07/11/2013 12:31 EDT | Updated 09/10/2013 05:12 EDT

How to Know You're Right While Thinking You Could Be Wrong

Wrong Versus Right Street Sign
Wrong Versus Right Street Sign

Readers of my last two posts on this blog, 'Can You Respect a Religion You Disagree With?' and 'Why Should Terrorists Obey Our Criminal Code?' may be wondering how I could maintain two such diametrically opposite stances. In the first post, I argue for the value of doubt -- that human beings, by definition inherently limited beings, must always question their perception of the truth and that this should be a factor in guiding us in our relations with others. In the second post, I argue for the value of surety -- that we cannot adopt laws or take ethical stands simply because they are the voice of the majority but we must strive to assert and fully believe in the inherent value of the positions we adopt. The one view contends that I should always recognize that I may be wrong. The other equally contends that I should always strive to accept and assert an ethical/moral position, which I determinably adopt, as innately correct. How can I promote such a seemingly blatant contradiction?

In that I actually do believe in what I wrote in both posts and, as such, do constantly endeavour to, simultaneously and continuously, live in the shadow of both these poles, the more basic question is: how can I even do so, how can I express both doubt and surety at the same time? Yet, how often, do we, even as we fully believe we are right, question ourselves: what if I'm wrong? And, similarly, even as we begin to wonder about whether we are really pursuing the right path -- and consequently begin to waver -- how often do we question: what if I'm right? My point is that we actually should be asking both these questions, and should continue to do so even as we act, because both these questions are necessary in every decision-making situation.

The fact is that life does not give us the luxury of avoiding decisions; it does not allow us to simply get by without ever taking a stand. In being called upon to act -- with actions, by definition, being black-and-white -- we are called upon to inherently make clear-cut decisions. You do, or you do not. There is no middle possibility of acting and not-acting at the same time. In action, a definite choice must be made.

The difficulty is that the issues behind the facts are rarely so black-and-white. The most honest call of the situation is often, actually, the impossible middle choice of both acting and not-acting. You wish you could do and not do at the same time. Any action is almost never, as such, truly, totally appropriate to the situation. It is simply the best that we can do given that our physical world demands an active conclusion. Despite how difficult the choice, we still must act.

Unfortunately, many people, in order to enable them to act as demanded, try to further support their decisions by simplifying the reality. They try to make the issues behind the acts also as black-and-white as the acts themselves must, inevitably, be. The result is a foundation that provides a clear mandate, without any hesitation, for the determined action -- but the cost is the honest presentation of the situation. What is then further lost is the true knowledge of the issues -- and the resultant ability to respond to reality's actual dynamic nature. Included in this loss may also be our ability to relate to the other.

These words are not just theoretical but have practical import. Consider almost any significant issue facing society. Those who have definite conclusions regarding what to do, often, also present a simplistic vision of reality in support of their conclusion. As such, when two such positions then confront each other, there is no room for dialogue -- for the true, complex nature of the issue, which would provide a common ground, is not even recognized. Alternatively, though, those who do recognize the complexity, often avoid taking a stand -- which can be tragic when a definite decision is necessary. The demand of life is, indeed, to act -- built upon unambiguously determined conclusions -- but not through ignoring the true complexity of reality.

This is the call of doubt and surety. We must -- for we are inherently called upon to act -- make decisions as demanded. In order to assert ourselves properly in this regard, we must have a sense of surety. We must assert: what if I'm right? Yet we can still never lose sight of the true complexity of existence and the fact that reality is not black-and-white. Even as we must undertake a black-and-white action, we must simultaneously recognize the multi-layered spectrum of issues with which our decision must relate. To truly see to the extent that we must, we also must have a sense of doubt. We must also therefore assert: what if I am wrong?

There is no Hegelian synthesis that brings this sense of doubt and this sense of surety together. Unity of the two in some new sense is not the result. The call is but for both to co-exist at the same time. For the demand of action, we must experience surety and believe in the conclusion that we have reached. To meet the demand of integrity, though, we must also experience doubt and believe that there is always more to perceive. In the most basic of terms, we must act even as we recognize that the true complexity of our world may be beyond us.