In praise of the political U-turn

Unthinkable: A political system that trades in certainties carries dangers

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said his thinking ‘evolved’ on abortion. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said his thinking ‘evolved’ on abortion. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

It’s rare that a politician will admit to changing his or her mind. Why this should be so is unclear.

As the Belfast essayist Robert Lynd once wrote, “we should honour the wobbler and the turncoat above all others. These are the men who put reason above prejudice, and have the honesty to admit they have been beaten by arguments better than their own. They are men who are not afraid of their own past, and are glad to feel that what they say in 1936 is different from the nonsense they talked in 1913”.

Lynd’s view can bring some comfort to the likes of Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Both have described how their thinking “evolved” on the issue of abortion, having heard the evidence from the Oireachtas Committee on the Eighth Amendment.

But how far should one go in revising one’s position? Politicians who change their minds could be accused of holding views upon which they weren’t elected. On the other hand, insisting on inflexibility is hardly conducive to an enlightened political system.

Vittorio Bufacchi, senior lecturer in philosophy at UCC, argues that – since the world is in constant flux – it would be perverse to keep your mind rigidly immobile. As for politicians, he suggests they have a special duty to try to mediate competing accounts of the truth rather than insisting on one, absolute truth.

Under this pragmatic model, an inquiring community does not seek certainty but rather “the best that inquiry can do”, explains Bufacchi, this week’s Unthinkable guest.

As an individual, you’re going to change your attitude towards things over time. Is this a problem?

Vittorio Bufacchi: “There are two ways to assess radical revisions to one’s set of beliefs: as a sign of strength, or alternatively as a sign of weakness. The tendency to be easily and constantly persuaded by the latest fashion suggests gullibility, or even worse, opportunism.

“But those who refuse to stand corrected are guilty of presumption, dogmatism, and even arrogance.

“Whatever we are, we are not infallible. Therefore to refuse to change one’s mind, ever, is the first symptom of hubris. After all, isn’t progress fundamentally about change? If that is true for technology, and social norms, why shouldn’t it also be true for moral beliefs?”

How certain should one be about anything before acting on that knowledge?

“This is an epistemological issue. How can we be certain of anything? How can we be certain that we exist?

“Descartes raised this puzzle in the 17th century, and more recently it has been revisited by popular films such as The Matrix. Perhaps we ought to start with the premise that we are not in the business of determining anything for certain.

Perhaps truth as certainty is overrated

“In his intellectual autobiography, Unended Quest, Karl Popper, arguably the greatest philosopher of science of the 20th century, maintained that certainty is a false ideal, impossible to attain, dangerously misleading if uncritically endorsed. He goes as far as to say that certainty should be abandoned.

“I agree with Popper on this. Our pursuit for truth is an on-going process, a quest without an ultimate end. There is value in the journey, not just in the final destination.”

Should politicians be concerned about the truth?

“Yes of course, but it depends what we mean by truth. If truth is synonymous with certainty, then we need to remember Popper’s caution that truth like certainty can be dangerous. How many people have been killed, tortured and maimed in the name of truth?

“Perhaps truth as certainty is overrated. The philosophical tradition known as American pragmatism takes an interesting line on truth. What matters most is not truth itself, but the connection between truth and the practical business of inquiry.

“A true belief is one upon which inquiry could not improve, a belief that can meet the challenges of reasons, argument, and evidence. What is best for a community of inquirers is the best that inquiry can do, and in the political domain, this takes the form of deliberation, agreement, debate and reflection: these, rather than truth, are the only valid dimensions of political evaluation.”

How do you know whether you will be morally condemned in years to come for how you’re behaving now?

“One never knows, and will never know, but perhaps that’s not such a big deal. It takes an ego of gargantuan proportions to be concerned about being negatively judged after one’s death.

“Having said that, to the extent that morality cannot be distinguished from action, and that our actions are not random but purposive (i.e. we act with a purpose, or goal, or intention), it is crucial to establish where our set of beliefs which determine our goals or intentions comes from. We must base our beliefs on something more than mere intuition or gut instincts.

We should not fear being condemned in the future, as long as we engaged with the serious, impartial business of inquiry to the best of our ability

“Before making up our mind on any issue, we have a duty to access the best knowledge that exists, to retrieve as many relevant facts as is possible, to learn as much as we can. And if newly uncovered knowledge indicates that we ought to abandon an earlier conviction, so be it.

“I have a great deal of admiration for those in the 17th century who were sufficiently open-minded, and immensely brave, to learn from Galileo’s discoveries in astronomy, even if it meant embracing the heliocentric [sun-centred] model of the universe and therefore letting go of the comfortable security concerning the Earth-centred Ptolemaic universe. We should not fear being condemned in the future for our present views and actions, as long as we engaged with the serious, impartial business of inquiry to the best of our ability.”

What, if anything, is morally significant about our tendency to change our attitude towards things over time?

“The ability to change our mind over time, perhaps even to recognise that we made a mistake and that we need to take a different path in life, is one of the conditions that defines our autonomy. The most influential political philosopher of the last 100 years, John Rawls, made this point with compelling force.

“He says that a person is a human life lived according to a plan. A life-plan reflects our conception of the good life. We formulate our plan and we pursue this plan throughout our life.

The ability to embrace change is what makes us humans

“But there is more. He also tells us that, crucially, we are fully autonomous agents if and only if we are also capable of revising our plan, and adopt a different one, if need be. The ability to embrace change is what makes us humans, not automata.”

Of all the things we are routinely doing now, eg, eating meat, burning fossil fuels, electing leaders through a populist vote, what is most likely to be deemed morally abhorrent in 40 years’ time?

“Indifference to social injustice and apathy to the escalating threats to liberal values and principles.”

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