Ethics & Public Policy Center

Subordinating Truth to Ideology

Published in Commentary Magazine on October 16, 2013



In her review of Michael Novak’s autobiography Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative, my Ethics and Public Policy Center colleague Mary Eberstadt writes:

Throughout his writing, he embraces lines of argument and alternative ideas, admiringly turning them this way and that, with an intellectual openness rare to see—especially among intellectuals.

This quality of intellectual openness–in areas ranging from politics and political philosophy to religious faith–is among the more impressive qualities an individual can possess. And among the most rare as well.

I say that because most of us, to one degree or another, struggle to maintain genuine intellectual open-mindedness. By that I mean we approach a subject with a particular point of view–and once we settle on it we’re very reluctant to revisit our judgments and the empirical basis for them.

For example, choose a subject on which you have strong opinions–the Affordable Care Act, the causes of the 2008 financial crisis, same-sex marriage, Roe v. Wade, affirmative action, climate change, educational choice and teacher unions, gun control, tax rates, income inequality, and more –and think about how you react to the best arguments of those with whom you disagree and new evidence that seems to weaken your claims. (Hint: The odds are better than not that it will be negative rather than positive, hostile rather than intrigued, defensive rather than engaged.)

The flip side of this is confirmation bias, the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs and hypotheses. The instantaneous reaction most of us have when our views are challenged is to (a) go out in search of arguments and data to refute those who challenge our views and (b) selectively embrace information that restores and re-validates our pre-existing views.

Now there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and there can be a lot right with it. The back-and-forth can create a dialectic in which truth can emerge. Nor am I arguing that people should live in a state of perennial doubt and uncertainty when it comes to basic worldviews. We all need to place an interpretive frame around a set of facts, experiences and observations. And of course none of us have the time or energy to research in detail, and on an on-going basis, our views on dozens and dozens of different matters. We often defer to experts whom we trust. What complicates matters even more is that, as the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, emotional intuition is the “elephant” and rational deliberation is the “rider”–with reason usually the servant to one’s own intuitions.

Intuition, it needs to be said, is not only powerful, it’s valuable. It can detect things that are beyond our intellect and help shape our moral sense. “The heart has its reasons which reason itself does not know,” Pascal wrote. The problem is when we hold to a view that actually does require amendment or revision. How open are we to do so; and at what point, if any, are we willing to re-examine what we thought to be true? And do we understand that even the truths we see are only partial truths, that we can see things in part but never in whole?

If we close off the possibility of change, self-reflection, and even self-criticism, then we are subordinating truth to ideology. We will disfigure reality in the service of dogmatism. And there is quite enough of that going on already.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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