by Kevin Currie-Knight
Like probably everyone who reads philosophy, I have favorite writings I return to again and again, sometimes to find fresh insight, and sometimes, just to appreciate again the beauty of what I’d already found in them. One such writing for me is an underappreciated article by William James, titled “On a Certain Moral Blindness in Human Beings.” I don’t recall when I first read it, but I am sure I had no idea at the time that I’d come back to this article as many times as I have.
What I find so valuable in it — what is always worth reminding myself of — is James’s exploration of a human tension between certitude and skepticism. James is concerned about the tension between us as acting beings, who grow comfortable enough in our beliefs that they solidify as parts of us, and reflective beings, who know, or should know, that our beliefs are as fallible and partial as anyone’s. While we are often tempted, and it may even be natural, to judge others by our own standards — whether their beliefs and ways of thinking align with ours — we should always find moments to humble ourselves in recognition that our beliefs are ours, not necessarily the final or inevitable interpretation of things. Maybe that is a small insight, but I can often use the reminder, as I suspect others can, given our age of (real or imagined?) polarization, a world where it seems discussion is often intractable precisely because few people show interest in understanding “the other” on “the other’s” terms.
James’s essay centers around a story James tells about being taken on a tour through rural North Carolina. He comes upon a forest cleared of all its trees and foliage and is told that the villagers have been quite industriously and tirelessly clearing it. James reported feeling incensed and befuddled that people would participate in the destruction of what looked to be a beautiful landscape for what seemed to be no good reason. Only later when he talked with the villagers did he come to understand the reasons the villagers have cleared the land: they like to feel productive and clearing unkempt land gives them this satisfaction.
Whether the villagers’ reasons for clearing the land was good or bad is beside the essay’s point. The point is that when given this explanation, James realized something so illustrative of the human experience that he thought it worth writing an essay about: “I had been as blind to the peculiar ideality of their conditions as they certainly would also have been to the ideality of mine, had they had a peep at my strange indoor academic ways of life at Cambridge.” We — the villagers, James, and the rest of us — get so caught up in the only experience we have direct access to (our own), often to a point where we lose the ability to treat our way of thought as anything short of obvious and natural. In so doing, we lose the ability to fully appreciate the different perspectives of others.
While James clearly wants us to get in the habit of avoiding this as much as we can, what I most appreciate about the article is that James (subtly) illustrates why we will never fully be able to do it. As much as James is a philosopher, he is a psychologist who is as concerned with offering normative advice as he is to describing human experience in all its contradictions and limitations
We are, after all, first and foremost acting beings. We may understand that we are partial and fallible, but we have to act, often with conviction, in the world we are presented with. In that world, we understandably focus on the things in front of us, accumulate habits, and cannot possibly reflect (but in a superficial way) on any more than small pieces of the world. Here’s how James puts it:
Yet we are but finite, and each one of us has some single specialized vocation of his own. And it seems as if energy in the service of its particular duties might be got only by hardening the heart toward everything unlike them. Our deadness toward all but one particular kind of joy would thus be the price we inevitably have to pay for being practical creatures.
We can step back from this “deadness,” tunnel vision, or certitude in our beliefs, but only at the expense of the type of action that requires conviction. When we need to get things done, we need to know that we know what we know. Only when we have the luxury of stepping back — when something goes wrong or when we are confronted with things we can’t explain using only what we know, and we have time to think and explore — can we safely fall into doubt about what we know. James again:
Only in some pitiful dreamer, some philosopher, poet, or romancer, or when the common practical man becomes a lover, does the hard externality give way, and a gleam of insight into the ejective world…, the vast world of inner life beyond us, so different from that of outer seeming, illuminate our mind. Then the whole scheme of our customary values gets confounded, then our self is riven and its narrow interests fly to pieces, then a new centre and a new perspective must be found
It is, writes James, “as if it were necessary to become worthless as a practical being, if one is to hope to attain any breadth of insight into the impersonal world of worths as such, to have any perception of life’s meaning on a large objective scale.”
Other examples can illustrate. The prosecutor and judge are parts played by different people, because even though both are necessary, the roles conflict. The prosecutor’s role is to argue the case in front of her; she has made up her mind with conviction. The judge’s job is to listen to all sides with circumspection, not making up his mind until he believes all the facts are in. These are two equally necessary but different roles, and no one can occupy both at the same time. Similarly, there is the adage of the person who is a skeptic or relativist in the philosophy seminar, but not when the must change a flat tire.
James surely wants us to play the role of skeptic and impartial (or less partial) judge more often. But to me, the magic of the essay is that he illustrates precisely why the best we can hope for is to oscillate between roles – at some times we are the convinced believer and at others, we can imagine stepping back and treating our beliefs as an anthropologist might, by recognizing them as some beliefs among many possible. If we do it right, we can oscillate between these states of mind, allowing our inner prosecutors and inner judges to balance each other out. It’s the best we can hope for.
James’s point, I think, is that while it is inevitable that all us acting beings slide into “certain moral blindness” and even dogmatism, we can keep this in check by reminding ourselves as often as we are able, to take the broader view that recognizes our beliefs as some among many possible. As strongly as we may be convinced by a particular position, we still have the ability to step back from time to time and marvel (at least this is how I experience it) at how others can experience conviction in beliefs that differ sharply from my own. Convinced in the face of disagreements that you are right and they wrong? Of course you are. They are just as convinced as you that the reverse is true.
Some will take this as a sort of relativism, and I will admit that this is the way I take it. There are many standards people use to decide what facts to admit into decisions about what is true, how to appraise the data, etc. Some beliefs, of course will show themselves better than others – we can be wrong and not all beliefs are equally good – but even the criteria for when to declare such happenings will themselves be relative. Humans are too diverse in cognition and situation to expect that consensuses on truth, goodness, and rightness will be anything more than happy accidents. Some disagreements just don’t get solved, because the sides will inevitably talk past each other. But they’re wrong! Okay, let them be wrong, because as wrong as you think they are, they think you are, and you just won’t convince them otherwise.
But those averse to any form of relativism could see James’s advice about recognizing our “certain moral blindness” in other ways. You could take it as simply a strategy, a way of reminding yourself that the only way to vanquish an opponent is to understand how they believe what they believe, on terms as close to theirs as possible. And the best way to understand that is to loosen up your own (often inadvertent) certitude. Or, pace the Pyrrhonian skepticism of Sextus Empiricus , you could see James’s advice as a strategy for maintaining peace of mind. After all the argument you can muster, if they still haven’t changed their minds, content yourself with the idea that they can’t see your point (or you, theirs) because your experiences and priors may be too far apart to be bridged.
Lastly, James’s advice can serve to remind us never to let our frustration in the face of others’ apparent wrongness allow us to think that our interlocutors are just an intellectually impoverished type who refuses to “listen to reason” or “see things clearly.” If I’m being honest about the moments of mine where I most exhibit what James would call a “hardening of the heart,” I have been guilty of this tendency. It is easy. I see things clearly, and I reason properly (if I do say so myself, and I often do). Since they cannot see the force I so clearly see in my argument, or the glaring accuracy in my own account of things, the problem must be theirs.
And this is why I keep coming back to this essay, “On a Certain Moral Blindness in Human Beings.” I am proof that what James says is true: we can know intellectually that our beliefs are partial and fallible, but in the concrete world of action, it is the easiest thing to forget, even when evidence of it is all around you in the form of the remarkable plurality of human beliefs. When I read this essay, James both jars me out of this unconscious but self-preserving oversight, and reminds me of its very humanness, even inevitability. He reminds me that I will – no one will – ever get there, but we must always keep trying.