Discover more from A User's Guide to History
Does anyone really believe anything?
Or are we all simply rationalizers?
When I was ten or twelve years old, I experienced a moral revelation. I was attending a Catholic elementary school, where the nuns filled the students with stories of saints and martyrs. The stories, especially about the martyrs, had an edge of violence to them, but they always ended with the thrilling prospect of eternal glory and bliss in heaven. These holy men and women were held up to us as models of selflessness and devotion to God.
Perhaps my revelation occurred around Christmas time. I say this because the storyline of the martyrs struck me a bit like the version of Santa Claus where he keeps a list of who's been naughty and who's been nice. And just as parents have used Santa as an enforcer of good behavior, so it seemed to me the saints and martyrs weren't really selfless at all. The church, or maybe God himself, was bribing people to be good. Take one for the team on earth, and get your reward in heaven. After that, I never heard the saint stories in quite the same way.
In college I studied mathematics and encountered Blaise Pascal, a Frenchman who pioneered the mathematical theory of probability. Pascal was also a devout Catholic. Trying to square his scientific skepticism with his religious devotion, he proposed what came to be called Pascal's wager. In answer to the question of whether he should believe in God or not, Pascal considered his alternatives and their possible consequences.
He could believe in God or not. In either case, he could be right or wrong.
If he chose God and was right, he won the big bonanza of eternity in heaven, less the carnal pleasures forgone in a godly life. If he chose God and was wrong—that is, there was no God— his loss was the relatively modest opportunity cost of not leading a hedonistic life on earth.
If he did not choose God and was right, his prize was those carnal pleasures with no strings attached. If he did not choose God and was wrong—there was a God— he enjoyed the carnal pleasures for a few decades and then burned in hell for eternity.
Clearly the smart bet was on God.
I was intrigued by the approach, but also put off. It carried the calculation I imputed to the martyrs to a bloodless extreme. What kind of faith was it, what kind of moral code, that relied on a matrix of probable outcomes?
Yet the exercise got me to asking whether anybody really believes anything. Perhaps we all weigh our self-interest and then concoct belief systems to make ourselves feel good about our selfishness.
I've thought about this in the context of politics. Politicians are people, and people tend to put the best spin on their actions. This is more obvious in the case of politicians, who are constantly making public decisions and explaining them publicly.
When was the last time you observed an elected official or candidate for office articulate a position that contradicted his or her political self-interest? I asked myself this question recently and one person immediately came to mind: Liz Cheney. The Wyoming congresswoman has certainly shown more backbone than almost anyone else in the Republican party, in pressing for full disclosure of Donald Trump's attempts to overturn the election of 2020. For this she deserves ample credit.
Yet it certainly has occurred to Cheney that her party won't be in thrall to Donald Trump forever, and that when the party returns to its senses, those who stood for traditional Republican values might well claim leadership positions, including a presidential nomination.
The case of Liz Cheney reveals the false choice proposed in the title and subtitle of this essay. She undoubtedly believes Donald Trump is a threat to the republic. At the same time, there is a rational, self-interested basis for taking the course she has chosen. Self-interested beliefs can be rationalizations, but they aren't often merely rationalizations.
I’ll give the last word on this aspect of human nature to Benjamin Franklin: “So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”