Truth and Relativism

Living & Learning

LIVING
Challenge Scenario

Maimonides says that when a dispute is ‘for the sake of heaven,’ discussants are devoted to finding the truth, or to identifying and showing people the right path (See Goldin). A sign of devotion to the truth is conformity to the Sages’ model of a wise discussant (Avot 5:10): he or she listens to the other person, asks relevant questions, speaks to the point, acknowledges the truth, and when they don’t understand something. On social media today, by contrast, even what question is under discussion is often unclear. And when it is clear, people often don’t stick to investigating its truth, but turn to ad hominem arguments—personal attacks—and other irrelevant arguments. In effect, arguments proceed as if the only issue is who is the bad guy and who the good guy. The implicit assumption is also that the good guy is right, and the bad guy wrong, about everything. The challenge: 1. When you start participating in a discussion on a social or political issue, how do you see that it starts in a way that favors an honest search for the truth? 2. When you see a discussion about to go off the rails into a ‘good guy—bad guy’ insult fest, how can you rescue it?

Guidelines:

1. Start soft. This is the rule of marriage expert John Gottman, but it applies generally: if you start a discussion with personal attacks, it is doomed. It is essential to have an objective issue clearly stated at the start. It is most helpful if stated as a question with more than two answers, a ‘what’ or ‘how’ question. Then it is less likely to become “us and them” right away. In any case, the issue needs to be clearly stated. If the other person starts with something insulting, then you have to get past it with a joke, or restate in a non-insulting way before addressing the issue. If you can’t get past the insult phase, it isn’t worth pursuing.     

2. Draw the other person out. Asking questions and listening is critical because, as expert hostage negotiator Chris Voss has explained, the true reason for the person’s position is most often not obvious, but must be addressed for any progress to happen.

3. Focus on evidence. General claims are never certain, and the best we can do is test them with specific evidence—something that happened at a specific place and time. It is easier to get agreement on such factual evidence, and it has the power to be crucial—to refute one general claim while tentatively confirming a rival. That’s the best we can ever do, as philosopher of science Karl Popper pointed out.       

Your Experience

How have you dealt with discussions that are going off the rails, rather than seeking truth? What are your success stories in making them successful? Did you change your mind, or did the other person? Or did it just shed new light?

LEARNING

Be deliberate in judging.

Be deliberate in judging. Here, the Hebrew m’tunim, “deliberate,” also means slow and careful. This saying warns against dogmatism—the view that the truth is obvious, and that one can make correct judgments quickly and with certainty, whether in court or in ordinary life.

Yet, the saying equally opposes the moral relativism currently popular in America—the view that we shouldn’t make moral judgments at all, and that there is really no way to judge between competing principles. In reality, everybody makes moral judgments in their personal lives. Indeed, it is necessary to make judgments about people’s actions in order to carry out the commandments in the Torah to pursue justice and to rebuke wrongdoing. And, therefore, the Sages put forward guidance for making good judgments: before judging someone, be careful to weigh the facts and evidence, to put yourself in his or her place (2:5), and to give him or her the benefit of the doubt (1:6).

Whether or not there is divine authority for ethical principles, as Judaism holds, the fact is that some ethical principles promote social harmony and prosperity. And other values, such as callousness and domination, now celebrated in “gangsta rap” music, lead to strife, violence, and poverty. Avot contains the principles that the Sages believed best promote a good life for individuals and a peaceful and just society.

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Every controversy which is for the sake of heaven will in the end endure. 

If one debates with his fellow not out of low motives, but out of a desire to seek the truth, his words will endure and not come to an end. So too, if one puts men on the straight path, the Lord, blessed be He, will reward him in that He will keep him from sin. But he who leads men astray will be punished by the Lord, blessed be He, in that He will deprive him of the opportunity to repent (Maimonides).

The meaning is this: Those engaged in such debate will endure forever. Today they will argue about one subject, on the morrow about another subject, and the give and take between them will continue all their lives. What is more, these intellectual tussles will add length of days and years to their lives. But controversy “which is not for the sake of Heaven, will not endure in the end”; on the contrary, the disputants will perish in the very first controversy, as in the instance of Korah (Rabbi Jonah).

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