Thursday, May 25, 2006

Column on When Theories Fail

When Theories Fail

Tibor R. Machan

In the course of reflecting on and teaching moral philosophy for quite a
few years I have noticed an interesting paradox. Many people, including a
lot of students, will insist that moral judgments are subjective or
relative, certainly nothing so reliable as judgments in science, medicine
or technology. This is their theory about morality?it?s all a matter of
opinion, kind of like that idea in the arts that beauty is all in the eyes
of the beholder.

But just as in the area of aesthetic, people?s actual conduct shows
something quite different from what they often believe. There is, after
all, very little debate about whether, say, Angelina Jolie is ?hot.? Movie
stars appeal to millions of us because we recognize their aesthetic
attributes and have few quarrels about it?it isn?t all in the eyes of the
beholder, actually. Sure, there are some who appeal more or less to
certain of us, but even if the appeal isn?t full blown, their basic good
looks are not in dispute.

And just consider great art, classic music, the golden oldies and all
that. Not that everyone is on the same page about these but millions
really are and have full confidence, ordinarily, that they are right. It
is only when they are propelled into the ethereal realm of highly abstract
theory that folks start mouthing all kinds of problematic propositions
about how it?s all relative, or subjective, or a mere opinion. No casting
director acts as if this were true, no museum curator, and none of the
folks who choose models for the covers of magazines have these mental
impediments to coming up with pretty good choices.

Why all the theoretical confusion when, in fact, on the practical front
things are going quite swimmingly? And it is not only in the area of
morality or aesthetics that we find such a discord between the more
abstract ideas people hold and what they actually do. Even about objects,
though millions have no trouble telling what a table is and how it differs
from a chair, or what a crocodile is and how it differs from a
hippopotamus, they will nonetheless chime in with declarations that ?It?s
all a matter of one?s point of view? and so forth? Why do folks go
bananas, in other words, when they reflect on the big picture, even while
they haven?t any problems on the practical, concrete level?

I suspect it has a lot to do with being taught by a great many teachers
who think their job is to make trouble. And maybe it is partly true that
that?s their job?to prevent us from getting too complacent about what we
believe. There is, after all, a lot of nonsense even on the practical
fronts?faith healing, astrology, UFOs, telepathy, clairvoyance, palmistry,
phrenology, you name it and some people swear and really try to live by
it. People behave in a great variety of ways as they cope with the world,
often quite thoughtfully and attentively, at others times sloppily,
hastily, following their wishes, all the while corrupting their
understanding that way. And it is good to be alert to this. But one can go
overboard and become pathologically skeptical, too.

Then there is the misguided notion that we must all have answers to all
the questions we are aware of and saying, ?Hey, I haven?t a clue? or ?All
I can say is I have a hunch but I haven?t the time to figure it all out?
is somehow self-demeaning. It isn?t but sadly modesty in this as in many
other matters isn?t the vogue.

One way, though, to guard against embracing ridiculous theories is to
heed what a favorite psychologists of mine once said about how
psychologists ought to carry on with their theories. As he put the point
?... the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently
contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.? Which is to say, if
one?s tempted to sign up for some theory, it?s a good idea to test it on
oneself first?does it make sense of what one is actually doing, how one is
actually acting in the world, especially as one is putting forth the
theory itself. If it is in conflict with that, a healthy dosage of
skepticism is immediately warranted.

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