Judgments, Justifications, and Hydroxychloroquine

For the record, I had to copy-paste this drug into the title.

As if Sarah Cooper’s newfound quarantine job was not fun enough, new material just keeps flooding in from the White House.

In moments like this, it is good to take a step back and maybe process a little bit further than the news can on just what exactly, the fuck, is up with all this?

I wish I could say that this news report was the first shocking sign of the information cycle going into a tailspin, but I cannot really claim that either.

Lately I have been reading books on psychology, more specifically Jonathan Haidt, after his podcast with Sam Harris. I had always wanted to read the more recent The Coddling of the American Mind, but first I wanted to check in with The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. To me, this is all in the subtitle: it speaks perfectly to the dilemma I am faced with now. My close relatives are saying things I cannot imagine, everything from conspiracy theories to unabashed adoration of Donald Trump, regardless of whatever he says or does at this point. I always thought that at least a pandemic would allow us to reevaluate our choices, but it seems people are strapping in, putting on more seat belts, and tweeting more.

Alright so let’s get the quotes Donald said about the drug: from CNBC.

“I happen to be taking it,” Trump said during a roundtable event at the White House. “A lot of good things have come out. You’d be surprised at how many people are taking it, especially the front-line workers. Before you catch it. The front-line workers, many, many are taking it.”

He added: “I’m taking it, hydroxychloroquine. Right now, yeah. Couple of weeks ago, I started taking it. Cause I think it’s good, I’ve heard a lot of good stories.”

I think the best way to look at this moment is to understand the difference between judgment and justification. Before taking the drug, we would pass judgment on anyone taking a medication without understanding the full range of side effects. This is a social standard. Now, clearly there are people who takes drugs out of desperation due to chronic illness, or there are people who take advantage of others by offering garbage to people, but still. Overall, people tend to wait on doing research for medications, because there are going to be trade offs.

Judgment is a moral code that we all pass, and it allows social cohesion in groups because they are intuitively easy to understand and follow. It is a feeling that comes from disgust, and obviously to many there are certain elements of disgust here that prevent many of us taking the drug, most notably that it can cause heart problems and death.

Justification is something that occurs after the incident, and, what’s more dangerous, is that it is wholly separate from judgment. It is not based on intuition, but on reasoning. Performance and comprehension are not the same thing. You think a basketball player has to actively consider each move before doing it? No one would watch that sport. The speed is the key here. That’s why Daniel Kahneman’s book is called Thinking Fast and Slow.

I have pulled a page from Jonathan Haidt’s book here to elaborate:

Justification is best seen in having affairs. Many partners, after they are caught, attempt to rationalize their behavior with a story created after the fact. There was no guarantee that they had made that story before they started cheating, only that it occurred after. We judge people who have cheated, and we do not believe their justifications. The problem is that these partners may not care. They may still go with their justifications, regardless if it is true or not, or even rational.

The downside to Trump’s argument is that it is wrong, plain wrong. And yet the problem with many people, not just our sitting president, is that it does not deter us from processing the judgment portion, or the justification portion.

Each of these elements has downsides and drawbacks. If there is no harm done to any party, why do we judge? And if the justification of a choice is designed to make someone look good, though it causes irreparable harm to friends and families, is it a good one? The real danger is putting people in leadership positions who are not only unable to retroactively admit mistakes and alter decision-making with new information, but to double down on justifications and alienate themselves from alternative opinions.

That is what is at stake over the next couple of months. I cannot wait to read more of Jonathan Haidt and see where my judgments and justifications have gone astray.

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