Political Beliefs: A Philosophical Introduction, by Oliver Traldi (Routledge, 284 pp., $49.99)

Some books are most profitably read backward, or at least with their endings in mind. Once you’ve read an Agatha Christie novel, you derive a new enjoyment from finding and parsing the clues and hints she leaves throughout the book that point to the ending. Once you know that Sydney Carton sacrifices his life to save Charles Darnay, you can chart his progression through A Tale of Two Cities from a jaded, dissolute pining after Lucie Manette to someone capable of doing that “far better thing.” Oliver Traldi’s Political Beliefs: A Philosophical Introduction may not be on par with such classics, but it is valuable—and profitably read with its conclusion in mind.

This is where Traldi, a research fellow at Princeton University’s James Madison Program, enjoins the reader to take a few lessons. The first is that “people’s motivations for developing their political beliefs are often rather obscure.” What someone believes often tells us little about why he believes it (this is, broadly speaking, the topic of chapters six through 11). Questioning or trying to Bulverize those beliefs can be little more than self-gratification. (Chapter 12 considers this tendency, sometimes called “genealogical debunking.”) Another lesson: exposure to political information is not necessarily a royal road to political knowledge, to knowing what justice is or what the best means to achieve it are. (Chapters 19 through 24 deal largely with this issue.) Most important is the “value of independent thought.” Traldi might agree with my summary of this lesson in two Enlightenment slogans, nullius in verba (“take no one’s word for it”) and sapere aude (“dare to know”).

Fine conclusions, all three. But before we can start to apply them, we need some idea of what we’re applying them to. This is a philosophical book, so we need to begin by defining our terms. What are political beliefs, and what does “political” mean, anyway?

The book is short on a precise definition. Traldi is aware of this, but he surveys three characterizations, each getting us a little closer to the truth: that politics is about power, conflict, and order.

Consider the social contract tradition in political philosophy, which sees the formation of states as the result of free persons leaving a “state of nature,” characterized by relative freedom and equality, to incarnate a political body. That transition is assuredly political (what could be more political than the creation of a state?), and one can see features of each characterization in it. In banding together in a state, each citizen loses some power over his own actions and cedes it to the sovereign or governing body. In joining together, he also gains a means to adjudicate disputes with minimal conflict. And in the process, he passes from a life Thomas Hobbes called “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” to one marked by stability and order.

None of these concepts can define “political” by itself, but each seems to give us the right idea. What, then, are political beliefs? Traldi’s theory goes something like this. For a belief to be political, it must both be in dispute (what he calls the “dispute-necessity thesis”) and have the right kind of connection to politics (what he calls the “connection-necessity thesis”). Perhaps your belief has practical relevance to a disputed political action. Or perhaps your belief is a shibboleth, a means of identifying who’s in a political group and who’s out of it.

The trouble with this theory lies in that pesky dispute clause. Roughly, Traldi thinks that for a belief to be political, it must be in dispute. Put in another, logically equivalent way, if a belief isn’t under dispute, it can’t be political. This proposal has a significant drawback, what I’ll call the context problem.

Here’s an example of what I mean. Let’s suppose you’re an anarchist and like to hang around with some fellow anarchist friends. Presumably, you and your friends agree that there should be no state. This isn’t at all in dispute between you. Thus, according to Traldi’s dispute-necessity thesis, in this context, the belief that there should be no state isn’t political. (This by itself is a strange result, but let’s run with it.) But in a broader political context (your neighborhood or borough, say), the undesirability of forming states is probably under dispute. So now it counts as a political belief all over again.

So we have a context problem: there are many beliefs which, when we look at them in differing contexts, change from being in dispute to not being in dispute, perhaps a few times. Here’s another example: it might be the consensus of a specific city (Austin, say) that a certain candidate for president is preferable. But when you switch to a larger context in which this city is embedded (in this example, Texas), the belief becomes disputed again. And when you switch to a national context, you might get even more variation.

Which of these contexts is the correct one for assessing whether this is a political belief? More specifically, what’s the right level of generality to focus on? Should we look at local communities? Cities? Nations? Alliances of mutual defense such as NATO? Traldi supplies no answer. But until we can settle that, we have no means of determining which beliefs are political and which aren’t. And if we can’t do that, then it’s not clear that the book’s positive account is workable.

This criticism aside, however, Political Beliefs remains valuable for its own criticism. Most of the book is dedicated to seeing where extant theories of political belief go wrong or right, and these sections make many valuable contributions.

Consider what Traldi calls a “debunking argument.” According to him, this is “an argument that features some empirical premise about the cause or explanation of a belief and some epistemological premise about rationality, with the conclusion that the belief is irrational or should be abandoned or something similar.” Traldi calls this premise in a debunking argument a cudgel.

Suppose I believe that I’ll find true love at the bus station tomorrow because I read it in my horoscope. You might tell me, “Look, I know you believe that because your horoscope told you, but horoscopes in general are extremely unreliable, so you really shouldn’t believe that.” A more relevant example might be: “You just believe that because you watch Fox News/MSNBC, but they’re always lying!”

Cudgels, however, aren’t the most rigorous of arguments. Often they’re justified by the principle that if a belief is caused by some external source, then it’s irrational. But if the external source, irrelevant as it is to the truth of your belief, renders that belief irrational, then how can we have any rational beliefs? Indeed, as Traldi points out, almost all of our beliefs are caused in some measure by factors not relevant to their truth. 

Here’s an illustration. Imagine you’re in college and you don’t go out drinking the night before a big lecture. The next day, when you hear the professor’s lecture, you come to believe the things he tells you. Now, whether you drank the night before doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with whether your beliefs in the things he tells you are true. But certainly, this factor contributed to your coming to have those beliefs, since if you were hung over, you likely wouldn’t have been able to focus and learn the information.

Analogously, I might want to discredit my opponent by pointing to her political affiliations. Maybe I think she believes that abortion is morally wrong because she’s a Republican, or that wealth redistribution is morally right because she’s a social democrat. But those are just assertions about other people; they tell us nothing whatsoever about the beliefs those people hold. And if I dig too deep, I might find that the weapon I turn against my enemies might be used on me. After all, we all have our own reasons for thinking the things we do.

This is an excellent reason not to take our group prejudices for granted. Our differing beliefs tend to be defined by the insides and outsides of our little bubbles. That might explain which of our debates are political, but on its own it does little to tell us how reliable those beliefs are. To determine that requires plodding, patient hard work. It requires a “daring to know.” As a call to do that, Traldi’s book excels.

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