Coming to Doubt One’s Views: A Prelude to Some Research

In my Jan. 7th post ‘A Disturbing Beginning…’, I presented a challenge: if, as we nearly always believe about ourselves, we can clearly see the moral truth on several matters, then what sense should we make of other cultures (or other people in our culture) having equally strong convictions that go in the opposite direction, and who think that we’re mistaken? Shouldn’t that cause us to doubt our moral views? Several commenters gave the answer that I felt confident about a couple of years ago: in such disagreements, we share a common moral sense with the other side but differ on the non-moral facts of the matter (on what leads to the healthiest physical and psychological development of children, or on whether animals can feel pain, etc.) So if (and only if!) we have good reason to believe that the other side is factually mistaken on these non-moral matters, we are justified in maintaining our moral convictions in the face of disagreement.

On Jan. 12th, under the heading ‘New Schedule…’, I distilled the essence of what all the commenters had said in that previous post in order to confirm that this was indeed what everyone agreed on. Absolutely nobody contested  my statement of their view, which I called the ‘straightforward view’.

Having made all those careful preparations, I presented my ‘Hopi Animals…’ post to show that that straightforward view faces serious difficulties! Unless we can show that the other side is mistaken on some non-moral factual matter in the Hopi, Roman and Chinese cases, we either have to accept their radically different moral views or else we have to abandon the straightforward view of moral disagreement. This is huge! When I first came upon this challenge to the straightforward view I firmly believed in, I thought and thought but couldn’t think of any plausible non-moral facts that the Hopi, Romans and Chinese were getting wrong and that would explain my disagreement with them. I saw, therefore, that my view was in trouble and that it would be wrong of me to keep confidently maintaining it (thanks to sob1989 who pointed out that this is clearer than saying that I became ‘convinced otherwise’). And so far, nobody on this blog (or anywhere else that I know of) has thought of any false non-moral fact that the Hopi, Roman or Chinese culture accepted that would explain this moral disagreement.

I must admit to feeling proud to change my mind (or come to doubt my older views) in the face of the evidence and arguments when I do. In general, I think a decent measure of one’s intellectual honesty is how frequently one actually admits that one can’t respond to counter-arguments against one’s firmly-held views and begins to feel less confident about those views (or even abandons them). Consider for a moment: when was the last time you recognized you were wrong on some matter you felt strongly about? Yesterday? A week ago? A month? A year? Ten years? Can you even think of the last time? Right now, see whether you can make a list of ten times you’ve changed your mind (or abandoned your old view) on a matter you previously thought you were obviously right about. How easy do you find that? The long stretches when you haven’t abandoned any of your major views are times when you were intellectually stagnant. We get such a short time in this life to learn about the world, and that requires constant belief revision. And we who have the luxury to contribute to this blog, in our age and lands of relative intellectual freedom, seem to have no excuse for throwing away our gift of learning — of facing the challenges against our views and adjusting or abandoning them in the face of good evidence! Not only is intellectual stubbornness a waste of our gifts, but it makes society worse. A functioning democracy, in particular, requires all of us to subject our most firmly held views to close intellectual scrutiny and to ruthlessly abandon or modify them when they become untenable.

Unfortunately, though, we tend to be spectacular failures at coming to doubt our views. Even on the most trivial issues, we tend to respond mindlessly and overconfidently to criticism. As long as we have something to say in response, we’re happy with ourselves and feel no need to take the criticism or opposing view seriously. We tend not to care that much whether our response is true or even consistent with everything else we believe! This reminds me of a joke I came across years ago in a book of Jewish humour. Lisa approaches her neighbour, Rachel, and says, “This dish you returned to my daughter yesterday is cracked!”. “Listen, Lisa,” Rachel fires back. “First, the dish was fine when I returned it to her. Second, that crack was already there when you lent it to me last week. And third, I never borrowed your goddamn dish!” We all have an easy time seeing when others do this: the difficulty is seeing it in ourselves.

Because we tend to be much less interested in pursuing the truth than in dismissing the other view and maintaining our own come what may, disagreements on moral and other matters tend to worsen rather than improve social relations. Richard Garner discusses this in the opening chapter of his book Beyond Morality. Take any moral issue: gun rights, or the Quebec charter, or physician-assisted suicide, or whatever. You hold a belief on that issue, and many of your closest friends share that belief. You can’t imagine how any right-minded person could feel otherwise. You and your friends are happy to have that in common, and it’s pleasant for you to invent and repeat slogans and arguments that show how out to lunch the other side is. You can get bumper stickers that present your view, and that brings you into contact with others who think like you do (though now and again you run into a hostile meathead from the other side of the issue who has a problem with the sticker). 

Then you come across someone in your circle who disagrees with you on this matter. You think to yourself: “Aha, here’s someone who hasn’t thought the matter through or heard the right reasons!” and you start reciting the facts and arguments that are commonplace among those of your convictions. But they don’t faze this other person, who presents facts and arguments that her own side likes to throw around.

This irritates both of you. If you’re not a very intellectually rigorous person, you’ll just dismiss the person as a fool and not be bothered by anything she said. And even if you are somewhat intellectually rigorous, you’ll go do some research: not research that will help you discover whether you’re right or wrong, but research that will prove that you must already be right. After all, neither of you really have the intellectual honesty to take seriously the possibility that you could be mistaken on as clear an issue as this: you know you’re in the right, and you just need a little help in proving it.

So you do your research, think through your masterful arguments, and memorize your facts. But the next time you meet, you find the other person has done the same thing on her side and you get nowhere! For the next round, if you’re really committed to ‘working out’ the issue (i.e. finding ways to support the foregone conclusion), you go out and buy a book entitled Why ______ is True and _ _ _ _ _ is False, or whatever. But even this gets you nowhere, since those on the other side have read a book that argues for the opposite view, complete with statistical appendixes and pages of references to the scholarly literature, etc. When even this fails to show the other person that you are right, you finally fall back upon the last three possibilities: 1) that other person is too stupid to understand the correct arguments; 2) that other person is insane or brainwashed; or 3) that other person understands the non-moral facts, but is totally devoid of moral fiber and has the the wrong view for immoral reasons. And of course, she’s thinking the same thing about you: neither of you has taken seriously for a moment the possibility that you’re the stupid, insane, or immoral one.

Admittedly, this is a pretty bleak view! Perhaps we aren’t really that bad. Let’s look at a more optimistic view side by side with the pessimistic one:

The Optimistic View: By and large, we have the power to tell right from wrong through reasoning, empathy, and just a good moral sense. Moral disagreements arise when our reasoning, empathy or moral sense is compromised somehow — owing to lack of discipline, confusion or ignorance of key facts, brainwashing by religious or other propaganda, or other psychological pressures. But when intelligent, morally in-tune, psychologically healthy and informed people like you are presented with a moral challenge, you consider the matter impartially and reasonably, arriving in the end at a fair and correct decision. The moral reasons you present for your views are the very reasons that led you to accept those views; and if you were to realize that all your reasons for maintaining your view had been refuted and that you had no particular reason to maintain your view, you would admit that and abandon your view.

The Pessimistic View: Nearly all the moral decisions that come naturally to us (yes, including you and me!) are made not on the basis of reasoning and good evidence, but on the basis of social, environmental, and genetic pressures that really have nothing to do with moral rightness or wrongness. It tends to be only when we’re challenged that reasoning and evidence come into the picture; and when they do, they present a mere façade: they do nothing more than allow us to rationalize what we’ve already decided on non-rational grounds.

On the optimistic view, our reason is the driver of our moral beliefs. Those other people tend to be brainwashed, stupid, immoral, insane rationalizers; but we choose to be led to the moral truth by reasoning on the best available evidence.

On the pessimistic view, our reason is the servant of our moral beliefs. We tend to arrive at our moral beliefs non-reasonably, and then we employ our reason as a lawyer to argue for us — not to question the verdict we’ve reached on largely emotional grounds.

Which view is correct — the optimistic one, or the pessimistic one? On Monday, I’ll present the results of some research on that topic.

7 thoughts on “Coming to Doubt One’s Views: A Prelude to Some Research

  1. This sounds familiar to me: But they don’t faze this other person, who presents facts and arguments that her own side likes to throw around.
    And so you go to the parking lot…..? (the usual Marine response)
    Or, you gather your friends together to work to get rid of the dissenter? (the usual ‘civilized” response) think Socrates or Jesus.


  2. I don’t know; I tried to be open to the Quebec Charter and assess its “rightness” without having an a-priori position. And after consideration and assessment of differing views I made my decision.


  3. Nebulaflash, you may be optimistic – if you believe youj are going to get the “correct” answer! I don’t know that we agree on much here. What is morality? Moral theory? Actions by themselves tell us nothing. We need to know about intentions, consequences (I am thinking of the drowning girl example from an earlier thread).
    Is there a subtle difference between “correct answer” and the “right answer”?


    • Thanks, 666author.

      Just to be clear:
      1) I mean the same thing by ‘the correct answer’ and ‘the right answer’; and
      2) In saying that such-and-such is the moral thing for so-and-so to do in some particular circumstance, I mean to factor in intentions, consequences, personal abilities, circumstances, etc. Morality takes all those factors into consideration.

      To take the drowning girl example you mention: If my _intention_ in rescuing the girl is to save a life, then it seems I have acted morally; if my intention in doing it is to gain the trust of a family whom I plan to slaughter in the woods, then… not so moral. If I run to my truck upon seeing the drowning because I can get a rope and make the _consequence_ of rescuing the girl more likely, that’s morally relevant. So would it be if my _personal abilities_ didn’t include the ability to swim, etc. etc.

      The problem of moral disagreement is only a problem if we control for all these factors and we still get disagreements among large groups of people who deliberate carefully, agree on all the non-moral facts, and so on. For example, consider the following statement:

      “_If_ you are living in a society in which women have no real chance of self-sufficiency, _and_ your family would be financially prosperous and high-status if you married off your young daughters to powerful men but just moderate in status and prosperity if you married them off to lower-status men instead, _and_ if your odds of getting them married off to powerful men would be greatly increased if you bound their feet to the point where their toes fall off after a long and agonizing process and they are forever crippled, _and_ if your intention in crippling your three daughters for life against their will is to promote your interests and the interests of your two sons , _then_ there is nothing morally wrong with your subjecting your daughters to this agonizing and crippling procedure against their wills.”

      Now, it sure seems to me that this statement is false! Even in those circumstances and with those intentions, I really think that binding your daughters’ feet would be the wrong thing to do. If a long line of previous generations of Chinese people who were not mistaken about the relevant social and biological facts disagreed after thinking about the matter carefully — and it seems pretty clear to me that this did in fact happen, but I’m still open to seeing any evidence that would show that the old Chinese all held a _false_ social or biological belief about this — then the moral disagreement would be problematic for those who think we can pretty reliably tell what’s objectively moral and objectively immoral.

      But if you don’t control for variables like intention, circumstance, etc., then I agree that moral disagreement need not be troubling at all. Actually, I wouldn’t even count that as moral disagreement!


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