I have been using the word “dilemma” to name the difficulty of deciding whether, and for whom, should I vote this coming November. After having chosen it, I started wondering if it was, indeed, the right word for this purpose, so I decided to look it up in the OED.
So, a dilemma is basically a situation that offers two or more alternatives, known as “horns,” which are—or appear to be—equally undesirable.
It is quite interesting that the two horns of a dilemma may or may not be equally undesirable. It is, of course, extremely hard to make a decision when both (or all) alternatives are equally bad. I am not sure that this is usually the case. For if the alternatives are even slightly different, then it’s likely that one of them is at least a tiny bit more undesirable than the other. Of course, the difference in the degree of undesirability between the two alternatives may be so insignificant as to be practically nonexistent, as, for example, in the case of Sophie’s Choice. Yet, I am inclined to speculate that real-life dilemmas (as opposed to hypothetical ones) are unlikely to be pure, in the sense that picking one option over the other need not be entirely random. (This leads me to wonder about the nature of choice, but I won’t deal with it here.)
Regarding the upcoming Presidential election, I am struck by the fact that many people who favor voting for Biden do not seem to experience a dilemma at all. Rather, such individuals tend to be completely, absolutely, one hundred percent sure that they have the right answer and that all other answers are obviously incorrect. As a result, they often become frustrated when others fail to agree with them right away. Apparently, they find it incredible that anyone in their right mind could even imagine that a course of action can be rational that does not involve voting for Biden. It is remarkable that these true believers appear to be totally free of doubts, misgivings, hesitations, or uncertainty of any kind. The truth of the matter is so clear to them that they find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to try and see the issue from a different viewpoint. As far as they’re concerned, there is no sane viewpoint other than their own. In fact, they probably haven’t noticed that they have a viewpoint, and that voting for Biden is only one of the many justifiable options.
Noam Chomsky is a case in point. In the course of criticizing the “Never Biden” position, he recently made the following statement:
There is a thing called arithmetic. You can debate a lot of things, but not arithmetic.
I am not concerned here with the merits of Chomsky’s argument but only with his sense of certainty. He is absolutely right when he says that arithmetic is not debatable. But he glosses over the fact that the “Never Biden” position is not about arithmetic. That position can be defended from several different viewpoints; one may disagree with those viewpoints and one may criticize the resulting position as inadequate or flawed. Yet, these are actual viewpoints held by actual people who are no less rational than anyone else; as viewpoints, they are all legitimate. In contrast, arithmetic is not a viewpoint. The reason why we cannot debate arithmetic is because it represents a closed, abstract, and self-referential system that does not, in and of itself, say anything about the universe. Arithmetic offers an unusually extreme certainty, such that, for example, 2+2=4 everywhere and always, and there is nothing anyone can do about it. This degree of certainty is impossible when we are dealing with the complex messiness of everyday reasoning, emotions, biases, values, commitments, and all of the social and cultural influences that go into forming a particular human viewpoint.
Personally speaking, I don’t feel confident in the present context that any answer is going to be completely, absolutely, one hundred percent right—or wrong. The reason why I am writing these blog posts is because I want to explore how to come up with a satisfactory answer that I can live with; this is a much more modest goal than finding the holy grail of absolute truth or rightness. Regardless of what I end up deciding, I already know that it won’t give me the axiomatic certainty of 2+2=4. I don’t know of any approach that will allow me to achieve one hundred percent confidence on an issue like this. Of course, the closer I can get to one hundred percent certainty, the happier I would be; at this point, however, I am willing to settle for anything above fifty percent.
What does it mean to have less-than-absolute confidence in a proposition? This degree of confidence will probably make no difference in practical terms. If I am only sixty percent confident that voting for Joe Biden is the right thing to do, I will still act as if I were one hundred percent confident. That is because actions are usually a matter of binary logic: I either vote for Joe Biden or I don’t vote for Joe Biden. I cannot give sixty percent of my vote to Biden and withhold, or give to someone else, the remaining forty percent.
While having less-than-absolute confidence may not make any practical difference, it does make a big difference in how I think about the issue and how I respond to those who disagree with me. In thinking about the issue, a less-than-absolute confidence allows me to (1) consider the respective strengths and weaknesses of different viewpoints and be sensitive to the nuances of each position, (2) continue reflecting on my own viewpoint and position even after I have acted on it, and (3) remain open to new evidence and new arguments that might help me improve my viewpoint, refine my position, or even change my mind entirely. In responding to those who disagree with me, my less-than-absolute confidence will allow me to (1) show genuine respect for viewpoints and positions different from my own, (2) be curious about what other people think and why they think the way they do, and (3) embrace anything I may find in other people’s thinking that may be true or useful or wise, even if the disagreement remains.
Absolute certainty feels good, but it “blocks the road of inquiry,” as Charles Peirce put it. At the opposite end of the spectrum is absolute uncertainty, but that breeds inaction and moral paralysis. It’s only when I am more certain than uncertain that I can act on what I know while still maintaining an open mind and a learning attitude. It’s the best of both worlds!
If you are sure that you possess the holy grail—a definitive, unambiguous answer to the dilemma I am wrestling with—I would say: Congratulations! I won’t try to change your mind about what you believe is the right thing to do. I would, however, advise against putting too much trust in the clarity, obviousness, or finality of your position.
For the feeling of certainty is just that—a feeling. The more certain we feel, the higher is our confidence in relation to a given proposition, and the more likely we are to act in accordance with it. Yet, our feeling of certainty does not tell us a whole lot about the world outside ourselves. The truth or falsehood, the accuracy or inaccuracy, and the rightness or wrongness of a proposition is independent of how we feel about it at any given moment. If you have ever been proven wrong about a belief for which you were once willing to bet your life, or if you have ever changed your mind on a major issue, you may want to recall those experience in order to appreciate just how misleading a felt sense of certainty can be.
As for me, I am glad I looked up the word “dilemma” in the dictionary, for it does capture how I am experiencing the issue of voting in the 2020 Presidential election. Specifically, my dilemma is made up of no fewer than five horns: (1) Don’t vote at all, (2) Vote for Joe Biden, (3) Vote for Donald Trump, (4) Vote for the Green Party candidate, (5) Write down a name that doesn’t appear on the ballot. These are all viable options, but for the sake of simplicity I would like to reduce the dilemma to its classic, binary form:
Option 1: Vote for Biden.
Option 2: Don’t vote for Biden.
These two horns of my dilemma do appear to be equally undesirable at first sight. My goal in future blog posts will be to figure out which of them is significantly more undesirable than the other.