There are conflicts of values, and there are conflicts of theories, and there are conflicts of facts.

Conflicts of facts: statements about the world. Vaccines are safe vs. vaccines cause autism
Conflicts of theories: analysis of statements about the world. Supply-side economics vs. whatever we call the real world these days
Conflicts of values: fundamental motivations. Property rights vs. human rights. Rights of a fetus vs. rights of a mother. Ars gratia artis vs. art as instrumental good.

One thing I find helpful is identifying whether I am in a values-conflict, a theory-conflict, or a facts-conflict with someone.

Facts-conflicts are sometimes easy to resolve, but not always; contradicting one without contradicting many is rarely possible.

Values-conflicts are pretty much impossible to resolve except through precisely defining their scope and moving to figure out how to live with each other anyway. People’s values can change, but rarely in response to argument per se.

Theories-conflicts are tricky, but often easy to deescalate if you can recognize what they are. Often it’d take college courses of material to be able to tease out “who’s right.”

The American Death Cult

Anil Dash wrote a piece called “The American Death Cult” that I think misrepresents facts-conflicts and theories-conflicts as values-conflicts. He claims a lot of Bad views are based in reasoning that reduces to “that’s the cost of freedom, and freedom is worth that cost.”

He begins with gun rights, so I will too.

I have found that gun rights supporters do not broadly accept as fact that “guns radically increase the odds of a member of our family shooting themselves or others, either accidentally or intentionally”. They often believe as fact things that I do not believe about the utility of guns in self-defense and home defense. This then allows them to make a practical calculation that weighs in favor of gun ownership even when their values are similar to mine.

This is distinct from arguments about the rights of the government to take away those guns. These arguments are typically founded on a combination of facts and theory that posit the sorts of arms a private citizen can acquire are protective versus tyranny. This isn’t quite an abstract invocation of “freedom”; it is a fact-belief that small arms would make a difference in an armed uprising1 and a theory-belief that this difference has a positive impact in the large on the relationship between a government and its citizenry.

There are further examples that seem not entirely in good faith–well, rather, I think Dash would be capable of thoughtful conversation with the people who hold the positions he’s here reducing to “Freedom!”

So the question then becomes–if Anil is labeling these as values-conflicts when I don’t think they are, what can cause a conflict to be misidentified as a values-conflict?

Back to Facts

I think the structure of the second part of his post points to the answer.

  • Liberals think that the solution to these conflicts is to just present logical arguments
  • This doesn’t work
  • This is because these arguments take shared values on faith like “death is bad”

Thoughtful, well-intentioned people really struggle with anticipating a response of “So what?” when presented with the incontrovertible risk of innocent people dying.

Liberals do often think that the right Vox explainer will fix societal problems. And it doesn’t work; people aren’t persuaded. But I think Dash is vastly underestimating the credibility issues these arguments face at the level of facts if he thinks the risk is “incontrovertible” to the recipient of this presentation. That is: these aren’t values-conflicts, people just never accepted your facts.

If I believe that I don’t share values with someone, my heuristic may be to be skeptical of their facts. In an age of information overload, heuristics are important and inevitable. I am not sent on a panicked Google search every time a Prager U ad makes a shocking claim because I know enough other BS that’s come out of that well that I don’t need to treat it as Likely True.

In a foreseeable though horrifying twist, this is approximately how a lot of this country feels about any institution that smells “elite”. This means that you may think you have mustered compelling, neutral evidence, and the person reading may not believe your argument because that evidence doesn’t come from the sources they trust.


Dash’s conclusion is that logical arguments are a waste of time.

We have to do the right thing despite the nihilistic desires of the death cult. They’re going to get mad about it, and they’re going to call us nasty names and accuse us of terrible things for trying to save lives. So what?

I mostly agree. It gets tricky, though, in an age of communicable disease. A lockdown is either largely voluntary or an achievement of a police state. My parents live in a COVID hotspot. Their safety depends on other people doing the right thing, even to the degree that a police state couldn’t hope to enforce2.

So if rational arguments haven’t been working, and there is still immense value to others in whatever reality-compliance can be coaxed from COVID denialists, how do we move forward?

If it’s a values-conflict, then Dash is right, there’s not much you can do. But if it’s really a facts-conflict, can you make a difference?

Fire the messenger: local authorities are more trusted than national authorities to not be part of Giant Conspiracies. Community leaders’ credibility with their communities matters a lot more than getting the guy with The Best Medical Degree in front of the camera. This one is hard for a lot of libs out there who want to hear from the Head of the Pandemic Institute at Ivy League University.

Crack down on fake facts: This is a biggie, a toughie, and I don’t have new ideas to contribute to the fight. But it really, really matters.

What else?

  1. Against a nearly infinitely overequipped adversary, it need not be noted 

  2. I don’t want a police state, to be clear, but even in a police state, you can’t really get people to make sure they’re getting between their fingers when they wash their hands.