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Being morally accountable while being uncertain

George Cunningham wrote that, "if you think about it, most things you know about the universe are really just beliefs justified by a sufficient quantity and quality of evidence." Some beliefs are not even especially well justified, in which case what we have isn't knowledge but merely prejudice. William James: “A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.”

We refer to ourselves as having knowledge, but we can never attain absolute assurance of our correctness, and to pretend that we have done so or to delude ourselves into believing that we have done so leads us astray from our own humanity, which is inherently limited. "Every judgement teeters on the brink of error. To claim absolute knowledge is to become monstrous. Knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty," wrote that author of Dune.

Of course, we have a feeling that we refer to as certainty. People feel more or less certain about all kinds of things. At the extreme of either end of the "certainty spectrum," humans are unable to function successfully. "Psychologists have recently begun to consider," Robert A. Burton wrote in On Being Certain, "the role of pathological certainty and pathological uncertainty as they relate to schizophrenia and OCD [respectively]." That is, a person with schizophrenia might feel certain that the government is spying on them based on no evidence whatsoever, while a person with obsessive compulsive disorder might feel uncertain that the table is really clean even after they have washed it twenty times. So, it's important to our lives that we experience the feeling of certainty in a balanced way.

The feeling of certainty is separate from attaining grounds for assurance of our correctness. Those grounds may be rational, emotive, sensory, or any way in which we normally gain information, but they are not the same as whether we feel certain about what we have learned.

Nikki Stern sees a kind of beauty and power in maintaining uncertainty as it relates to moral judgements:

Moral authority is anathema to thinking, questioning, examining, reasoning, or wondering – the talents with which we humans have been gifted and which we Americans in particular are fortunate to be able to freely employ. The whole notion of moral authority contradicts everything we know about how our brains work, how our consciences should work, and maybe even how our souls might work.

Uncertainty, on the other hand, presents all sorts of possibilities: what about, what if, why not? We could fear uncertainty, but I'd much rather we all accepted it or, better yet, embraced it. After all, what we don't know absolutely is what we can imagine, invent, dream, or dare to hope.

J. B. MacKinnon acknowledges, in a different way, that we can take actions that we believe will produce positive change without necessarily feeling certainty that we are correct. If we are aware that our beliefs have some kind of grounding, then we are accountable to ourselves and can be accountable to others.

When people make lifestyle choices based on their concerns about the environment, they are often seen as – accused of – being "good." That label never sat well with me, though it took me a long time to find a better word. That word is accountable, and I can't define it any more plainly than the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur did: "Those who can account for actions to themselves are 'accountable.'" I prefer accountability to goodness because it embraces the imperfection of change as a process. If I can explain and defend my actions, it doesn't necessarily mean that I believe that my choices are without a doubt the right ones. Accountability is not certainty; it is attempted certainty.

James Hollis says that the process of arriving at this kind of accountability, all the while in the face of uncertainty, is what it means to live the examined life.

Nothing really important will prove simple. Denial and shallowness never prove worthy of what Socrates called "the examined life." The examined life will oblige us to consider that all issues, all issues, have more than one facet to consider, that our capacity for self-delusion is very strong, that we are always at least part of the problem, and that we will ultimately walk right into what we have fled, sooner or later. What is wrong with saying, "I do not know; I do not possess certainty; I think this is a fascinating journey and I am open to discovery?" Why should this simple confession require so much courage?


George C. Cunningham. Decoding the Language of God: Can a Scientist Really Be a Believer? Prometheus Books, 2009. p. 38.

William James, quoted in the Associated Press, quoted in The Week, April 25, 2014. p. 17.

Frank Herbert, Dune, 1965

Robert A. Burton. On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2008. p. 39.

Nikki Stern. Because I Say So: The Dangerous Appeal of Moral Authority. Bascom Hill Books, 2010. p. 127.

"In an Age of Eco-Uncertainty." J. B. MacKinnon. Reprinted from Explore (May 2010). UTNE Reader, Sept-Oct 2010, p. 71.

James Hollis, Ph.D. Why Good People Do Bad Things: Understanding Our Darker Selves. New York: Gotham Books, 2007. p. 201.


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