Getting things right, or trying to

I’ve been pondering the connection (if any) between getting things right or getting at the truth, and merit. The pondering was prompted by this post at Talking Philosophy and specifically one part of the overall argument:

I don’t think that getting things right – in the sense of believing or accepting something to be true, rather than finding out that something is true (yes, I know – the distinction is complex) – is praiseworthy. Or, at least, I don’t think it is praiseworthy enough to justify the cloying smugness that some people – and groups – manifest when they think that they have got things right.

I saw the point of that at first (and perhaps still do in the sense that I’m not sure anything is praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, because cloying smugness just isn’t a good thing), but I also had some reservations.

The first is that in fact getting things right even in the first sense is praiseworthy in many contexts. Not necessarily praiseworthy enough to justify cloying smugness, but if that standard is applied too broadly then the point becomes kind of not a point – it becomes just a matter of pointing out that cloying smugness is bad, which few will dispute. It seems fair to assume that there is a question about amount of praiseworthiness here, and that that is the issue, and worth talking about. And my claim is that getting things right, even if it is just belief or acceptance of existing findings, is praiseworthy in many situations, and that its opposite is dispraiseworthy, and in fact wrong. Think forensics, research, engineering, law, medicine, agriculture, education, to name just a few – in all of them, the goal is to get things right and avoid getting them wrong, and doing that always involves quite a lot of acceptance of existing findings. It’s true enough that that’s pretty much a default position, and not really something to glory in (‘Hey, get me, I’m following the rules!’), but it is better than the alternative. Given that there is such a thing as getting it wrong, and that there are such things as lying and cheating and concealment, I think it’s worth hanging on to the awareness that getting it right really is better than getting it wrong, and in that sense praiseworthy. After all, there are entire professions (of sorts) which do not value getting it right, and they can do a great deal of damage. Think advertising, PR, lobbying, political spinning. They don’t rule out getting it right, but getting it right is not their goal and it’s not essential; it is expendable. If we think lies told by PR firms or advertisers or presidents are a bad thing, then we think getting it right is praiseworthy. That’s a very minimal sense of praiseworthy, but perhaps worth keeping all the same.

My other reservation is that I think it’s often not so much that skeptics think they are praiseworthy as that they are reacting to claims by believers that they are despicable. There is an idea among believers that belief and ‘faith’ are necessary for morality as well as various other valuable qualities (wonder, awe, reverence, gratitude) and that non-believers are at the very least handicapped in certain ways. Non-believers get tired of hearing this, and we sometimes (or often) react with vehemence or sarcasm or disdain or all those; this can look like smugness. It can also be smugness; I don’t deny that; but I think there are sometimes reasons other than (or in addition to) pure narcissism for the smugness. I think it’s often reactive.

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