Idiot or Alien? Incompetence or Evil?

When you encounter someone who expresses a political or social opinion that you find absolutely abhorrent, it is instructive to consider the extent to which this person is making a mistake, and the extent to which they simply have different values from you. Is this opinion something that they would immediately relinquish, if only they knew they knew the true facts of which they are now ignorant?—or is it reflective of some quality essential to their agency, a basic motive far too sacred to be destroyed by the truth?

(Of course, it is also instructive to consider whether you're making a mistake. But that is not the subject of this post.)

Some would say that it is useless to consider such questions, that human cognition doesn't separate cleanly into beliefs and values, and that even if such a thing could be done, it is futile for any present-day human to consider the matter, given our ignorance of our own psychology. And yet, the question still seems to make sense to me. If I can't know, I can guess. And I don't guess the same thing every time.

It's hard to say which extreme is more terrifying. In one scenario, you want to cry out to them, "Oh, you fool! You beautiful, beautiful fool! I love you and I want to be your friend, trust that I will always want to be your friend, but don't you see that the path you're taking can only lead to disaster? If you give me some time I can explain my reasoning precisely, but all the evidence points to the same conclusion: you must turn back now, I beg you, for the sake of everything we hold dear!"

But you know that wouldn't work, so you say nothing.

In the other scenario, you instinctively know that appeals to emotion or common goals would be a waste of precious time, so you frantically search an argument, some sequence of facts and reasoning that will convince them, convince any halfway-rational creature, to stop doing this terrible thing—but it's clear that no such argument exists. Any fact or reason you could offer would only be interpreted as evidence about reality, incorporated into their world-model, and used to persue their monstrous goals that much more efficiently.

You say nothing, but as you look into your enemy's eyes as they hasten the destruction of your world, you can't shake the feeling of having been understood.

5 thoughts on “Idiot or Alien? Incompetence or Evil?

  1. I’m curious to know of what kind of opinion you are talking about. Can you provide an example? I ask because I myself might possess social opinions that many would most likely regard as ‘monstrous’. And the way this post was written seems to indicate that it might very well be the set of beliefs that I’m thinking of.

    Could you be talking about the same type of person?

  2. (I am beginning to fear that my writing is not nearly as clear as I had hoped.)

    The post isn't intended to refer to any particular belief; I deliberately didn't single out any particular object-level issue, because people care about all sorts of issues (copyright law, taxes on cigarettes, [edit: mistaken example removed], the separation of church and state, gender roles, under what circumstances people should be expected to wear shoes, whether Katy Perry's music should be praised or condemned, &c., &c.), and any one of them would do. This post is meant to be an artistic exposition of the question of how to assess people who strongly support things that you strongly oppose: are they mistaken about which policies will lead to consequences that both of you would agree are good, or are they knowingly working towards consequences that they consider good but which you consider bad?

  3. You were clear in what you said. It was me that probably wasn’t.

    Yes, I am asking about an object-level issue, and perhaps that’s not the kind of comment you wanted to see or respond to for this post, but I was just asking you, personally – what belief did you encounter that drove you to write this post?

    The examples you provided in your comment don’t really map onto some of the things you said in your post. For instance, what makes you think that it’s “clear that no such argument exists” to counter a position in any of the examples?

    I think it’s obvious that you wrote this post as a disguise because you want to figure out how to respond to a particular issue. But I believe it would be easier to present the issue and have people try responding to it rather than receive advice on the meta-level, which may be more difficult to properly offer advice in.

  4. what makes you think that it’s “clear that no such argument exists” to counter a position in any of the examples?

    That you can't derive an ought from an is. (Although, embarrassingly, I had somehow included "global warming" in my comment above, which clearly doesn't belong.)

    I think it’s obvious that you wrote this post as a disguise because you want to figure out how to respond to a particular issue.

    Okay, but that's not obvious to me!

    (By the way, thanks for reading!)

  5. Thanks for writing, Zackary! I enjoy your blog and hope that you’ll continue in expanding it.

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