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We are deep into the political season. Looking at the Trump phenomenon, an article by Phil Torres in Salon bemoans the “anti-intellectualism that runs through the roots of American culture.” Torres notes that, “[T]he most dangerous consequence of Fox News is that it discourages that most important form of rigorous curiosity called critical thinking.”

Critical thinking, or in other words thinking skeptically, may indeed be one method to combat political foolishness. It aims at helping produce in us true beliefs. Contemporary stances such as atheism and Secular Humanism branch off from this skepticism. Torres continues with a wink, “critical thinking could lead to liberalism — or worse, to that most dreaded form of liberal fanaticism called secular progressivism.”

Skepticism and Knowing

Skepticism is a method. A skeptical stance is careful in how it apportions belief. It takes particular account of what evidence there is for and against, as well as what arguments may be made about that evidence or lack thereof.

One common result of a skeptical attitude is that of atheism: the decision that evidence for a God or gods is lacking, and that hence one should not believe in their existence.

This critical attitude is hard work. It requires vigilance and calculation. For most people it is simply easier to accept the views of parents, peers, authority figures, or the society at large. And indeed to a certain extent we must all do this: we cannot run all the experiments ourselves.

Given its troublesome nature, one may ask what the point is of a skeptical attitude. Why work so hard at belief?

Skepticism itself needs justification. It comes down to a question of what we should value. A skeptical attitude values truth over falsity, accuracy over inaccuracy, true predictions over false ones. It realizes that coming to the truth is hard, so at the cost of enduring some false negatives it works to weed out a load of false positives.

One may ask why we value these things. One may wonder whether the relation between fact and value is one that privileges fact: all matters come before the court of epistemic judgment, and if value cannot be accounted for experimentally, so much the worse for value. Perhaps there are no values at all!

But that cannot be the case. Epistemic judgment, skepticism itself, implicitly relies on notions of value. It relies on ethics. We are skeptical because we hold to certain ethical principles: that it is better (in some sense of better) to be accurate in our beliefs rather than inaccurate.

Now, these ethical principles are perhaps thin, poorly articulated, or understood. In some sense we know it is better to apportion belief sparingly, because in doing so we will reap better outcomes for ourselves and others. We will be less likely to be disappointed. We will be able to be of greater help, and do less harm. We will experience more of the pleasant and less of the unpleasant.

The secular ethical stance is perhaps best exemplified by Secular Humanism itself, which is defined as incorporating a non-theistic ethics. While contemporary versions of Secular Humanism, for example that of the Council for Secular Humanism, define their ethics in consequentialist terms, in fact consequentialism is not essential to the secular project. Other ethical systems such as deontology or virtue ethics could also work as Secular Humanist ethical systems. The only criterion is that they should not require any supernatural elements such as gods or divine commands.

A particularly extreme skeptic may counter that ethics itself involves supernatural claims, in that one cannot derive values from facts, and the only ‘natural’ things are facts. So it might be said, nature is made up of facts, not values.

This is not a claim that can be refuted, but insofar as we admit to being Secular Humanists, we must claim the existence of values as well as facts, however those are meant to be understood. The committed skeptic may be rebutted by the observation that extreme skepticism, if it is to be recommendable as an epistemic procedure, must be so on the basis of its value to us. Divorced from values, the facts alone do not recommend anything. The experimental method itself is based upon valuing reproducibility and objectivity. Divorced from values, there is no experimental method.

The Ethical Imperative

The ancient Greeks had an answer for why we should bother with thinking critically: it was on behalf of a quest for the best sort of life. We want to know what truly makes a life worth living, or what is the best way to live. The Buddha understood the matter similarly, though with a slight twist: for him the concern was that of avoiding suffering, in its most expansive understanding. The avoidance of suffering is something that we do not need to justify. It is as natural to us as breathing, logically a matter of definition: we do not want to suffer. A life of suffering is not a good life, unless it is for some end which itself allays greater suffering. Meaningless suffering is always bad.

Why do we suffer? There are too many reasons, but we can at least hope to make something of a quick taxonomy. A large measure of our suffering comes from external sources that are not under our control, from the weather to natural disasters to disease to war to the disdain of our peers. We are also tormented by internal sources: from our own minds arise unwelcome thoughts, unnecessary worries, unskillful desires. We torment ourselves with our greeds and our hatreds. We torment others with them too.

We cannot do very much about those things that are not under our control. What little we can do is either relatively clear and obvious (e.g., get under an umbrella if it’s raining), or obscure and hence the purview of scientific study (e.g., medical research to combat disease). The torment of our own mind, however, is more complex and interesting. This is where, along with contemporary psychology, Buddhist practices may come into play.

Valuing Control

One famous method to distinguish the phenomena of the mind from the phenomena due to influence from an external world is that the mental ones are under our direct control, while the ones that derived from external objects are not. We can conjure up the idea of a banana at any time, but if there is no banana in front of us, we won’t see one no matter how hard we try. So the idea is a phenomenon of the mind, while the visual impression is due to an external world.

This is true to a point, but only to a point. Anyone who has practiced meditation knows that the mind is actually not much more under control than is the external world. We want to stop thinking about an ex-lover, but can’t. We want to relax to the feel of the breath in our nostrils, but every time we settle down we are off in another story about the past, or another plan for the future. The ordinary mind is not tame.

More and more we realize we are in the grip of greedy, unhelpful desires, and fiery, unhelpful hatreds. When we are overtaken by such emotions, the feeling is one of being carried away. Any pretense of rationality is swamped. Or conversely, rationality is coopted by rationalization: we tell ourselves that we really need that fancy jacket or new car. That person who hurt us really needs to suffer. We find ourselves compelled to act, and even to think, in certain ways that later we look back upon with confusion, surprise, and regret.

The promise of skepticism is epistemic purity. The promise of epistemic purity is that we will come to know the facts. But how objective can we be about the facts when in the thrall of emotions such as greed and anger? How objective about values? In these circumstances, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt and others have observed, objectivity is all too often a delusion, particularly when our beliefs are tainted by emotional attachments.

Hence it seems that if we truly value epistemic accuracy, we need to value emotional control even more highly. By “emotional control” I do not mean to suggest force or violence, the “crushing mind with mind” that the Buddha considers a last resort. Rather I mean to suggest something more like what the Buddha may have had in mind when saying,

Admonish yourself.
Control yourself.
O bhikkhu, self-guarded and mindful,
You will live happily.

Oneself, indeed, is one’s own protector.
One does, indeed, [make] one’s own destiny.
Therefore, control yourself
As a merchant does a fine horse. (Dhp. 379-380).

A Path of Practice

Buddhism is often misconstrued as passive, and Buddhist training misconstrued as simple acceptance of what is. While that training may indeed end us in a place of nonattached acceptance, the route to nonattachment is through active intervention. When we recognize that the mind has wandered off into daydreams, we actively intervene to put it back on the breath. When we note that the mind has become filled with anger, we actively intervene to cultivate friendly thoughts. When we note that the mind has become filled with greed, we actively intervene to cultivate awareness of impermanence.

These are only some of the techniques mentioned in the Nikāya suttas. The point of reading these suttas, or writings of contemporary thinkers, is not in order to be able to parrot them back, or in order to be able to write blog posts or insightful online comments. The point of making ourselves aware of these teachings is so that we increase our storehouse of techniques to put into daily practice.

Critical Thinking and Critical Feeling

Critical thinking should be taught in the classroom and reinforced throughout life in order to nurture and sustain the knowledge necessary for an informed electorate. But thinking does not happen in an emotional vacuum, and thinking critically does not happen in an emotional storm. The biggest threat to critical thought is a mind clouded by emotion. Marketers and politicians know this. Thus their appeal to the rhetoric of emotion to sell. And of course the worst of these play on our worst emotions, selfish greed and hatred.

A mind clouded by greed or hatred will not be open to critical thought. It will ignore the claims of reason, or twist reason into rationalization. We have all seen it. Many of our most dangerous marketers and politicians are skilled in such arts.

If critical thinking should be taught and learned throughout life, so much more should we practice a critical attitude towards our emotions. We should be critical towards how we feel, and why. Not in the sense of being negative: negativity is just another emotional stance, one allied to anger and rejection. Instead we should be critical in the sense of being willing to openly investigate our emotions. We must investigate the roots of our own tendencies towards greed and hatred in particular. Where do they come from? Are they in our best interest? How can they be mitigated?

It is a mistake to assume that a skeptical attitude alone is sufficient to produce truly skillful belief and behavior. A hateful, cynical, ego-driven skepticism is not particularly preferable over its gullible alternative. And a skepticism driven by contempt often curdles into bigotry, as we have seen all too often in online discussions.

The task is bigger than critical thinking alone, and indeed critical thinking is neither the first, nor the most important step. We value reason and evidence not because we fetishize the truth, but because true beliefs are most skillful at overcoming suffering and producing happiness. For reason and evidence to play this role, however, they must do so within a framework of compassion. Without this framework, reason and evidence may simply become further tools of oppression.

Critical thinking may indeed, as the article suggests, lead to liberal secularity. It may be a bulwark against know-nothing politics. But only when allied to calmness of mind and values that look beyond greed and hatred.



Gil Fronsdal, The Dhammapada (Boston: Shambhala, 2011).

Jonathan Haidt, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail: A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment”. Psychological Review, 2001. 108:4.

Phil Torres, “Donald Trump talks at a fourth-grade level. Maybe that’s why the Fox News audience loves him”. Salon, Jan. 10, 2016.

No Comments

  1. Gregory Clement on April 26, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Thanks for an interesting essay Doug. I was struck by your discussion of facts and values. You suggest that there is a problem for a sceptic in having values since they can’t be derived from facts. Only facts are ‘natural’ and any talk of values must involve supernatural claims.

    I see this rather differently. When we talk about values we often use language that mirrors factual statements about the world. ‘It is wrong to kill.’ ‘ Human happiness is the ultimate good.’ If we treat these as factual claims then it is hard to see how they can be justified without reference to some supernatural reality. It seems more sensible to see them as more like expressions of our desires or tastes. Trying to argue for their truth is like trying to argue that strawberries taste nice.

    The analogy is only approximate because we do in fact have useful and productive arguments about values. We can change people’s values by getting them to see connections between one value judgement and another. One might argue against abortion for example by linking it to values relating to preserving life. This might work because we like our values to form a coherent unit. (Another value I suppose!)

    So, a sceptic need not feel awkward about having values. They are just a given, an aspect of our psychology. The problem only arises when we imagine that when talking about our preferences we are talking about some eternal aspect of the universe.

    • Mark Knickelbine on April 27, 2016 at 2:03 pm

      Apropos of this, I just got through reading Sam Harris’ “The Moral Landscape.” His central claim is that ethics and morals are based in values, and that values are fact claims about the states of human organisms. Since we know there are neurological correlates to happiness, satisfaction, feelings of security, love, social belonging, etc, the fact that we prefer such states over their opposites gives values their basis in fact. He admits that we know very little about these neurological processes, nor about how exactly to bring conditions about that maximize them. But the fact that there is a good life (not living in hunger, discomfort and terror) and that the goodness of this life relates to states in the human organism means that morality is not simply culturally relative and that we can say factual things about good and bad that transcend time and culture.

  2. Gregory Clement on April 28, 2016 at 3:20 am

    It’s a interesting argument Mark, but I’m not convinced. As a matter of experience different people value different things. Some value physical comfort and security, others prefer excitement and danger. Some crave social belonging and others want to carve their own path in life.

    You might argue that we all want all of these things a bit, but that doesn’t really help. What do we choose when these different goods are in conflict? People will often accept pain and hardship for the sake of social acceptance. (High-heeled shoes, for example.)

    In a way there is something sinister about the idea that values are objective. It can lead to the idea that people who don’t espouse our values are either ignorant or dishonest. They need a program of re-education so that they come to see things in the correct way. Sounds very Orwellian.

    On a trivial level some people find it hard to accept that other people are different. If you get up late you are lazy. If you enjoy peace and quiet you are unfriendly. On a more elevated plane we have to accept that conscientious and thoughtful people can come to different conclusions about moral questions.

    This does not mean that moral disagreement does not matter and that we simply have to accept behaviour of others that we disapprove of. In the end we may have to fight our corner and try to prevent what we see as immoral actions. Even so let’s not kid ourselves that we have ‘truth on our side’.

    • Mark Knickelbine on April 28, 2016 at 8:15 am

      Gregory, Harris admits that there may be no consensus about what constitutes the best life. That’s the point of his “moral landscape” trope — there can be many peaks and many valleys. But if we don’t find some objective basis for morality, we drift into a relativism that creates monsters. Is a society that believes that God commands the subjugation of women, violent martyrdom to kill unbelievers, barbaric punishments for “crimes” like apostasy and adultery, all because it “values” death over life, to be excused because of some kind of cultural preference? Harris’s view is far from clean and settled, but it at least affords an objective way to say that acts that cause widespread human misery are wrong, regardless of what kind of cultural context they occur in.

      • Gregory Clement on April 30, 2016 at 8:51 am

        You will see in my last paragraph that I don’t think we need end up excusing bad behaviour on the grounds of cultural preference. If we value certain things (for example the equality of women) then naturally we will work to promote them. We don’t need to believe that our values are founded in some objective reality for them to be our values.

        Curiously enough it seems to be the case that the people with obnoxious values systems are often those who think that their values derive from an objective reality. (God’s will, for example.) Who would support such crazy ideas without that trump card to back them up?

        • Mark Knickelbine on May 2, 2016 at 12:49 pm

          Because without some objective basis, however fuzzy, where do we derive the right to compel other people to stop their bad behavior? If it’s all just a matter of subjective values, on what grounds do we jail a man who just killed his daughter to maintain his family honor? There has to be a reason why our values trump his, and unless there is some objective basis, then it is just cultural chauvinism, or perhaps even cultural imperialism. The God’s will crowd may claim an objective basis, but they can’t point to the object. By basing morality in the physical and neurological states of human beings, we at least have an object to point to, even if we don’t understand it very clearly. This is not an abstract consideration; Harris and others are accused of Islamophobia every time they point out the ways Islam is used to justify acts that would be considered terrible crimes if non-Muslim Westerners committed them. Relativism is being used to excuse atrocity, and Harris is trying to find some way to undercut that.

          • Gregory Clement on May 2, 2016 at 3:57 pm

            I think Hume dealt with this pretty comprehensively. You can’t derive ought from is. You can’t derive value statements from statements of fact about the world, even if the facts in question relate to human psychology.

            This is not to deny that facts about the world may be needed to apply our values. If we think it is good to make people happy, we will need data on what makes people happy to decide on which acts are good. Even so our value judgement is logically prior to our data.

            From where do we derive our right to stop the bad behaviour of others? We don’t. We simply claim it or assert it. That is one of our (unsupported) values. One might have a value system which operated on ones own behaviour but included the rule that one had no right to try to control the behaviour of others. Different value systems are more or less assertive in claiming the right (duty) to control others.

            Searching for an objective basis for morality is appealing but it is a wild goose chase. Suppose you thought you had found it. You would have to test it against your (pre-existing) sense of right and wrong to see that it gave the right answers. In other words, your values precede this objective basis. If someone disagreed with your ‘discovery’ how could you prove that they were wrong?

            You say that there has to a reason why our values trump other people’s. They don’t, but they are our values and so they are the ones that motivate us. Your political views don’t trump those of your political opponents (there’s a joke in there somewhere) but they are the ones that decide how you campaign and vote. No chauvinism or imperialism there.

          • Mark Knickelbine on May 3, 2016 at 7:59 am

            Harris attempts to dismantle Hume’s argument in his book. I’ll admit to not having read the Hume in question, although I gather it’s some kind of infinite regression argument. But it doesn’t seem supportable on its face. Human beings are physical creatures. It is not as if values can seep in like a ghost — they have to arise from the physical world somewhere, and since they do we can at least conceive that there are facts that describe how and why they arise. To say that values are only assertions and are not derived from any objective reality is to say, ultimately, that there is no ground for morality at all. If the shoe were on the other foot, ISIS gets its worldwide caliphate and the punishment for failure to convert is death, then there would be no basis to say that this is barbarism, only a set of values successfully asserted. This is the practical import of the naïve relativist stand, in any event, and it results in liberals defending gross violations of human rights.

  3. Gregory Clement on May 3, 2016 at 12:59 pm

    I’m sure you are right Mark that there are facts that describe how and why values arise. We don’t need to try very hard to come up with some candidates. A very obvious one is the things we are taught as children. Our values are strongly linked to our upbringing. There must be more general elements as well. Evolution has probably predisposed us to be cooperative, to care for the weak, to value consistency and fairness, and so on.

    The problem is that explaining the origins of our values does nothing to endear us to them. Our culture might favour extreme family solidarity or rigid monogamy. There might be good historical or evolutionary reasons why. This does not give them some kind of objective truth. One of the difficulties of modern life is that social conditions are changing fast and old values may sometimes no longer seem sensible.

    You are concerned that without an objective basis for morality we are unable to resist the barbarous values of others. I don’t see why. Someone thinks that adulterers should be stoned and you disagree. Fine. Fight them every step of the way. How does it help you to point to an objective basis for your beliefs? They can do that as well, and won’t be convinced by your arguments. Does your disgust at cruelty depend on being able to find a philosophical argument in favour of your view?

    I don’t defend naïve relativism. If I understand this view it is that there is no objective morality and it is wrong to impose our moral views on others. This seems to me to be the result of muddled thinking. The second bit (it is wrong to impose our moral views on others) is treated as an objective truth, but the premise is that there are no objective moral truths. A contradiction.

    We could translate our moral judgements into other language. Instead of saying ‘Cruelty is objectively wrong’ we could say ‘I hate cruelty and am determined to try to stop other people being cruel’. That should serve our purposes.

    • Mark Knickelbine on May 4, 2016 at 10:27 am

      Let’s point to a concrete example. Ayaan Hirsi Ali is working diligently to fight conservative Islam’s sharia-based abuse of women. She is routinely derided by Western liberals as a racist and Islamophobe, and told that, as a non-Muslim apostate living in the West, she has no right to criticize Islamic culture, much less try to change it. How do we confront such a view? “No, you’re wrong, because it’s a Western cultural norm? Or because I feel you’re wrong?” Such an approach would simply reinforce the relativist view that we’re being chauvinistic. Unless we can say that abuse of women is objectively wrong because it causes suffering and deprives women of happiness, and that, since humans almost universally seek to avoid suffering and seek happiness, abusing women is always wrong regardless of cultural context, then the relativist position can still prevail.

      Certainly there may be many ways of avoiding suffering and many kinds of happiness, and all kinds of personal and cultural preferences in this regard. But underneath them all we can point to universal human needs: sustenance, protection from the elements, a sense of security and relationship with others, mental ease and well-being, freedom from physical and mental suffering, and so on. Regardless of what we as individuals or as a culture may think we value, these are the objectives humans seek. To ask, “Well, on what basis do we value universal human objectives?” is, it seems to me, to obviate the entire question of ethics and morality.

      • Gregory Clement on May 4, 2016 at 12:51 pm

        Thanks for your further thoughts on this Mark. You talk about how we can confront the critics of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. These people sound like they might be naïve moral relativists. We could try to point out the flaw in their thinking that I referred to in a previous post. We could try to show them the inconsistency of their approach. (Would they say the same about foreign critics of Western thought, for example?) In the end we might just have to say you’re an idiot and your views are repellent. You can’t argue with some people.

        In your second paragraph you refer to universal human needs and universal human objectives. I’m not sure that these two things are the same. I’m sceptical about how universal these things really are and it certainly must be true that we differ greatly in the relative importance we assign to these different things, both as individuals and as cultures.

        This is not a trivial problem since any moral judgement is likely to involve a balancing of a range of desirable and undesirable outcomes. People simply do come to different answers in moral questions. Appealing to the notion of universal needs (or objectives) is not going to decide who is right unless we have a way of weighting different elements in the problem.

        Let me offer my own concrete example. In Europe there is a heated debate about how to respond to the large numbers of migrants arriving on our shores. Some attach the greatest priority to compassion for the destitute stranger. Others stress the need to protect the indigenous population from economic and other pressures. Some feel that consistency and equality of treatment are the key issues. These might all be seen as deriving from universal human needs (or objectives) but that doesn’t help us make an objective moral judgement on what to do.

        • Mark Knickelbine on May 5, 2016 at 8:32 am

          And Harris is not saying that it does. His moral landscape concept is not one that says “here are all the answers science has given us about the best way to live.” In your immigrant example, the basic need for security conflicts with the basic need for connectivity, and this conflict engenders all kinds of ancillary conflicts. These conflicts must be resolved, and the process will be messy. But knowing that these are universal human needs will limit the range of morally acceptable options. For instance, rounding immigrants up and locking them in concentration camps would not be morally acceptable, because it would create more suffering.

  4. Gregory Clement on May 5, 2016 at 9:12 am

    We’ve had a lot of exchanges on this topic Mark. Perhaps it’s time to finish. I’ve enjoyed the debate. Thanks!

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