Truth and Ideology

Does wisdom and individual improvement inevitably result from the authentic pursuit of truth? I think so. Yet, this conclusion is not so clear in light of the differences of opinion between intellectual elites. But I wonder what they actually do agree and differ on. Could it be that they actually share much more than is made apparent? Could it be that our culture’s obsession with controversy clouds this reality?

Seriously, what is our problem? How is it that we still get so much wrong despite the enormous growth in social science research in the 20th century? Is the problem simply that the academics have not yet learned the importance of intellectual humility? Are the social pressures too strong for them to put the pursuit of truth above the ideology they have grown accustomed to? Why does it seem so difficult to pursue the greatest (net per capita) happiness in an objective way?

You see, I have put the pursuit of truth above the ideology I used to hold. Indeed I recognize that I don’t yet have all the answers. But am I able to hold this agnostic opinion only because I am young? If I’d been doing research for 20 or 30 years is it likely that I would still be able to hold this position? I would think that I’d have come to some significant conclusions by then. But then if I had been pursuing truth in a non-ideological way the whole time, wouldn’t that have led me to the truth? So then if there is an objective truth, wouldn’t all people that seriously pursue it eventually come to very similar conclusions? I want this to be true. Goddamn, I want this to be true!

But before I move on, some of you might be wondering what exactly I mean by “truth.” In this context I am speaking of the truth about how the world works and what the path to the greatest happiness is. This is a political truth. It is the answer to the question of what the world ought to be like. But let’s analyze this a bit further. First of all there is the question of what the world ought to be like; but I’ve already answered part of this by claiming that we ought to pursue the greatest happiness. Some ideologies actually do not claim this, while others claim it only implicitly. Either way, it’s bad methodology. The obvious first step is to explicitly state the goal of achieving the greatest happiness. From here we then move on to figuring out how this is achieved.

Of course I don’t know how the greatest happiness is achieved. But is there a clear way of making progress on this question? I’ve already explained the importance of the character trait of intellectual humility, but that in itself won’t lead to anything. What we need in addition to this is the application of the scientific method to the question, which of course leads us to the realm of social science.

But social science research has been going on for a long time. However, is every bit of this research pertinent to the question we are dealing with? Could it be that the failure of social scientists has been due to them seeking the answers to the wrong questions? Perhaps most research has not been done with the ultimate purpose of the achievement of the greatest happiness in mind. Indeed the historian Russell Jacoby has published work exposing the problematic situation in academia in which scholars conform to producing irrelevant and obscure research in order to gain tenure. Of course this does not mean that these scholars have given up on the objective pursuit of truth, but it does mean that they have given up on the pursuit of the truth that I am speaking of in this blog. To me, this translates into no less than moral treachery.

In order to explain why this is moral treachery it is essential to ask the question of what the purpose of social science research is. But who determines this, and how? My hypothesis is that this issue of purpose is one surrounded by much confusion. However, this need not be the case. We can avoid this confusion by recognizing that all actions ought to either be ends in themselves (meaning that we do them because they directly bring us happiness) or be aimed at contributing as much as possible to the happiness of the population. The first case is explained by pointing out that we need not justify to anyone the things that happen to make us happy. As for the second, it’s a bit more complicated. First we must realize that actions involving more than one person are by rule political; second, we must understand that politics is nothing but an extension of morality; and third, we must recognize that since politics is an extension of morality, all acts must be justified in terms of their contribution to the happiness of the population (or as the Utilitarians would call it, utility).

The point I’m trying to make with all this is that the institutions that produce social science research suffer from a severe case of moral confusion. And as a result of this they make moral blunder after moral blunder.

Despite this, it is only social science that can lead us toward the greatest happiness. And although things are currently quite bad, hope remains due to the fact that we humans have a grand capacity to reason. Thus, if we are able to just momentarily wake up from our neurotic slumber, and then during that time find the strength to commit ourselves to reason, we can free ourselves and finally start to make progress toward the happiness that justice demands.

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2 responses to “Truth and Ideology

  1. I wonder, however, why the fixation with ‘the most happiness’. Surely, first of all, we have to define happiness. After all, is it the pride taken from being a powerful entity? Or is it simply living comfortably?

    This is a core question, because even if we use the pursuit of happiness as our starting point, these differing definitions of happiness will lead us to very different socio-political programmes.

    I would like to posit a small metaphor here. Consider two brothers. The older works every day for twelve hours, without exception. He works his way to the top and eventually becomes the highest-ranking executive in a corporation.

    His younger brother, on the other hand, loafs around the house all day, never bothering with any laborious task. He feels no need to attain any goals, and is perfectly satisfied with living off his brother’s wealth, lazily spending his days.

    Obviously, both will lead lives that fulfill them in some way. The older brother will be happy in his accomplishments, while the younger one will be happy in his ability to lead a comfortable life. Which one is, however, happier?

    If I am allowed the furthering of my point, imagine these two brothers are countries. Could the younger, lazier brother not be compared to the socialist economies, while capitalist ones seem more like the older one? Is it accomplishment or is it comfortability? Or perhaps a mix of both?

    • Surely, first of all, we have to define happiness. After all, is it the pride taken from being a powerful entity? Or is it simply living comfortably?

      Indeed we do have to define happiness, but what you are describing are conditions that might lead to happiness. What we must recognize is that happiness is simply a physiological feeling. And further, of course there is not just one physiological feeling that corresponds to happiness; there are many. also, many people differentiate between “joy” and “happiness.” They call one of those temporary and the other a sustained feeling. But why not just talk about short-term happiness and sustained happiness. But to be fair on the differentiation that is made, the idea of sustained happiness is not just long-term happiness, but a certain happiness that remains through both good and tough times. It’s a useful concept.

      But the real question is what leads to happiness. It seems apparent that there are some near universals (we can think of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs here), but also many differences amongst individuals. You have illustrated one of these differences in your metaphor about the two brothers. One apparently needs serious success in order to be happy, while the other is just fine loafing around. But the important question is not to ask which is happier. Even if we concluded that the hard working brother was happier, it would not follow that the other brother would need to learn to be hard working in order to be happy. Perhaps living a life like his brother would make him miserable. “How could this be?” you might ask. It is because the natures of the brothers are different, so they would require different stimulation in order to achieve the same level of happiness. So to continue on with explaining why you emphasize the wrong question, regardless of which brother is happiest, most likely neither of the brothers are as happy as they could be. This is the dilemma that most directly translates into our present real- world predicament. Indeed there are many unhappy people in our society–loafers as well as successful businessmen. And as for the question of why this is the case and what we can do about it, this is where social science comes in. However, as I’ve mentioned in my original post, the academy must solve some serious and deeply ingrained problems before we can expect social science to be able to save the day.

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