I was hired in 1978 by Encyclopaedia Britannica to be an editorial indexer on a major revision of the entire 25-volume work. I was responsible for reading and indexing the major entries on chemistry, metallurgy, physics, astrophysics, mathematics and horses; as well as checking and creating all pertinent cross-references in the 12-volume index. One day, our department met Mortimer Adler, the philosopher and chairman of EB. He had authored a book titled “How to Think,” which I found puzzling. Don’t people already know how to think?
Many years later, I’ve revised my verdict: We really don’t know how to think.
First, we’ve largely traded rational judgment of principles, words or deeds for emotion-based opinions, astute marketing and “groupthink.” Second, we have an all-or-nothing response to certain people that hinders our ability to accurately hear and reasonably assess their words and deeds. Third, we also have an all-or-nothing allegiance to certain ideas that cause even the most fervent advocates of non-judgmentalism to become rigidly judgmental toward another human being!
Here’s what I mean. Many Republicans were opposed to the Affordable Care Act. Some could articulate specific, credible reservations. Some, however, simply despised President Obama. Despite the fact that the 2012 Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney, presided over a state health care plan that became a model for ACA; despite many popular and effective aspects of the plan; and despite having almost a decade to craft a workable alternative, Republicans failed to do so. In part, they couldn’t separate their loathing of the president and for “Obamacare” from reasoned judgments that might result in a credible alternative plan (and might even include elements of ACA). They couldn’t think constructively.
On the other side of the aisle, many Democrats decried the recent Republican tax plan as “Armageddon.” A Prager Institute series of “hidden camera” interviews with self-professed Bernie Sanders supporters in New York showed them echoing that critique. When these individuals were read portions of a putative “Bernie Sanders alternative tax plan proposal,” they sang its praises. To their chagrin, they then learned that what they’d praised was actually part of the “Trump Armageddon” plan itself. Again, loathing for one person and love for another clouded their ability to assess the plan on its own merits. They couldn’t think dispassionately.
Another example. Some conservative Christians talk a good talk about sexual morality, but turned themselves inside out to justify voting for Trump or supporting Roy Moore’s run for the Senate. Some secular progressives snigger at Mike Pence’s squeaky-clean behavior or even decry it as weirdly misogynistic — but laud the very same words and actions when they came from the radical thinker and black identity activist Ta-Nehisi Coates.
A final set of examples. Sometimes, a principle becomes so central, so all-consuming, that we willingly trash reputations and destroy lives and legacies in its service. How many “good, God-fearing” people have broken the hearts of and fractured relationships with their gay and lesbian family members, by a ham-fisted application of judgment without mercy, humility or love? How many “tolerance and inclusivity” proponents applauded hauling into court an order of nuns who serve the poorest of the poor — because they desired to live in accordance with their beliefs? How many revisionists seek to tear down the Jefferson Monument or White-out his name from the Declaration of Independence because he was “a slave-owning rapist?” How often do we rule that one flaw (and yes, it might be a doozy) ought to condemn the whole existence of another human being to our personal rendition of hell?
It’s possible, and I’d argue necessary, to deem certain beliefs, words and actions as more helpful, good, wise or even plain old coherent than others. It’s possible and necessary to rationally judge some behaviors and principles to be more hurtful, evil or unwise than others. And it’s possible to do that even though not one of us is anything but a mixed bag of good and bad, wise and foolish, helpful and destructive, coherent and a hopeless jumble of inconsistency. The art of thinking assists us in recognizing and valuing certain ideas and actions as good, true and proper, no matter who espouses them. Rightly valuing, respecting and even loving other people, even if they espouse goofy ideas or make awful blunders, is an art that requires more than even proper thinking can provide.