Thursday, February 11, 2016


246. Is it wrong to be right?

Philosophers often say that it is the task of philosophy to ask questions, not to answer them. In Socratic debate, Socrates only elicits, by intellectual midwivery, the recognition by the debaters of the errors in their thought. Socrates is cagey, not giving his own view.

To me, this is a cop-out. One should be willing to commit to one’s views and defend them, claiming one is ‘right’, and submit to the criticism of others. By not doing so, Socrates robs himself from the opportunity to learn, as if he has nothing to learn, thereby violating his own principles.

My position follows from my pragmatist stance concerning knowledge. It is by bringing one’s views into practice and into debate that one discovers their limitations and opportunities for improvement. In the quest for knowledge, not answering questions and committing to the answers is self-defeating.   

It has happened to me several times that people tell me I am wrong when I talk in terms of ‘who is right and who is wrong’, because, they claim,  my stand on knowledge disallows me to do that. A decent relativist is supposed to say that there ‘is no right or wrong’.

Concerning truth, I have adopted a ‘relativism light’. Absolute, objective, universal truth cannot be achieved, and knowledge is socially constructed. Claims to truth depend on the context and on the perspective taken. However, that does not mean that ‘anything goes’, that any opinion is as good as any other. One must be prepared to offer, defend and revise arguments. For this I adopted the term of ‘warranted assertibility’, and in ethics ‘debatable ethics’.

What remains of older, more ambitious claims of rationality, of Enlightenment values, is this: the commitment to debate on the basis of arguments. This may resemble the position of Habermas, but counter to his view I do not think that debate can be ‘herrschaftsfrei’; free of power, domination. In preceding items in this blog I followed Foucault in recognizing the role of interests, positions and power, individual and systemic, in knowledge. Also, rationality is limited in subconscious drives. There is only limited free will (see item 5). It is not always, perhaps never, possible to achieve full mutual understanding, in view of what I called ‘cognitive distance’. But all that does not yield an excuse not to try to cross that distance as much as possible.

I think we should commit to arguments, as long as we believe in them, saying ‘I think I am right’ but being prepared to concede 'no, you are right’.  If we surrender claims of right and wrong, what is the point of debate?

The commitment to debate entails that one offers arguments for one’s views, in terms of purported facts, logic, coherence with accepted views. Recognizing that none of this yields ‘rockbottom truth’, one is still seeking the best arguments, in deciding who is ‘right’. The debate may be undecidable, resulting in rival views co-existing together. But each side will pursue further arguments to boost the warrant of assertibility. And upon debate one might conclude that one is right here and the other there. While it is odd to say that something can be both true and false, in debate one can be partially right or wrong.

While I admit that in some ways the distinction between normative and descriptive, between ‘is’ and ‘ought’, is problematic, I think that in some ways it is still valid and useful. The search for warrant applies normatively and descriptively. Normatively because that is what debate should be about.

Descriptively, people want to be right as part of an inherent drive to exist, to manifest themselves, in what is called the conatus essenti (e.g. with Spinoza), and to win, in a Nietzschean will to power. Trying to win arguments transcends physical violence. I would add the spirit of Levinas, discussed in item 61, with the awe for the ineliminable otherness of the other, as a fount of spiritual awareness, and, I would add, a source of learning that contributes to the flourishing of life (see item 64).    

It all  becomes problematic when the Levinassian spirit is lacking, and one side subdues the other, imposes his/her ‘truth’, or when one’s position in some institutional structure imposes it. This I grant to Habermas. ebermas. HThen, one may hope to have the courage to rebel or opt out.