Admiration of Conviction

There are a lot of traits and concepts that Western culture values that I'm unsure about, but this is the one on my mind today.

What's the deal with admiring someone's conviction? Wouldn't it be ethically better, in most cases, to admit that there are reasonable arguments against one's position?

Relatedly, shouldn't we value "flip floppers" and "wafflers" for admitting that the way they feel at any one point is subject to change as new facts, arguments and points of view are considered? How did we come to act as if it were wrong to change one's mind?

It strikes me that there's a social danger in endorsing conviction. I might be wrong, though.

2 separate thoughts:

1) Beliefs that continue to be held when faced with a real challenge (for example, no technology for the Amish) are inherently stronger because they are harder and require more effort to live a life while believing in them. To use a really terrible analogy, it's like watching a couple weightlifters at the gym. A guy who looks big and tough but only ever seems to lift small weights and spends most of his time in the gym oiling up or talking to people probably isn't actually that strong. Whereas a girl who comes in and lifts huge weights has demonstrated her strength. Strong beliefs lead to predictable actions and more trust within the social unit.

2) You could go back to philosophers like Kant who felt that only ideologically pure and consistent lives and actions were worthwhile, but I think our respect for ideas and the debate around them really comes down to truth and trust. If you say you believe something and you follow up on it, you were likely telling the truth when you talked about it. You've given me reason to trust you. And I will be (wisely or not) more likely to trust you when you say things in the future.

I suppose either way comes down to trust. Admiring conviction vs using conviction as a way to judge and uphold the social contract may be different things, but I'd say our impulse to admire those with conviction may have evolved at the same time as our desire to obey authority. Admiring / following the one who seems to always be moving in the same direction with a purpose in mind probably got many tribes much further than those who fell to infighting or questioning themselves too much.

That makes sense, but ... I still don't like it. Maybe I'd split semantics on "trust" versus "predictability." I can see value on predictability, but I see more value in a different sort of trust.

Example time! C'mon, grab your friends!

I know a few engaged guys. There's talk of bachelor parties. I notice that some fiancees "trust" that the fiance won't break any rules of ethical systems that he either subscribes to or that she has imposed/requested. Other fiancees "trust" that the guy will make an informed and conscientious decision, even if it is not the decision that they fiancee would find to be ideal. I hold that the latter is worth valuing much more than the former.

When I see a politician who espouses a belief that is not exemplified in his past, I don't necessarily think he's being unethical. If he says he's against A but voted for A' a decade ago, I want to hear why he's changed his mind, or what he thinks makes A' different.

Because I think that the value in predictability is bad news. I admit that it makes the math easier, just as in game theory and economics it's easier to assume rational actors, and it's easier in physics to assume a frictionless system. But I think that valuing predictability amounts to wanting to treat humans as nonhuman. Humans hold nuanced views. Humans learn and change. Humans can soften. I think that we should value nuance, learning and even softening.

Really good topic, and one that has been on my mind a lot lately. I think that a lot of P&C regulars are of the mind that 'flip flopping' over a 40 year career isn't inherently bad - when it is a result of critical thinking and evolution of views. When it is a result of pandering to the highest bidder, however, it isn't a positive.

I've thought for awhile that Americans do a particularly weird thing where being wrong or making a mistake are the equivalent of moral faults. It may be universal, but I think we start buying into this "winner" and "loser" thing from an early age, and it colors a lot of the things that we do. Make a mistake on a math problem? Loser. You're terrible at math. Drop a pass during a football game? Loser. Back to JV with you. Mistaken about fundamental scientific discoveries? Impossible. I'm no loser! It's clearly those loser scientists who are wrong.

Yeah. I think that the whole "flip-flopper" criticism that's grown in public opinion is really a reaction against obvious pandering. It's just that people have conflated their negative feelings about pandering with negative feelings about any change in position at all.

It's a bit of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

It depends on whether you believe things that are actively counterfactual, like "gravity doesn't exist", or things like "hard work is good for you", which is inherently unprovable. In the first case, 'conviction' can be construed as being crazy. In the second, it's just conviction.

The problem, of course, is in the gray areas, where things can be partly disproven, but not completely.

Like what Jolly Bill was getting at, I suspect there may be a subconscious preference to "conviction" as it relates to predictability and stability; when we know where a person stands on something, we can predict to a greater degree what he will say or do. Conversely, if someone tends to be a "flip-flopper", it creates an uncertainty and "instability" in behavior. And we as a species generally prefer order and certainty to the alternative.

That said, I don't admire conviction; in American politics, at least, it's almost always synonymous to a sort of stubborn resolve to not change one's mind in light of new evidence. The religion/science polemic here in the US political system is a perfect example of that.

Malor wrote:
It depends on whether you believe things that are actively counterfactual, like "gravity doesn't exist", or things like "hard work is good for you", which is inherently unprovable. In the first case, 'conviction' can be construed as being crazy. In the second, it's just conviction.

Which one has inherent value?

I think that most times, when someone says they admire another person's "conviction", they actually admiring the person's lack of hypocrisy.

Farscry wrote:
I think that most times, when someone says they admire another person's "conviction", they actually admiring the person's lack of hypocrisy. ;)

Sir, I believe you are correct, smiley notwithstanding. I know this is what I mean 99% of the time when I say I admire someones conviction.

I think Farscry nailed it.

Farscry wrote:
I think that most times, when someone says they admire another person's "conviction", they actually admiring the person's lack of hypocrisy. ;)

How often is anyone really, truly hypocritical, though? We already know that even things that seem like obvious cases of hypocrisy, the alleged hypocrite's subconscious is spinning in overdrive to differentiate and "clarify."

We see it all the time, with Republican politicians railing about the gay menace, only to get caught in a wide stance.

edit: or Rush Limbaugh talking about the sanctity of marriage, or wanting the death penalty for drug abusers.

wordsmythe wrote:
Farscry wrote:
I think that most times, when someone says they admire another person's "conviction", they actually admiring the person's lack of hypocrisy. ;)

How often is anyone really, truly hypocritical, though? We already know that even things that seem like obvious cases of hypocrisy, the alleged hypocrite's subconscious is spinning in overdrive to differentiate and "clarify."

I'm referring to the difference between what one says and what one does.

So, for instance, it's one thing for a person to consistently speak up against bigotry. It's another for them to then engage in small discriminatory behaviors in spite of what they say. When we say we admire their conviction, it's when we see that they don't engage in behaviors that they could easily lapse into.

Or (using an example of someone I encountered in the past, and I'm not saying whether their logic is right or not), it's one thing for someone to say that they're opposed to college sports because it takes away from academic funds, but then turn around and purchase a sweatshirt for their school's football team to "support the school." If they're opposed to college sports, and then do what they can to ensure they don't support the system as it currently is, then we might say we admire that they're holding to their convictions even if we don't agree with them - because they're acting in accordance with what they say.

Dunno if I'm making sense here, but that's kinda what I was getting at before.

[edit]Oh, and that's why we actually make a point of saying we admire their convictions: because most of us engage in small hypocrisies of the type I'm saying on a regular basis. We say one thing, but don't really care THAT much about it so don't hew to it strongly with our behavior. Like, I'm not fond of foul language in a professional setting, but sometimes it happens (or, in my old job, A LOT of times it happens :oops:). Whereas if I had a coworker who actually managed to never swear in the workplace, I'd admire their conviction to holding their actions accountable to the ideal they say we should aspire to.

Farscry:

I'm not sure that's conviction so much as it's just being forthright with yourself. If you're not true to your stated principle, then the problem isn't so much that you're imperfect so much as it is that you can't admit to yourself that you're actually loyal to another principle.

The chief problem with being true to unpopular principles is that it draws the ire of people who adhere to converse principles, and the violent hatred of those who are loyal to other principles, but profess loyalty to the popular ones.

For instance, baldly saying that everyone lies makes you out to be a cynic, even though it's everyone else that's lying; you're just saying a factual observation.

Of course there's also the small problem of values realignment. Accepting yourself as an imperfect believer in saying the truth all the time can be easier than accepting that you actually like lying more than you like the truth.

Malor wrote:
We see it all the time, with Republican politicians railing about the gay menace, only to get caught in a wide stance.

You don't admire their conviction in that they keep pushing against gay rights while also fighting their own homosexuality? I mean, that must be really difficult. It strikes me that the debate is much easier when you don't really have skin in the game.

Farscry wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Farscry wrote:
I think that most times, when someone says they admire another person's "conviction", they actually admiring the person's lack of hypocrisy. ;)

How often is anyone really, truly hypocritical, though? We already know that even things that seem like obvious cases of hypocrisy, the alleged hypocrite's subconscious is spinning in overdrive to differentiate and "clarify."

I'm referring to the difference between what one says and what one does.

So, for instance, it's one thing for a person to consistently speak up against bigotry. It's another for them to then engage in small discriminatory behaviors in spite of what they say. When we say we admire their conviction, it's when we see that they don't engage in behaviors that they could easily lapse into.

This strikes me, though, as similar to admiring a strength of will, which I find both misguided and potentially dangerous.

I see you focusing in on the specific instance of those who hold scientific or political beliefs that can be proven wrong but continue to believe them anyway and those who find some inherent benefit in that. I would argue that to be merely a subset of conviction. After all, conviction in purely subjective matters or in provably correct beliefs is often a good thing. Conviction to skepticism means questioning even those beliefs that you would otherwise not question as they are similar to previously held beliefs. I would admire the conviction of a skeptic who practiced thus.

Conviction can be misapplied just as any other mechanic can be. As can admiration of it. I don't see the need to denigrate the entire mechanic just because it can be misapplied.

wordsmythe wrote:
You don't admire their conviction in that they keep pushing against gay rights while also fighting their own homosexuality? I mean, that must be really difficult. It strikes me that the debate is much easier when you don't really have skin in the game.

Not in the least. They're telling all those gays out there that they are sinful and wicked, and shouldn't have sex, and then turn around and have that sinful, wicked sex themselves. It is utter hypocrisy.

Jolly Bill wrote:
I see you focusing in on the specific instance of those who hold scientific or political beliefs that can be proven wrong but continue to believe them anyway and those who find some inherent benefit in that. I would argue that to be merely a subset of conviction. After all, conviction in purely subjective matters or in provably correct beliefs is often a good thing. Conviction to skepticism means questioning even those beliefs that you would otherwise not question as they are similar to previously held beliefs. I would admire the conviction of a skeptic who practiced thus.

Conviction can be misapplied just as any other mechanic can be. As can admiration of it. I don't see the need to denigrate the entire mechanic just because it can be misapplied.

If I were to map this discussion in the format of a formal debate, it would be:

1) "Conviction" is not inherently valuable.
a) The value of conviction is subordinate to the value of that in which the conviction is held.
Rebuttal-1: Conviction represents a predictability which is valuable on a broader, sociological level.
Response-1: A value of predictability in humans is a value contrary to the nature of humaness.
(Potential rebuttal: Humanness may or may not be inherently "good")
b) Previous philosophies, particularly in the 19th and 20th centuries, have placed high value on a solidarity and strength of will, to the extent that such notions as "conviction" became viewed as symptomatic of a strength of will. Strength of individual will was, at the time, a paramount virtue.
i) The tongue-in-cheek answer to such value systems is to point to the leaders of nations and industries that it spawned.
ii) The longer answer is that such systems inherently undervalue the weakness inherent in humanness, and thus undervalue those who do not excel or otherwise demonstrate personal strength, which leads to injustice against the underprivileged and disenfranchised, either explicitly or through overvaluing the privileged and powerful.

2) "Conviction" may be inherently dangerous. (I'm short-handing this one.)
a) Conviction may not hold inherent ethical value, but, like gunpowder, must be handled and used with extra care, due to the extreme nature of its potential effects.

wordsmythe wrote:

What's the deal with admiring someone's conviction? Wouldn't it be ethically better, in most cases, to admit that there are reasonable arguments against one's position?

I think other posters have already touched on this, but 'conviction' covers a lot of ground, semantically. I admire the conviction of athletes, and in that sense, it's more of a force of will, refusal to give up and stick-to-it-iveness that I'm talking about. I admire the conviction of parents who make personal sacrifices for the sake of their kids, and that's more about selflessness and altuism.

wordsmythe wrote:

Relatedly, shouldn't we value "flip floppers" and "wafflers" for admitting that the way they feel at any one point is subject to change as new facts, arguments and points of view are considered? How did we come to act as if it were wrong to change one's mind?

Goddamit, yes we should value that. This has been a personal bugbear of mine for years now. Changing your mind based on new evidence should be something we aspire to and celebrate in others. Mental flexibility should be a sought-after attribute, and it drives me nuts to see it so roundly condemned in many circles.

I just tend to think of conviction as an outward sign of strength of belief in something. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is subjective based on the belief itself. Unless of course the belief is "stronger beliefs are better".

Jane Austen's "Persuasion" has interesting things in it about this topic. In it Anne Elliot is contrasted to Louise Musgrove. Strength of character vs. obstinacy.

"Conviction" is not inherently valuable.

Agreed. And I much prefer the discussion in these terms rather than the "What's the deal with admiring someone's conviction?" There are totally valid reasons, in my opinion, to admire someone's conviction that are unrelated to idea of whether conviction is inherently valuable.

"Conviction" may be inherently dangerous

(side note, the use of "may be" in conjunction with "inherently" is contradictory. I must assume the hypothesis is that Conviction is inherently dangerous)

Disagree. I do not find conviction, meaning a fixed or firm belief, to be inherently dangerous. In order to claim conviction to be inherently dangerous we must broaden the scope of inherently dangerous things to the point where the term has no meaning. Conviction is required for many advances across many areas of science, for the operation of the social contract, and for meaningful communication in many ways. We can discuss each of those areas if necessary. Positive examples do not make the concept no longer inherently dangerous, I merely list these subjects to show that the situations in which conviction is dangerous are a small enough subset of it's uses that it does not constitute as inherent danger.

It is neither inevitable nor likely that conviction, taken as a whole without regard to what that conviction is about, will lead to danger towards the individual or society as a whole.

Jolly Bill wrote:
"Conviction" may be inherently dangerous

(side note, the use of "may be" in conjunction with "inherently" is contradictory. I must assume the hypothesis is that Conviction is inherently dangerous)

Disagree. I do not find conviction, meaning a fixed or firm belief, to be inherently dangerous. In order to claim conviction to be inherently dangerous we must broaden the scope of inherently dangerous things to the point where the term has no meaning. Conviction is required for many advances across many areas of science, for the operation of the social contract, and for meaningful communication in many ways. We can discuss each of those areas if necessary. Positive examples do not make the concept no longer inherently dangerous, I merely list these subjects to show that the situations in which conviction is dangerous are a small enough subset of it's uses that it does not constitute as inherent danger.

It is neither inevitable nor likely that conviction, taken as a whole without regard to what that conviction is about, will lead to danger towards the individual or society as a whole.


(side note: I absolutely admit to hedging that. I think that it's worth considering that conviction is inherently dangerous.)

I still think that we can approach something like conviction the way we would approach a volatile chemical. The chemical may be incredibly useful and important in a number of aspects of modern technology and our lifestyles, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be handled with care. I mean, there's a difference between a water fight and a gasoline fight, right?

wordsmythe wrote:

There are a lot of traits and concepts that Western culture values that I'm unsure about, but this is the one on my mind today.

What's the deal with admiring someone's conviction? Wouldn't it be ethically better, in most cases, to admit that there are reasonable arguments against one's position?


I've only heard this language directed at elected officials. Since they're elected largely based on stated positions toward issues, it seems reasonable that they be criticized for not maintaining those positions. But even there, the more pertinent issue would be why the person's position changed rather than that it changed at all.