Elements of political belief and debate

What do we mean by elements?

On this site, we are trying to describe what the essential elements (or dimensions) of disagreement are on various political issues.

When trying to describe something it is useful to try to pick some “elements” which capture the maximum amount of the variability in as few as descriptors as possible.

Political views are often broken into two “dimensions” – you see this on political compass, or vote compass. These two dimensions (which we call elements) are usually “Economic” and “Social”. You can be “liberal” or “conservative” on the social scale, or “left” or “right” on the economic scale. Importantly, the scales are independent. Your position on one scale does not necessarily determine your position on the other.

We have selected three elements that we think most political beliefs can be described with. In these articles, we will consider that our political beliefs are instinctive. So the first group describes elements, or aspects, of our intuition.

Why three instead of the classic two (social and economic axes described above)? Because we felt that the social axis (libertarian vs conservative) tries to capture quite a lot, and by breaking it into two components (views on authority, and views on groups) we can better describe different political positions.

Then we selected another three elements that we think the arguments can be described with – these are typically debates which touch on the boundaries between claims (rights), discussions about incentives, and the timeless grist of all great literature and drama; free will and fate.

So we have two groups of elements. One to describe the fundamental, underlying political beliefand one for the justifying reasoned arguments.

Why separate them? Most of us like to think that our political beliefs are based on reason. We discuss politics in the objective language of costs and benefits, incentives and opportunity. We have included these elements so that political arguments can be classified according to these issues. However, we consider that our intuition probably matters more when it comes to belief.

The choice of these elements – in particular the three intuitive ones related to belief – draws on the work of political scientists and psychologists like Avi Tuschman and Jonathan Haidt. The creation of a second set of reasoned elements which we use to argue with, reflects the concepts of “system 1” and “system 2” developed by Daniel Kahneman (system 1 is intuition, and system 2 is our faculty of reason).

So, what are these elements … Let’s start with the intuitive ones which are the basis for our political beliefs.

Ingroup: this means your propensity to be loyal and cooperate with a group, pursue group goals, and put group goals ahead of individual ones. Very often when we refer to “in group”, it means family, clan or ethnic group (what Avi Tuschman referrs to as ethnocentric). But it’s important to note that groups can be ideological as well as biological.

Authority: the describes your instinctive comfort with differences in status and authority. In other words, your submissiveness to hierarchy. It’s not about how comfortable you are being the boss, although it might be that too. It’s more about how comfortable you are about not being the boss, or even having a boss !

Fairness: Everyone likes fairness, so it’s hard to think of this as a spectrum of belief. The best way to think of this element is “how comfortable you are with unequal outcomes”. Unequal outcomes are a fact of life, but different people feel different emotional responses when confronted with them.

The intuitive elements have been selected to be linear. For each element, everyone will be somewhere on the spectrum from one extreme to the other. We’ve tried to pick them so there is no value judgement associated with your position on the spectrum. There is no “right or wrong”, no “nasty or nice” position. If we’ve picked our elements correctly, your location on the “intuitive element spectrum” won’t be determined by the particular issue you’re discussing. They’re deeply held beliefs which are non-contextual and independent.

The elements used in arguments are a bit simpler. First of all, they are not scales like the intuitive elements. They don’t describe political beliefs per se. Rather, the reasoned elements describe the reasoning people use to justify their (intuitive) beliefs. Our faculty of reason serves as the “defence lawyer” for our instinct, to use Haidt’s language.

Rights. Debates about rights are debates how we are supposed to live together. The are about who should contribute what to society; rights to access to resources, to the fruits of labour, etc. It could also include debates about rights to wear certain clothes (or not), to say certain things, to bear arms, and so on. There are always two sides, because my rights end where yours begin.

Incentives. Think of this element as everything to do with human behaviour … lots of economic arguments fall under this broad category. Should the private or public sector manage something? What is the effect of social security on unemployment? Should services be free at the point of delivery?

Responsibility. Finally, this is the reasoned element which closely aligns to the instinctive element of fairness. What parts of life can we be held responsible for, and what is really not our fault? Left and right wing political positions are most clearly at odds over this reasoned element. On the left, people are felt to have less control over their fate, there are always mitigating circumstances. On the right, people think that no matter how poor you are, you still have the autonomy, and the responsibility, to make the right choices.

Of course, most political arguments end up involving all three of these reasoned elements. They’re quite closely intertwined, but we thought it would be useful to untangle them and lay each thread bare, to help understand what is actually being argued.

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