Wednesday, June 07, 2017

On Bias and Its Underlying Theories of Human Nature

Let us suppose a US president recommends a plan to reduce capital gains and income taxes to fifteen percent. (I would prefer zero for both, but fifteen will do.) Here are three possible headlines:

“New Tax Plan Promises Increased Wealth for the Poor and the Hope of Freedom for America’s Persecuted Minority”

“Tax Cuts for the Rich”

“New Tax Reductions Unveiled”

The first would be my fantasy headline, one that I do not expect to see in the near future, but would like to see spread across all columns of major newspapers. It is biased, though I would call it descriptively accurate and I do acknowledge that it rests on the premises of Ludwig von Mises and Ayn Rand, and assumes a specific theory of human nature.

The second is biased in the other direction, assuming a different theory of human nature, and the third is neutral, not giving away, or at least not intending to give away, underlying premises or views of human nature.

“Bias” per se is not bad, as it just means leaning in one direction, but when a presenter, such as a news reporter in the media, ignores or denigrates opposing viewpoints, does not acknowledge underlying premises, and claims to be impartial and objective, negative criticism becomes justified.

Consider three more headlines, describing a recently (hypothetically) adopted government policy:

“New Entitlements for Those the Left Considers ‘Weak,’ ‘Stupid,’ and ‘Ignorant’”

“New Aid for the Unfortunate and Underprivileged”

“Help for the Unemployed and Uneducated”

The first is how I might write the headline, describing what I think of such programs, and indicating the view of human nature the other side espouses. The second, again, would most likely be written by someone with an opposing point of view, and the third is neutral, or my best attempt at writing a neutral headline. The neutral headline hints at my theory of human nature, because I don’t see such people as “unfortunate” or “underprivileged.”

A theory of human nature describes the essence of who we are—each one of us as individuals—and what we are capable of. Are we all equal in the sense of possessing the same capacity to reason, to learn, to choose values, and to act to achieve those values, or do some people possess those capabilities while others do not, or do some possess the capabilities in greater degree than others? Are we in control of our lives, especially psychologically, so that we can overcome considerable obstacles, or are we victims of genetic inheritance and environmental circumstance?

Advocates of the first headlines above tend to agree with the former descriptions, namely that we are all free to think for ourselves and choose our own lives, free to evaluate what confronts us, and free to determine how to proceed to achieve our goals.

Advocates of the second headlines agree with the latter view of human nature. Indeed, this theory is built into Progressive ideology that some people are better than others, either by genetic inheritance or privileged circumstance. That is why experts are needed in government to identify hardships and provide remedies.

This is noblesse oblige, the obligation of the privileged to provide comfort and aid to those less well off.

These theories permeate economics and political philosophy, which in turn influence how one—anyone—interprets actions of the government, and therefore how observers of government actions, say, the press, report on them.

So, if everyone possesses a normal intelligence (that is, a normal brain) and is capable of making informed judgments, or capable of acquiring sufficient knowledge to make informed judgments, they can then fend for themselves without the need of handouts or regulation and control of their lives. This takes us to individualism, and from there it is a short step to laissez-faire capitalism.

Such a view instructs the first headlines above.

On the other hand, if some people are slow and dull-witted, cannot discern good from bad in their lives, and are incapable of acquiring the knowledge needed to improve their lives—well, one might conclude that they are “weak, stupid, and ignorant.”*

This view influences the second headlines.

More can be said. For example, the second headlines are dripping with unacknowledged Marxist premises, including Marx’s view of human nature that we are determined by economic circumstances.

Suffice it to say that negative bias, the kind that leans in one direction without providing alternative viewpoints and does not acknowledge underlying premises, dominates our culture, including the news we absorb from the media.

Come to think of it, it’s the same situation in academia. College professors, under the guise of academic freedom, are expert at negative bias. Alternative viewpoints are almost non-existent and underlying premises almost never presented or examined.

Reporters are only doing what they observed in the ivory tower and were taught by their professors.


* Recently, Wall Street Journal columnist William McGurn cited a spate of articles by Leftist writers encouraging their compatriots to be less condescending to the poor and uneducated. One, however, could not even recommend less condescension without being condescending in the process, by suggesting broader appeals to those “persuadable, low information folks,” that is, those who are weak, stupid, and ignorant.


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