Hitchens, Sullivan, and treating reasons as causes

Via Norman Geras, playwright and writer Johann Hari has an interview with Hitchens on his apostasy from the Left. The case of Hitchens and the Left is one that’s been watched by larger and larger audiences since 9/11. I’ve had mixed feelings about Hitchens’ long before the war–for example, when he suggested that feminists should give up on the abortion issue, and when he insisted that the subjugation of the natives in the Western hemisphere was a good thing in the end (“deserving to be celebrated with great vim and gusto”), or his second rate (at his best moments) and hack (at the worst ones) takes on Edward Said these days.

But I have been wary of arguments that explain his positions on the war in terms of opportunism, alcoholism, some closeted homosexuality (as Alexander Cockburn came close to doing), or the natural evolution of Trotskyism. Personally, I’m anti-fascist in my politics (across the fascist spectrum for that matter, Islamism and Ba’athism, Hindu chauvinism and the inheritors of the Kach, what have you). But I do have disagreements with Hitchens about how the war should be fought, about those who are leading the fight, and have been skeptical whether the future and world they want to bring about is the one I want. But I do take Hitchens’s reasons for his positions to be genuine. Hari’s piece in the Independent takes Hitchens’ views seriously, too, lets Hitchens be (lefty) Hitchens.

“‘Look: inequalities in wealth had nothing to do with Beslan or Bali or Madrid,’ Hitchens says. ‘The case for redistributing wealth is either good or it isn’t – I think it is – but it’s a different argument. If you care about wealth distribution, please understand, the Taliban and the al Quaeda murderers have less to say on this than even the most cold-hearted person on Wall Street. These jihadists actually prefer people to live in utter, dire poverty because they say it is purifying. Nor is it anti-imperialist: they explicitly want to recreate the lost Caliphate, which was an Empire itself.'”

So too does this Marc Cooper post on Hitchens, inspired by the Independent article.

The comments to Cooper’s post did remind me of a discussion spurred by Matthew Ygelsias’s posts on Andrew Sullivan’s decision not to vote for Bush. Some had taken a post by Yglesias to suggest that Sullivan is opposing Bush because of Bush’s stance on gay marriage. Yglesias’s follow-up started quite a debate/discussion on the blogosphere.

“One thing you learn studying the philosophy of mind is the difference between a cause and a reason. Ask me why I’m a liberal, and I could give you two different sorts of answers. One would be based on reasons — I would present arguments as to why I think liberalism is the correct political theory and then say that I am a liberal because of liberalism’s correctness. Another would be based on causes — my parents were liberals, as were the overwhelming majority of people I grew up with and interacted with until the very recent past, and I never found a compelling reason to abandon the ideology of my youth, though I’ve certainly changed my views on various specific reasons.

Causal explanations are interesting, but ultimately it’s disrespectful to talk about people in causal terms. There can be no doubt that Bush’s Texas swagger has had a (causal) influence on my evaluation of him as a man and as a president, but that fact notwithstanding, the appropriate thing for those who may disagree with me about this or that is to evaluate my arguments — my reasons. Now I think it would be silly to deny that, in a causal sense, the FMA plays a larger role in Andrew’s thinking than in the thinking of most people . . . but this is a dehumanizing and ultimately fruitless line of inquiry. He, like everyone else, gives reasons for his views and if you disagree with him (or me) you ought to take issue with his (or my) arguments, not make silly ad hominem attacks.”

Very discourse ethical, to be Habermasian. But is it that simple? DeLong throws in a few qualifications.

“It may be immoral (‘disrespectful’) for some transcendental reason to analyze other Minds in terms of their causes rather than their reasons. But it is also counterproductive–at least, it is counterproductive for a Mind that is in the reach-true-conclusions business rather than in the yea-for-my-team! business. For it’s only by taking the reasons advanced by other Minds seriously that one has a chance of improving the quality of one’s thought. That is the key reason to pay attention to reasons rather than causes when analyzing other Minds.

In Andrew Sullivan, however, do we have a Mind as we have defined it?”

It seems to me anyway that there are a few reasons to point to causes, rather than reasons. First, we legitimately can and do point to causes to explain why people hold the views they do–ideology, in short. Is it disrespectful to suggest that a Nazi may hold the views s/he does because of their upbringing, being surrounded by racist and anti-Semitic propoganda, etc?

Second, we do also point to causes to suggest that the reasons that an adversary offers for or against one positions isn’t their motive for or against that position and that the audience shouldn’t trust their reasons as ones they would hold (though this is sort of weak). But this isn’t aimed at the speaker and is probably a bit Machiavellian in the way that all politics is.

Finally, we can offer causes as reasons to change or refine our beliefs; we do this with ourselves–at least if we’re honest–to see if we hold some position or another for something other than good reasons. In this vein, we can also offer causes to change someone of their own beliefs (though to be effective, the openness will have to be symmetrical), in a kind of social equivalent of therapy.

But read the debate around the web.