The Politics of Moral Certainty

If I am fool, it is, at least, a doubting one; and I envy no one the certainty of his self-approved wisdom. ” – George Byron

The Oxford  English Dictionary says of certainty that it is “The quality or state of being subjectively certain; assurance, confidence; absence of doubt or hesitation; as a matter of certainty, beyond doubt, assuredly.”

Reasonable people know that certainty is not necessarily a good thing. As Voltaire pointed out, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition but certainty is an absurd one.” Bertrand Russell went so far as to call it an “intellectual vice.”

It is easy to fall in love with the idea of certainty. As Russell also said, “What men want is not knowledge, but certainty.” Certainty feels good. It’s addictive. Scientific studies demonstrate this. But certainty can be a dangerous thing. It is good to question. It is a healthy thing to have doubts even if, as Voltaire said, it is not a pleasant condition.

Socrates dedicated his life to questioning and he questioned with great ferocity. Men would come to him certain, and they would often go away with that certainty shaken. This may not seem like a victory to some, but Socrates challenged people to use their minds, to think, to reason, to examine life.

As Socrates said (Apology 38a),The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Stop and think. Question. And be wary of falling in love with the answers you find.

This process of examining life, questioning, and doubting, seems to be antithetical to the conservative mindset. Certainty is what they want. Certainty is what they believe they have. It has become almost an end in itself; it closes off debate, shuts off reason, and stops questions.

They’re more interested in telling people what to think than asking them to think. But Socrates did not improve people by telling them what to think. He improved them by challenging them to think.

Avatars of Moral Certainty: Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck

We cannot say the same of people like Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin. To learn, one must first doubt. Descartes knew this; and he stripped away all certainties save one, in order to being his quest for knowledge: “I think, therefore I am.”

Francis Bacon said it as well: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts: but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”

The problem for conservatives seems to be that they have never read Shakespeare: “The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool” (As You Like It Act 5 scene 1). We must be prepared to accept that we don’t know everything; that there are gaps in our knowledge. And the bottom line is that you can’t learn until you’re willing to admit how little you know.

Inquiry is Fatal to Certainty

But for Republicans intellectualism is something not to be trusted. Those with a authoritarian mindset always distrust intellectuals, because intellectuals think, and thinking is dangerous. It is dangerous because as historian Will Durant said, “Inquiry is fatal to certainty.” And authoritarianism, whether it is secular or theocratic, rests on a solid bedrock of certainty.

And because thinking is contagious, it must not be encouraged. In fact, it should be discouraged. Stalin murdered the intellectuals immediately. Hitler envied Stalin’s ability to do so. President George W. Bush openly despised the very idea of thinking. He said he trusted his instincts more. Sarah Palin has already established intellectuals to be her enemies. The “elites” she calls them.

American conservatism is riding a wave of anti-intellectualism and the Republican Party has caught that wave. Intellectuals are “them.” Sarah Palin spreads this meme idea with her faux-folksy wisdom narrative. Real Americans are just “folks” and apparently anybody who trusts their thoughts more than their feelings can’t be “just folks.”

The problem with certainty is that it’s not infallible, or as Oliver Wendell Holmes put it, “certainty generally is illusion” (“The Path of Law” 10 Harvard Law Review 457 (1897). Holmes also helpfully pointed out that certitude is not the test of certainty” (“Natural Law”, 32 Harvard Law Review 40, 41 (1918).

Republicans hate that. If you question certainty, you are guilty of the greatest of arch-sins: moral relativism. Questioning is challenging god. Remember that choice = heresy. We’re back to the old second century saw: “Don’t ask questions; just believe!”

But we can believe something to be true with all our heart and soul, and be catastrophically mistaken. As Holmes put it, “We have been cocksure of many things that were not so.” The problem is that certainty does not allow for this possibility. And that makes people who are filled with certainty, whether we call them zealots or fanatics or ideologues, very dangerous people.

As Friedrich Nietzsche put it, “Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes experienced the Civil War. His conclusion was that moral certainty leads to war. In our own time, we have seen another terrible war result from moral certainty.

Neurologist  Robert Burton, former chief of Neurology at the University of California at San Francisco-Mt. Zion Hospital, speaks of the Certainty Bias with regards to politics:

I suspect that retreat into absolute ideologies is accentuated during periods of confusion, lack of governmental direction, economic chaos and information overload. At bottom, we are pattern recognizers who seek escape from ambiguity and indecision. If a major brain function is to maintain mental homeostasis, it is understandable how stances of certainty can counteract anxiety and apprehension.  Even though I know better, I find myself somewhat reassured (albeit temporarily) by absolute comments such as, “the stock market always recovers,” even when I realize that this may be only wishful thinking.

When asked how the certainty bias can be avoided, Burton answers that he has “taken strong exception to the popular notion that we can rely upon hunches and gut feelings as though they reflect the accuracy of a thought.”

But of course, Burton is an intellectual, and so not to be trusted. Still, for the rest of us, those who are willing to listen to doubt, might take hope, as does Burton:

My hope is the converse; we need to recognize that the feelings of certainty and conviction are involuntary mental sensations, not logical conclusions. Intuitions, gut feelings and hunches are neither right nor wrong but tentative ideas that must then be submitted to empirical testing. If such testing isn’t possible (such as in deciding whether or not to pull out of Iraq), then we must accept that any absolute stance is merely a personal vision, not a statement of fact.

Burton’s advice to us? “In short, please run, do not walk, to the nearest exit when you hear so-called leaders being certain of any particular policy. Only in the absence of certainty can we have open-mindedness, mental flexibility and willingness to contemplate alternative ideas.”

This is good advice. Moral certainty starts wars. It was such certainty that led to the Inquisition, to the Crusades, and to witch-burnings and to the genocide of European Jews. Doubt is healthy.  A little healthy doubt is widely recognized to be a good thing, and we should entertain some ourselves, before we run off and do the bidding of those who wallow in certainty.

9 Replies to “The Politics of Moral Certainty”

  1. Hraf, this is an astounding post. While reading it I kept thinking of two things, book burning and mob rule. Believe in me and I will set you free, the cry of all despots and dictators and would-be leaders throughout history. This should be mandatory reading for the tea party and for those who follow political parties with no platforms. Question everything. It might take you to the answer or down the road to another “certainty”, but at least question. asked “why” five times and you’ll usually get to the root of a belief, a problem or a statement.

    and in a broader sense you point out the futility of our current system. Leaders and candidates from both sides promised this and that and never come through. I shouldn’t say never, because that’s not true. But let’s look at gay-rights, tax reform, border control, and any number of campaign promises by political entities who have been touting these campaign phrases year after year after year. tax reform has been an issue for over 40 years and it’s never been touched except to add to the problem it represents

    again, a truly astounding post, a top-notch read for everyone

  2. Thank you, Shiva, I’m flattered. I too, as I wrote, was thinking of those things, and of how anathema they are to the American dream, a land wide open enough for all to seek happiness, true freedom, while the despots offer us the false. I still have hope for our great experiment in democracy but it’s impossible for me not to agree with the Founders who saw the rise of political parties as the greatest of disasters.

  3. Breathlessly excellent work, Hraf. I’ve often repeated, “the wise man knows he knows nothing.” It’s a difficult way to live, but it’s the only sure thing. I think dogmatists and ideologues on both sides suffer from this — it is why we had to create the gods originally, to make sense (certainty) of things which were out of our control. To attach a “reason” to events. The most terrifying thing is to realize there is no reason; bad things happen to good people and there isn’t some ultimate reward waiting later.

    That said, I am not ruling out the importance of faith in our lives — but just pointing out that the need for certainty is a part of the human condition, one we must all overcome if we are to search for the truth. And we also have to know we may never get it.

    The sign of an open mind is the ability to hold to disparate thoughts at the same time without needing to jump to a conclusion. Cognitive dissonance. This is why debating ideas with people like Sarah Palin is impossible. She has no “ideas” — just feelings about things which make her feel good and in her case, prove she is mantled by god to be President. How do you reason with that?

    Nothing terrifies me more than a leader who can’t say, “things might change” or “we don’t know”. Because honestly, how can you know the future? You can’t.

    This was a great read. Just brilliant.

  4. Great post. I was just watching on CNN a segment on religious leaders across this nation addressing religious freedom and the sudden and extreme rise in Islamicphobia!
    The bigotry currently going on in this country is frightening. Palin, Beck, Newt, Limbaugh and the rest of the usual suspects in the so called Conservative party have taken this country’s values on a feverish turn against all that America and the Constitution stand for. They are misleading the country and it’s people who are struggling away from progress and into a very dark place in this nation’s history. Even the respected General Petraeus has expressed concern that our troops will now be in danger for the plan by certain pastors to burn the Kuran and still they vow to go ahead anyway. The President does not have enough support. Even his own party members attacked him for speaking out on religious freedom prior to midterm elections. We need the hand of God to step into this growing madness in this country perpetrated by the extreme right wing and it’s leaders.

  5. “American conservatism is riding a wave of anti-intellectualism and the Republican Party has caught that wave.” Good stuff, true and very unfortunate for many of us liberals. I would add that much of mainstream media is also hanging ten on that wave. In fact, FOX is renting the surfboards.

    Everything about this political climate defies reasoning…

  6. Thank you, Sarah. I’m the last person, as a polytheist, to dismiss religion (or faith as monotheists have it) but my ancestors understood the role of cause and effect, and accepted that our own actions have consequences, very real consequences, upon events.

    We can accept (or not) the intervention of god or gods on worldly events but the Founding Fathers understood that this country was an experiment and not divinely ordained (whatever today’s Republicans may claim).

    The certainty these people espouse with regards to the United States and it’s “divinely ordained” role to further the spread of Christianity would, I think, startle the likes of Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine and others, all of whom were children of the Enlightenment and more interested in learning by empirical methods than prophecy.

  7. I agree with you wholeheartedly except for needing the “hand of God” to step in on our behalf. I believe this is our mess, our Constitution, our faulty democracy, to shore up and keep running. It would be nice if YHWH could step in and slap down the people shouting hate on his behalf but I don’t expect to see him any more than I expect to see Thor stepping in to fix things.

  8. So… I guess all Republicans, conservatives, Christians, and/or anybody else who happens to disagree with any given person can be assumed to all have the same mindset as all others that may fall under the same, albeit pointless, label? While there will always be those who find treating others like trash as some sort of sick game, most of those without the wherewithal to understand how essential it is to at least try to understand others’ viewpoints tend to bring things upon themselves.

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