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What "Being Right" Means in a World of Value Judgments

by Michael Austin, published
“Thomas Gradgrind, sir . . .  with a rule and a pair of scales, and the multiplication table always in his pocket, sir, ready to weigh and measure any parcel of human nature, and tell you exactly what it comes to. It is a mere question of figures, a case of simple arithmetic.”—Charles Dickens, Hard Times

Here is a quick test that you can use to tell if you are wrong: if you think that every thing about your position on a controversial issue is right, and that the other side of the issue is 100% in error, then you are almost certainly wrong.

Let me show you what I mean. Here are three statements that you often hear from my side of the political aisle, followed by three statements that you often hear from the other side. All of them represent the kind of absolute rhetoric that I am talking about, and all of them are demonstrably incorrect:

  • Corporations don’t have any right to free speech; the Citizens United decision is ridiculous.
  • The contraception mandate won’t affect any legitimate free exercise of religion.
  • Permitting gay marriage won’t have any effect whatsoever on the role of traditional marriage in society.
  • Voter ID laws don’t prevent any legitimate voters from voting. Every citizen can get an ID.
  • Gun control laws don’t prevent any bad guys from getting guns; they just affect law-abiding citizens.
  • There is absolutely no legitimate evidence for climate change, and, in fact, all of the real science shows that the world is getting colder.
This is how we normally frame arguments these days: my side is 100% right, and your side is 100% wrong. I am on the side of reason, science, and the angels—and you are crazy, stupid, or evil. The facts are all there if you would just look at them instead of being brainwashed Satan.

There are good reasons that we frame arguments this way, no matter how much such framing stretches credulity and good sense. We like arguing about facts. Facts are tangible, they are concrete, and they produce positions that we can be 100% sure about. We like that. We don’t do ambiguity well.

The problem is that most controversial issues are controversial precisely because they cannot be decided simply by appealing to verifiable facts. They require value judgments, about competing goods and lesser evils. We don’t like this at all. Arguments about values are hard, messy, inconclusive, and impossible to win absolutely because different people value different things.

This is why we seldom hear arguments like, “the value of extending reproductive health care to women outweighs the right of some religious organizations to practice the tenets of their faith” or “the added layer of security provided by conceal-carry laws is worth the increase of people shot in movie theaters and road-rage incidents.” Such arguments require us to engage each other’s value structures at a deep level and, in the gravest extremes, to understand them.

By turning what are really difficult value arguments into arguments about absolute facts, we remove everything hard, but also everything human, from the process of political discussion. It is comforting to see the world as a battle between the truth we know and the delusions of those who don’t know it. But that is not the world that we live in. We live in a world of difficult decisions, moral ambiguity, and the constant necessity of balancing partial goods and lesser evils.

"100% right" is a concept from a world that we would like to live in but don't -- the world of pure fact and human calculators. As Thomas Gradgrind discovered to his horror in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, we are people of fact in a world of values. That means we will rarely be 100% right about anything and that we should stop trying to defend values with arguments about incontrovertible facts and learn how to defend them with arguments about values.

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