The 2020 Election Plot Thickens
There is more than one way to skin a cat, it seems.
I have previously pointed out the craziness of the epistemic standard that is being deployed against Donald Trump in the election-interference cases. The epistemic standard in question is the belief, or more precisely the assumption, universally shared by Trump’s opponents, that it’s unreasonable to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. Here’s an innocuous-seeming but flagrantly question-begging recent example from The Bulwark: “The widespread conspiracy to overthrow the 2020 election, depicted in both the federal Washington, D.C. indictment and the Fulton County, Georgia indictment, was an attack on the foundations of the republic.”
This is to assume what must be proved. What must be proved, in order for the anti-Trump unreasonableness postulate to be justified (i.e., that it’s unreasonable to believe the 2020 election was stolen), is the assumption that the election clearly was not stolen. This assumption is inherent in the anti-Trump unreasonableness postulate. That postulate is not merely pervasive but universal among Trump’s enemies, including among some members of the Federalist Society. The problem is that it can’t just be assumed but must be proved (in that it must at least be cogently argued for), if one is to justify the belief/assumption that it’s unreasonable -- as opposed to mistaken albeit reasonable -- to believe that the election was stolen.
I happen to think it’s not mistaken to believe that the election was stolen, but the point here is the further one that it’s not unreasonable to believe that. Whether the belief that the election was stolen is mistaken or not is a whole different issue. It is, of course, the issue we should be addressing, and which we would be able to fairly address were it not for the question-begging “Big Lie” narrative, which shuts down a proper debate.
However, there’s another big difficulty with the idea that it’s unreasonable to believe that the 2020 election was stolen. This is that the claim that it’s unreasonable to believe the election was stolen is counterintuitive. Note well: it’s not counterintuitive to think that the election was not stolen. What’s counterintuitive is to think that it’s unreasonable to believe the election was stolen. That this is counterintuitive is the inescapable conclusion of any honest and self-aware thinker who has a basic familiarity with the events preceding Election Day 2020, and the several days following it -- whether or not that person believes the election was in fact stolen.
Often, but not invariably, the unreasonableness standard (or postulate) is counterintuitive on one or both sides of any social or political controversy in which there is widespread disagreement, such as abortion, same-sex marriage, COVID vaccines and masking, and the 2020 election. A case-by-case analysis will show whether, when one side is regarded by the other side as having an unreasonable belief, the unreasonableness is symmetrical between the two positions. It might or might not be. It may be that just one of the two (or more) sides is thinking counterintuitively. But often, both sides are. As we will see in the case of Trump, the symmetry or asymmetry can be as revealing as the matter of being counterintuitive in the first place.
Take abortion, by way of example. The proposition that it’s unreasonable to believe that fetuses have a right to life is powerfully counterintuitive, even if you are someone who believes that fetuses do not, in fact, have a right to life. Also counterintuitive is the proposition that it’s unreasonable to believe that a woman has greater moral autonomy than a fetus. (That’s a close analogue to “it’s unreasonable to believe that the fetus does not have a right to life.”). In short, the unreasonableness postulate appears to be symmetrical as between the contesting positions in the abortion debate. This “tie” with respect to counterintuitive thinking suggests that each side in the abortion debate must, for the sake of having a rational debate, steer clear of unreasonableness postulates. In other words, in the abortion debate it is better to embrace epistemic modesty in the form of what it is reasonable to believe, and to reject the epistemic triumphalism of what it is unreasonable to believe. The former is far less likely to raise the specter of counterintuitive thinking, maybe vastly less likely.
Needless to say, the desirability of rejecting the unreasonableness standard is for situations where disagreement is widespread and plainly reasonable; it does not apply to, say, a debate about whether the earth is flat. We can confidently say it’s unreasonable to believe that the earth is flat. This is admittedly an extreme case; there are still other cases where it’s hard to say what is unreasonable or not unreasonable. Another thing to be clear about: the counterintuitive thinking in question is understood to be after or upon reflection. A rational intuition or counterintuition can certainly be pre-reflective, but oftentimes, such as with the 2020 election and the question of whether it was stolen, it seemingly cannot be pre-reflective. You have to first think about the matter, in light of the observable facts, to decide what it is rationally intuitive or counterintuitive to believe about the 2020 election.
Suppose we try the flipside by considering the pro-Trump unreasonableness standard. Abbreviating (for ease of reading) the statement “it’s unreasonable to believe that the election was not stolen” as unreasonable-to-believe-not-stolen, ask yourself whether it’s counterintuitive. Unreasonable-to-believe-not-stolen is undoubtedly as question-begging as unreasonable-to-believe-stolen, but is it just as counterintuitive? The answer is that if the pro-Trump unreasonableness standard is counterintuitive at all, it is surely less counterintuitive than the anti-Trump unreasonableness standard.
In the 2020 election debate, and notably unlike in the abortion debate, counterintuitive thinking is (apparently) asymmetrical. And it’s asymmetrical in Trump’s favor. This is very unexpected! The fact that unreasonable-to-believe-not-stolen is not obviously counterintuitive -- in contrast to unreasonable-to-believe-stolen -- helps make clear how striking is the bias against Trump in the election-interference cases, and on the subject of the “Big Lie” more generally. And all this from a logical, or more precisely an epistemic, perspective. (“Epistemic” means simply knowledge-relevant, where knowledge is understood, as it has long been by philosophers, as justified true belief.)
If you’re someone like Jamie Raskin, this is the point where maybe you start to get depressed. It will take a bit longer before you begin to suspect that the only thing you have against Trump, at least in the election-interference cases, is propaganda. And then you will have to choose between your personal integrity, on the one hand, and what your tribe counts as success, on the other hand. If you’re someone like J. Michael Luttig or William Barr, you have to worry about that, but also about what tribe you belong to.
Image: Becker 1999