There is a point at which an open mind becomes so open that it closes in on itself. At least, that’s what I think. At some point, the willingness to consider any and every thought as at least initially equivalent can wash out any willingness to evaluate the accuracy of those viewpoints. At that point, the open thinker steps quietly away from the great stone fortress of knowledge and toward the art deco pavilion of perception, where the seeming unapproachability of truth leads some to abandon its pursuit.
I try almost to the point of obsession to be open-minded. To me this means to never dismiss or discount anything simply out of hand, due to unfounded prior beliefs or biases. Everything, in theory at least, deserves a fair hearing. This is effective at avoiding the evils of ignorance and prejudice.
The more layers you are convinced divide you from an understanding of truth, the more difficulty you have committing to any one viewpoint. This acts as a hedge against becoming convinced of falsehoods. What happens, though, when I begin weighing one viewpoint, say something repulsive like “Genocide is good,” as an equal alongside something else like “It would be good to find a cure for HIV infection”? Easy, everyone knows that genocide is actually bad, so we drop that one right away.
But wait, isn’t that simply dismissing things out of hand? Perhaps there is some sort of redeeming quality of the pro-genocide position??? Sure, sure, in theory, everything is possible, so I suppose conceivably there could be support for the “genocide is good” viewpoint (though I seriously doubt it). But don’t we already have a good idea that genocide is bad? It seems like we’ve got a heuristic for that already. You know, something along the lines of: actions that lead to unnecessary suffering should be discouraged. No, no, that’s not it. I mean, we didn’t have to go in and do a thorough study of genocide and its demographic and societal implications (Does increased ethnic homogeneity decrease frictions internal to a nation? Does reduced population benefit the survivors by decreasing competition for limited natural resources?), we didn’t have to interview the perpetrators (How do you believe committing acts of genocide has helped you achieve your goals in life?) or the victims, nor did we have to commission a series of essays in memory of some obscure academic who died twenty-three years ago to explore it all from the Marxist angle. We didn’t have to form a blue ribbon commission to aggregate all of the disparate sources of information and come to one final determination of whether genocide was good or bad. No, we just sort of figured it out, based on something more like this: murder is bad, and genocide equals lots of murder, therefore genocide is lots of bad.
So where does that “murder is bad” thing come from? Well, everyone except for hardened mobsters and twisted modernist philosophers seems to think it’s a bad thing, so shouldn’t I think so, too? No. At least, not for that reason. That’s just following the crowd, the accepted argument fallacy. How about this: murder (and, by implication, genocide) is bad because it causes another person to cease to live, and in particular it does so contrary to their will, and we all know that depriving somebody of life, especially when they don’t want you to, is bad.
And why is that bad? I mean, is there some sort of imperative that should make me regret that? Everyone in the Western liberal tradition seems to agree that that is a bad thing, but no thought leader today ever gives a reason why.
It can’t be that the fact that murder is a nigh-unto-universal taboo amongst all cultures, places, and times. No, because a large number of people holding a particular belief does not make that belief more or less true. The truth of an idea is independent of whether it’s believed in or not. So why then is it wrong to murder?
I wouldn’t want somebody else to murder me. Maybe that’s a basis for objecting to murder? But why should my desire to avoid being murdered really mean that I should not murder another?
Now wait a minute. Not doing something to another person if I wouldn’t want that person to do the same thing to me sounds awfully familiar. It’s very Golden Rule-ish, isn’t it? Seems that there was some popular moralist a few millennia ago who argued in favor of that position, but that’s it, just another viewpoint to be dealt with from a distance but most definitely not believed in.
Do you see, now, how being so obsessively open has backed me into a corner? Insisting on evaluating every possibility, I am left now with only two possibilities: either genocide and murder are wrong, or they aren’t. Either I attribute some sort of a priori wrongness to these acts of violence, or I am forced to conclude that genocide is morally neutral—which, ironically, would be a very morally non-neutral assertion to make.
So what will it be? Should I follow my obsession with open-mindedness to the brink of human depravity? Or should I believe that there really was a God who said “Thou shalt not kill“? Should I simply wave my hand at Auschwitz as if it carried the same moral significance as a supermarket? Or should I accept the teachings of one Jesus who said “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them”?
When rationality cannot prove that naked evils like systematic mass murder are actually bad, you’re forced to ask: What are the limits of rational thought? If rationality fails, then where else can we turn?