David J. Frost: “The Dangers of Credulity”





By David J. Frost



On January 6th, we witnessed the extraordinary danger credulity poses to democracy. One wonders whether or not we possess the critical thinking skills required by our era.

I propose a test. Let’s see if our critical thinking skills are up to the challenge of interrogating the Golden Rule. Wait, you say, what? What could possibly be wrong with the Golden Rule? What critical thinking could we need to do there?

Because many people do bad things for reasons they falsely believed were good, the application of critical thinking is vital not just for ideas that strike us as bad. It is just as necessary for ideas that prima facie strike us as good. The same line of logical reasoning that shows under what circumstances critical thinking is required applies equally to ostensibly bad ideas as well as ostensibly good ideas.

After all, are the propositions we were taught moral because we were taught them or were we taught them because they’re moral? For my money, it has got to be the latter. When a Greek citizen of ancient Athens named Euthyphro defined “piety” under Socrates’ persistent questioning as “Piety is what the gods love,” Socrates applied the line of reasoning I’m talking about, which has come down to us as “the Euthyphro dilemma.” Socrates replied that even on the assumption that the gods love pious actions, an as-yet-unanswered question remains: Are the pious actions pious because the gods love them or do the gods love them because they are pious? If something is moral just because God says so, then murder could have been moral if God had chosen to sprinkle it with piety dust. We must resist that way of thinking, which goes under the label “Voluntarism” for the role of will in determining what is good. Rationalism, on the other hand, says that any true and good moral proposition in the Bible—for instance—is in the Bible because it’s true and good, not the other way around; it’s not true and good merely because it’s in the Bible.

But, then, what makes something good? At least Voluntarism tells us that bit clearly; what makes it good is God’s say-so. When we deny Voluntarism, we assert that whatever the standard of truth and goodness turns out to be, it will be independent of the Bible, tradition, and of authority in general.

If the Bible said jump off a bridge, wouldn’t we pause and think on our own if jumping off the bridge was a good idea? And wouldn’t this thinking we do be best characterized as “non-Bible dependent thinking,” since the Bible just told us to jump off a bridge and we are now thinking about whether or not to do that? If we decided to not jump off the bridge—my recommendation, by the way—then we would necessarily have come to that choice by a decision-making process independent of the Bible itself.

But what is the standard? You want to know how to bake a cake and it seems like all I’ve said is to follow the recipe. If you want to know what the standard of goodness is, well, you can start by asking Immanuel Kant, John Stuart Mill, Simone de Beauvoir and many other moral philosophers. Mill’s offering was: “Actions are right in proportion as they tend to promote happiness, wrong as they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. By happiness is intended pleasure, and the absence of pain; by unhappiness, pain, and the privation of pleasure.” I just offer that as an example. Whatever the independent standard is, it’ll be a standard dictated by the application of rationality. The moral emotions have a role. But since we are capable of emotions that are untoward, emotions must be interrogated by rationality.

Let’s return to the question with which we began. Here’s a critical perspective on the Golden Rule due to John Gage, although I ran across it while reading the excellent author and critic, Maggie Nelson. “You should treat your neighbor as you would like to be treated,” is, Nelson says, narcissistic and not all that good. How’s that? Well, imagine that I like to be set up on blind dates by my friends. And then I go and set up a friend of mine on a blind date, without ascertaining if that’s what they wanted. On the assumption that they do not like to be set up on blind dates, then I did something which is hard to say was good. Thus, the Golden Rule can lead you astray. Instead, you should treat your neighbor as they would like to be treated. Assuming that they want to be treated along the lines of your preferences and your desires is egocentric.

If you find yourself objecting to what I was saying just now and if you find yourself trying to argue how the Golden Rule all along meant “how they’d like to be treated,” and that the Golden Rule remains a good thing and is not narcissistic, then so much the better for my argument. You are engaging in reasoning. You are attempting to apply the independent standard of goodness, which is broadly speaking rationality—or whatever reason dictates given the best information we can find and the clearest vision, the least biased motivation and so on. You did not say, “No, no, no. The Golden Rule as written is correct. Treat them as you’d want to be treated, not as they’d want to be treated, because God’s will is what makes the Golden Rule good.” You did not behave or think or believe like a Voluntarist. You acted like a Rationalist and instantly began to reason your way to what is right, true and good.

Run this exercise with the Trump-supporter in your family. If they’ve swallowed what they’ve been fed without the whale’s baleen of critical thinking to filter the krill from the crap, well then, they will eat—I’m sad to say—whatever junk they’re fed.

And that makes them credulous, dangerously so.


About the Author: David Frost is a philosophy professor and lives, with his partner Kelly and their dogs Fritz and Lou Salomé, on the Oregon coast, 3000 miles from Brooklyn.


Image Credit: Socrates Digital Collage by Chase Dimock (2021)

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