Applying the ‘switch test’ to politics

In thinking about many issues, especially those that involve foreign policy, I like to apply the ‘switch test’. This is where I reverse the roles of the participants to see what the reaction might be. It is a good way to see if people are basing their thinking on some universal principle equally applied or in a partisan way and judging an action purely on the basis of who is doing it to whom. Sadly, it is often the latter attitude that predominates.

For example, in the discussions on the NSA revelations by Edward Snowden, the public and politicians in the US seem to be particularly concerned about spying on American citizens and seem far less concerned about the US government spying on foreigners. The latter seems to be arousing remarkably little protest, although Europeans are expressing anger to their own governments about what the US is doing to them.

But are Americans basing this attitude on the principle that governments should be restricted from spying on their own citizens but should be free to spy on foreigners? If so, would they shrug off news that (say) the Chinese government had set up a massive spying operation that scooped up all communications by Americans?

I doubt that. Look at the anger over reports that the Chinese were hacking into US businesses. One can easily imagine what the reaction would be if the Chinese were shown to be scooping up all communications by all Americans. There would be a massive uproar, implying that they feel that governments should not be spying on foreigners. But then why are they not upset about the US spying on foreigners?

Another case is one I have mentioned before. Some are angry with Snowden for revealing information about the US spying on China. Now apply the switch test to that case. If a Chinese intelligence official revealed information about Chinese spying on the US, would we treat that as courageous truth–telling on the basis that people around the world need to know what their governments are up to? Or would we treat that person as a traitor who should be turned over to the Chinese authorities for punishment?

The switch test can be great aid in unearthing the motivations of people.


  1. trucreep says

    Yes! The switch test is one of the easiest yet most revealing experiments you can try with almost anything. I remember some conservatives telling liberals to apply this test over their outrage at President Bush’s programs…as we can clearly see, they didn’t take the opportunity to try it out then.

  2. machintelligence says

    It usually reveals a bad case of “It’s OK if we do it but bad if you do it” syndrome.
    Or to put it another way: Where you stand depends upon where you sit.

  3. Chiroptera says

    The response usually starts with, “Yeah, but….”

    Yeah but should be the name of this.

  4. Jeffrey Johnson says

    Placing yourself in the shoes of another is always an important part of moral reasoning.

    In Daniel Dennet’s recent book “Intuition Pumps,” he talks about envisioning arguments or statements or explanatory analogies that appeal to intuitions as if they were devices with knobs that can be turned. Tweak the meaning by turning the knobs to see how things change.

    For example the country, the religion, the party, the race, etc. of people involved in a situation are one type of parameter you can vary by “turning the knobs”.

    For me the reaction of people to the killing of Anwar Al Awlaki was revealing in this way. For some reason, the existence of the drone program to fire hellfire missiles at terrorists, which had been going on since 2002, did not really excite lots of passion and anger until an American was killed. People who had been silent until this event were suddenly displaying their moral purity as a matter of pride by loudly denouncing the program. To me it seems the opposite of morality to ignore or discount the deaths of foreigners while becoming disproportionately outraged over the deaths of Americans. It made me feel that such people didn’t really care until the idea that it could happen to them was triggered. We saw much of this same kind of hypocritical indifference to foreign casualties in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    Evidently many people are content with the world as long as all is well for Americans, while caring little or nothing about what happens to other human beings. Or when thinking about public policy in general, they really only consider how it impacts themselves personally, rather than consider a larger view. We should apply the same standards to all humans. That is the essence of Kant’s categorical imperative.

  5. Mano Singham says

    I like Daniel Dennett but the problem is that he writes books faster than others can read them so it is hard to keep abreast of his thinking.

  6. says

    Right… I’ve been pretty furious lately about how Bush’s critics have flipped on issues since Obama has been elected. I say one set of principles, applied fairly but evenly to every situation. Like Jon Stewart said: “If you don’t stick to your values when they’re being tested, they’re not values: they’re hobbies.”

  7. Pierce R. Butler says

    Didn’t even Jesus offer a similar concept?

    I suspect we could trace this back to Democritus and earlier, while finding parallels in most cultures.

    Maybe one day they’ll learn how to do it on the TeeVee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *