Friday, April 28, 2006

The Right to be Wrong?

The Right to be Wrong is the title of a book put out by The Beckett Fund, a religious freedom advocacy organization. In it, Kevin Seamus Hasson protests the dogmatic anti-dogmatism of secularizing agencies such as the ACLU. But one can't talk about the right to be wrong without considering right to do wrong. Abraham Lincoln once summed up the difficulty: "if you admit that there is a wrong in it, he cannot logically say that any body has a right to do wrong."

Springboarding from Lincoln's insight, I cluttered Domenico Bettinelli's Blog hashing out the distinctions necessary between a natural right to do wrong, which is perposterous, and a political right to do wrong, which is an idea tolerable but poorly phrased. Truthfully, it is only a right to be immune from coerced belief that has any real logical traction.

David S. Oderberg has crafted a fine analysis of the incoherence of a strictly-phrased "right to be wrong." His essay, "Is there a Right to Be Wrong?"(PDF format) begins with some choice quotations on the topic of truth:

‘Truth is the highest thing that man may keep.’ -Chaucer

‘Truth is treasure, the best tried on earth.’ -Piers Plowman

‘Truth is the most pleasant of sounds.’-Plato

‘Veracity is the heart of morality.’ -T.H. Huxley

‘No one who lives in error is free.’ -Epictetus

‘A man protesting against error is on the way towards uniting
himself with all men that believe in truth.’ -Thomas Carlyle

‘Driven from every corner of the earth, freedom of thought
and the right of private judgment in matters of conscience
direct their course to this happy country as their last asylum.’-Samuel Adams

‘Love truth, but pardon error.’ -Voltaire

‘The greatest right in the world is the right to be wrong.’ -Harry Weinberger, NY Evening Post 1917

He adroitly explores the tension between the first six and last three quotations. Here he is taking on the movie catchphrase of Batman Begins, "we fall so that we can learn how to get up again":

"The thought proposed by the defender of the right to error is that there is something inherently good, by which he means life-affirming, personality-developing, education-enhancing (pick your favourite New Age buzzword) in the making of mistakes. But how can this be so if it is also good to acquire truth? If it is good to acquire truth it must be good to eliminate error, since the latter is necessary for the former. But if it is good to eliminate error it cannot also be good to fall into it, any more than it can be good to be healthy but also good to be unhealthy. This tension, if it is real, means either that acquiring truth is not good after all, or what is more likely, that the idea of there being something inherently good in making mistakes is an illusion."

Oderberg does not shrink from noting the deleterious effects that error has on the rational life:

To take an analogy, although this is disputed by experts, my own experience tells me that the more I use glasses, the less able I am to focus correctly without them—I have to learn to focus correctly again, within the limits of my inherent optical defect. A person whose sense of balance is distorted by an inner ear infection has to overcompensate by feeling she is standing at an angle in order to be sure of standing straight. When she recovers, she will have lost her ability to recognize what her normal sense of balance is telling her, and will stagger about for a while until she relearns how to recognize and interpret the impulses from that sense. Similarly, a person who is cavalier about whether her intellect is directed at truth or falsehood ends up—again under various influences such as desire and emotion—forcing herself to believe what her intellect is naturally inclined to tell her is false; as a result, she will tend to become literally incapable of facing up to any unpleasant reality. Her intellect will be damaged, and repairing it by using her already-damaged intellect itself will not be much easier than using a broken telephone to call the telephone repairman.

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