Putting the Cause Before the Truth
At my old blog, I recently penned a long post explaining in detail why I’m opposed to infantile circumcision. While I was certainly expecting opposition, I never expected the accusations I received in the comments: A few commenters claimed that I was being, to use the words of some Chabad rabbis, tendentious. At first, I was just confused by this: why would I want it to be true that circumcision has no medical benefits? If it turned out to be true that infantile circumcision helped the child, I would be very happy to know that the majority of American children were not [ED: Thanks to Sara Cammeresi for catching the omission of ‘not’] mutilated for nothing. In general, why would I advocate an idea if I thought it wasn’t true? It just didn’t make sense to me. After thinking about it some more, though, I think I understand the objection now.
Ideas, properly viewed, are guides to action. Ultimately, the purpose of concepts, principles, and even perceptual knowledge is to guide our action in order to enable us to live a better life. Under this view, it would make no sense to advocate an idea one knows is false, or even to advocate a good idea with false arguments. If your idea is false, advocating or following it has no value and is detrimental to your life. Unfortunately, most people don’t treat ideas this way. In today’s culture, ideas are viewed at best as being irrelevant to everyday life, and at worst as being detrimental. In this mindset, ideas don’t reflect facts of reality, they are either subjective whims or revelations from a supernatural realm. To people with this approach, truth or falsehood is irrelevant and the idea is everything: challenges to the idea can’t possibly have any bearing on the real world, so dedication to your whims or your god becomes more important than any arguments to the contrary. This, more than any potential financial gain or political power, is the motivating force behind those who fudge data, suffer from confirmation bias, cherry-pick evidence, advocate causes without respect for the truth, or, on the other side, claim that anyone with a firm ideology is untrustworthy or that everyone is biased. This is the cause of the view that debates are just about the scoring of points, not about discussing the truth when faced with conflicting ideas. The idea that ideas are more (or less) important than reality, rather than being in harmony with reality, is the idea that must be fought if we want to live free of those who would impose their revealed Truths on us in defiance of the facts as well as those who would claim that ideas are meaningless and that we must be forced to live on the range of the moment.
So why did some commenters think I was being dishonest in my choice of sources? To them, the thought that I might care about the truth is not even on their minds. I have my anti-circumcision ideology, and so of course I will do whatever it takes to try to fight for that ideology. It never occurs to them to ask WHY I have the ideology in the first place, since in their mind all ideas are equally arbitrary. In such a world, the only option left to men is to try to force their ideas down each others’ throats at all costs, even if it means lying to themselves about it. Thankfully, we don’t live in such a world and I advocate my ideas because they are true.