Seeking Moral Clarity in a Time of Epistemic Confusion

Really, is there value in reserving judgment in critical times—like ours? The very fact we speak of crises signals the urgency of making up our minds. Over the course of three previous posts, I have described, analyzed, and praised as a virtue the capability of “Still Deciding.” But I make myself impatient. What more am I waiting for—while the meaning of our common life is at stake now?

Mural depicting Hannah Arendt near her birthplace in Hanover (Wikimedia Commons).

Overcoming both the vice of mere indecision and that of sheer dogmatism, still deciding, I have claimed, is essential to informed and worthwhile decision-making. Someone skilled in still deciding cultivates a sort of dynamic personal equilibrium, a still center amid competing, clamoring demands. Winning access to that still center warrants confidence—confidence that one is free from domination by external and internal forces that would govern one’s lives, and free for critical and creative participation in the goods of life. Like other virtues, still deciding leads in the end, I have claimed, to wisdom—the achievement of a noble simplicity that does not sacrifice complexity, but rather brings it to a rich and just harmony. Following Plato, I have praised the person who attains such simplicity as a truly good and beautiful soul, someone who wants and wills for themselves and others just the good things that are best for them.

And yet, I still must decide many things, from no place I truly could call a still center. I confess, sometimes I am confused and doubtful. What’s more, at this social and political moment, in the density of present needs for love and justice, I am, if anything, pulled harder by my confusing proclivities to oversimplify and/or overcomplicate things. How, I wonder, could anyone who would care for their neighbor as themselves not worry that they will fail? “Justice delayed is justice denied,” remember? So am I deliberating or just dilly-dallying? I must still … decide.

We know that both the natural and virtual ecologies we rely on to guide our lives well are in poor shape. Climate chaos confuses the natural signs by which humans have regulated their lives for many centuries. Chaos on the internet confuses our ability to distinguish worthwhile communication from crap. Nor is it only intentionally bad actors who, to coyly quote a certain political advisor, “flood the zone” with excrement. Amid such epistemic confusion, doubting even as we decide may be wise.

Australian philosopher, Michelle Boulous Walker, has thought a lot about this. She encourages us to consider “slow philosophy” as an antidote to “fast politics.” Fast politics is a function of a kind of sick symbiosis between “[t]houghtlessness, and even at times the inability to think” and movements that “play on constant motion and the speed of political theatre.” If fast politics seems obviously to characterize our present moment, though, Boulous Walker cautions that just how is not so immediately obvious.

For instance, she readily grants the case of the so-called (in scare-quotes) “Age of Trump,” but she also questions what it is supposed to mean. I like those quotation marks. They warn, I think, that hastening from the difficult work of understanding the troubles of our time to christening it an “Age of Trump” is itself a reflexive entanglement in fast politics—a flash of media facility that begins to usurp thinking. Boulous Walker admits to the temptation to see, say, the President’s tweet-storms as proto-totalitarian performance, stirring up what Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, called “perpetual motion mania.”

But the sloganizing of experience, as in talk of an “Age of Trump,” sacrifices complexity for a simplistic sense of coherence. It may actually encourage scapegoating and inhibit careful consideration—when what we most need is to be able, patiently, to sift our experience for resources to (as I, at least hope) defeat the rather more chaotic thing that is Trumpism.

Enough of fast politics. What, then, is “slow philosophy”? Defined by what it stands against, “slow philosophy” is the antithesis to perpetual motion mania. What it stands for, though, is “an education in slowness in order to save the dignity of thought.” “Slow philosophy,” says Boulous Walker, “provides avenues for attentive and intense encounters with our world…. [and] opens our attention to complexity in its myriad manifestations.”

Slow philosophy provides avenues for attentive and intense encounters with our world…. [and] opens our attention to complexity in its myriad manifestations.

MICHELLE BOULOUS WALKER

It would seem, then, that “slow philosophy” may be another name for the cultivation of still deciding. Totalitarian modes of thought confine themselves—would confine us—to the efficient management, and if need be manufacture, of a hyper-coherent fabric of “facts” in the place of judgment. The goal is that we cease to care for, or even be conscious of, our need to decide what the facts may mean for our humanity. As Arendt recognized, “the aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” By contrast, the slow philosopher patiently insists on her courage to be, even amid epistemic confusion, still deciding.

The virtue of the slow philosopher is not a moral certainty for which epistemic confusion is so much waste to be eliminated. Sure, from the vicious indecisions and dogmatisms of our cultural moment, more than enough bitter farce follows. Yet, perfect virtue does not and cannot guarantee happy times ahead. Tragedy is born from apparently good decisions, too. At least, that is one way to understand what the Greek drama of hubris is about—that even virtue can be taken to vicious excess, if one will not bend to the fateful shape of one’s circumstances. Life so often calls us to decide among no great options. Even at the cost of one’s own excellence, often we are called just to make the best of things, doubts and all.

When we are called just to make the best of things, the quest for certainty can really be an obstacle. What we need is not doubtlessness, but moral clarity. As Masha Gessen, following Vaclav Havel, argues, one of the best places to find moral clarity is among unempowered dissidents. Their strength is made clear in their capacity to withhold consent to the fabric of “facts” that is given them to understand as reality.

Gessen claims that current media standards of objectivity may actually stifle our ability to get at the truth (in agreement with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Wesley Lowery). By effortfully presenting the “facts” from both sides (not one? not more than two?), while avoiding moral evaluation of such effort, media become willing accessories in flooding the zone with you-know-what. Even if we can’t be perfectly certain what is true and what is false, to practice this consent objectivates the lie that we cannot know and there is no difference anyway. We accept it as ineliminably belonging to the life we are given to live.

But the person who possesses moral clarity, instead, will not concede the inevitability of the lie. Moral clarity rests on the insistence that the dignity of human lives proceeds—at least in part—from their character as a struggle to realize meaning that is subject to judgments by a standard of true humanity. Moral clarity means refusing to resign the struggle and let others decide for us. Now that standard of true humanity is not singular—it contains multitudes, as Whitman might sing. So a final judgment of the meaning we make is elusive, if not impossible. There will always be doubts. Yet, moral clarity insists on the respect we owe each other for the truth—and the falsity—in the decisions we make, the best we could make them, so long as we are still… deciding.


Andrew Irvine is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Maryville College. He co-edited the volume Postcolonial Philosophy of Religion (Springer, 2009) and blogs from time to time at https://aioz.wordpress.com/. He is currently in rehearsals for a community theatre production of The Great Gatsby, playing Nick Carraway. For other blog posts by Andrew, click here.

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