Karl Rove and the Problem With Good Faith Assumptions

Jay Cost has a post up on RealClearPolitics that is worth reading, if only as an example of how not to argue:

Last week I wrote an essay analyzing the legacy of Karl Rove. My argument was that one of Rove’s biggest problems – and indeed a major failure of this White House – was the failure to do all that could be down to control his and his boss’ image.

I received more than a few emails in response to the essay. Many of them echoed the thoughts of this emailer:

I’m in direct disagreement with your attempt to present Karl Rove as a normal guy. Rove has a serious lack of ethics. He doesn’t have sense of right or wrong as much as some ideas about the limitations of his power. With Rove the end has always justified the means. Ethically he is a mirror image of Richard Nixon. God help us if he is the common denominator of our society. Do you really believe that we have sunk so low? The best adjectives to describe Rove might be capable, vindictive and mean-spirited. He has screamed at people that he would crush them if they failed to do his bidding, he has boasted of spying on other campaigns, and he has run dirty campaigns such as the one which discredited John McCain. And apparently he has been undone by the nature of his character or he wouldn’t be leaving in such a quick manner with little or no explanation.

I quote this at length not for its analytical insight. It is pretty much standard anti-Bush boilerplate.

Standard anti-Bush boilerplate?  The email seemed pretty dead on to me.  But what is Mr Cost’s response?

Rather, I quote it as a way to contrast this line of thinking with my own methodology here on the blog. On this blog, I endeavor to adhere to what I call a “good faith assumption.” What I mean by that is the following. It is, I think, impossible to draw inferences about a human being’s character based upon his public persona, i.e. the set of data points that come to us through the media. We just cannot do it. We only get a tiny glimpse of a human being via the news.

This is a terrible argument.  Let’s take a look at why.

It is, I think, impossible to draw inferences about a human being’s character based upon his public persona, i.e. the set of data points that come to us through the media.

Some of those data points are actions.  If we cannot judge public figures by their actions, then can we judge them at all?  Is it appropriate for us to vote for people, knowing that we can never figure out their character?  In other words, if a person’s character is not knowable from their observable effect on the world, it is not knowable at all.  So we can no more judge the character of a murderer than we can judge the character of a heroine.

What Ray advocates replacing this with is nothing less than blind faith.  It is an incredibly naive and destructive argument:

So, where does that leave us? Well, I think it leaves us with the good faith assumption. I’ll describe it this way. Most people with whom I am well acquainted are people who act in good faith most of the time. This is true even of the people that I do not like. Those people may have acted wickedly in an instance that has aroused my anger. They may even have some real moral flaws – but that does not mean that they do not generally try to do right by other people. It’s the same for all of us.

It patently isn’t the same for all of us.  Even if “most people with whom” he is “well acquainted are people who act in good faith most of the time” does not in any way mean we must assume that is true for all of us, all of the time!

However, even if we were to agree that politicians are less likely to act in good faith than the average non-politician, we would still have to admit that most of the time they – just like everybody else – are acting in good faith.

Not at all.  If politicians are acting in good faith most of the time, then how are they less likely to act in good faith when the same metric is applied to average people?

Combining these two facts – limited data plus a priori knowledge of good faith – gives rise to the good faith assumption.

Well no.  It is an a priori assumption of good faith.  We can hardly call this knowledge.  We can’t even call it justified true belief.  After all, since we cannot judge people by their observable actions, how would we go about justifying it?

The rest of the article goes on to use the word frothy a lot, and tell us that we must move beyond partisan reflexes with regard to how we see one another.  That is all well and good, but what needs to be acknowledged is that sometimes people really are mean and vicious, and the best way to tell is by their observable actions.  The alternative of assuming people are always acting in good faith glosses over a very pertinent reality.  And if there is one thing we should have all learned from years of rule under Bush with Rove at his side it is the value of operating within reality.

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One Response

  1. Welcome to the road to Hell, Abandon Ye all Hope who enter here and keep your hands and feet inside the ride at all moments. Thank you and enjoy your stay.

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