Do I have a duty to control or change my thoughts for the purposes of
Answer by Geoffrey Klempner
I will answer your question, Samit, by first challenging its implied assumption: that the reason why I have a duty to control or change my thoughts is that it ‘serves the purposes of social harmony’.
Let’s say that the date is 1934 and I am a German citizen who entertains the thought, ‘Hitler is a dangerous madman.’ Although I have not yet dared express this thought out loud, it has already prompted certain actions on my part that have begun to distance me from my Hitler-worshipping neighbours. Not enough, yet, to put me in danger of being arrested by the Gestapo — at least that is what I hope. But could it be argued that ‘social harmony’ (quote unquote) requires me to find ways to persuade myself that the Fuhrer is not so bad after all?
I don’t think so. The example of the trial of Socrates is the classic case where wrong is done in the name of social harmony. Socrates was accused of ‘corrupting the young’ and ‘impiety’, both charges he denied. All he did was to encourage the young people who followed him to think for themselves, to question their assumptions about the widely held beliefs of the day, including religious beliefs. But imagine that you are a parent and your son or daughter comes to you and tells you that the gods on Mount Olympus are not worthy of worship because of the bad example — infidelity, cruelty, revenge — they set to human beings. Where did this come from?, you ask. That evil, meddling Socrates!
I do have a duty to control or change my thoughts, when I am aware that these thoughts are prejudiced, for example, against a certain ethnic minority. I know that it’s not only wrong but factually incorrect to regard members of the minority in question as naturally lazy and stupid, but my reactions belie my knowledge. Let’s say it was the fault of my upbringing. I inherited my parents’ prejudices. The point is that here the reason why I have a duty to strive to overcome my prejudices is my better, ‘second thoughts’, rather than the bad consequences for the social fabric of my failure to overcome my inherited prejudices.
But how far does this go? Societies change. At the time of the Ancient Greeks, the notion of an Olympic Games for disabled persons — the ‘Paralympics’ — would have been regarded as repugnant and outrageous. The whole point of the Games, they would have said, is to celebrate human perfection. Then again, if you put this point to Aristotle, you might have succeeded in persuading the great philosopher at least to entertain the possibility that the specifically human ‘virtues’ of courage, technical skill and endurance are what really matter, and these are demonstrated equally by Olympians and Paralympians.
I am not going to presume to know what Aristotle would have said, although I suspect that 2500 years ago the very idea of a Paralympics would have been regarded as nonsensical and not worthy of discussion. Anyone who thought otherwise lacked common sense. Now we think differently.
The example I have just given is a case where we have a supposed duty not only to keep our thoughts to ourselves, but to strive to change them. If the Paralympics are on TV in the local bar, and customers are cheering a wheelchair race, for example, I am obliged to smile and cheer along with them and not put on a sour face. Pretending to smile or cheer isn’t enough.
I am talking about political correctness, of course. That’s a question you could have asked: do we have a duty to think in ways that are widely regarded in our society as ‘politically correct’?
My view is that there are cases where being politically correct is reasonable and fair, but also cases where it is close to ridiculous, if not downright evil. The Paralympics would be an example where most persons today would strongly disagree with the Ancient Greeks.
The truistic point is that attitudes change. We now see things differently. Unfortunately, there are persons — I call them the moral Gestapo — who would regard that truistic thought as ‘politically incorrect’.
It is my sincere belief that the people who promote political correctness even when it is ridiculous deserve to be called out, even at the cost of social disharmony.