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Post No.: 0787fence


Furrywisepuppy says:


It’s sensible and right to be open-minded, at least to listening to those who offer evidence and reason for their standpoints. But understanding the true complexity of socio-political subjects can sometimes make one ‘sit on the fence’, or at least moderate, on many issues.


Being fair to all sides often means that it’s untenable to hold strong, black-or-white or extreme views on debateable issues, which are those that science cannot objectively answer or has yet answered.


Meanwhile, when we only know a little about something to be dangerous because we’ve only heard from one side of a story or an oversimplification of an issue, we’re more likely to hold overconfident black-or-white views. And we won’t know we only knew so little until after we learn far more – if we ever do. This extends on what was stressed in Post No.: 0666.


That’s why I will always encourage everyone to learn about subjects more comprehensively from academic courses rather than piecemeal from general media or social media sources – at least some foundational courses that teach the basics about economics, law or whatever subject is concerned. The latter sources of information will supplement a formal education but cannot better one for rigour. There are tons of free-to-audit MOOCs nowadays. (I’ve continued studying MOOCs at a rate of eight courses per year since starting this blog, which isn’t as much as I used to but is what I can manage.)


There are oftentimes appreciable differences when discussing topics with people who’ve studied a subject and those who think they sufficiently have via merely watching a few online videos and reading a few articles about it.


Concerning moral philosophy in particular, self-knowledge can lead to a lost innocence – what one used to think was clear black-or-white right or wrong suddenly becomes unsettlingly fuzzy and murky. The familiar turns estranged. Our presumed settled assumptions can become unsettled (again). Our worldviews and moral standpoints are challenged and one can cease to know which side to side with anymore.


There are strongly arguably no knockdown arguments (clear right or wrong conclusions) in moral philosophy but only thought experiments, reasonings and considerations of the consequences to guide our moral paths, which aren’t clearly delineated. ‘Always’ becomes ‘generally’. ‘Definitely’ becomes ‘could’. ‘All or nothing’ becomes myopic. Extreme views soften. Balance and context become keys. The right answers aren’t always in the middle of two extremes though – don’t over-generalise even generalisations! Easy becomes hard because dumbed-down was naïve. ‘Black-or-white’ become ‘grey’, but how do we decide what’s the ‘right shade of grey’? Many debates about justice are about line-drawing problems – one extreme is untenable, the opposite extreme is also untenable, so somewhere in the middle is right, but where exactly in the middle shall this line be drawn? We’ll understand that ‘legality’ and ‘morality’ aren’t always in concordance with each other. What’s considered ‘good’ or ‘evil’ becomes less clear-cut and more contextual rather than absolute. With all complex issues, there’ll be a combination of factors, a number of causes for every single effect we see today; although some reasons may be more direct and/or significant than others, like some sources of blame will be more reasonable to point at than others.


After learning more, one cannot un-think or un-know what one has now thought about and knows either – one cannot claim ignorance to the new comprehension and perspectives one has discovered anymore, and one’s lens through which one observes the world won’t allow us to see the fluffy world in the same way again.


Some great minds have tried to tackle the perennial moral, philosophical and political questions before – like consequentialism versus deontologism, pro-choice versus pro-life, or the line between difference versus disorder, for instance – and they’ll probably forever be debated because there are no objective answers for them. Science can guide but not answer these kinds of questions definitively. Our cultures don’t stand still in this ever-evolving world too to give us universal subjective consensuses (such as when we sometimes see toing-and-froing abortion laws).


Science uncovers further questions, as much as answers them, as the consequence of exploration. In philosophy, there are no objective answers. Or if there are, we might never be able to know if we have them i.e. we might be right yet never be able to definitively confirm it because of the unknown unknowns.


But would ignorance instead be bliss? Would it be better to stay innocent? Although many moral, philosophical and political dilemmas are impossible to answer definitively in one sense – they’re unavoidable in another sense because the same issues arise time and time again. Scepticism isn’t a permanent dwelling anyway – we can’t believe in nothing all the time. We must believe in something and use reasoning.


It’s precisely this tension and unease that animates critical reflection, political improvement and hopefully improvement in our own moral life. Why do we still attempt to answer questions that we acknowledge may actually be impossible to ever objectively answer? It’s because justice and politics are inescapable and will affect us every day as long as we live amongst others.


Being open-minded doesn’t mean taking all arguments seriously or giving all arguments equal weight though – considered arguments must have a basis in logic, evidence and/or moral reasoning where required. Open-mindedness shouldn’t mean being clueless and credulously accepting and sharing (and thus spreading and perhaps reinforcing) absolutely anything or what every side says. Listen to all sides but don’t necessarily accept or parrot them all. Apply your own critical thinking. Not all evidence that’s presented is unambiguous or complete. Not all reasoning that’s presented is without flaws.


It’s not necessarily about changing one’s mind if one isn’t persuaded to but about being open to the possibility of changing one’s mind, and listening to counterviews and counterevidence and giving them fair consideration. It’s also about ensuring that one’s own arguments are persuasive by using logic and evidence rather than strategies like making threats or name-calling.


Some people support valid and perhaps noble causes yet haven’t tried to understand their opponents properly. For instance, they don’t properly understand genetic modification yet are opposed to GM crops wholesale, or nuclear power yet are opposed to nuclear power stations. This means their conclusions might be good or correct but their arguments might be bad or wrong, and their proposals for solutions may be unrealistic for not understanding the obstacles, which all won’t help their cause. They may resort to irrational arguments and making logical fallacies, and may end up making less persuasive progress in pushing through practical change than they could.


An open mind means being open to new empirical evidence, ideas or hypotheses. It’s about expressing an endless curiosity to learn more because we’ll never be sure whether we know 100% of what could be pertinent to know due to the unknown size of the unknown unknowns.


There are the known knowns (the stuff we have answers for), the known unknowns (the things we still ask questions about), the unknown unknowns (the things we don’t even realise we could or should ask about), and perhaps the unknown knowns (the stuff we don’t realise we already know).


Critically going ‘this side has this going for it… but then that side has that going for it… but then again this is a shortcoming on this side… and that is a shortcoming on that side…’ should become the habitual way to reason towards a conclusion. And this kind of thing is like what one must do whenever writing an academic essay if one wants a high grade, and unlike what one will usually do when either just passively absorbing media, attempting to confirm a conclusion one already desires, or when arguing for the sake of trying to win a dispute against equally obdurate supporters of an opposing position. It becomes less about collaborating to find the best answers and more about defeating one’s adversaries. If they go extreme, you go more extreme in the opposite direction in order to try to counteract their position, hence the sides become increasingly polarised. You can’t sit on the fence when you’re trying to express loyalty to your own political side.


I have no political party loyalties. (Although to claim I have no political biases would be false because everyone with an opinion is political!) Yet, in political and typical social media contexts, sitting on the fence can make it seem like, to laypeople, that one understands less than someone who appears supremely confident, forthright and obstinate in their one-sided views. Confidence is taken as a heuristic for knowing what’s absolutely and categorically right, when this is an unreliable assumption because sometimes knowing far more is precisely why one is left sitting on the fence because one more fully understands and appreciates the complexity of an issue or dilemma.


So sitting on the fence, expressing neutrality, or even admitting that one doesn’t know the best answer to something, can be a strong sign that one knows more than the average person, not less. If we’re instead arrogant then we’re more likely to cease listening to others to collect greater knowledge.


By the way, adopting a politically centrist position, or even trying to compromise with all sides, isn’t always ‘sitting on the fence’ or ‘standing for nothing’ – it’s sometimes a sure and firm stance against extremism in any direction.


Well, most times, one will personally find that the current overall weight of evidence, logic and morality leans more to one side than another so one will have an opinion; but this opinion will be softer or less extreme, and so one will be less pompously forceful with one’s opinions or patronising towards other people’s differing opinions. One will be more conscious that one might be wrong if new information emerges. It’s cosier for one’s mind to believe in clear, simplistic and black-or-white worldviews – but they’re seldom the best truths or the real world as it really is in all its true complexity and enthralling richness when it comes to human social, economic and political matters.


So it doesn’t mean not believing in anything or not taking a position if pressed – it means understanding and accepting that some issues are indeed complicated.


Deliberately sitting on the fence, trying to stay neutral, not taking sides or trying to stay out of political debates can sometimes backfire though because if you’re directly asked a question but refuse to answer, it’ll be assumed that you’re refraining from showing your disagreement with the other person (in a similar way to saying, “No comment” to the question, “Did you cheat?” – you’ll be assumed to have cheated, otherwise what’s the difficulty in saying you didn’t?(!))


You can thus lose more trust than just admitting to your disagreement, possibly because you’ll be seen as merely trying to protect yourself from criticism i.e. it can appear self-serving, manipulative and disingenuous, or spineless. You can hold a neutral position or sit on the fence but you must explain your reasoning or simply admit that you don’t know enough about the issue rather than appear like you’re avoiding answering the question.


Government ministers must ultimately make decisions rather than sit on the fence, and most people will want to see that they’re sure of their decisions. Shadow ministers strategically cannot sit on the fence either because they need to be seen to be offering the public an alternative option; otherwise the public might as well stick with the incumbent government.


Certain people must remain neutral though, like journalists or judges, and we should understand that. And neutrality can express that one is still thinking and hasn’t yet come to an opinion. But if you do have an opinion, it can be better to just share it respectfully. This could also advance the conversation, especially with someone who already wants to hear what you think.


So say what you believe in a respectful manner, while staying open-minded and listening to what others believe too.




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