Honesty In The 21st Century

Modern democracies are saturated with opinion and advocacy. The airwaves, the presses, the cables, the town squares and sidewalks—even your Facebook newsfeed—have been and will be sought as a medium through which anyone with a staked-out position will seek to persuade.

If ever there was an American principle—a democratic principle—it is that, while not all ideas that pass through the channels of communication are prudent or even true, the channels of communication themselves should be unhindered. This article leaves that principle undisturbed.

The full blossoming of democracy, however, is somewhat frozen over when the channels are characterized more by persuasion than by truth. Our demand for factual honesty is high; when a factual assertion is proven intentionally wrong, society is quick to attach indignation. Unfortunately, our demand for factual honesty is scarcely matched by our demand for intellectual honesty—as if one is patently blameworthy and the other is just a difference of opinion. I believe it’s about time that our conception of honesty reach the 21st century.

This is is an appeal to our culture.

Factual honesty deals with who, what, when, and where. Intellectual honesty deals with why and how. When we form our paradigm, we are essentially forming our conception of how facts relate to one another. Intellectual truth then is a predictive power and guiding force.

So why am I harping about honesty in the 21st century when we in the 21st century know that so many things are subject to varying opinions? Isn’t having a multitude of ideas the best way to reach the best idea? And isn’t this business of intellectual honesty laughably hypocritical coming from a lawyer?

Let me tackle the last one first. My job as a lawyer is to take the facts—arrange, emphasize them, de-emphasize them, qualify them, contextualize them, explain them, or cast doubt on them—all so that they are presented in the light most favorable to my client. My job is persuasion, not intellectual truth. This is the unfortunately reality of the Smith v. Doe world of litigation. It is also why litigation should be a last resort and really should be avoided if possible. The real world functions better when people cooperate to resolve differences rather than compete to win them. Cooperation requires intellectual honesty.

Intellectual honesty is less tangible than factual honesty, and thus is harder to contain within a tidy definition. For that reason, I think it’s understood better with an image rather than a definition. Intellectual honesty, regardless of the type, can be compared to allowing yourself to float down a current rather than fighting the current. The current may lead you where you don’t wish to end up, but you will willingly go there if that’s where the current leads. In the same way, the intellectually honest person takes fair reasoning wherever it leads, even if to a different outcome than was originally desired.

The cooperative culture that propels the human race forward is found when people reason like the person carried on the water. We are held back when “reasoning” becomes like a boat propeller. Unfortunately, our culture seems increasingly attracted more to the adversarial model of conflict resolution than the cooperative one. We argue to reach and obtain a position, rather than reason to be carried to a destination.

This is not helped by our ethos of rugged individualism, which uncritically rewards “type A” individuals. By “type A” I loosely mean people who have a desired outcome and exploit whatever tools are available to reach that outcome. This person finds a lifetime of success by the never-ending manipulation of their surroundings by persuasion. By persuasion, I mostly mean logical fallacy. It’s essentially the lawyer model I described above. Under the adversarial model of society, we go not where the current goes, but where the people who make the most noise want everyone to go.

This is also not helped by our woeful recognition of logical fallacies. With hardly a fight, we succumb to false dichotomies, straw man arguments, circular arguments, ad hominems, non sequiturs, and so on. I believe that until we are equipped to combat logical fallacies, the opinion makers of our 21st century world will continue to dominate the exponentially increasing channels for their own selfish purposes.

Never heard of these logical fallacies I listed above? Then you are part of the problem.

The fight for a more honest society is a fight for culture, which is always bourn on the shoulders of individuals. We need to quit rewarding relentlessly manipulative interests by empowering ourselves to hold them accountable. The mass media have reached the 21st century. Honesty needs to reach it too.


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