Posted by: captainfalcon | May 4, 2010

Sociological versus Psychological Possibility

Folk moral psychology tells us that any given agent has it within his power to act as he will. For any given agent, it is psychologically possible for him to refrain from smoking (or to smoke), or to refrain from having sex (or to have sex), or what have you. Sociology tells us that agents act with (more or less) predictable regularity. In circumstances C1 some percentage of agents will smoke, have sex, etc; in C2 a different percentage, and so forth.

The set of psychologically possible states of affairs is thus bigger than the set of sociologically possible states of affairs. The relationship is actually more precise: sociological possibility entails psychological possibility, but not vice versa.

Here’s a hypothesis that I look forward to having exploded: in the cultural realm (at least), the persistence of many left-right disputes can be explained by the fact that the left regards the set of sociologically possible states of affairs as the relevant set of political alternatives, whereas the right regards the set of psychologically possible states of affairs as the relevant set of political alternatives.

Thus, the right wants to reduce contraceptive use and abortions (it is psychologically possible for people to simply abstain until they want children); the left thinks this infeasible (sociologically impossible). The right thinks guns don’t kill people, people kill people (it is psychologically possible for guns to proliferate and murders not to increase); the left does not regard that as a meaningful distinction (it is sociologically necessary that a proliferation of guns means an increase in murders).* The right thinks people ought to lift themselves out of poverty without resorting to crime (it is psychologically possible to grow up impoverished but law-abiding); the left thinks poverty begets crime (as a matter of sociological necessity).

I’m not sure this framework applies beyond the cultural realm. In fact, though I’d have to give this more thought, when it comes to the question of good governance things arguably switch; the right regards sociological possibility as the modality relevant to politics, the left psychological possibility. (Libertarians come out rather well here; they consistently take (what they regard as) the set of sociologically possible states of affairs to be the relevant set of political alternatives… Is that right?)

If the broad outlines of this post are correct, then one, under-examined, way to attack the right (or the left) is to attack either (i) the consistency with which they presume sociological / psychological possibility to be the politically relevant modality or (ii) the presumption that sociological (or psychological) possibility is politically relevant.

* I am aware that the right also questions the left’s sociological claim. (Interestingly, though, it is libertarians – who aren’t exactly on the right – who lead the way there.)



  1. It is an interesting theory and would require some mulling on my part before I can truly comment, but here are some things that come to mind:

    1. As you note, the right does do a lot of questioning of the left’s sociological assumptions as well. As a data point: Glen Beck spent most of his “guns” chapter making variants of those arguments. I think the framework more strongly coheres on reproductive issues than anything else (ie: abortion, contraceptives, abstinence-only sex ed).

    2. When expanded beyond certain cultural issues and the plausibility of good governance in the abstract, I can’t see this paradigm being widely applicable. How does it hold up in foreign policy, say, or fiscal matters? Or the gay marriage debate, to chose another cultural issue?

    3. That said, in the issues where the trend holds (reproductive issues), I do think your predictions are borne out. Both sides routinely question the relevance of each others modalities (eg. in abortion: just gonna make abortions underground and more dangerous vs. just because we can’t stop all murders doesn’t mean murder is wrong and should be illegal).

  2. Another way of understanding the framework is as identifying what motivates the left or the right. Thus, the right might question the left’s sociological assumptions, but only be moved to do so because they perceive them as a threat to policies that they favor because they yield the best outcome in a psychologically, but not sociologically, possible state of affairs.

    So, in the gun control example, the right envisions a world in which there is a uniformly responsible gun culture. That’s the vision that motivates them – that’s the possibility to which, they think, we ought to aspire – but, in order to achieve that (merely psychological) possibility, they also have to blunt the attacks from those who take sociological possibility to be the relevant modality. (Of course, it may also be that the right is correct about what sociological possibility is most likely to obtain; it’s just that that’s fortuitous – what gets them going is the psychological possibility.)

    The corollary on the left is good governance. The left is motivated by a vision of society in which government tries to solve social problems in good faith. This is a mere psychological possibility. In order to try to actualize it, though, they realize they have to blunt the force of arguments from the right designed to show that a regime of good governance is sociologically impossible. Perhaps their arguments are successful, but this is merely fortuitous.

    Of course, the fact that one group’s position is motivated by the sense that a psychological (or sociological) possibility is politically relevant doesn’t imply that the position is wrong. But, it does give reason to think that arguments made by adherents within the non-motivating modality are probably endorsed for reasons having little to do with their truth, and more to do with political strategy.

  3. […] perhaps more to the point, gives no reason to think it doesn’t suffer both these, at least psychologically possible, failings.) The second reply, meanwhile, is simply bizarre. It may well be that the attribution of […]

  4. […] Ross Douthat has an interesting column on the subject which, if nothing else, grapples with the psycological versus sociological paradigms for public policy that CF discussed earlier and the dilemmas conservatives face […]

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