Folks, we face a problem I’m wondering if you’re willing to think about with me. It’s a real challenge, a challenge to morality posed by recent revelations in logic.

It turns out we’re living in a world that doesn’t seem to offer a final logical authority, no highest possible perspective from which we can discriminate between right and wrong on all lower levels.  Regardless the standard we might claim is the most all encompassing and ultimate, someone can come along and claim an even more encompassing and ultimate standard. And even if they’re wrong there’s no way to prove they are without claiming a higher standard that they can again claim to trump with a still higher standard.

It leaves us all at risk of being swept up into escalating games of oneupsmanship or, reversing the metaphor, it makes us all prone to falling into bottomless pits, arguing about the proper depth at which to find bedrock foundations of morality that don’t exist or if they do, we can’t agree on them. For every declaration that “X is moral” the declaration can itself be challenged.

We crave something solid to rest our assumptions upon, but that something doesn’t exist. We can pretend it exists but it doesn’t. We can surround ourselves with people who believe it exists where we say it does, but it doesn’t.  We know it doesn’t exist, because other people say, “Ah but don’t you see, you’re missing something crucial–a higher principle; a deeper truth that proves you’re wrong.”

Of course, the hell with them, right? Except that they’re saying the hell with us.  So where does that get us?

This is a particular kind of one-upmanship.  It’s not just “I’m better than you.”  It’s, “I’m better because I’ve got a bigger perspective, a higher overview.  I’m taking more into consideration than you are.” Uplevelsmanship is claiming to be holier than thou by being highly-er than thou. It’s an escalation in power by escalating in perspective.  It’s an arms race in which the build-up is in ladder rungs to look down from critically.

I won’t burden you with the logic here. (I have plenty of articles at my site describing the logic, for example here.)

Instead I’ll provide some intuitive examples of the general logical problem:

1. You probably know what it’s like to feel regret for not having taken something into consideration: “Ah, if only I had factored in THAT. That changes everything.”  Such regret is a reason to take more into consideration, but can you ever take everything into consideration? If not, where should you draw the line?  How much due diligence is really due?  It depends on the situation. The higher the stakes the more one should take into account, but only up to a point.  Even on the highest stake decisions, you can’t take everything into account. There’s still a chance that you’ll have missed something that changes everything. This is why leaders capable of decisiveness have to be comfortable with ambiguity, the ability to place big bets, knowing as they do it, that they may be missing something that changes everything.

2. I want to hire an investment advisor. I meet a few and I notice that I’m having a hard time figuring out who’s best.  So I decide to hire someone to guide me about which investment adviser to hire.  But even that’s not an easy decision. So I decide I should hire an advisor to advise me on which advisor to advise me on which adviser to hire. But then how do I know who to hire for that?

3. I remember it to this day–the time my parents disagreed about what I should do.  Until that time they had always agreed with each other and I just had to follow their unified advice.  Suddenly, to defer to one was to defy the other.  I had to decide between them.  I asked my friends what I should do. Trouble was some friends said I should follow my father and other’s said my mother. So I decided to get some advice about which friends to listen to.  But whose advice should I take?

4. I was waiting in line for tickets to the game and this guy butts right in front of me. I was outraged, but then someone whispered, “he’s blind, he can’t help it,” and suddenly I felt so ashamed for not taking into account that possibility.  Then this other guy said, “No he’s not blind.  He just pretends he is so he can cut in line.” I was furious, and angry at myself for not taking into account that possibility.

5. One of the oldest stories in the world:  A farmer had a horse.  A neighbor visited the farmer every day asking what’s new. One day the farmer says, “Today my mare ran away.” “That’s terrible news!” said the neighbor. “Bad news; good news, who knows?” said the farmer. The next day the farmer said, “Today my mare came back followed by a wild stallion. Now I have two horses.” “That’s wonderful news!” said the neighbor. “Bad news; good news, who knows?” said the farmer. The next day the farmer said, “Today my son was breaking in the stallion. He was thrown and broke his leg.” “That’s terrible news!” said the neighbor. “Bad news; good news, who knows?” said the farmer.  The next day, the farmer said, “Today the army came through recruiting teens. My son wasn’t taken because of his broken leg.” “That’s wonderful news!” said the neighbor. “Bad news; good news, who knows?” said the farmer.

6. The other day over beers, I was holding forth to my friends about my beliefs.  Andrew said, “ Hey Sherman, you sure are arrogant.” Before I could respond, Brian said, “Uh, Andrew it’s arrogant of you to claim to be an authority on who’s arrogant.” Chris said, “Well what about you Brian, you think you’re in position to tell Andrew he’s arrogant? Sounds arrogant to me.” To which David said…

In other words, it turns out second opinions are never the last word.  You can get a second opinion about your sources of second opinions.  You can get a third and fourth and indeed any number of opinions about opinions except for infinity because there’s no final last biggest ultimate opinion to get.  There’s always another, an opinion about the prior opinion.  So where’s the truth in that?

I’ll suggest three approaches to this situation.  I’d love to hear what you think of them.  I’ll list them with some schools of thought with which they’re associated

Skepticism, agnosticism, existentialism, post-modernism, moral relativism, libertarianism, mysterianism, Taoism, Buddhism: Since there is no absolute truth you should let go of trying to find it.  It’s all good; it’s all bad.  Don’t cling; don’t think. Stop trying to get to the ultimate truth because you can’t. Buddhism originated as an effort to sidestep rungs altogether, a response to Hinduism’s hierarchy whereby through good karma you could achieve the highest states possible only to fall again in an endless cycle.  Buddha’s response was to stop creating karma.  Let go of the self and stop climbing and falling. “Bad news; good news—who knows?” To which some smart-Alec upleveler says “Yeah, so that’s your final answer? That’s your ultimate truth? That there is no ultimate truth?”

Fundamentalism, fideism, Platonism: Surrendering to the smart-Alec’s point and recognizing that even those who disavow all absolute answers have an absolute answer, another approach is to pick some belief, call it an absolute truth and stick with it. Ignore or combat challenges from other perspectives.  Stop reasoning, except in defense of your chosen truth. Claim yours to be the highest authority, and accept no higher authority.

Fallibilism: Another answer is an untidy hybrid of these two.  Truth: you can’t live with it; you can’t live without it. So we have to hold truths absolutely and flexibly. Yeah, you’re stuck in a few levels within a potentially infinite hierarchy.  So live there. Be multi-level headed. Cycle through the levels you have access to. Give up on finding a highest level.  Stick to provisional truths, truths you can live by even if they’re not absolute.  Always keep eyes open to the possibility that you’re missing something.  Remember that no matter what your answer is, another question could be asked about it. Even if you’re not going to take the time to answer them, identify the questions that follow from the truths you’re parking at.  Recognize that despite your best efforts, you may still end up wrong and regretful, thinking “Oh if only I had known that.”  And as for uplevelsmanship, never buy into the assumption that a higher perspective is the highest perspective. A view from 1,000 feet doesn’t mean there isn’t another view from 10,000 and 100,000.

A.N.D. Always next dilemma

After finding solutions that fit.

I like to kick back and just sit

On my laurels but then a

Resulting dilemma

Proves questions in life just don’t quit.