This morning I am thinking of a strange question. It is: how right do I have to be?
My thinking of it now comes from an ill-advised dip back into a particular cesspit of an argument from my past. I didn’t win the argument, because I threw up my hands and walked away. I think I did the right thing for my sanity, but I’ve never been happy with failing to win the argument. I want to be entirely right. I am still somewhat haunted by the idea that I may not be right at all, because if I’m not right in an argument that I feel strongly about, but can’t muster the intellectual chops to actually win on the battleground, as it were — what does that mean for my other ideas that seem right, that feel right? Does it mean that nothing I think is right, at least not right enough to win an argument over it?
Does that matter?
Hence my question. How right do I have to be?
Let me give an example, and see if I can illustrate the conundrum here. I have found myself, as a high school teacher of English and therefore of persuasive essays, rhetoric, and argumentation, discussing the legalization of drugs in the U.S. time and time again over the last twenty years. It is always a topic that comes up, and now that I’m doing argument with three of my classes, it has come up again.
My opinion on the issue is complex, and not worth hashing out again now; I’ve written about it too many times. (Here’s one. And here’s another. Second one has a better soundtrack.) For this example, all I want to say is this: I waver on whether or not it would be a good idea to legalize all of the drugs. I see arguments for both sides. I don’t know which side has the better points, the truer final argument; I’m not sure which to choose. That’s why my opinion is complex, and why I keep coming back to it, never fully comfortable with my decisions about what policy to support, not sure how to come to a final conclusion.
The question is, should I keep doing this? Should I keep coming back and thinking about it again and again? On some level that is valuable, as it keeps making me revisit my own past opinions and decisions, and I think the changed perspective through time gives good insight. I also think it’s valuable not to get too dogmatic about things — though I confess I enjoy appearing dogmatic, and I often act as if I have not a scintilla of doubt in my mind about various opinions; but mostly that’s for show. There are few things that I’m 100% sure about — mostly it’s that my wife is the best wife in the whole world, education is entirely good as a concept, if not as an institution, and reading is the greatest thing in the world, except maybe for the satisfaction of basic needs like food and sleep and hugs.
So it may not be bad that I can’t come to a final determination. On the other hand, if there is a 100% right answer and I can know it, then that is the thing I should be working towards and supporting and arguing for, right? Shouldn’t I do the right thing? If I can know the right thing, then I can do the right thing; and that means I should figure out how to know the right thing and go from there. Because if I’m not doing the right thing, then I’m doing or on some level participating in the wrong thing, and I don’t want that.
How much do I have to know to know the right thing? Beyond a reasonable doubt? 110% entirely completely sure, with evidence and logic to back me up? If it’s the second one, then I have to be very careful about what arguments I take up, as settling them with absolute clarity and certainty would take a crap-ton of time and effort, and I can’t do that with every argument; so I need to be selective.
How do I know which arguments are worth taking up and finding out the definite answer to? Is there a 100% true answer as to which arguments I should be arguing? Is that what I should spend my time on first, deciding what to know?
If it doesn’t have to be 100% certainty before I can know the right thing, then what else do I use as the basis of my decisions? They feel right? They seem right, based on my upbringing and my culture and my morality? Why would I assume those things are right, especially in the face of obvious arguments to the contrary, things about this culture that strongly imply that this culture is wrong? I am and have been wrong countless times; why would I ever trust my gut on anything of import?
But if I don’t trust my gut, who or what do I trust?
This comes up in my writing, too. I have to decide what the right story is to tell. Writers’ advice tells me to tell the story I feel I have to tell, and satisfy my own inner critic first; but what if I have several stories I feel I have to tell? Which one comes first? And what if my inner critic is an idiot? How can I know?
Do I actually need to trace out the entire epistemology and philosophical basis for all knowledge, so I can be sure of my knowledge, so I can be sure of my decisions? How long will that take? How many aspects of life will it apply to — and how many will I lose because I’m focusing on this one endeavor, seeking purity of knowledge and purpose? And if I go out and read all the books that underpin Western reason, how sure can I be that those authors followed the same rigorous standard for confidence in their ideas? What if they went with their guts, rather than establishing a sound logical basis for everything they say?
Does that mean they were wrong?
Does that mean I can’t actually trace perfect knowledge and understanding and thus make a 100% perfect decision?
Yeah, I don’t think I can do that last one, either. So if there can’t be a 100% perfect decision, is there at least a sound basis, a bedrock to build knowledge on? Or is it just turtles all the way down?
So that’s the question, then: how right do I have to be before I make a decision about what side to choose, who to support, how to argue? How right is right enough? How aware is aware enough? And is it even so bad to be wrong, or to change my mind?
I don’t know this answer. I’m genuinely not sure I should know — but regardless, I want to.
I suppose I can only start by asking the question.
If anyone has an answer, I’d surely like to hear it. And if I have confused you entirely, I apologize; I feel the same way, believe me.
And I don’t know what to do about it.