In Search of the Good Life: Chapter 3, Part 3

By: Patrick


It may be that the supposed virtue of being open-minded enough to change one’s mind is a relatively modern phenomenon. I often feel slightly repelled by small-minded people who have lived in small villages all their lives and have rather blunt opinions about outsiders, whether in relation to gender, class, sexuality, or race. But how are they so different from most people in history? Or even from our liberal cosmopolitan types, who have simply been exposed to a sufficient diversity of views at a critical period of their lives such that they came to be who they are and think what they think? This is not to say that racism is preferable to openness to racial diversity, but rather, as suggested above, that people in general do not seem to change their minds based on reasoned argumentation. Instead they tend to hold moral or immoral positions for non-moral reasons, for example loyalty to one’s family or tribe. Perhaps deep down we are so fragile that we cannot face the possibility of our beliefs being anything other than ‘the truth’. In light of this, no wonder religions have created such destruction in the name of truth. The question is whether science will fare any better in the long-run. The human desire for truth, however noble, too often seems to culminate in tyranny, as Paul Feyerabend said. It seems that the problem is not the nature of the truth – whether a God or a scientific theory – so much as the actual human need for truth. Perhaps the problems related to truth emerge when we refuse to accept the contingency of our beliefs or affiliations or sense of self, so we then feels obliged to impose these views on others (presumably in order to allay anxiety). What is contingent becomes seen as transcendental – the difference of the other is then often understood as evil in order to protect a precarious faith in an intrinsic identity or order.

This would seem to be counteracted by a greater ethical generosity, but this, it seems, is no easy task, as Nietzsche makes clear when he writes that all the virtues and efficiency of body and soul are acquired laboriously and little by little, through much industry, self-constraint, limitation, through much obstinate, faithful repetition of the same labours, the same renunciations. For someone who dubbed himself the antichrist, Nietzsche sounds more than a little religious when he writes this. This should come as no surprise, as the religions, which are seen by people like Jackie as the greatest violators of this principle of ethical generosity when it comes to acknowledging the value of other modes of thinking, have also developed the best techniques and exercises for cultivating it. From my own perspective, most of the best people I know are religious. This should come as no surprise, as they spend their lives devoted to the cultivation of moral sentiments, while the rest of us just assume that we are good simply by virtue of being human. However it seems that it is rarely the best religious people who have any impact on religion. I guess the same is probably true in philosophy too, which is a slightly depressing thought.

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