A Philosophical Pit: Those who ascribe to a principle for desirable outcome

I’m getting tripped up by the verbosity of posts here (please don’t take that as a criticism).

Are we talking about the concept of necessary evil?

It’s philosophy by expedience. Hey, that philosophy fits my suspicion that all Christians are bigots. (Or all atheists are hand-stabbers… whatever.) Sign me up!

Ah, thanks for that - I see it now - not the temporary setting aside of philosophy to serve the immediate need, but the modification of philosophy to justify or accommodate it.

Hmmm… in some cases though, that would just count as ‘changing your mind’ or ‘being persuaded’ - I’ll be interested to discover where the distinction arises.

I was actually shooting for something a little bit more cynical than that: “believing” a philosophy for no reason other than its utilitarian functionality as a justifier or bolsterer of an outcome or conclusion that you happen to like.

Someone writes a treatise on states’ rights and an Alabama gentleman in the mid-1800s reads it and realizes that if the states have the power to thumb their noses at the federal government, the feds can’t interfere with the institution of slavery. Oho, now he’s a states’ rights supporter. But if the pro-slavery faction had been in the ascendancy in the federal government, same fellow would realize that if states have the power to thumb their noses at the federal government, the feds can’t keep certain free states from passing laws that say no escaped slave can be forced to return back to the state of slavery, so Oh no, that states’ rights stuff is obviously bad. Has this person given any serious conseration one way or the other as to the merits of states’ rights in the abstract, apart from these immediate, situational, and context-specific implications? No.

Then you must be pitting about 95% of people. Most people don’t study philosophies and puzzle out the intricate implications of the extreme applications thereof before using the terms in conversation or self identifying as such. It’s just not practical, or perhaps even possible. Philosophies range from narrow and specialized to broad and generic. Analysis of all philosophies to which one could subscribe would take a significant portion of a person’s time. It would also require people to be philosophers in addition to bricklayers, truck drivers, office workers, etc. If a person says “I’m a liberal” and you ask them why and they say “I vote for Democrats most often” the odds are that person knows very little about liberal philosophy(and almost certainly less about classical liberal philosophy) but is simply using the terminology as a convenient shorthand. Assuming they fit all the characteristics described in the encyclopedia entry for “liberal” from this, or a similar, conversation would be folly. Treating them as such would be arrogant folly. Belittling them for the less obvious implications of liberalism would be snobbery.

If you want to berate the silent majority for using over-broad descriptors when discussing their views, that’s your perogative. It just seems an approach destined to alienate people from your discussions because most people use commonly-known philosophies as shorthand for their actual views, which are almost never congruent with the philosophy on every point.


Oddly enough, I am entirely at ease with the proposition that 95% of people deserve this pitting.


How does it differ from simply being persuaded, by reasonable argument, to accept a given nugget of philosophy?

I don’t suppose it bothers me when someone in casual conversation says “Well, I’m a strict constructionist. I want to see a Supreme Court justice who will let school kids have religious-centered extracurricular activities if they want” when the latter is the sole reason for the former.

Where it pisses me off is in a context where we are trying to have a serious discussion of the philosophy. I’m thinking of a thread I saw once, in which free will versus determinism was up for grabs and somewhere around page 4 it became apparent that several participants were taking the position they had chosen solely on the basis of the implications for capital punishment! (“Well if people are the product of their upbringing, those murderers didn’t choose to be murderers and it makes no sense to executive them, SO by golly there’s no such thing as free will, you free will people just want to fry 'em all”)

I can tell you firsthand that there are many people who are in some fashion involved with the mental health system (professional, inmate, family member, advocate, administrator, etc) who have embraced the medical model of mental illness (i.e., that everything we know as the mental illnesses are caused by something gone awry in the brain itself) not because a review of the literature and an evaluation of the evidence has led them to that conclusion, but because “if it’s a disorder of the brain then the people who behave in these embarrassing and dangerous and antisocial ways can’t be blamed for it, it’s not their fault, so it is unkind to believe otherwise because if you did you’d be accusing them of bad character or something”. (Since in these discussions I am one of the mental patients / advocates, I’m certainly not going up against them in order to “make it our fault”, I just want to examine the issue on its own merits, etc)

On the one hand, I agree with this pretty strongly. My overarching philosophy is that we should try to let desires be fulfilled; everything else takes second seat to that. Of course, that’s very vague, and so sometimes I talk about more specific proposals to fulfill this principle (e.g., democracy); but someone could easily conclude that I’m adopting principles solely for utilitarian purposes instead of believing in them, when really I operate according to my own version of the golden rule.

I believe, for example, that democracy is a system far inferior to the system of Everyone Does What I Tell Them To Do (since mostly what I’d tell them to do is to knock it off with the hurting each other–I’d be a pretty laid-back tyrant); the only reason I favor democracy is because you yahoos don’t ever listen to me when I tell you to do something, and I sure as hell don’t trust that any of you would be any good at the absolute dictator gig. Does that make my advocacy of democracy a utilitarian thing?

On the other hand, I agree with AHunter in some ways, too. I try to be up front about my cynicism about Grand Principles. When folks aren’t so candid about it, I get irritated.


Heh I was also going to comment on this. I don’t think the OP would deny your right NOT to believe in a given principle as a whole, his rage is reserved for those who CLAIM a given principle as their own, only to support a specific favorable outcome for their current viewpoint, not because they actually adhere to the principle itself. It’s probably, in fact, better to NOT consistently identify with a general principle just for this reason, unless you happen to actually consistently line up with that principle.

You are not really pitting 95% of humanity. Most people I know are pretty intellectually honest and correct themselves when their hypocrisy is pointed out to them. Of course there are people who will cleave to a philosophy but only to the extent it coincides with their predisposition.

I understand what you’re saying, but as Mtgman said, there is a danger of making a fetish of it. IRL, I often have that used as a bludgeon against me when I argue that the federal government has no business doing something. I am a liberal and believe in expansive powers for the federal government, but not unlimited power. So I don’t believe that the federal government has the right to do any damn thing it pleases, just things like prevent the worst horrors of capitalism in the production and distribution of the food supply, and socialize retirement insurance and medical care.

It would be easier to understand if the OP hadn’t mixed up the meanings of “ascribe” and “subscribe”.

When you ascribe (or attribute, or impute) a particular position or idea to a particular source, cause, or possessor, you’re saying that the former is due to the latter, as in “The concept of the subconscious mind is generally ascribed to Sigmund Freud”.

When you subscribe to a particular position, you’re saying that you believe in or agree with that position, as in “Some people subscribe to the belief that Beethoven’s music is responsible for Nazism”. This is what the OP meant to say.

When you say you “ascribe to” a particular position, you’re just making a mistake for “subscribe to”.

I ascribe to Newsweek.

Eeek. The very type of grammatical error that generally annoys the starch out of me, and now I’m doing it.

Let’s see…revised title could be “A Philosphical Pit: Those who ascribe their position to a principle that they only subscribe to BECAUSE it lets them reach that desirable conclusion”. How’s that? (Aside from long, that is?)

Lovely. Long, but lovely. :slight_smile:

Not a problematic post, per se. But based upon this post, it might be an improvement to edit the title (change “ascribe” to “subscribe”, that is). Just thought I’d suggest it.

Eep. I meant for that to be a “Report this post” dealie for the mods.

Hell with it, I’m goin’ in…

Actually I think it’s something like a “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds” as said by R.W. Emerson. So consistency isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Quite frankly, any philosophy should be rather consistent.


Exactly. And it’s not a philosophy which is being condemned as foolish, after all a philosophy, being merely a concept, does not posess a mind. It is a small minded person, unable to develop their own nuanced views, who cling to a philosophy with a foolish consistency. In this event the philosophy becomes a hobgoblin because it leads them to follow it when a wiser person would reject the elements of the philosophy which do not accord with their own wisdom.