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Why “Behavioral Politics” And “Islamic Exceptionalism” Matter

“Behavioral politics” can shed light on terrorism’s appeal. And why simple appeals to reason might not work. Indeed rationality doesn’t work the way many think it does. What makes us tick must matter for how reasoning works. 

1.1 Can “behavioral politics” explain terrorism? What makes us tick surely must matter for how reasoning works.

1.2 Democracy and economics presume “rational choice” models (to some degree).

1.3 But behavioral economics has updated “rationalist delusions.” Countering unempirical presumptions of self-maximization, it maps the motley logics of “supposedly irrelevant factors” that shape behaviour (Richard Thaler).

1.4 As with products, so with policies…do voters rationally, self-interestedly, evaluate policies?

1.5 Few have the training, knowledge, time, or inclination for rational policy analysis (see Dawkins-like “ignoramuses,” & “few maximize”).

2.1 Reason has 3 distinct parts—ends, means, inputs—each dependent on training and other factors, like morality (—>evolved teamwork-rule processor).

2.2. Consider terrorism using that anatomy of reason. Is it irrational (Caplan)? Nihilistic (Obama)?

2.3 Shadi Hamid in Islamic Exceptionalism reports that many jihadis just seek entry “into heaven.”

2.4. That might sound “stupid or irrational to us… [but, like beauty]… rationality… is in the eye of the beholder.” Paradise-seeking has a logic (“though this be madness, yet there is method in it”).

2.5. Like politics, all logic is local (bound to particular assumptions, methods, aims). Secular rationalists can err in assuming Enlightenment-flavored reason appeals universally.

2.6. Hamid detects “a sense of overarching meaninglessness” in Western democracies, and no guarantee of Muslim nations secularizing—Islam can’t be easily quarantined within a private sphere.

3.1 Dismissing terrorists as “mad or bad” risks error. Given their assumptions and aims, they might “logically” seek “purpose” (Peter Bergen) or glamour (Virginia Postrel).

3.2 Most violence seeks a “moral good” (Pinker) (≠ pathological, ≠ self-interested).

3.3 But Pinker’s conclusion—“The world has far too much morality”—is like complaining of too much insulin. You can’t wish away your pancreas or your moral-emotion generator (we can only alter the triggering context, or retrain triggered moral scripts).

4.1 Sadly, terrorism offers a way to “matter” (Masha Gessen).

4.2 Humans have a powerful “mattering instinct”—our evolved “will to matter” is among our strongest drives (Rebecca Goldstein). Humans “cannot stand a meaningless life” (Jung).

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4.3 Has secular rationalism offered good substitutes for religion’s historical role as the most powerful mattering-definer? Connecting you, and your loyalties, to something larger? (—>”All Meaning Is Relational.”)

4.4 Orwell, reviewing Mein Kampf, called “Fascism and Nazism… psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.” Hitler knew humans “don’t only want comfort…they… also want struggle and self-sacrifice”… want to matter.

4.5 Extremist economics can preach loyalty only to self-gain, which worsens asocial “meaninglessness.” Its transactional utterly selfish utility maximization (vs. “relational rationality”) easily errs, like mislabelling slowly collectively self-destructive behaviours as “rational”—>“tragedy of the commons,” misnamed.

5.1 Let’s be clearer about what matters, and what drives our deeds. And deploy reason in “psychologically far sounder” ways, mindful of empirically varying assumptions and aims.

Illustration by Julia Suits, author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions, and The New Yorker cartoonist.


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