Well, my last post to this blog was a week before the famous, or infamous, referendum in June 2016. And my analysis then, although accurate in part (especially about the role of pathos or emotions in the vote) put too much weight upon the role of ethos – the standing and credibility of the speakers. I suppose that the tactic of discrediting “experts” as a group would have eroded the impact of this particular, and normally most important, lever of persuasion.
My June post was a reflection on the paucity of facts to support the referendum decision. Since then, “post-fact” and “post-truth” have become frequently used expressions, any acceptance of which we all should, I believe, find truly alarming.
A duty of care
Every one of us, but especially the Prime Minister and other members of the Government and of Parliament, has a duty of care to the nation and its citizens. This means that we and they should not, by act or omission, do anything which could reasonably be foreseen would cause injury to a neighbour. To exercise this duty demands that we do our homework by searching for facts, forecasts, likely outcomes and balances of probability. This is the essence of “evidence-based policy” much vaunted by some, if not all, politicians and their advisors.
This creates something of a conundrum. In a rapidly changing world and political environment, whatever the best predictions might have been some months ago, it is very possible that the assumptions then deployed might now not hold good and a current policy based upon them might now reasonably be foreseen to be damaging to the nation. And if the Government makes such a discovery, it has a Duty of Care to change course; at the very least to tell the truth to Parliament and the electorate.
The binary world
But, this word truth is a problem in our world which, urged on by some disingenuous politicians and commentators, increasingly adopts a polarised, binary view. Factions are labelled left or right, pro or anti, East or West, there are believers and non-believers, something is either right or wrong, good or bad. And we had to vote to leave or remain! I guess for some things a clear and binary distinction is useful, but I worry a lot about its simplistic over-use.
Theory of Mean
I was (figuratively) thumbing through some materials on my PC when I came across an extract from a book I had read on Ethics. The extract concerned Aristotle’s Theory of Mean. The basic tenet of this is that virtue does not lie at an extreme but sits at a point between two extremes – the mean. The most quoted example takes the concept of “courage”. If asked what the opposite of “courage” is, most people would probably say “cowardice” and vice versa. Actually, the opposite of “cowardice” would be best represented as “recklessness”. “Courage” lies in between those two extremes.
The search for truth
It strikes me that the Theory of Mean has something to offer our concept of truth. Fact and truth are not synonymous. Facts can (and should where they are available) inform an opinion or proposition. What one holds to be a truth is often a distillation of many facts, opinions and propositions. So, perhaps we can use the Theory of Mean as a template or guiding principle, and search for truth within and amongst the cloud of possibilities, rather than assume it is to be found at an extremity, on one side of a binary argument.