Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Questions about Independent Judgment

The boy in the Hans Christian Andersen tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is often admired for his independent judgment, that is, for his courage to speak a truth that the adults feared to acknowledge openly. Two questions, however, can be asked about independent judgment as a virtue. One, can everyone really practice it (besides naive children) or is it the province of true creators and innovators, such as Socrates and Galileo? And, perhaps giving rise to doubts expressed in the first question, a second asks, how does one handle the dangers of independent judgment, that is, the prospect of offending other people, sometimes resulting in death (Socrates) or house arrest (Galileo)?

Independent judgment is correct perception of the facts of reality and the courage to acknowledge and assert them. The two questions above arise because of complicating factors; intelligence and interest can affect the initial perception and other people can affect both the initial perception and the assertion of it. Psychology plays a role throughout.

Great innovators, especially those who challenge centuries of convention, are highly intelligent. They also are extremely interested and motivated in their areas of innovation. Those of us who do not possess the same intelligence or interest, whether college professor or blue collar worker, can nevertheless use our intelligence in our areas of interest to perceive and assert what we do see. Intelligence combined with interest determines who is likely to see ahead of others, and those of us who do not see initially can learn from those who do, but intelligence is not a prerogative of the highly educated. Independent judgment can be practiced equally by a garage door repairman as by a scientist.

So why don’t more people practice independent judgment? Which is to ask, why are they so afraid to join the boy in the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”? The answer is fear, real or imagined, of what might happen to them. The real fear of death or incarceration that can result from speaking one’s mind poses a needless moral quandary for some. We have no moral obligation to drink hemlock, as Socrates did, in order to preserve our independent judgment. Many in the Soviet Union managed to maintain theirs by expressing it to family and trusted friends, sometimes speaking in a foreign language to prevent nosy neighbors from overhearing their conversations and reporting them. They were conventional on the outside, in public, to preserve their lives, but independent on the inside, at home, to preserve their self-esteem.

Most of us do not face the real fears of a Socrates, Galileo, or citizen of the Soviet Union. Our fears of expressing independent judgment stem from what others might think of us. Disapproval, maybe rejection, is the worst that might happen, yet the anxiety caused by the fear can be so strong as to blur our perception of the facts, thus preventing any expression of an independent judgment. When choices based on fear build up over time, habits of perceiving reality through clouded lenses become established patterns of behavior. Seeing the world through the eyes of others, whoever those significant others may be, becomes the norm. Conventionality is the result.

Can independent judgment be taught? Yes, but from an early age. Children need, of course, to be given love and support, but they also need to be given freedom, within limits appropriate to their maturity, to choose their own values. And they need to be allowed to learn from their mistakes. Most parents are loving toward infants, but when the children move into their “terrible twos,” parents begin controlling and in some cases hitting. Often, the controlling continues throughout childhood and becomes a constant in traditional schools. Choice and self-assertion are seen as signs of disruption and disobedience to authority. In reality, they are signs of developing self-esteem and personal identity. When they are erased by the controlling, authoritarian behavior of adults, children quickly get the message that getting along means going along. It is a rare child who matures as an adult with independent judgment intact. Perhaps this is why we tend to think that only certain people can fully achieve it.

Independent judgment is a fundamental requirement of the free society. Unless every adult citizen possesses a significant amount of self-esteem expressed as independent judgment, such a society cannot last.

3 comments :

David said...

That is why it is said: "Don't be right -- be wise"

Ayn Rand quoted: "One does not stop the juggernaut by throwing oneself in front of it. ..."

Jerry Kirkpatrick wrote:
"So why don’t more people practice independent judgment?...why are they so afraid to join the boy in the tale of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”?"

David said...

"The essential psychological requirement of a free society is the willingness on the part of the individual to accept responsibility for his life." - Edith Packer, clinical psychologist


"...So far, I have centered on to the externals of order. Much more important is the question: what are the sources of internal discipline? How does a person come to develop the inner strenght and character that can endow his life with order and coherence?

The question itself suggests much of the answer. What we are looking for is the development of inner discipline within each individual. This suggests an ability to stand on one's own, to be ethically self sufficient, to be intellectually coherent; the ability to, in short, to make sense out of one's life, to forge an identity that hangs together and forms a whole. What we are talking about is the image of a man appropriate to a free republic of co-equal citizens – man capable of making decisions within a rational, self-consistent framework, man capable of treating and being treated with respect.

The kind of character we seek is not needed in any other kind of society. Where the State reigns supreme, people are needed who are capable above all of obedience, of submerging their individual selves in a larger pattern. Dependence, not independence, is the quality most suitable to authoritarian states.

We, on the other hand, seek independence. The independent man is our ideal.

The hallmark of the independent man is the ability to bear responsibility. To be responsible and accountable for one's actions. To do, and to stand up for what one has done. Not to hide behind "superior orders," not to seek shelter in group decisions, not to take strenght from some heroic figure -- but to be one's own man.

There is no way of teaching or training another person for self-sufficiency. There is no technic for obtaining or transmitting these traits. The only way a person becomes responsible for himself is for him to be responsible for himself, with no reservation or qualifications.

In the school, all the trappings of external support that shore up the weak, all the trappings of external authority that substitute for inner self-direction, all the trappings of external moral pressure that replace the inner moral development -- all the well-meaning paraphernalia that has enervated and often paralyzed the individual wills of students and teachers alike, must disappear entirely.

In the school, the basic building block must be, instead, the responsible individual, whose sense of life derives from his having overcome, with his own strenght, the grate and errors and temptations that have been strewn in his path, and whose existence has been given form by his own creative efforts."

[Excerpt, Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline, The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal, The Sudbury Valley School (1970).]

David said...

CORRECTION (sorry):

"...In the school, the basic building block must be, instead, the responsible individual, whose sense of life derives from his having overcome, with his own strenght, the great obstacles and errors and temptations that have been strewn in his path, and whose existence has been given form by his own creative efforts."

[Excerpt, Law and Order: Foundations of Discipline, The Crisis in American Education — An Analysis and a Proposal, The Sudbury Valley School (1970).]