Saturday, July 08, 2006

Being of Two (or More) Minds

Tibor R. Machan

My one time professor Robert J. Fogelin recently wrote a book, Walking the Tightrope of Reason (London: Oxford University Press, 2003), which argued that the bulk of us are pretty satisfied holding inconsistent beliefs. We think that the world can be understood and dealt with rationally but also hold out for some miracles. We think our fellow human beings are mostly trustworthy and nice but also believe that many people are rotten through and through. And even in more technical areas, we think that the world is but a huge machine that moves ineluctably wherever it is headed yet think we have free will and can change the course of events in various areas of our lives.

Professor Fogelin’s is a very challenging thesis. One problem with it is that in our criticism of how people behave or how institutions are run, our standard is consistency. Even in reading the book we must use reason to tell if it is sound. If we find things inconsistent, we regard it to be a flaw. So when certain politicians propose public policies, others and the pundits insist they be consistent. When witnesses testify in court, they are held to standards of full consistency, otherwise their testimony is discredited. Scientists, too, are supposed to advance ideas that are coherent and do not contain inconsistencies. Those who solve crimes, too, are held to such standards.

So, even about the very issue of whether inconsistencies are permissible, many of us are inconsistent. We can accept a bit of hypocrisy here, some two-facedness there, and so forth, but not too much.

If you generalize Professor Fogelin’s idea to, say, an entire country and the views of the citizenry—let alone to the whole world—what comes out is rather messy, if not out and out chaotic. Laws would turn out to favor both one thing and its opposite—for example, personal responsibility as well as everything bad one does being excusable, pro-life as well as pro-choice, and freedom as well as subjugation. Or when it comes to foreign affairs, great numbers of us believe in restraint and a policy whereby only when it is in our interest should we meddle in the affairs of foreign countries; yet there are millions who believe that humanitarian goals justify various interventions. And maybe the very same citizens think both of these ideas and make their mixed thinking evident to their political representatives. So those representatives, too, are of two or more minds when in comes to public policy—e. g., let’s cut but let’s also increase government spending.

At the personal level, too, we find that people prize integrity—keeping one’s values consistent and standing up for them as such. But they also claim that, well, one just cannot be so logical about it all, one needs to make allowances for divided loyalties and conflicting goals in people’s lives. (This was the theme of the late Sidney Hook’s book, Pragmatism and the Tragic Sense of Life [Basic Books, 1975].) The admonition that we should all “get it together” and not run wild with mutually exclusive agendas in our lives is popular, but so, too, is the come-back that this is too difficult, too demanding, too unrealistic and even rigid and dogmatic. We need, some will insist, more of a flexible approach, one that doesn’t look for logic and reason in everything.

My take on this is not the main issue here. I am just reporting on how many influential and intelligent folks line up on the issue of how consistent people should be as they conduct their personal or public affairs. Given that Professor Fogelin’s idea is quite popular, it may require of us that we assess how things go within different areas of our lives, private or public, quite differently from how we are used to. We do tend to insist on consistency where other people’s ideas and conduct are concerned; even with ourselves we often feel guilty when we do not think and live consistently. Yet at other times we make much allowance for inconsistencies. Perhaps we need to appreciate this a bit as we look at the world.

For my money the effort to live rationally, with integrity, consistently, is a supremely worthy one. But let’s face it, lots of people aren’t very interested in such an approach to life. And some very bright ones even contend it is pretty much a hopeless undertaking. Should we hold up reason as the ideal and keep judging private and public affairs accordingly? Is it, in short, better to stick to reason and leave fancy to the imagination, as Socrates once suggested?

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