Posted by: captainfalcon | February 23, 2010

Two Thoughts for the Day

Plus, they are related in a not-entirely-obvious way.

1. “Government requires make-believe. Make believe that the king is divine, make believe that he can do no wrong or make believe that the voice of the people is the voice of God. Make believe that the people have a voice or make believe that the representatives of the people are the people. Make believe that governors are the servants of the people. Make believe that all men are equal or make believe that they are not.” (Edmund Morgan)

2. “[P]eople with strong preferences about present controversies might be drawn to accept some accounts of original meaning more readily than others, even if they do not experience themselves as cavalier with the history on its own terms. Given that historical sources do regularly lend themselves to multiple interpretations, a little bit of motivated reasoning might be enough to let someone settle on one interpretation rather than another.” (Richard Primus)

“Motivated reasoning” seems a good name for an ubiquitous phenomenon. Worth adding to the analytical repertoire.



  1. Help me out with this connection/your definition of “motivated reasoning” M^2FP. Are you saying motivated reasoning is a phenomenon by which we adopt a heuristic or interpretation over alternates? I take it you suspect (or Morgan) this process is arbitrary? Or, there is a hidden motivator in our reasoning.
    I suppose I reject that the “make-believe” involved endorsing a government over others is qualitatively the same as accepting an interpretation over others.

    Yeah – looks like I’ve been Lured.

  2. Say you don’t like gun control, and you realize that gun control would lose popularity if it turned out the Constitution’s framers didn’t like it, either. You go research the framers’ attitudes towards gun control and conclude, lo and behold, that they didn’t like it. There are three interpretations of what you did:

    (a) You did the same sort of historical research – and came to the same conclusions – that you would have done even if you didn’t care about gun control.

    (b) You deliberately massaged the facts in order to make the case for a conclusion that helps you politically.

    (c) You didn’t deliberately massage the facts – you tried to do good historical research – but you ended up e.g. trusting sources that supported the conclusion that was amenable to you politically more than sources that did not.

    In (c) you engaged in “motivated reasoning.” You tried, in good faith, to do dispassionate historical research, phenomenologically, it felt like you were doing dispassionate research, but your political preferences nonetheless influenced your scholarship.

    As for the relationship between the two quotations, (1) expresses a conclusion you might arrive at after engaging in the motivated reasoning described in (2). It is a position for which there’s some historical evidence and that, if true, supports certain contemporary policies (e.g. strong protections of executive secrecy) and worldviews (e.g. traditionalism / others which insist on the motivational power of ceremony).

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