Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Article of the Day: In Defense of Dangerous Ideas

Posted by Michael Dickens on January 28, 2010

This article by Steven Pinker is, as is said by the title, a defense of dangerous ideas.

An excerpt:

In every age, taboo questions raise our blood pressure and threaten moral panic. But we cannot be afraid to answer them.

Do women, on average, have a different profile of aptitudes and emotions than men? . . .

Did Native Americans engage in genocide and despoil the landscape? . . .

Do African-American men have higher levels of testosterone, on average, than white men? . . .

Have religions killed a greater proportion of people than Nazism? . . .

Perhaps you can feel your blood pressure rise as you read these questions. Perhaps you are appalled that people can so much as think such things. Perhaps you think less of me for bringing them up. These are dangerous ideas — ideas that are denounced not because they are self-evidently false, nor because they advocate harmful action, but because they are thought to corrode the prevailing moral order.

After reading this article, I have formulated a proposition. The proposition is this: complete honesty is the best strategy to maximize moral uprightness.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that women are far smarter than men. Some people may be strongly opposed to this idea; but remember that it is only for the sake of argument. As it is, we treat men and women as equals, or at least try to. But if men are treated as just as apt as women, then this would certainly be unfair. We may not like the prospect, but the best thing to do would be to treat women and men as they are, and not as how we want them to be. Therefore, honesty and inquisitive investigation is the way to go.

This same logic can be applied to any of the scenarios listed by Pinker. If we make a false assumption because we are afraid of the truth, then in the end we are only harming ourselves.

Interestingly, this does not seem to be true all of the time. But a lot of the time, perhaps most of the time, it certainly is. What is the difference, then? Would complete honesty always be the most beneficial, but our culture gets in the way of it? For instance, you might not want me to tell you that you’re fat, but if you are then it may help you in the long run. But we have strong social pressure not to talk about such things. There also seem to be some circumstances in which honesty really doesn’t help at all. For example, if there’s someone who you think is ugly, but they can’t to anything about it, how can it benefit either of you to tell them? Such honesty is only hurtful. Unless, of course, there is a societal shift. If we start to care less about how people look, then it will no longer be a problem. We all like to talk about how it’s what’s on the inside that counts, but let’s face it. We care what people look like. Basing how we like someone on how they look is completely unfair, but we still do it. If we didn’t do it, though, then there would be nothing wrong will telling someone that we think they’re ugly.

Let’s ask Thomas Jefferson what he thinks about this issue.

Here we are not afraid to follow truth, wherever it may lead.

I think that makes his position clear enough.

I think the sentence that best sums up the article is this:

Rational adults want to know the truth, because any action based on false premises will not have the effects they desire.

I think that this is a wonderful point, and I’ll leave you at that.


7 Responses to “Article of the Day: In Defense of Dangerous Ideas”

  1. phynnboi said

    Those ideas are lightweight. If you want to get into real trouble, try arguing that minors should be able to legally consent to sex with adults (outside of marriage), that the kids can enjoy it, and that it should be legal to distribute pictures of those acts. I doubt most people could see straight for long enough to play devil’s advocate to that.

    • I don’t see why that issue is any more “heavyweight” than those other questions.

      • phynnboi said

        Ha! You’ve obviously never tried it!

        Seriously, write up one of your big ol’ blog posts arguing that it should be legal for kids and adults to have sex (even outside of marriage), that kids can enjoy it, and that it should be legal to distribute pictures of the act.

        NO CHEATING, either! You can’t disclaim yourself with crap like, “I’m only doing this because Whatshisface put me up to it! I really think it’s totally disgusting, pedophiles should be shot, think of the children, etc. Blame him, not me!” You can’t just write a couple of limp sentences, either; you’ve got to put some thought into it. Come up with some plausible arguments–something meatier than “people should be able to have sex with whomever they want” or “the government should stay out of people’s bedrooms.”

        I will be deeply surprised if you can pull it off. In my 21 years online, including tens of thousands of forum posts and hundreds of thousands read, I’ve seen exactly two people manage to pull it off, and they were both anonymous.

        (BTW, if you actually do it and it causes you to lose all your viewers or get beat up at school, I take no responsibility. Tread lightly. I’ve lost friends by advocating far milder things.)

      • You’re on. I’ll have it up in some length of time between thirty minutes and two weeks.

      • Does it have to be kids as young as zero years of age, or am I allowed to set some age limit?

  2. Matt said

    I thought that I am a twenty first century student that attends a school in a notably liberal section of what is supposed to be one of the most enlightened and free countries in the world. In my American History class, we watched a movie about the suffrage for women to vote movement. It was a move mostly filled with fictional Hollywood touches, garnished with some of the terrible things that major proponents of the movement had to go through to reach their goal. While it did not teach much, it did cause the bulk of the class to come to a (not necessarily spoken) agreement that people that believe women should not vote are bad people. I personally believe that women deserve the right to vote, and that nothing bad has come of the suffrage movement; however, I didn’t like that movie at all. It seemed that the goal was not to teach, and only to influence emotion without consideration or intelligent thought. When the teacher asked the class what stood out from the movie to them, the first student that was called on expressed that he felt dirty being a man after seeing what those men had done in the movie. When I was called on, I expressed that I was offended by this movie, and that it would make light of the need to logically analyze old, long-accepted ways. My ideas were much tamer than the “dangerous” ones listed here, and ideas and thoughts are supposed to be free and safe, whatever they are. Yet excepting the teacher, no one in that classroom seemed to not automatically align me with the “bad men” in the movie. The girl sitting next to me actually interrupted me to ask if I was on crack.

    • I like that story. Not what happened, of course, but I’m glad you told it. Your ideas are supposed to be free and safe, but most people in the class probably weren’t thinking about that. That’s the problem with that sort of thing: ideas will only be free and safe if everyone agrees that they will be.

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