Thursday, November 04, 2004

Fighting for Your Viewpoint

MelbournePhilosopher

Many people have strong views on certain subjects, and believe that others should join them in their viewpoint. Religious groups, philosophical groups, self-help authors, politicians and myself all have lines that we tow around in public, trying to convince people of our correctness. In the face of so much divided opinion, it is easy to conclude that there is no right answer. This ambivalence inspires the various promoters to try even harder to push their views. However there must somewhere be a line when you are no longer being convincing, but are instead being a bully.

Often in conversation, I just let my thoughts run away with themselves, the result being that I dominate a conversation, or don't give other people enough voice. Even more at fault are those who do so deliberately - advertising companies, politicians and certain varieties of religion. Religion is a sufficiently broad class that it contains both the highly reasonable and the extreme.

There is a dilemma from the perspective of the information providers - in order to spread your viewpoint, the most effective mechanism is often advertising based not on your beliefs, but on human psychology. Pop music is sold not because it sounds good, but because it is glamorous. Conservative religions play on people's fears, as do conservative politicians. Public debate is frequently simplistic, and product advertising is seldom an accurate reporting of the facts.

For someone who wants to take some kind of ethical responsibility for the promotion of their views - i.e. not to betray the principles of what they stand for - some thought is required. There are two problems. One is that good ideas are not guaranteed to succeed. The other is that the rightness of ones view is frequently only right in its own terms. My position on abortion (to pick an example) is right according to my views, but is dependant on your accepting my larger position on a few issues. Just because I think I have some good and right ideas doesn't mean that I can force them on others. No matter how convinced I am of my view, it is still backed up only by my conviction.

Acknowledging that humans are fallible is opening the door to relativism - that nothing is ever perfect, and nobody is ever right about anything. Yet, one can be approximately right about many things. Is there any kind of rational certainty by which we can know that our beliefs? Certainly, it seems like logic can help by at least pointing out invalid argument structures, but every apparently logical position still rests on many many assumptions about rules and inferences.

The only conclusion that I can think of is that one should trust ones instincts about what is a good position and what is not, but that highly emotive topics should be tempered by a lot of careful consideration. Some beliefs are held nearly absolutely, such as the right to defend oneself by force, some basic human rights etc. There are positions which I am willing to fight for with physical force, others that I am willing to promote believing them correct, others which I am happy to stand for, and still others which I hold internally but do not push outwards. So long as one attempts to recognise the difference, that is enough. At the end of the day, adherence to ethical promotion is a choice made many different ways.

-MP

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