Truth and Goodness: Taking a Page from Ronald Reagan!
In a previous blog, I lamented the emergence of a “post truth”-“false news” public space—one where there is essentially no belief in truth, nor even in the possibility of establishing it. Given my interest in ethical behavior, I wondered whether it is possible to offer visions of “the good” when there is no longer a belief in the search for—indeed, even the possibility of ever establishing—truth.
I rejected two options: 1) surrender to postmodern skepticism about the possibility of rendering judgments of truth; and 2) clinging to the Olympian view that truth may ultimately be established but is not a viable goal for ordinary mortals in ordinary time.
While searching for a plausible alternative in real time, I suddenly remembered the words uttered by President Ronald Reagan as he laid out his stance toward the then still formidable Soviet Union. Reflecting on the possibility of mutually reducing or even eliminating nuclear weapons, the 40th president said, “Trust, but verify.”
(There are various wordings and translations of this phrase, which may date back to classical times—for my purposes, it’s the two key terms that are instructive.)
Turning first to verification, of course anyone can make any kind of assertion at any time. Those who encounter the assertion need to determine on what basis it has been made. And so, if, for example, the Soviet Union (or the United States) claimed to have reduced its stockpile of weapons, there needed to be surveillance methods whereby the accuracy of the claim could be ascertained.
The scholarly disciplines and forms of technical expertise that humans have developed over the centuries have embedded in them ways, methods, and algorithms on the basis of which claims can be judged. Sometimes, of course, the methods of verification are controversial, as are their realm of their proper application. Yet, within, say, economics or psychology or astronomy or civil engineering or neurosurgery, certain methods are widely accepted; only a cynic or an ignoramus would ignore or bypass them completely. Why re-invent the disciplinary wheel?
Experts frequently agree when the evidence is inconclusive, and then these experts are challenged to indicate conditions under which claims might be supported with greater confidence.
Each of us is better off if we can judge claims and methods ourselves or in discussion with other knowledgeable peers. But that state of affairs demands that we have achieved significant expertise; and life is far too short to allow any individual to attain expertise in more than a few, usually quite closely-related areas. No more polymaths in the tradition of Leonardo da Vinci!
Enter the second arrow in the Reagan quiver: that of trust. Only a fool trusts all claims blindly; only a skeptic does not trust anyone under any conditions.
And so the challenge for all of us is to determine who(m) to trust, and under what circumstances. In my own case, there are certain publications and certain websites that I have come to trust because they are disinterested in the best sense of that word. Rather than seeking to find evidence to support a position to which they have already been committed, these publications carry out fresh investigations, are careful in their reporting, and—importantly—are quick to point out errors and to correct course. In cases of doubt, I’ll turn to The New York Times, National Public Radio, The Economist, and their respective websites (not, of course, to their opinion pages and columns).
Depending on the area of expertise, there are also certain individuals whose judgments, opinions, and conclusions I have come to trust. (Out of respect for their privacy, I am not going to name them, but they know who they are!) What these individuals will claim or conclude with respect to a particular case cannot be anticipated; rather, these knowledgeable individuals weigh each case on its merits, come to the best conclusion that they can, and freely admit when the case remains unclear or indeterminate. And, as in the case of the publications to which I have just made reference, these trustworthy individuals do not hesitate to indicate when an earlier conclusion or claim was off base.
With respect to trust, there is one potential source about which I am particularly skeptical: one’s own intuitions. Intuitions are sometimes well-founded; but when it comes to issues of import, especially as they affect others, evidence, argument, and consideration of counterclaims need to be given pride of praise. I recall an old saw: “No one ever went so wrong as the person who relied primarily on his own judgment.” (If this makes you think of a current political figure, you and I are thinking along similar lines.)
Bottom Line: If we are to continue to believe in the possibility of ascertaining what is true, we have two primary allies: 1) the methods of verification of the several fields of knowledge and practice; and 2) the existence of persons, publications, and institutions whose track record merits trust. It’s best if we can continue to draw on both of these allies, with the relative importance of each ally, depending on the particular issue and its ramifications.
So while Ronald Reagan was contemplating reductions in the arsenal of nuclear weapons, his pithy phrase helps us to think about the validity of the various claims that we encounter—claims that are essential to consider if there is to be any progress in judging and achieving the good.