Our principles are important. The virtuous live for them. Socrates, in his wisdom, died for them. While the immoral forsake them. It is typically the measure of good character to maintain your principles, whatever, it seems, they may be. And any deviation is the mark of deviance — the weak-willed, the spineless, the hypocrite!
At the same time we think that some principles are just rubbish. Those based on crazy, sometimes dangerous beliefs, those of crack-pots, looneys, terrorists. But we are also inclined to dismiss those who hold onto ideas we simply disagree with or that go against our own. And we are particularly wary of those who hold onto these at all costs — the self-righteous, the arrogant, the deluded!
This raises a problem. On one hand it is a defect of character to forgo our principles, beliefs, ideas, to ever change our mind. While on the other hand it is a dangerous character that holds onto them unwaveringly, to never change our mind. Alas, we cannot have it both ways.
Despite the dangers, strangely, we are generally inclined to assume sides with the steadfastly principled rather than accept anyone prepared to change their mind. The respectability that such a consistent character receives appears to trump any instance of a compromising character, a changed mind. You know the sort of thing…
‘Well, I may not agree with any of their ideas, but I respect that they always stick to their principles!’
Conversely, a changed mind raises concerns of weakness, incompetence, suspicion…
‘First they have this idea, now they think the opposite, then something else, the idiots can’t make up their mind! Flake! Or they must be up to something, because, you know, leopards don’t change their spots. Fraud!’
But what does it really take for us to be this sort of steadfastly principled?
It demands that to be a principled, presumably good, person not only do you have to live by your principles ’til death but also happen to have lived by the right ones from birth! Let’s for a moment imagine a world where it is possible that you are born with all the ‘right’ principles, perhaps, you also happen to grow up in a family and community that share these ‘right’ principles, and you manage to consistently live your life by them. All I can say is lucky you. Because this is all your principled life would be — luck. Whereas, if you unluckily start out wrong — sorry, you’re screwed.
If this is the world of the steadfastly principled, then, unfortunately, we’re all screwed.
Evidently no-one is born with all the ‘right’ principles, beliefs, ideas. Even if you think we do pop out with some special natural sense – one popular thought is that everyone has an innate sense of right and wrong – this is still a long way off from having fully worked out principles, beliefs, ideas for life. (And to think otherwise would be to make the same mistake about this natural sense as philosophical brilliance that I discussed last time; that is, our given ‘nature’ is no guarantee of success.)
In actuality we generally start out wrongheaded about nearly everything. Or more precisely with no real idea of anything. We need to learn things, work out what to think. (As mentioned last time, even Socrates the man must have gone though all the usual human scrapes to become wise.) Significantly, just because our ‘opinion’ can immediately jump to mind on all occasions, it does not mean that we know what we think, let alone what we should think on each occasion, about each thing. Of course, our immediate ‘opinions’ can on occasion be right, but – just like stopped clocks, typing monkeys, and tarot readings – only by accident. Still, our overriding intuition is to believe them, and worse to defend them — all of them. As I have previously discussed, this sort of defending things to the death risks you joining the ‘wilfully ignorant’ or ‘being a dick’.
We all know this but we are still inclined to find changing our mind a failing. Strange.
But, perhaps we are so hard on mind changing because it is so hard to truly change our mind. The embarrassment of admitting we are wrong, which then pales against the arduous task of changing something about ourselves rather than simply continuing to bend the world to fit our view. The greatest difficulty is that such a change demands a loss of our familiar idea of self. The idea that we hold central to our being, that locates and identifies us in the world. Maybe, just maybe, despite the dangers, we collude to favour the steadfastly principled, consistent character to legitimise our general resistance to such a hard change; for even the smallest change of our mind means a change to who we think we are.
Now, I am as guilty as anyone for insisting that ‘the world’s wrong, NOT ME!’ One thing (of many) that I have learnt from doing philosophy, though, is that, while I may not always be wrongheaded about things, there is a wondrous multitude of different ways of thinking about things, especially things that never occurred to me to think about! And some ways are patently better than others.
As for being a philosopher it is a central virtue to change our mind. Remember, from the start, philosophy’s aim has been to know thyself. This is not merely an idea of thyself. Like every idea our idea of self can be, often is, mistaken. Our aim is to come to know our actual self not merely some, probably mistaken, idea of it. This means that to be a philosopher is to identify and discard our mistaken ideas and adopt better ones, to change our mind. It does not follow that ‘I am always a problem that needs changing’ rather that whoever we are we have to be prepared to change ourselves. To constantly challenge our own ideas.
Probably philosophy’s greatest mind changer is Wittgenstein. He wrote not one, but two of the twentieth-century’s most important philosophical works; and extraordinarily, they present diametrically opposed views. His second book Philosophical Investigations had the express purpose of completely overthrowing his ideas in the first, Tractatus Logico-philosophicus. For Wittgenstein, his philosophical integrity was so important to him that no view, no mind, was beyond being changed, especially not his own.
Nevertheless, no matter how virtuous, changing our mind remains difficult and potentially treacherous. How do we go about it? When or on what grounds ought we philosophers change our mind? Could it all still be wrong anyway? I shall be exploring this in the following posts.
Finally, you may be wondering, what should the virtuous really live for, and, indeed, what did Socrates really die for? Following Wittgenstein, I suggest integrity. Integrity is not consistency of character but accountability, we must be accountable for our principles, ideas, beliefs — ourselves. Socrates, knowing this, died for it.
Next Time: The Art of Listening.