Intelligent Design

Is Being Sure You Are Right Always a Bad Thing?

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I appreciate all of those who participate here at UD. We have some great debates. Here’s one of them.

Mark Frank (whom I thank for sparking this debate) thinks it is wrong to be certain:

It has usually been the people who are sure they know what is right who have done the most terrible things.

Barry

No, this is obviously false. The most dangerous people, including the three most prolific mass murderers in history (Mao, Stalin, Hitler – in that order BTW), are those who do not believe there is such a thing as “right.”

KF jumps in:

Pardon, but the evidence is there all around, this is living memory history. On the part of the Marxist dictators, the death toll is well known to in aggregate exceed 100 millions. Such Marxism was premised on atheistical dialectic and historical materialism and led to a cynically nihilist totalitarianism of unprecedented proportions. . . .

The cynically nihilist corruption of morality, nay the naked amorality in this is patent. The toll for what we see above from 1925 – 6, was a devastated continent and was it 40 – 50 millions dead in Europe because of this demonic madman? (And I here deliberately use the terms the White Rose movement’s Catholic martyrs used in the pamphlets that cost them their lives.)
Barry’s point is all too apt.

Mark Frank responds

I clearly haven’t explained the point because your excerpt supports my case! My point was that idealogies, principles, and being sure you are right, are among the most dangerous things in history (especially when they are mixed with paranoia).

Hitler had an idealogy – racial purity – which is demonstrated in the excerpt. He did not act to make money, or give himself a comfortable life, or attract beautiful women (although he might have come to enjoy these things as well). He acted out of a principle – one that all of us would reject vehemently but which was sufficient to galvanise a nation. If he or his followers had been more sceptical, less sure they were right, more ready to respond to human suffering rather than abstract ideas, then the world would have been a much, much better place.

KF:

The real pivot of your assertion is that you stricture “being sure,” by invidious association and by asserting its danger. We were not born yesterday.

What I showed above was that amorality and relativism on morality are indeed associated with key ideologies that had much to do with the biggest mass murders of all time.

By contrast, being certain that 2 + 3 = 5; or, more directly relevant, being certain — let’s say it: morally certain — that humans are valuable and have equal worth to be respected through the neighbour love principle, and through justice, are NOT dangers to be grouped with the likes of the amoral and nihilist tyrannies discussed above.

Pardon directness, but it is blatantly outright irresponsible and absurd to pretend or suggest that “being certain” (especially regarding self evident moral truths such as that the holocausst or torturing innocent children and raping then murdering them are self evidently evil . . . the specific context of this discussion) is a danger to be grouped with ideologies that led to the holocaust or to the Marxist police states and their crimes.

WJM puts in his $0.02:

I absolutely agree that there is a case to be made for humbly admitting that one can be in error and for maintaining a certain degree of skepticism. As MF rightly points out, a bit more humility and skepticism is in order especially when you are being asked to go along with that which your conscience tells you is wrong.

There is a problem that arises, however, when one applies too much skepticism and commits to the idea of the fallibility of their own minds to a degree that will accommodate that which their conscience alerts them to be wrong. Too little skepticism can sweep one up in a false ideology; too much can result in the apathy and acquiescence that allows dangerous and destructive ideologies power.

The case can be made that Hitler and core, ideological Nazis ran roughshod over a nation not because most people were too ideologically committed to Nazi views, but rather because most of the nation was too uncommitted to any ideology that would obligate them to intervene even at the expense of their own comfort. For the most part, they were willing to turn a blind eye even though their consciences were telling them that what was going on was wrong.

Yes, it takes someone committed to an ideology to do what the Nazis did; it also takes someone committed to an ideology to do what Miep Gies did in hiding Anne Frank at the risk of her own life. One cannot stand up (and risk their lives and their family & friend’s lives) to a tyrannical ideology without being committed to some other ideology that obligates one to do so.

The ideology of skepticism and potential error, where one will not even commit to calling the holocaust an obvious evil, is not an ideology that can generate the kind of sacrifice Miep Gies was willing to make.

Some degree of skepticism and admission that one might be in error is a good thing; too much of it is simply a coward’s way of avoiding making a commitment to what they believe is right.

There are some things where skepticism is appropriate; there are some things, like the principle of non-contradiction, where skepticism is a self-negating absurdity. Skepticism should never be an ideology in itself; it should only be a tool appropriately and reasonably applied in examining one’s views.

The Teacher writes:

There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance,
a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
a time to search and a time to give up,
a time to keep and a time to throw away,
a time to tear and a time to mend,
a time to be silent and a time to speak,
a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecc 3:1-8

My conclusion. There is a time to be skeptical and there is a time to be certain. Wisdom is knowing what time it is.

10 Replies to “Is Being Sure You Are Right Always a Bad Thing?

  1. 1
    bornagain77 says:

    Semi related: I look forward to this movie:

    God’s Not Dead | Official Full Movie Trailer
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bMjo5f9eiX8

  2. 2
    kairosfocus says:

    BA: Ironically, one of the absolutely certain things is that error exists. That is humbling but at the same time shows that it is absolutely not wrong to be duly certain when that is warranted. It is not certainty that is the problem but closed mindedness and that is not at all confined to those who accept that there are some things we can be undeniably certain about as they are self evident, but can go on the other side. For instance — with all due respect — it seems rather odd that MF is so certain that certainty is a danger. Oops. KF

  3. 3
    News says:

    Perhaps one way of looking at it is, what is the basis of one’s certainty? Was the anti-slavery movement wrong to be certain that slavery was an evil? Would they have been better to maintain an even-handed stance about it?

    I doubt slavery would have been abolished in the 19th century if the opponents allowed themselves the luxury of doubt. And the fact that a handful of them were dangerous fanatics does not demonstrate that the cause was wrong.

    They were certain that all human beings have dignity and deserve to live and be free. Just as certain as Mao, Stalin, and Hitler were that human beings unlike themselves in beliefs, appearance, or personal ancestors do not have dignity and do not deserve to live or be free.

    The mortal danger of certainty occurs when the person who is certain is willing to undertake mass murder. Absent that factor, certainty has a variety of possible outcomes, good and bad, and cannot be singled out as any special threat.

  4. 4

    Doubt and skepticism should be used to consider what one is certain of, not to avoid certainty altogether.

  5. 5
    Robert Byers says:

    Is God certain about things?
    Yes. So if we can reach excellent levels of confidence in some conclusion then we can be certain.
    However one must judge ones levels.
    Who’s the judge.
    Evolutionism is seen as certain by some.
    Heaven knows why!

  6. 6
    Mark Frank says:

    It is important to understand the background to this. Barry said he found the views of people like me frightening. I responded that I found people with ideological certainty frightening.  I certainly didn’t mean that it is always a bad thing to be sure you are right.  As always the debate turned on the example of early 20th century despots such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao (why does that catholic King Leopold of Belgium never feature in the list – with an estimated 10 million Congolese victims to his name?). WJM and I agree (!) that a common model of the despotism is that
    (a) A small group of ideological zealots starts it. They genuinely believe they are right and are certain of it – whether the cause be Protestantism, Racial Purity or Communism.
    (b) A larger group are persuaded to adopt the ideology and come to believe it is right.
    (c) An even larger group are not persuaded but go along with it because they lack the courage or certainty or something. They must bear some of the blame. Some kind of certainty about contrary principles that enabled them to stand up against the tide would certainly be handy among this final group.
    It is worth mentioning the fourth group that simply have no option because they forced to comply. They bear no blame.
    I suggest these groups are in decreasing order of scariness.  And I find the people here who are so certain of their rightness to be closer to group (a) than I am.  I guess that zealots are somewhat more likely to stand up against the tide when it matters (although you don’t have to be a zealot to do this – just brave). But does this compensate for the zealots who started the thing in the first place?
    I think that people such as Barry who are frightened by my views (I use my views as an example of a number of atheist/materialist views) interpret them as lacking morality or being nihilist.  This is to equate having a view of morality that is based on common human reactions (passions as Hume would call them) with not having a morality at all.  I also feel deeply about some moral issues and have reasons for my views. The key difference is that I don’t believe there is an ultimate justification I can use to prove that I am right. I have to rely on analogies, examples, appeals to consistency, supplying further information – but there may come a point where we simply react differently to the same situation (abortion is a good example) and that creates a major problem.  You believe that there is an ultimate correct answer to moral questions. But in practice you are in exactly the same situation as me if your opponents don’t share your principles. I might be slightly more inclined to tolerate different ethical viewpoints and to change my own – but it is a matter of degree and this can be a good or a bad thing depending on the situation.
    So stop worrying! We are not the problem.

  7. 7
    Barry Arrington says:

    “estimated 10 million Congolese victims” That is accurate if by “estimated” you mean “guessed wildly based on no data whatsoever.” I am not defending Leopold II. He was a very bad man, and it is good that his rule in the Congo was ended. Moreover, if as a result of his rule even one Congolese person died, then he is culpable. But it is intellectually dishonest to make up a genocide from thin air. It is patently obvious what is going on here. The materialists needed to have a putative Christian engaging in genocide so that that the greatest mass murderers in history would not all be non-Christians. Not having a real genocide to use, they made one up. Here’s the difference MF — a fake genocide made up for political purposes does not stand on the same footing as real genocides based on hard data. So, to answer your question, that’s why you rarely see Leopold II thrown in with the other three.

  8. 8
    Barry Arrington says:

    MF: “This is to equate having a view of morality that is based on common human reactions (passions as Hume would call them) with not having a morality at all.”

    You are coasting along on the moral capital of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which you were raised. Newsflash MF. That capital is rapidly running out, as any casual perusal of the headlines will confirm. When it is depleted altogether, what then? As my three year old grandson says when he sees a snake on TV – “skah-wee.”

    BTW, morality that is “based on” common human reactions is in fact “based on” nothing at all and amounts to do-what-feels-right-at-the-momentism, which is no morality at all.

    “I also feel deeply about some moral issues”

    I do not doubt it. See do-what-feels-right-at-the-momentism above.

    “and have reasons for my views” All of which amount to nothing more than do-what-feels-right-at-the-momentism and none of which offers any compelling reason for assent.

    “The key difference is that I don’t believe there is an ultimate justification I can use to prove that I am right.”

    So if an Iranian Mullah thinks the only problems with the holocaust were that it was too timid in its ambitions and too limited in its scope, all you can say in response is “well, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine, but for the life of me I can’t think of any basis on which to arbitrate between our views.” Sad.

    “there may come a point where we simply react differently to the same situation (abortion is a good example) and that creates a major problem”

    Only if one considers millions of babies brutally killed and ripped from their mothers’ wombs to be a major problem.

  9. 9
    Mark Frank says:

    #7 Barry

    You write as if there were no evidence at all for millions of people dying under Leopold and then you glibly dismiss it as “fake genocide made up for political purposes”. The Belgian government itself estimated that half the population died. Do you think this was a complete work of fiction on their part? Yes there was a lot of uncertainty but there is little doubt that millions of people died (estimates vary between 2 and 15 million). Do you deny this?

  10. 10
    Mark Frank says:

    #8 Barry

    You are coasting along on the moral capital of the Judeo-Christian tradition in which you were raised. Newsflash MF. That capital is rapidly running out, as any casual perusal of the headlines will confirm. When it is depleted altogether, what then? As my three year old grandson says when he sees a snake on TV – “skah-wee.”

    It may well be that my moral opinions are moulded by the Judeo-Christian tradition. We are all subject to all sorts of cultural influences. I guess when you say the capital is running out you think that people are no longer subscribing to that tradition.  Well moral views continue to change and always have done. I don’t see the relevance of this to our discussion. I have accepted this as part of my position.

    BTW, morality that is “based on” common human reactions is in fact “based on” nothing at all and amounts to do-what-feels-right-at-the-momentism, which is no morality at all.

    ……

    “and have reasons for my views” All of which amount to nothing more than do-what-feels-right-at-the-momentism and none of which offers any compelling reason for assent.

    Why do you come out with these rhetorical phrases with no evidence to back them up and which bear zero relation to what actually happens? When I, or indeed the vast majority of humanity, form a moral opinion it is based on all sorts of reasons. Let’s take a real example:

    On balance I think that experimenting with animals should be allowed under certain rules. This is quite a difficult decision. I believe it is wrong for any human being to suffer if it can be avoided. It would be inconsistent of me to not to believe this of animals unless there is some pertinent difference and I cannot identify any such difference. However, I have looked at the evidence and I am convinced that medical research requires animal experimentation. I am also convinced that sometimes animals are used when they need not be. It seems quite possible to create rules that only allow experimentation when it is only necessary and a process for enforcing those rules. For these reasons I support animal experimentation with appropriate safeguards.  (Actually it is more complex but I don’t want to take too much space)

    Are you seriously claiming that this was a case of what feels right at the moment? I had to do a lot of research to come to that conclusion.

    So if an Iranian Mullah thinks the only problems with the holocaust were that it was too timid in its ambitions and too limited in its scope, all you can say in response is “well, you’re entitled to your opinion and I’m entitled to mine, but for the life of me I can’t think of any basis on which to arbitrate between our views.” Sad.

    Of course not, and I suspect you know I can say much more but for some reason you are being deliberately obtuse. I have just talked about all the kinds of reasons that can be put forward. But tell me – what more can you do to convince him that I cannot?

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