Tuesday, July 25, 2006

The principle of even-numberedness

A fascinating NYT op-ed by Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert. Quote:
The problem with the principle of even-numberedness is that people count differently. Every action has a cause and a consequence: something that led to it and something that followed from it. But research shows that while people think of their own actions as the consequences of what came before, they think of other people’s actions as the causes of what came later.

... What seems like a grossly self-serving pattern of remembering is actually the product of two innocent facts. First, because our senses point outward, we can observe other people’s actions but not our own. Second, because mental life is a private affair, we can observe our own thoughts but not the thoughts of others. Together, these facts suggest that our reasons for punching will always be more salient to us than the punches themselves -- but that the opposite will be true of other people’s reasons and other people’s punches.
All of what's bad in modern political discourse is summed up in these paragraphs.

UPDATE: July 25, 5:41 PM. It just now occurred to me how wise Gilbert's op-ed actually is. Consider the response of Israeli Brigadier General Herzog to a question on CSPAN's Washington Journal this morning about whether Israel's response to the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers has been proportional. Herzog naturally responds that the response is proportional if one considers the longer history of attacks against Israel by Hezbollah, and given the recent withdrawal of Israeli troops from southern Lebanon just a couple of years ago.

But is the issue really proportionality? Following Gilbert, Herzog thinks of the Israeli response only as a consequence of hostilities by Hezbollah, but fails to think of Israel's actions as the future cause of some more intense reprisal (one that has not yet materialized). "The product of two innocent facts": one, Israel finds it difficult to engage in self-evaluation when in the midst of an existential crisis; two, they will be more likely to see Hezbollah's response simply as further provocation rather than a response to their own reprisals. Same goes for Hezbollah.

Am I making a value judgement? No. I still support the right of nations to defend themselves. But perhaps talk of "proportionality" is misleading. What must focus at all times not on our responses to past injustices but on the avoiding letting our responses become the injustices of the future.

No comments: