The Mote in my brother’s eye: Impartiality and the examined life

In The Name of God, The Most Merciful, The Especially Merciful


People often make decisions heedlessly, without sufficient deliberation and self examination. They don’t sort things out in a coherent and comprehensive way, asking what they really want to pursue and stand for.  As a result, their decisions are often distorted by limited experience, by tradition and peer pressure, by fear, by self interest and self-protective bias.

Inconsistency is a problem for decision-making even when it is just a matter of slack and incomplete thought.  Socrates believed in living an “examined life” – deliberation that involves a sincere attempt to come to a consistent view of the most important questions.

However, inconsistency often goes hand in hand with something worse than sloppiness – with arrogance and a narcissistic desire to shield the self from criticism and the fair demands of others.  People have a way of making special cases of themselves, exempting themselves from criticisms that they all too readily bring up when they look at what other people are doing. What we need is a philosophical self-examination. A good way of testing ourselves is to ask whether the basis of our action could be recommended as a law for everyone.

When we test our principles in this way, we find a variety of contradictions. The person who decides to break a promise has not thought about what the world be like if everyone broke promises. Quickly, it would become a world in which the institution of promise-making would no longer exist. In such a world, the very advantage this person person hopes to gain by defecting would no longer be available – so his intention is self-subverting. This is a sort of “free-rider” behaviour in which people are taking advantage of a system that they don’t themselves support.

The root of this behaviour, moreover, looks similar: a failure to treat others as full equals, a desire to use them for one’s own ends. This is what we must object to: proclaiming the vices of another (enforcing general rules of virtue and vice) while slipping through the net oneself, simply not applying those rules to oneself.

I shall continue with this discussion later on.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s