Bryan Caplan  

Pious Thinking

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I often argue that popular ideas are deeply mistaken.  I attacked everything from nationalism and militarism to Tiger Parenting and labor market regulation.  There's one utterly corrupt outlook, though, that I almost never bother to criticize.  As soon as I hear it, I instinctively tune it out, because you can't argue with it.  For want of a better phrase, I call this outlook "pious thinking."

On my usage, there is nothing intrinsically religious about pious thinking.  Yes, it's prominent in moderate religious services.  But it also dominates political speeches, public health campaigns, commencement addresses, and every Back-to-School-Night.  Pious thinking has two key features.  First, surrender to Social Desirability Bias - saying whatever sounds good on every topic, without bothering to check statements against the facts.  Second, indifference to consistency - saying whatever sounds good on every topic, without bothering to check statements for internal consistency. 

My most vivid experiences with pious thinking come from my K-12 years: The P.A. declaring things like, "Our school takes every effort to ensure every student a stimulating educational experience" - while requiring every student to take a health class that consisted almost entirely in copying sentences out of the textbook.  Anyone who objected that copying sentences is less than stimulating received the pious reply: "Health is an essential part of our curriculum."  Similarly, the P.A. might announce, "Our school guarantees the safety of every student" - even though school rules against fighting automatically suspended the victim along with the perpetrator!  Wouldn't that strongly discourage reporting of violence?  Pious reply: "Oh, it takes two to tango."

As a practical matter, pious thinking is less harmful than taking bad ideas to their logical conclusion.  Religions that say both, "Blasphemy must be illegal" and "We must respect freedom of conscience" commit less savagery than religions that say, "Blasphemy must be illegal, so to hell with freedom of conscience."  But intellectually, coherent-but-wrong views are at least manageable.  They make definite claims, so it's possible to disprove them.  Pious thinking, in contrast, is irrefutable by design.  If you score a telling point, pious thinking allows your opponents to claim they've agreed from the get-go.  But that changes nothing.  The status quo must go on... as long as it keeps sounding good.




COMMENTS (8 to date)
Daniel Kuehn writes:

[Comment removed for irrelevance.--Econlib Ed.]

Barro writes:

Great post. Maybe not the exact same thing, but I've always had a problem with adults advising teenagers to "just be yourself" or "... then he/she is not really your friend". Terrible advice.

Hazel Meade writes:

I don't really understand why pious thinking seems to be persuasive. People wouldn't do it if it didn't provide them with some benefit. Is it all just moral signalling? If so, why is moral signalling so effective? Why can't more people like us see through it and tune it out? Or what is it about us that makes us so different that we instantly recognize and reject it?

Dan Carroll writes:

"Pious thinking" is only illogical because it is stated in absolute terms (usually for simplicity in communication), but is intended in practice to be relative. A "stimulating educational experience" is a goal, but it must be balanced by other goals such as health education, which is copied out of a textbook because that is more cost effective (an unstated goal). Likewise, safety is guaranteed partly because all fighting is not tolerated, and since behavior can't be monitored closely, including provocation and taunting, both students are punished because it is assumed that there are no real victims (the exception is with bullying). In religion, the dual mandate of doctrinal integrity and toleration of dissent is better than only one mandate, because doctrinal integrity alone can result in violence and/or cults while toleration alone results is loss of identity and the "country club mentality."

Rick Hull writes:

Irreverence is one of my favorite qualities, at least in social settings. In more serious matters, it is the quality shared by the most advantageous insights. For example, Smith's or Rand's appeals to self-interest, Buchanan's Public Choice, Beane's Moneyball.

Paul Graham: http://www.paulgraham.com/say.html

Peter Thiel: http://fortune.com/2014/09/04/peter-thiels-the-challenge-of-the-future/

Paul Krugman: http://cafehayek.com/2014/09/very-dry-water-hard-frozen-fire-and-the-ostentatious-invisible-rich.html

ThomasH writes:

Any idea taken to its logical conclusion is bad (including this one). :)

Caroll has the right idea. Pious statements are acceptable because everyone knows that they are not absolute but different people are free to think that the actual trade offs are different. Meaning that every PTA meeting does not have to ascend into a philosophical stratosphere.

LD Bottorff writes:

If I understand your concept of pious thinking, it covers a lot of other topics like immigration (we can't reward law-breakers!) to the legalization of marijuana (we don't want more kids smoking pot!). Ultimately, most ideas that can be expressed in sound-bites really need deep analysis to be refuted - and people who like sound-bites aren't going to take the time to read Paul Graham.

MamaLiberty writes:

Seems to me that the most egregious, and -all too common example of "pious thinking" is the underlying altruism people use to justify their theft and coercion. The fact is that their belief in "helping the poor," or whatever, is merely rationalization for their true desire, control of others seen to be less powerful.

But it doesn't stop there, of course, since the "poor" have been conditioned for generations in their own pious thinking. It is just so easy to accept the false trio of victim hood.

1. Some people have a legitimate "authority" to control the lives of others.
2. Nobody is truly responsible for themselves and they are basically helpless to do anything about it.
3. And therefore, the world - other people - "owe" them a living, respect, and so forth.

The pious thinking is then used by both the controllers and the controlled to assign false guilt of "selfishness" to anyone who questions their altruism.

Refuse to accept that false guilt.

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