully convinced or “convicted” (as some like to say), and yet fundamentally dishonest.  For Nietzsche, honesty is not really a function of subjective sincerity.  It has to do, rather, with one’s willingness to resist not only deceiving, but also being deceived.  Positively, it requires one to continually ask hard questions and to subject one’s answer to those questions (and indeed, one’s formulation of the questions themselves) to the most probing tests.  No matter how sincere the anti-Semite is in holding his anti-Semitism, he is guilty of a fundamental kind of dishonesty, because he is lazy with himself.  He is willing to deceive and to be deceived.  He holds anti-Semitism out of conviction, but not out of intellectual honesty.

What's the alternative?  Something like this: views based on an examination of things which proceeds according to what Nietzsche calls the “intellectual conscience.”  (See the second aphorism of the Gay Science.)

Nietzsche combines an attack on the “psychology of conviction” with a strong affirmation of the intellectual conscience and its attendant virtue, honesty or probity (Redlichkeit)  That alone prevents him, I think, from approving of politicians who are simply unprincipled.  It also enables him to distinguish between the ersatz honesty of subjective sincerity and the genuine article. 

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