Why Do We Need Human Rights? (39): Market Failure in the Marketplace of Ideas, Ctd.

We need rights such as free speech, assembly and association (as well as other rights that function as prerequisites for these rights, such as the right not to suffer poverty) for many reasons, but one of the most important reasons is the way in which these rights protect open, public, inclusive and widespread deliberation.

But why do we need this kind of deliberation? Deliberation, ideally at least, forces ideas through a process of criticism, counter-arguments and competition with other ideas. Ideas that can get themselves accepted in such a competitive market of ideas will tend to be of better quality than other ideas. Hence the metaphor of the marketplace of ideas. A crucial point is that participation in public deliberation should be as free and as massive as possible, since only mass participation will allow for the multiplication of possible arguments and alternative ideas.

The marketplace of ideas improves the quality of our ideas and our thinking, and that’s a good thing. The fact that some human rights – and perhaps even all human rights given the interdependence of human rights – are necessary for the functioning of this marketplace justifies human rights. (More here).

I used the word “ideally” a moment ago, because the actual functioning of the marketplace of ideas in the real world is often marred by “market failures”. I listed a few here, such as confirmation bias, polarization, political correctness and other biases or processes that inhibit the free and open discussion and exchange of possibly persuasive arguments.

Here are a few more:

  • There’s what we could call the “fanatic effect”: fanatics have few if any doubts about their ideas and hence are more likely to set up lobbying groups, think tanks, political parties etc. As a result, a fanatic will receive more media exposure than the thinking person constantly revising her often complicated opinions in the light of new evidence. This is the supply side factor favoring the appearance of extreme views. Now, these views may well be correct in some cases, but it’s hard to know if those views are the ones that receive most coverage; views or arguments that go against the extremes may come from less convinced sources and hence may not find their way into the debates. As a result, the marketplace does not function adequately. This type of market failure is obviously linked to polarization, but it’s not completely the same thing. Polarization can occur between 2 or more non-fanatical or non-extreme views.
  • There’s not only a supply side factor; the demand for extreme and fanatical positions also plays a role in undermining the marketplace of ideas. Extreme positions are better for pageviews and ratings. People want good TV and interesting websites, and extremists battling each other with soundbites are better than long nuanced arguments. Who doesn’t prefer a debate between a racist and a black radical to a polite discussion based on charts, numbers and philosophical references? The soundbites may come from fanatics, but they don’t have to. If very reasonable points of view are only marketed in the form of sound bites, and if nuanced or lengthy arguments are thought to scare away viewer or readers, then the market fails just as badly.

However, let’s not despair. There’s also a lot of evidence that people arguing in groups come to better decisions than people on their own. Here’s a sample of some of the evidence:

A group of players is told that they should choose a number between 0 and 100, and the winner of the game will be the person who chooses a number that is (say) 1/2 of the average of the other choices. In this game, the rational player will reason as follows: “OK, let’s say that the other players choose randomly, so the average will be 50, and I should choose 25 to win. But if other players have this first level of insight, they will all choose 25 to win, and I should instead choose 12. But if other players have this second level of insight, then they will choose 12, and I should choose 6. Hmmm. If the other players are rational and self-interested, the equilibrium choice will end up being zero.”

The players … can be either individuals or groups. It turns out that groups choose lower numbers: that is, as a result of interacting in the group, they tend to be one step ahead.

Here’s another example … [P]layers get the following question: … “Linda is 31 years old, single, outspoken, and very bright. She majored in philosophy. As a student, she was deeply concerned with issues of discrimination and social justice, and also participated in anti-nuclear demonstrations. Which is more probable: (a) Linda is a bank teller. (b) Linda is a bank teller and is active in the feminist movement.” Notice that Linda is a bank teller in both choices, but only active in the feminist movement in the second choice: that is, the second choice is a subset of the first choice. For that reason, it is impossible for choice b to be more likely than choice a. However, early research on this question found that 85% of individuals answered b. But when the game is played with groups of 2, and with groups of 3, the error rate drops. (source)

So the marketplace of ideas could justify human rights after all. More posts in this series are here.

Religion and Human Rights (28): Is Religion Particularly Violent?

9/11 and other terrorist attacks apparently motivated by Islamic beliefs has led to an increased hostility towards Islam, but also towards religion in general. Perhaps in an effort to avoid the charge of islamophobia, many anti-jihadists have taken a new look at the violent history of other religions, particularly Christianity, and concluded that religion per se, because of the concomitant belief in the absolute truth of God’s words and rules, automatically leads to the violent imposition of this belief on unwilling fellow human beings, or – if that doesn’t work – the murderous elimination of persistent sinners. This has given rise to a movement called the new atheists. The charge of fanatical and violent absolutism inherent in religion is of course an old one, but it has been revitalized after 9/11 and the war on terror. I think it’s no coincidence that many of the new atheists are also anti-jihadists (take Christopher Hitchens for example).

There are many things wrong with question in the title of this blogpost. (And – full disclosure – this isn’t part of a self-interested defense of religion, since I’m an agnostic). First of all, it glosses over the fact that there isn’t such a thing as “religion”. There are many religions, and perhaps it can be shown that some of them produce a disproportionate level of violence, but religion as such is a notoriously vague concept. Nobody seems to agree on what it is. Even the God-entity isn’t a required element of the definition of religion, except if you want to take the improbable position that Buddhism isn’t a religion. All sorts of things can reasonably be put in the container concept of “religion” – the Abrahamic religions as well as Wicca and Jediism. The claim that “religion is violent” implies that all or most religions are equally violent, which is demonstrably false.

That leaves the theoretical possibility that some religions are more violent than others. If that claim can be shown to be true, islamophobia may perhaps be a justified opinion, but not the outright rejection of religion inherent in new atheism (which, of course, has other arguments against religion besides religion’s supposed violent character). However, how can it be shown empirically and statistically that a certain religion – say Islam – is relatively more violent than other religions? In order to do so you would need to have data showing that Islam today (or, for that matter, Christianity in the age of the crusades and the inquisition) is the prime or sole motive behind a series of violent attacks. But how do you know that the violent actor was motivated solely or primarily by his religious beliefs? Because he has a Muslim name? Speaks Arabic? Looks a certain way? Professes his religious motivation? All that is not enough to claim that he wasn’t motivated by a combination of religious beliefs and political or economic grievances for instance, or by something completely unconnected to religion, despite his statements to the contrary.

Now let’s assume, arguendo, that this isn’t a problem, and that it is relatively easy and feasible to identify a series of violent attacks that are indisputably motivated solely or primarily by certain religious beliefs. How can you go from such a series to a quantified comparison that says “the religion behind this series of attacks – say again Islam – is particularly violent”? That seems to be an unwarranted generalization based on a sample that is by definition very small (given the long history of most religions and the lack of data on motivations, especially for times that have long since passed). Also, it supposes a comparison with other causes of violence, for example other religions, other non-religious belief systems, character traits, economic circumstances etc. After all, the point of this hypothetical study is not to show that (a) religion can lead to bad things. That’s seldom disputed. Everything can lead to bad things, including fanatical atheism (and don’t tell me communism and fascism were “really” religions; the word “religion” is vague, but probably not as vague as that – which doesn’t mean that there aren’t any religious elements in those two world-views). The claim we’re discussing here is that (a) religion – because of its fanatical absolutism and trust in God’s truth – is particularly violent, i.e. more violent than other belief systems, and hence very dangerous and to be repudiated.

I think it’s useless, from a purely mathematical and scientific point of view, to engage in such a comparative quantification, given the obvious problems of identifying true motivations, especially for long periods of time in the past. There’s just no way that you can measure religious violence, compare it to “other violence”, and claim it is more (or less) violent. So the question in the title is a nonsensical one, I think, even if you limit it to one particular religion rather than to religion in general. That doesn’t mean it can’t be helpful to know the religious motives of certain particular acts of violence. It’s always good to know the motives of violence if you want to do something about it. What it means is that such knowledge is no reason to generalize on the violent nature of a religion, let alone religion as such. That would not only obscure other motives – which is never helpful – but it would also defy our powers of quantification.