The question of truth and reasoning with respect to good citizenship has long been the topic of philosophical debate. Ancient philosophers such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato pondered the question of truth and ethics. The questioning persisted as modern philosophers continued to define our role as human beings in determining truth and applying that truth to our own ethical behavior. In W.K. Clifford’s essay The Ethics of Belief, he argues that it is our responsibility to seek the truth through evidential support. Clifford’s theory is that without evidence one can not truly make ethical decisions; thus, one can not be an ethical citizen without knowing the truth through substantiated evidence. The question of the importance of truth and evidence in relation to our own ethics and citizenship continues to be a significant topic today. Are we, as Americans living in a democracy, required to always seek and know the truth based on evidentiary support? Or, do we as citizens have the right to form our opinions based on logic and reasoning without hard facts to support our beliefs? In answering these two questions, one can pursue her own definition of ethical citizenship.
According to W.K. Clifford, before one can have ethical beliefs, it is essential that information must be based in fact. He proposes that for one to make ethical decisions, she must not include personal opinion or change the facts to match her own desires. Clifford states, “It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence” (Chignell). Clifford’s theory is strongly evidentialist. He believed that citizens are obligated to seek evidence, be open to the new evidence, and take others’ evidence into careful consideration (Chignell).
In Clifford’s essay, he uses the story of a shipowner who knows that his ship is rickety, but he decides to let people travel on a transatlantic voyage anyway. The ship sinks and passengers die. Clifford proposes that the shipowner is responsible for the deaths because he knew all along that the ship might be unsafe. Clifford goes on to state that the owner would still be guilty of unethical decision making even if the ship had safely landed and passengers were unharmed. He states that positive outcomes do not negate poor decisions (Chignell). Clifford’s theory is in line with the Philosophical Model for Reflective Deliberation. The shipowner failed to rationally evaluate and deliberate before committing to sending the people on their unsuccessful voyage. If we as citizens follow the Philosophical Model and Clifford’s theory, it becomes our responsibility to always seek sufficient, truthful evidence to guide our behaviors and beliefs.
In a democracy, the pursuit of truth is necessary in keeping the citizens of the republic safe and secure. In the United States, we entrust our political leaders with our lives. The elected officials take on the responsibility of behaving in an ethical decision-making process. Unfortunately, in today’s United States, it seems facts and evidential reasoning is far from the norm. For example, in our current political climate, both the liberal and conservative communities are guilty of ignoring factual evidence if it does not match with their preconceived notions or political motives. Self-deception seems to be prevalent in the United States today. Voters and elected officials tend to ignore evidence and choose to find good in something just because they want to. One current hot topic is the debate over illegal immigration and what the United States should do in order to serve its citizens properly. Both the liberal and conservative leaders are guilty of developing solutions that are not necessarily supported by factual evidence, but rather they base their decisions and solutions on emotional grounds that do not prove anything about how a solution can truly be created. On the far left side of the immigration issue, sanctuary cities are being created. The leaders creating these safe havens are ignoring federal law and refuse to examine the issue for factual evidence as to why the illegal immigrants should be protected. These leaders believe they are behaving in a virtuous manner. While virtue is the “desire to have good things,” is protecting illegal immigrants from deportation actually the right or virtuous thing to do? Is there factual evidence to support that this is the best public policy for a democracy, to protect everyone? Or is the sanctuary city stance actually a flawed concept based on the sincerity of the belief without thought to the consequences of the belief? Just like the shipowner in Clifford’s essay, the leaders of sanctuary cities are following what they think is probably the best solution, but ignoring the fact that keeping certain illegal immigrants in the country might actually bring harm.
On the other hand, the conservative leadership in our country is just as guilty of ignoring factual evidence and basing decisions on false premises with no evidential support. In the illegal immigration debate, it is the popular belief of those on the far right that a wall should be built on the southern border. Is there any factual evidence to support this idea? Leaders talk of specific gang and drug-related crimes that have been committed in the United States by illegal aliens. However, there is no factual evidence or research to prove that building a wall would actually stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. Furthermore, would the wall really prevent crime? Leaders are using emotions and appealing to the fears of their constituents rather than basing the public policy decisions on research, data, or factual evidence. This means that while the pursuit of truth and ethical behavior should be the ultimate goals for those in charge of our public policy, truth is not the goal. Ultimately, this may have a negative impact on our democracy because the general public will lose faith in the ability for leaders on either side of the spectrum to make true and just decisions for the good of all people.
Another threat to the pursuit of truth in our democratic society is the explosion of false information through the New Media. The speed at which false information can be shared is alarming. Additionally, information seekers tend to believe what they want to believe without ever checking for evidence or facts. It is as if we as a society are now basing our “facts” on gossip and hearsay rather than anything of substance. This sort of threat to democracy was evident in the ancient trial of Socrates. The mob mentality that led to his conviction is similar to the type of mob mentality we see each day through social media outlets. Once again, both sides of the political spectrum are guilty of this mob-style social injustice. Unsubstantiated claims are not examined but rather become truth simply because a story travels quickly through social media outlets or even the mainstream news media. For example, no one could logically argue that the ideals of the popular Me Too Movement are unjust. Certainly, anyone guilty of sexual harassment should face punishment. However, the new trend is to convict someone in the public eye whether there is factual evidence to warrant the conviction. Because of the mob-style mentality of the movement and its popularity, the pursuit of truth is ignored and quick conviction without ethical proof is many times the outcome. News outlets are so quick to release a story or be the first with the big exclusive that they overlook evidence or ignore facts that do not promote the agenda. Truthfulness in the media has always been of utmost importance in a democratic society. When media outlets fail to seek truth and evidence, it is at the expense of the democracy and its future.
Failing to seek the truth and make ethical decisions can prove to be detrimental to democracy. In communist countries citizens are forced to believe based on unsubstantiated claims and evidence. The evidence is hidden from the members of society. In a democracy, it is supposed to be different. The people are supposed to rule. How can a society truly call themselves a democracy if the people do not have all the facts and base beliefs on something other than truth? Members of the democratic society can change the current path by holding our institutions of learning and information to a high standard. In the field of education, instructors should be responsible to teach all sides of an issue and let students base opinions on facts rather than emotional appeals. History should not be rewritten to fit the norms of today’s society. Only the facts will help people to learn from past mistakes.
The media should also be held accountable for a decline in truth and ethical behavior. Recent improvements have been made in stricter guidelines for privacy for social media users. Also, Facebook has faced backlash for allowing fake news accounts that are believed to have tainted the last Presidential election. However, while these are steps in the right direction toward a more truthful medium, social media users need to become more proactive in seeking truth while using social media rather than just accepting stories at face value.
In order for our government to be more in line with Clifford’s Ethics of Belief, our leaders must change the current course. The political parties are so focused on devaluing the ideas of their foes that they are unwilling to consider truth and evidence. The current condition of our politics is divisive and derogatory. Since the United States is a representative democracy, the people will have to decide to evaluate information, seek truth based on evidence, not hearsay, and elect those who most often follow the will of the people. The voters should seek to elect candidates that demonstrate a true desire to try to behave in a fact-based, ethical manner that is not purely based on party politics.
According to Clifford, there are three principles that are always unethical: to believe on insufficient evidence, to suppress doubt, and to avoid investigation. Our schools, our social and news media outlets, and our government have a responsibility to the citizens of the democracy to allow people to question, seek factual evidence, and investigate situations in order to find real truth. In order for the democracy to stand, its people must be willing to base beliefs on fact. It is the responsibility of good citizens to seek truth.