Our lives as well as our minds are limited. To try and understand that which is unlimited is foolish and dangerous. To do this and consider it knowledge is even more foolish and dangerous.
Chuang Tzu from the Tao Te Ching
Paradoxically materialists, the dominant philosophers of our time, should be particularly conscious of this problem because they are confident that thought, mind and the understanding are all just physical events, elements of a reality that is much greater than them.
Our thoughts about the whole can only be elements within the whole – they cannot comprehend that whole.
But if that is so then what is the status of materialism itself? “Thought is just some event in the universe, reference and truth are illusions…” but what is the status of this thought?
Of course, those of us who believe in rationality cannot escape our limitations; but at least our awareness of those limitations is not itself self-contradictory. Humility brings with it some truth (if only partial).
In fourth-century Babylon, a man came to Rabbi Rava and said: “The governor of my town has ordered me to murder someone [who is innocent], and has warned me that if I do not do so he will have me killed. [Can I murder the man to save my life?]” Rava refused him permission. “Let yourself be killed but do not kill him. Who says your blood is redder? Perhaps the blood of that man is redder.”
This simple and powerful moral dilemma represents an absolute fulcrum for our moral perspective. On any account of morality based upon enlightened self-interest or the power of rationality (e.g. Korsgaard) we will not reach the proper moral perspective represented by Rabbi Rava: self-sacrifice cannot be justified by reference to the self. So, unless we are prepared to accept these lower forms of morality, we must seek a stronger, even if more uncertain, form of justification.
The idea that his blood is redder is simply code for the fact that we are not worthy to judge. Only God can judge. So we must presume our own unworthiness: we must put ourselves last.
Churchill observed “America will always do the right thing… but only after exhausting all other possibilities.” He could have deduced this from Katz’s Law which is that “Men and nations will act rationally when other possibilities have been exhausted.”
We can treat this as a cynical statement about our weakness and our tendency to always fall for the easy, but wrong, alternative. However it is also tells us something about the demands of rationality. If it is true – don’t despair – think things through, make safe experiments, argue things out.
We are all prone to this weakness – we all want the quick and easy win – we resent the unintended and unforeseen consequence. So we need to develop some better habits to help us see things from different perspectives.
Herodotus says that the Persians used to review their plans both while they were drunk and while they were sober. Only if they thought the plan was good when drunk and sober would they commit to it.
The problem we face today in developing good public policies is not that we are often wrong. Our biggest problem is that we are so frightened of being seen to be wrong that we will never learn how to be right – we will never exhaust any of those other possibilities. We are stuck with what we’ve got and we have to make it seem right despite all evidence to the contrary.