Friday, March 07, 2008


Why can't we just get along? Why can even apparently reasonable people sharing many fundamental values sometimes not agree on fundamental moral questions? Is reason limited, after all? Or are all human beings inherently irrational subjectivists, no matter what claims to reason and objectivity they may make? Is our faith in reason misplaced?

Of course, faith in reason is a contradiction. Nathaniel Branden recognized, "Reason is the faculty that identifies and integrates the material provided by the senses. Faith is the acceptance of ideas or allegations without sensory evidence or rational demonstration."

Yet, I'd like to draw your attention to the word "acceptance." That's the key to why we don't get along. Reason does not require an act of faith — but it still requires an act of acceptance. If someone has argued his case to you logically and presented evidence, you may still say, "I don't believe you." Do you mean to say, "I don't have faith in what you say"? No, you mean, "Given the evidence you presented, I don't accept your idea."

Even when you base your ideas on sensory evidence processed by reason and logic, you still have to decide what constitutes proof. Two reasonable human beings applying logic to the same evidence may come to wildly different — even diametrically opposite — results, depending on differing value judgments and standards of proof.

So you've seen the sun rise in the morning. How many sunrises do you have to see to convince you that the sun will rise every morning for the next couple billion years? Ten sunrises? A hundred? A thousand?

Observe that a failure of acceptance is not the same as evasion, as going out of focus. Going out of focus means sticking your fingers in your ears and going, "La, la, la. I'm not listening to this." It's covering your eyes with your hands and saying, "Sun? There's no such thing." A failure to accept means saying, "So what? That proves nothing. Show me more sunrises." Consequently, diverging standards of proof do not necessarily mean that one of the parties is an evader or acts immorally.

Few things in life are as important as setting your threshold of proof. It may be the most basic and gravest responsibility you will ever face.

For instance, in the criminal justice system, setting the threshold of proof too low will result in punishing innocent defendants. Setting it too high means dangerous criminals will walk.

How much more fundamental a task is it to set your threshold of proof in the realm of ideas? Here, the question is whether your view of reality will be reasonably adequate, close enough to objective reality to permit you to survive and prosper.

Setting it too low, accepting half-baked ideas, gave us canards like "homosexuality is immoral" or "a woman wouldn't want to be President." Setting it too high makes you a mystic, caught up in the fallacy of the "gravity game," crying that you can know nothing.

Diverging standards of proof — and the unfortunate tendency of some to pass off their subjective preferences as objective moral standards — that's why ostensibly reasonable people don't get along. Meanwhile, the religious fanatics and collectivists are out there. They're having a field day preparing for our enslavement and extermination. What do we do? We're excoriating each other over issues for which we have only incomplete evidence.

Does Objectivism constitute a perfect philosophical system, or does it need to be amended? How much government do we need at the end of the day?

Even when all the evidence is in, not all of us will ever be able to agree on everything, not even on all the fundamental questions. Every one of us possesses free will. Every one of us is free to set his own standards for the threshold of proof. Thus, we'll never have one perfect system that gives us one definite answer for each possible question.

We better get used to it, stop bitching, and get back to the nitty-gritty. We can't afford to wait until heck freezes over for us to agree on everything. What would Lincoln say? A little more light and a little less noise, please. What would Ben Franklin say? "We must indeed all hang together, or most assuredly we shall all hang separately."

Originally published on April 28, 2007.

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