When your mind argues for a side

I was reading through the Center for Applied Rationality’s rationality checklist the other day, and the section under “flagging beliefs for further examination” caught my eye. I felt like I did (a)—actively noticing something that doesn’t fit with my prior beliefs—and (b)—asking for additional explanation or examples in the event of unclear information—on a pretty regular basis already. (One of the benefits of being in an undergraduate degree where the material isn’t your forte is that you really learn how to question your assumptions and foundations.) However, (c) particularly stood out to me.

c. I notice when my mind is arguing for a side (instead of evaluating which side to choose), and flag this as an error mode. (Recent example from Anna: Noticed myself explaining to myself why outsourcing my clothes shopping does make sense, rather than evaluating whether to do it.)

Hey, I thought, I totally don’t do this. In fact, for the last year or so, I had been pushing myself to defend most of my opinions, because I felt like I flip-flopped on a stance too much, and wanted to put more emphasis on holding onto one. And while learning how to defend a point with charisma and confidence is important as well, that isn’t necessarily incompatible with evaluating two sides of an argument with an open mind.

I had been mulling over this technique for a few days when a friend posted about World Vision’s latest public debacle: recently, World Vision changed its hiring policy to allow for the employment of anyone who was legally married, including those who were in same-sex marriages. Naturally, there was significant backlash from many evangelical Christians, many of whom decided to cancel their child sponsorships as a result of the controversial decision. Jamie Wright, who wrote the article my friend initially linked to, condemned this sponsorship termination crusade as the very worst of Christian humanitarianism.

When did impoverished children become products to be boycotted and replaced with the click of a mouse? (…) I’m just gonna throw this out there, but perhaps our Christian priorities are a little bit fucked up when we decide that a humanitarian-aid worker’s private life is more important than the actual survival of humans they are aiding.

I was nodding along fervently with this article, completely impressed with the insight and the poignancy of Wright’s words, and despising the evangelical Christian community who would dare do this. (Plus, I thought a little smugly, this is a Christian humanitarian organization that’s being progressive! What a huge step for gay marriage! Go World Vision!)

Fast forward to the end of the article where, oops, it turns out that World Vision was under such intense criticism that they actually reversed the decision to hire married, gay Christians.

Um, what?

Yeah. But here’s what Wright said about the issue:

So, if you need to switch “Evangelical” for “Progressive” in my blog post, go ahead. The premise is the same.

I froze.

You see, when it was the Evangenlical Christian side that was under attack, of course the criticism made sense: why wouldn’t you support an organization that was involved in so much humanitarian work and aid, solely because on its stance on same-sex marriage? But what about when the coin falls on the wrong side? Should I support an organization that actively discriminates against same-sex couples, even if the organization is doing so much other good?

My immediate knee-jerk response was to say, “Well, this is why I don’t support World Vision anyway…” There are plenty of other child-aid organizations, such as Free the Children, that are much more effective, much less religious, and much more human-rights based. But this problem stayed with me because it was an interesting case of actively checking my assumptions. My mind was actively arguing against World Vision, and against Evangelical Christians—but, as I tried to tell myself, this was an error mode. Were my arguments rational or were they just biased?

Was this just a case of the trolley problem? Suppose that I did sponsor a child through World Vision—what would be the better thing to do? Is it worse to support an organization that actively perpetuates discrimination of same-sex couples, or worse to withdraw support for needy children? If I chose to stick with child sponsorship, then what if the discrimination went beyond just gay marriage? What if it was women, or racial discrimination, or any other type of prejudice supported by a religious agenda? If it’s not okay for me to overlook any of these discriminatory behaviours, then why should I make an exception for LGBT discrimination?

However, if I chose to withdraw sponsorship, then how can I justifiably condemn the Evangelical Christians who did the same?

Perhaps the answer is in where your priorities lie. I want to vouch support for case (a)—staying with child sponsorships, like Wright argued for—but suppose I was no longer just a 22-year-old university student. If I was a large-scale LGBT rights activist or lobbyist, I would find it more difficult to support such an organization publicly. I would no doubt come under large scrutiny, especially when there are other charities that have the same root cause, but with less discrimination against their employees. (That’s also my answer: 22-year-old-uni-student-me would stick with child sponsorships … but I would definitely start investigating other organizations as well.)

With religion, the priorities are more complex. I would like to hope that Evangelical Christians place a higher priority on following Jesus’ teachings to help others first rather than trying to battle gay sinners—and this, I think, is what Wright was arguing for, too.

I would not have had this level of analysis without raising my knee-jerk reactions to conscious attention. Flagging a strong emotional or opinionated response for further introspection is a good learning experience, even if your final viewpoints are still the same. Even if I don’t agree with the viewpoint that Evangelical Christians have towards same-sex marriage, I can appreciate the struggle with which they faced the World Vision issue—and therefore, I can greater appreciate those who decided to stay with World Vision when this decision was initially made.

Ultimately, pausing to consider why my mind was arguing for a side, and determining whether that’s actually the best decision gave choice back to me. The mind is just another organ, like the limbs or the heart; and just like the limbs or the heart, it has its own set of weaknesses. It might be impossible to destroy every trace of the self-confirmation bias—but learning to notice it is a good start.