On Right and Wrong

If you ask a pathological liar a question, what do you really know about the answer? It depends. Do you know this person is a pathological liar? Let’s say you do. Now what do you know about the answer? The answer, of course, is only that he gave that particular answer. A pathological liar dies not just lie, but does lie. Depending on the pathology, why they lie could be anything from a pathological need to be believed, or a pathological need to get their way without regard to truth, or it could even be a pathological lack of consideration for the value anyone else might place upon truthfulness.  What do we not know about it? We cannot know from the fact that a liar said it anything at all about the truth or falsehood of the statement. Catch that? The fact that we know a liar told us something means we cannot trust that it is true, but it does not mean that we can trust that it is false.  A guy is late to work one day because he could not find his wallet.  He asked his child “do you know where my wallet is?” to which the child blushed and said “I don’t think it is under my bed”, and after a half an hour of pulling everything out from under the bed looking for it, he took another look at his own nightstand where the wallet had fallen behind it. Because the way the child lacked credibility, he mistakenly thought that he had determined the truth when all he had determined was that the child lacked credibility in his eyes and may be lying in this instance.

In the case of the story above, the Dad went through his own fact checking and found that although what his child said was true, it had a misleading quality to it.  It was in a context that implied something untrue while being true. It was only after fact checking was it clear if the statement was true or not.  Now, clearly we cannot all always fact check everything personally.  When it comes to certain claims, we must seek out someone who should be able to determine what is factual.  We should be able to ask someone who keeps records of the weather if there is a pattern of change, for example. The more people who keep independent records we ask, the more we should take their concurrence as indicative of better factual quality. This sort of checking is objective.  It does not matter what you believe or what you want the facts for, if there is independent corroborated measurement, it is more factual. Just as there are mathematicians who make their living checking calculation methods, and statisticians who make their living evaluating risks or results, there are people who make their living determining what people to ask about any claim to test its veracity, and to corroborate the answers independently. There are people who make stuff up that they then claim are facts because people just want to believe them, too.  The hallmark of the latter, however, is that the sources they claim to have tend to lack expertise, consistency, and corroboration. They simply quote each other or quote a fictitious source altogether.

Actual professional fact checkers are incented to be correct. Their credibility among skeptics is the only thing that makes their work valuable. When politicians on the left and right were both interested in “spinning the truth”, knowing the truth, and even caring about the truth was assumed. There have been political factions that have made a point of simply pretending that fact checkers are not credible because they say things that the faction does not wish to believe are true. Rush Limbaugh was very influential in making facts taboo on the far Right, not by trying to discredit the sources, but merely by making things up that were contrary to fact, and ironically, often saying “you can’t make this stuff up” as a punctuation to whatever he just made up. Is Rush Limbaugh a pathological liar? Probably not. He is most likely just someone who is rewarded handsomely for making things up that others want to believe. This theme is a recurring one on this site: People will ignore anything to believe what they want to believe. It may sound odd that people want to believe that there is a government out to destroy all that they hold dear, but contrast that belief against the belief that their problems cannot be blamed on anyone but themselves, or that the cause of their suffering is complex and beyond their understanding, and you can see why at least having a scapegoat other than yourself that makes some sense in your world is the more comforting belief. The more one has to ignore to maintain the problematic belief, the more likely they are to construct a worldview in which the truth is under attack from forces that must be evil and malicious to be so relentless in the attack and so effective at instilling doubt among those whose faith is not strong enough.  When the “threat” is to the identity of the tribe itself, then right or wrong the tribe and its ways must be protected.

An example of this I have found is in discussing what beliefs actually mean, and when an attack is no attack at all, but merely a call to openness. There is a quote from the Christian Bible that can be paraphrased as “With God, all things are possible”. Let’s assume both you and I accept this as the Truth.  What does it mean? When we say all “things” do we include “things” that have no meaning? For example, what a “circle” is (round) and what a “square” is (not round), is one of the possible things a “round square”? Can God make 1+1=4? The answer to both of these logically is no, these are not the kinds of things that God can make possible. “But, it said ‘all things’ and we agreed it was true!” We agreed that the statement was essentially true, but no sentence with words can be absolutely true. We can agree on the essential truth and recognize that word games and misinterpretations do not get a bye from intellectual scrutiny. Clearly, if an interpretation of a statement is meaningless, then it could not meaningfully apply.  The meaning of one and the meaning of four is such that there is no way one can mean what it does, and four mean what it does, and still have “one plus one makes four” a possibly true statement. The very meaning of “one” and “four” would have to cease to exist and be replaced by something that is not what we meant before that destruction took place for this to be something God did, which means He did not really do that. Likewise, what “round” means could not apply to a square and still mean what the word means now. Such “things” are meaningless, and therefore not possible. Now, examine your feelings about this paragraph. Did you actually reject outright the proposition that “With God all things are possible” and have no discomfort at all with the discussion, or if you are inclined to accept the statement, did the assertion that “God cannot make a round square” cause you to assume an intellectually defensive stance toward what seemed to contradict your understanding of the statement? Do you still think that God can make a round square or make 1+1=4? Pause, and maybe re-read the paragraph if you think you must have missed the point, but also just take stock of the feelings this kind of flow of ideas invokes in you.

Now imagine all of the things people refuse to accept that others see as plain and simple facts, and recognize that there are probably just as many that you refuse to accept, or at least try your best to avoid having to accept until the proof wins, or until it seems easier to accept than to maintain a worldview against it.  You are human and so am I, and we cannot remain human and be perfect.  Like it or not, prejudice, bigotry, tribalism and xenophobia are evolutionary selective traits that got us to where we are, and that have served a purpose and continue to be part of our nature.  None of us is immune to them, although we can learn to cope and adapt and use the other evolutionary traits: intelligence, empathy and community, to make the world of today more pleasant.

How then, do you get through to someone who seems to believe in things with little or no basis in reality? The most effective (not always effective) way I have found is to use the Socratic Method.  Ask questions.  No, not rhetorical questions. If you find yourself asking those, suspect yourself of being the hard-head with unfounded beliefs.  Ask probing questions.  For example, here is a sample of a dialogue paraphrased from an actual conversation I had a couple of years ago:

New guy: I just graduated and I have a lot of college debt, and it really bothers me that minorities can get scholarships and aid that I couldn’t get.

Me: Do you know for a fact that they were minority scholarships as opposed to need-based scholarships?

New guy: Why do they need it more than me? My family didn’t pay for it, I had to borrow!

Me: Did your dad co-sign the loan?

New guy: Well, yeah, but why should I be punished just because my dad is successful?

Me: Do you think your dad worked harder than any of those other student’s dads?

New guy: Well he made the right choices; he went to work and has always worked

Me: And you think people who are trying to go to college come from families that did not at least try to work whenever they could?

New guy: Well I just don’t think minorities should get a break just because of race, that’s wrong

Me: Do you think your college experience would have really prepared you to work with minorities if you didn’t have many to work with in college?

New guy: That’s not the point.

Me: Do you think that colleges recruiting the best minority students to be part of your experience did not benefit your education?

New guy: Man, you are making me question my conservative beliefs!

Me: Shouldn’t beliefs be based on understanding and truth, and only values and actions be based on whether they are conservative or liberal?

Other Conservative: Okay, guys, time to shut this conversation down, it’s getting too heavy

Whether we are correct or incorrect in our beliefs about objective facts is completely different from what is morally right or wrong, but where they intersect, effectively morally wrong choices can appear to be morally right, because they produce wrong thinking. If I sincerely believe that the best way to help someone is to let them starve to death, for example, then doing so would appear to me to be morally right, and wrong to anyone who did not share that sincere belief. If the reason you sincerely believe it is because it allows you to believe other things that also mask the immorality of your actions, then you personify the old adage that “The road to Hell is paved with Good Intentions”.

Please understand that although I tend to be liberal, I know full well Right and Wrong thinking are equally common on both sides, although the results may not be the same in the “road to Hell” department.


About UncleJoe

I'm a middle aged male who has attended a seminary as well as receiving a degree in philosophy from a secular university neither of which would particularly impress you if I said which. I have pondered and puzzled questions of faith and the lack thereof for many years. I don't not claim to be holy, or an expert on everything, simply observant and interested. I'll make bold statements about what I see as the way things are, and you don't have to take my word for it. Call me on it. I am here for the discussion.
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