Mark Hanson - September 12, 2012
Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs (UM)
We’re Right; They’re Wrong
While speaking at a fundraiser for Montana gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie contrasted Republicans and Democrats with this statement, “The biggest difference is we’re right and they’re wrong.”
What is wrong with this statement? If you’re a Democrat, your initial impulse might be to say, “No, we’re right and they’re wrong.” But the bigger issue here lies not with who is right, but with the type of statement this is—a blanket claim that one’s group is completely correct and that the opposition is in no way correct. So what’s wrong with this statement?
First, it ignores the complexity of truth and morality. Do you really believe that the causes of national economic difficulties or other problems featuring human and natural behaviors are completely graspable by anyone? Do you believe that solving these problems involves no effort to balance competing interests and values other than one’s own?
In troubling times, we’re drawn to simplicity. It’s comforting. If a problem can be solved by respecting only one value or point of view, rather than engaging in the difficult art of balancing multiple values or in the messy political task of compromise, then life is simple. Cut taxes for the wealthy—never mind what happens to the poor. Drill for more oil—never mind protecting the environment. Plus, you don’t have to deal with other people—just deny their legitimacy to govern at all and obstruct everything they do, for they cannot possibly be emphasizing legitimate values or policies. They’re just wrong.
A long time ago a man named Sophocles wrote a tragedy about a king who refused to respect the religious values of his citizens because his only responsibility was the security of his state. That value trumped all others, but in the end he came to ruin. It was his son who speaks wisely, [quote] “Do not bear this single habit of mind, to think that what you say and nothing else is true. . . . For a man, though he be wise, it is no shame to learn . . . and not maintain his views too rigidly. You notice how by streams in wintertime the trees that yield preserve their branches safely, but those that fight the tempest perish utterly.” [end quote]
A second problem with Christie’s statement is that it is presumptuous. If the whole truth of complex matters cannot be grasped by any person or group, then to believe so is to believe that one has the perspective of a god. Socrates was once told that he was the wisest man on earth. In an effort to understand how this could be so, he questions men who themselves claimed to be wise. He finds that those reputed to be wise in fact were claiming to have the wisdom of the divine, but in the end, they did not. The difference between him and them, he concludes, is that the others think they know something when they don’t, whereas he not only does not know, but neither does he think he knows. This is human wisdom: to know that you do not possess the wisdom of a god.
One might argue, though, that Governor Christie’s utterance was merely the type of reductionist bluster that characterizes political speech today. He was merely rallying the troops: “Isn’t it great to be one of us—those on the side of truth.” After all, what gets people elected is a simple slogan, effectively advertised.
But why should we let this be so? Christie’s statement reflects what’s wrong with political and cultural life today—disregard for the truth, and the reduction of complex matters to slogans and ideologies.
But, you might ask, doesn’t the truth require that we believe that we are right, that truth is not just relative to what anyone thinks? It is good to seek and affirm the truth, but assertions of truth must always be tempered with humility, rooted in the recognition of our limits, imperfections, and tendency to promote self-interest. This is a central teaching of most religious traditions and a reason why our founding fathers argue for a republic led by representatives who would resist special interests for the sake of the common good.
In addition, the human situation is one in which our values, however valid and true, will often conflict with other values, just as valid and true. You might value cutting government, for example, but what about those whose jobs depend on it? Engaging in such balancing is what it means to be a moral human being and a citizen in a world of conflicting interests.
So enough of the arrogance, the bluster, and the unwillingness to compromise or recognize that we’re in this together. Enough of the political tactics that undermine democracy. Let’s elect leaders whose vision isn’t reduced to slogans but respects the complexity of the challenges before us with the wisdom and humility they require.
This is Mark Hanson, guest commentator for the Mansfield Program in Ethics and Public Affairs at the University of Montana.