A minimal theory of ideology for the post-COVID world (2)

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As we saw in the previous entry, the fundamental role of our beliefs consists in telling us what consequences will most probably our actions have, given the current circumstances. Any influence from any factor that leads to systematic biases in those predictions will be detrimental for the very same reason why we want to have beliefs, in the first place. Ideology, hence, understood as such a kind of distorting factor, should only bring harmful effects to the people that ‘see the world’ through the lens of it, preventing them to estimate in a clearly and unbiased way the effects of the possible curses of action they might undertake. We may reasonably ask, then, why are human beings so prone to fall in the ‘mistake’ of being influenced by ideological beliefs. One possible answer, by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier 1, to a related question (why are people so predisposed to commit the ‘confirmation bias’, or ‘my-side bias’) was also examined here not very long ago. Recall that these authors’ answer to that question was, in short, that our reasoning abilities have not evolved to be performed by a solitary, impartial, Cartesian mind, but to compete within groups of pairs that usually have different views and interests, and evolution has imprinted on us a tendency to defend our arguments with the strongest possible reasons, and has left that the criticism of those arguments becomes our opponents’ job, not ours. This was something the Golden Age Spanish play writer Guillén de Castro most beautifully expressed in the play The youthful deeds of El Cid (c. 1615):

Procure siempre acertalla

el honrado y principal,

pero si la acierta mal,

defendella y no enmendalla.

Oh, noble and gentle man

try always to get it right,

but if you do not succeed,

defend it, do not amend it.

This ‘persuasion’ or ‘agonistic’ view of argumentation, more easily associated to dialectics and rhetoric than to logic (see also, e.g., van Eemeren ‘pragma-dialectic’ theory 2), has the virtue of reassure us that people being influenced by ideological biases does not necessarily have a negative impact on the results of public deliberation; rather on the contrary, that influence provides an extra motivation for reasoner’s looking the strongest possible arguments, either in favour of their positions or against those of the opponents. A purely impartial deliberator (a Rawlsian, ideal Mr. Spock, so to say) would probably lack the impulse to pursue his or her arguments till their latest consequences. Hence, ideology may play an important motivating factor in public debates. Problems would start, hence, when some ideologies become too dominant, and do not let people with different views even to express themselves. Ideology, hence, would be socially advantageous when there is freedom of speech and a not merely nominal access to public deliberations, for it tends to favour that the winning arguments have overtaken the harshest possible objections. It would start to turn into a social affliction when just one ideology prevails. Of course, this view has nothing new in it, since it goes back to the oldest arguments in favour of moral liberalism, like John Stuart Mill’s.

To end this short account of my view on ideology I shall offer, however, a less optimistic viewpoint. Notwithstanding the social benefits that ideology may have as a kind of ‘discussion enhancing’ device from a social perspective (or as a ‘self-justificatory help’, from a more psychological and moral point of view, as I suggested in the previous entry), I think that there is an easier way to explain the prevalence of ideological discourse and mentality within human societies, and it is one that invites us not to take to seriously the notion of belief; I mean: let’s not assume so quickly that people do really and strongly believe what they say they believe. Though belief has traditionally been understood as a kind of ‘faith’, and so something associated to a kind of subjective certainty (i.e., being a ‘true believer’), there is also another notion of belief, more associated to the Bayesian idea of ‘degrees of belief’, in which we talk about beliefs in the sense of things that we do not know, but think however that are more or less probable. How much probable? The truth is that not necessarily too much. Hence, regarding typical ideological beliefs, like, for example, believing that free markets are always efficient, or that communism would work, or that western societies are utterly patriarchal, etc., do you really think that people expressing those beliefs are really convinced with absolute certainty of their unrestrained truth? Please allow me to doubt. Would these people accept a bet in which, if there were an objective way of ultimately testing the truth of those ideological claims, and they ended up being false, they’d have to lose their right hand, say? I think they wouldn’t bet under those circumstances: they are not so sure. But then, what role do those (really uncertain, but impetuous) beliefs play in the mental and argumentative machinery of those people?

My guess is that this has to do again with something that is usually forgotten in discussions about ideology: the unavoidable uncertainty about most of our practical knowledge. I started by saying that we need knowledge in order to foresee the consequences of our possible actions, but those forecastings are usually rather uncertain in most cases. Our actions have lots of consequences, and some of these consequences are less certain than others. We simply cannot be very sure of what will happen exactly if we do A instead of B under circumstances C. And even more when the circumstances and the actions are political in nature, i.e., involving the behaviour and interests of many different people. But it is important that, as I have just said, not all the consequences of an action are equally uncertain: some are more certain, and some more doubtful. For example, long-term consequences tend to be much less sure than short-term ones.

Suppose, then, that we are in a political debate in which there are two possible courses of action, A and B. An ideally objective mind would try to scrutinize the ‘expected utility’ she would get from each, and choose the one that maximises that mathematical function. But usually this is not the way we mentally function, mostly because the world doesn’t have the habit of offering us data so precise and abundant as to make such a computation possible. Instead, we usually don’t have other alternative except considering how good or bad we think the almost sure consequences of A and B, basing our evaluation mostly on that, and leave a little margin to take into consideration how good or bad their more uncertain consequences are. Very probably, almost everybody would agree on what are the almost sure consequences; disagreement will grow as we start considering less sure ones. Let’s assume that A is your preferred option, i.e. A is the option whose more sure consequences are better from your point of view. My conjecture is that the main role of ideology consists in giving you a preference for those theories that, if they were true, would entail that the less sure consequences of A are also better for almost everybody.

Just with an example: imagine that A is a liberal economic policy, and B is a socialist or Keynesian economic policy; or, to be still more concrete: A consists in lowering taxes and cutting social services, and B consists in the opposite. What is what makes of you, say, ‘a liberal’? Both liberal and Keynesians will agree on certain short-term consequences of A and B; for example, in the short term, the income of the wealthy will raise if A is applied, and the welfare of many people depending on social services will decrease. Being a liberal, you believe (but, remember, ‘belief’ is not knowledge) that liberal policies will make national product grow, so that, in the long term, even the poor will be in a better position than if B were applied. Of course, the objective truth of liberal or Keynesian theories, especially about their long term consequences, is not only hard to establish, but very probably it’s just impossible. So, everything remains in the realm of ‘mere belief’. You have an interest, then, in persuading as much people as possible of the truth of liberal theories, for the more popular they become, the more likely it will be that their recommended policies get applied. The question is, are you also persuaded? Probably yes, because being persuaded of something makes much easier for you to convince others, and also because the other biases we mentioned and the beginning will probably make you to have more sensibility towards ‘your-side’ arguments.

Hence, to conclude: ideology may have several roles in our ‘economy of thought’, but probably the most important one is helping us to navigate social debates in our favour (at least in the short term) in a world of uncertainties.


  1. Mercier, H., and D. Sperber, 2017, The enigma of reason. A new theory of human understanding. Harvard, Harvard University Press.
  2. Eemeren, F.H. van, & Houtlosser, P. (2006). Strategic maneuvering: A synthetic recapitulation. Argumentation, 20, 381-392.

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