Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Challenge of Getting Things Right

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 21, 2012

Hopefully, when it comes to serious personal decisions—such as claims about God, fundamental moral values, the behavior of our spouses and children, our personal vocations, or the best way to invest our life savings—we actually investigate thoroughly in order to differentiate truth from falsehood. But on the many other issues which demand our attention (not least during an election year), we have no such hope. We cannot possibly investigate everything thoroughly.

Instead, we tend to accept or reject various claims and assertions based on a combination of legitimate assessment, which is good, and convenient self-interest, which is bad. First, let us consider “convenient self-interest”.

  1. Commitments and investments: One of the things that strikes us most forcefully when we encounter some claim or assertion is whether it challenges our fundamental orientation in life, the values or causes we are committed to, what we’re personally invested in. When such things are not present, we may be more objective. But if the claim dovetails with our commitments, our tendency will be to accept it at face value, whereas if it challenges the value of our commitments, our tendency will be to object to or dismiss the claim.
  2. Cultural status: We quickly develop a keen sense of what is acceptable in the communities to which we belong (or wish to belong). We commonly reject or at least avoid dealing with claims which run counter to what these communities typically approve. For the young this is important to personal development. But it is also true of how adults respond to ideas which are either embraced or mocked by social groups which can accord them the status to which they aspire.
  3. Personal demands: Very likely we have all experienced that sinking feeling that if we really accept some claim, we are going to have to take some particular action or, worse, change our lives. If we accept John’s account of some event, then we are going to have to apologize to Mary. If we accept the principles in Father O’Malley’s homily, we must stop using pornography or devote time to assisting those in need. For most of us, at least, personal cost affects how we process information.

But, once again, we cannot investigate everything thoroughly. If we are not satisfied with the “convenient self-interest” which so often shapes our decisions even without our awareness, then there must be some more acceptable shorthand we can use. And there is. Typically it is covered by the following three aspects of “legitimate assessment”:

  1. Prior knowledge: We all know a great many things from patient instruction and personal experience, including those instances in which we have been brought up short and have been forced to adjust our assumptions (occasions which ought to breed wisdom). The entire range of what we already know conditions—and ought to condition—how we assess new claims and assertions. If something new accords with what we already know, we are likely to accept it. If it is discordant—if it does not seem to fit what we would expect based on what we already know—we are likely to reject it.
  2. Current trust: Once again, our past experience teaches us that some persons and sources of information seem to be more thorough, truthful and reliable than others. This applies equally to friends, organizations, political parties and religions. Our experience in these matters will necessarily be imperfect, but it remains our chief guide to what we might call the veracity quotient. We are more likely to accept the claims of those we trust, and to reject the claims of those we don’t. This is perfectly reasonable.
  3. Likely evidence: We do (or ought to do) a kind of calculation whenever we hear some new assertion. We ask ourselves what possible evidence could there be for that? This occurs in all cases, even when we do not intend to investigate further, because even in potentia, evidence makes demands on the mind. When we cannot see how there could be sufficient evidence for some claim, we are prone to reject it. When we can well imagine the kind of evidence that could be adduced, we are prone to accept it.

Now these features of legitimate assessment are not perfect. If we notice that in repeated instances certain new ideas prove true which do not accord with what we know or whom we trust, our sense of what we know and whom we trust will rightly change. Nonetheless, despite inevitable imperfections, anyone who wishes to make honest and accurate judgments will take some care to minimize the influence of convenient self-interest and maximize the influence of legitimate assessment.

But that is not all. Such a person will also apply two other principles to this business of deciding what he will quickly accept or reject among all the claims and counter-claims he encounters. The first principle is provisionality and the second is prayer.

The self-reflective person knows that his judgments are not flawless, that his experience is limited, and that his knowledge is imperfect. Therefore, even though he is right to rely for uninvestigated decisions on what he already knows, whom he already trusts, and the probable strength of the evidence, he will make his decisions provisionally. He will keep in mind that, while he may know some few things very well, his ground is not so firm in matters of snap judgment. When an issue gains in importance or he is put to the test in some debate, he will admit this provisionality. He will not claim more than he knows; he will not seek to assert as certain an opinion he has not seen the evidence to defend.

Moreover, having adopted what among his peers may be all too rare an honesty, such a person will also pray regularly for enlightenment. Well aware that many things must inescapably depend not on proof but on a quick and prudent judgment, he will pray that God enlighten his mind with an ever stronger perception of the truth, a more certain instinct about what is right, and a sixth sense about when something is worth investigating more carefully. Indeed, the Holy Spirit and one’s guardian angel can be profitably asked for all these things.

In the end, those who elevate true assessment over self-interest, who understand the limits of their knowledge, and who ask for Divine help (which itself reflects an openness to both truth and correction) will be right far more often than others, and they will be right often enough. Moreover, even for the very few key issues we can investigate extensively, these factors remain essential to success. This is the faculty of judgment which belongs to the sons and daughters of God, and it is no mean thing.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Aug. 25, 2012 9:43 AM ET USA

    For those put off by Dr. Jeff's article, I urge you to slowly read the last three paragraphs. There is no prescription about "how things and people ought to be" in any of his words above. Rather, a simple and straight forward approach to facing the challenges and opportunities in life. From what I can see, everything in his words is consistent with Christ's teaching and all of the solid leadership material I have ever read.