What Makes Something Right or Wrong?

In this impeachment process, much of everything else of important in our government has been pushed to the rear. Unfortunately, some things that should have been dealt with much earlier join those “gonna have to wait” matters on the back shelf.

Sadly, if one specific of those things that have been in the cue for consideration had been dealt with by Congress, we probably would not be planning on a House impeachment vote next week. So why don’t we today take it off the shelf ourselves and discuss it.

When’s It Right and When’s It Wrong?

For years I have posted frequently here at TruthNewsNetwork, “Just because you think something’s wrong doesn’t mean it’s wrong.” But I don’t stop there: “Just because you think something’s right doesn’t mean it’s right.”

We all have examples of that from our own lives. That happens with our kids, our employees, our spouses, and even with friends and co-workers. But seldom do any of us take that as the “end” of our conversations.

It’s almost comical how we respond to things that we see and hear by automatically assuming as our default position the exact opposite of what we see and hear. I guess that’s human nature. I’m not a philosopher or a mental health professional, but I see it in my life over and over again. It’s not always me doing so, but it is sometimes. It’s pretty much an occasional occurrence in every person’s life, I am sure.

Yep, it’s human nature.

You have probably never heard of William Kingdon Clifford. He is not in the Rolodex of great philosophers – perhaps because his life was cut short at the age of 33 – but I cannot think of anyone whose ideas are more relevant for our “connected” digital age. It might seem strange that we are talking about a Victorian Brit whose most famous work is an essay from nearly 150 years ago. However, reality has caught up with Clifford. His claim that “it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence” is no longer just a philosophical thought:  it’s now a technical reality.

InThe Ethics of Belief (1877), Clifford gave three arguments as to why we have a moral obligation to believe responsibly only what we have evidence for, and what we have thoroughly investigated.

His first argument starts with the simple thought that our beliefs influence our actions. (Makes sense) Everyone should agree that our behavior is shaped by what we take to be true about the world – by what we believe. Remember my philosophy shared just a few days ago: “Perception IS Reality?“ If I believe that it is raining outside, I’ll bring an umbrella. If I believe taxis don’t take credit cards, I make sure I have some cash before jumping into one. And if I believe that stealing is wrong, then I will pay for my goods before leaving the store. The fact that we believe what we believe makes what we believe REALLY important — especially to us. If/when we act on false beliefs in our lives usually puts us in bad places. In some cases, they can threaten our lives. If the singer R. Kelly really believed the words of his song “I Believe I Can Fly,” I guarantee you he would not be around by now. In his case, his perception would certainly NOT be a reality! But it is not only our taking care of ourselves that is at stake here. Our beliefs and actions impact everyone around us, and false and unrealistic beliefs can put our fellow humans at risk. We’ve all seen and heard of groups of people who follow cult leaders and end up dead. James Town is one example of that. “Thinking” you’re right certainly can kill others who act on what we think is right.

The most natural objection to this first argument is that while it might be true that some of our beliefs can cause some people to do things that may be devastating for them, most of what we believe probably doesn’t amount to a hill of beans to most folks. Claiming that it is wrong in all cases to believe with only insufficient evidence seems like a stretch. I think critics had a point – had – but that is no longer so. In this world in which we find ourselves, just about everyone’s beliefs are instantly seen and processed by everyone in our immediate world. And because of instant electronic worldwide access, for just pennies a day what things we do are available to a global audience, every single belief has the capacity to be monumental in the way Clifford imagined.

If you still believe this is an exaggeration, think about how beliefs fashioned in a cave in Afghanistan lead to acts that ended lives in New York, Paris and London. Or consider how influential the blather pouring through your social media feeds have become in your very own daily behavior. In the digital global village in which we now live, false beliefs cast a wider social net. Clifford’s argument might have been nothing more than opinion when he first made it but is no longer so today.

The second argument Clifford provides in support of his claim that it is always wrong to believe based on insufficient evidence is that when we lazily or with little forethought create our beliefs we open true door to making doing so in that way normal for us. That begins to permeate every area of our lives. And that, of course, spills over into the lives of though with whom we live, work, and socialize. Clifford puts it nicely: “No real belief, however trifling and fragmentary it may seem, is ever truly insignificant; it prepares us to receive more of its like, confirms those which resembled it before, and weakens others; and so gradually it lays a stealthy train in our inmost thoughts, which may someday explode into overt action, and leave its stamp upon our character.”

Translating Clifford’s warning to our digital “everyone-is-connected” age, what he said is that careless believing turns us into easy prey for fake-news purveyors and conspiracy theorists. Letting ourselves take ownership of these false beliefs is morally wrong because the cost of OUR mistake becomes also a cost for a society that can be devastating. Yes, it’s tough to stay focused with so much 24/7 information and data all around us. REAL awareness is a much more precious virtue today than it ever was since the need to sift through conflicting information has skyrocketed.

Clifford’s third and final argument as to why believing without evidence is morally wrong is that because we are communicating OUR beliefs, we have the responsibility not to damage any already proven knowledge. In Clifford’s time, the way in which our beliefs became common knowledge was through speech and writing. Because of this method to communicate, ”our words, our phrases, our forms and processes and modes of thought’ become ‘common property.’” Subverting this ”heirloom,” as he called it, by adding false beliefs is wrong because everyone’s lives ultimately rely on this vital, shared resource — OUR opinions (information).

While Clifford’s final argument sounds true, it again seems a little far-fetched to claim that every little false belief we hold is a moral attack on common knowledge. Yet reality, once more, is comparing favorably with Clifford, and his words seem prophetic. Today, we truly have a large barrel of beliefs into which all of our commitments are being added: it’s called Big Data. You don’t even need to be active in posting on Twitter or ranting on Facebook: more and more of what we do in the real world is being recorded and digitized, and from there software algorithms can easily interpret what we believe before we even express a view. In turn, this enormous pool of stored belief is used to make decisions for and about us. And it’s the same trove of data that search engines use that WE use to seek answers to our questions of which turn into new beliefs. Add the wrong ingredients into the Big Data recipe, and what you’ll get is a not-so desirous outcome. If there was ever a time when critical thinking was so important, it is certainly now.

Every one of us needs to be really careful not only about expressing our ideas, but to make certain our ideas are based on facts. And that is not easy, but certainly is critical. 

Summary

There’s not a lot to summarize: the story speaks for itself. Let it suffice to say that if members of the House of Representatives had dealt with today’s content here before getting into impeachment, we might not even be here. Maybe I’m wrong. After all, to make certain one is right or accept one is wrong would mean someone is required to objectively consider facts and evidence before taking any objective action. But the Majority in the House has NO inclination for honesty in consideration. There’s so much corruption in this process it makes my skin crawl. It’s plain evil.

From a Biblical perspective: “We war not against flesh and blood, but principalities and powers of the air.” 

Hmm…that “powers of the air” sounds a little like data and the internet to me. I know they have the internet in Congress. I watched as one Judiciary Committee Democrat during yesterday’s impeachment hearing tuned in the “President’s Cup Golf Tournament” during the Committee hearing. Seems like someone might have had a mixup in timing of choices!


Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.