Issues on which People are Most Resistant to Persuasion

This semester, I am once again teaching Constitutional Law II: The Fourteenth Amendment. I often tell my students in this class that there are three issues on which most people are particularly resistant to rational persuasion: abortion, the death penalty, and affirmative action. And it so happens that the course covers all three.

Actually, there is a general tendency of to discount opposing arguments on a wide range of political issues, not just these ones. It’s a consequence of our general lack of incentive to think rationally about politics. But the problem is worse on some issues than others, and these three strike me as among the worst offenders.

Why are people more close-minded on some issues than others? One factor is intensity of commitment. Obviously, these are issues on which many people have strongly held views. But that doesn’t differentiate them from a lot of other policy disputes. Think of the many people who have intensely held views on health care, taxation, gun rights, and so on. More important, I think, is that these are issues where most people believe that your stance derives directly from your fundamental values, rather than disagreements about empirics. Either you believe that abortion is like murder or you don’t; either it’s inherently wrong for the state to execute people or it’s not; affirmative action is either overdue compensation for historic injustices or it’s a form of invidious racial discrimination. By contrast, most people recognize that disputes over issues like taxes or health care are at least in part driven by differences over empirical questions rather than values. In reality, of course, empirical questions do matter to disputes over affirmative action and the death penalty. How effective are affirmative action programs? How much does the death penalty deter murder? How many innocent people are likely to be executed? But most people don’t think about these issues in such terms. They assume that the real source of disagreement is values rather than facts.

Finally, these three issues are ones on which it’s hard to find a coherent compromise position. You can tell a persuasive story about why tax rates should be higher than conservatives say, yet lower than what liberals want. But it’s hard to explain why we should adopt a policy that’s somehow in between a strong pro-life position and a strong prochoice view. The same goes for affirmative action and the death penalty.

I have not seen any systematic research comparing the degree of close-mindedness on these issues relative to others. So it’s possible that attitudes on these three issues are not as hidebound as I think, or that things are worse on other issues than I imagine. For what it’s worth, I myself have changed my views on two of these three over the years (less pro-choice than I used to be, and less hostile to affirmative action). But I think those changes happened at least in part because I don’t care about these two issues as much as many other people do, and therefore was less emotionally invested in my views about them.