When I was a teenager, I believed that by the time I was in my 20s I would know what to think about complicated social and political issues that seemed at the time to be completely baffling. I gave adults a great deal of credit for knowing things like who to vote for in political elections and what position to take on matters such as war and economics.
When I reached my 20s, I realized that things were more complicated than I had imagined, and that what I really wanted to know was why so many people thought they knew the answers to questions that were so impossibly difficult.
Now, at the age of 48, I still don’t know what position to take on most complicated matters such as war, economics and health care. If pressed, I would venture an opinion that our troops should probably stay in Afghanistan for a while longer, that the economic stimulus package was probably a good thing overall, that health care reform legislation is both necessary and seriously flawed.
But I am ready to be persuaded otherwise. Every election year, I am pressed to vote for a candidate, but I have rarely voted for someone without doubts or misgivings. I am resigned to living with such uncertainty for the rest of my life.
What continues to perplex me is the number of people who are not resigned to uncertainty. How can they possibly know what they claim to know? And how can they get so angry with people who disagree with them?
In Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Experience” he expresses a skeptical mood which is sometimes thought to be uncharacteristic of him, but which is recurrent in his later writings. He says:
“I have not found that much was gained by manipular attempts to realize the world of thought. Many eager persons successively make an experiment in this way, and make themselves ridiculous. They acquire democratic manners, they foam at the mouth, they hate and deny ... (But) the results of life are uncalculated and uncalculable. The years teach much which the days never know. The persons who compose our company converse, and come and go, and design and execute many things, and somewhat comes of it all, but an unlooked-for result. The individual is always mistaken.”
Over the years, I have changed my mind on just about every major social issue, and I expect that I may change my mind again about several of them. I have serious political disagreements with good friends, neighbors and family members, people whom I love and respect. And though I wish I were wiser and more informed about important issues, I also cannot help thinking that our shared ignorance about matters of vital significance is, in the end, a good thing. It keeps us humble, and mutually dependent upon one another.
Winston Churchill is reported to have said during a speech in the House of Commons: “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”
Perhaps the great virtue of democracy is its very inefficiency, which rewards patience, persistence and cooperation. It forces us always to turn back towards one another, even to those we disagree with most strongly, and find ways of working things out — once again.
The Ethical Life is a series of reflections on the ways ethical thinking influences our actions, emotions and relationships. Kyte is the director of the D.B. Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at Viterbo University.