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Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Ethical Choices when Facing Sincerity

Often in life we are faced with people with great sincerity in their beliefs.  This sincerity can either be regarding alternative facts or alternative realities.  Alternative facts refer to those issues which are not debatable, such as the earth is round.  Alternative realities refer to those issues which are debatable such as, Resolved: religions in America have too little influence on public policy.  Both issues require ethical decisions on how to respond to sincerity in these matters.  No matter if the discussion regards alternative facts or alternative realities one fundamental thing is true:  we must accept that sincere holders of views contrary to ours should be viewed as fully equal with ourselves in terms of human worth—personal worth as human beings is not the issue.  Beyond that, there are marked differences in how we address the sincere believer.

In regards to alternative facts—I sincerely believe that the world is flat—is not debatable at this point in time.  There is overwhelming evidence that the earth is round.  After receiving the required respect as an equal human being, I must be told the facts.  After I am shown proof that the world is round, there is no further obligation to feel uncomfortable in the face of my confirmed belief.  The issue is proven beyond doubt and my sincere belief to the contrary can be accepted as an individual quirk which nevertheless does not jeopardize my worth as a human being.  Even when quirky beliefs lead to unlawful behavior, the arrested individual does not lose his worth as a human being. 

In regards to alternative realities—Resolved, religions in America have too little influence on public policy—we are faced with a debatable issue which cannot in fact be decided by this or that debate.   It is an issue which is open to question.  The debate goes on, it is never ended.  Matters of this sort are most demanding ethically for we are tempted to view the opposition essentially of less human worth than ourselves.  We are more right and therefore (as the fallacy goes) of more worth than the opposition. This can quickly degenerate into denigration, stereotyping with its prejudices, and even demonization.  There must be a fundamental ethical choice made not to let this happen.  (This of course assumes that the issue is in fact debatable and not beyond the pale—such as whether genocide is acceptable.)  There must be a fundamental ethical choice made to honor the worth of the opposition—the loyal opposition in which our fundamental goodwill informs the nevertheless heated debate.  This is our obligation, whatever the other side may do.

Of course the political season brings on a different creature entirely.  The underlying fear here is that we will look weak if we do not retaliate when the flak from the other side turns disrespectful.  We feel that by continuing to be respectful we will be seen as too good for the fray—even prissy.  We feel that it is only just to return disrespect for disrespect.  The winner of the debate becomes the one who can throw the most dirt.  It is enjoyed as a dirty wrestling match where sensation and demonization become a thrill.  It becomes entertainment with broad appeal to those not open to persuasion rather than discourse where serious persuasion is the goal.  We may even come to feel that we honor the opposition by our response that says we are not too good for you (we are not above you), we can get down and dirty too, we can be your equal no matter how low you go.  This is difficult to counter essentially because when this happens sincerity is lost.  We are no longer serious debaters but serious entertainers.  We are having fun in a mud fight in which fairness is shunned and we paradoxically honor and respect the opposition through flagrant disrespect and abuse.  Enlightenment and fairness are thrown out the window—we find ourselves delighting in a typical political season where the objective is to consolidate the true believers rather than to convince the opposition.

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