Ethics, truth and political science

The environmental crisis that we are facing today, to a certain degree, reflect the disintegration of our traditional ethical standards and devaluation of our spirituality. If we continue exploring natural resources and destroying natural landscapes, we are inevitably going to enter a fragile future with low degrees of security, abundance and social connections. Awareness of the current situation pushes us to look ahead, the goal is to delay that time threshold. How do we do that with our existing political systems?

Politicians should make decisions based on their ethical standards, future prospecting ability and respect for truth. But the ideal often derails from the reality, because politics don’t always respect the truth as what it is in reality. I read Hannah Arendt’s article: Truth and Politics from her book: Between Past and Future. Eight Exercises in Political Thought. Arendt believed truth and politics are bad terms together. To politics, the truth has a despotic character, which can be used to strengthen the power and provoke violence. She further distinguished two types of truth. Rational truth refers to the scientific, philosophical and artistic knowledge. It is the one that can be expressed in forms of opinions. While factual truth refers to events and circumstances, usually defended by important societal components such as courts, journalists and scientists. The interpretability of factual truth can be employed with political aims to serve a political purpose. Therefore, truth and politics are highly conflicting, and it makes factual truth vulnerable and is subjected to the virtue of politicians themselves. In today’s politics, the boundary between factual truth and opinions is increasingly blurred. This is rather dangerous.

A photograph of German-American philosopher and political theorist Hannah Arendt at the German Historical Museum in Berlin on 6 May 2020. GETTY IMAGES

Why is it so difficult to respect the truth and to work based on it? Francis Bacon proposed four idols of mind in his work Novum Organum to examine how the mind’s objective thinking is misled. They are the idols of the tribe, the cave, the market-place and the theatre. In the idols of the tribe, human sense — individual’s subjective and personal standards, is the measure of things. In this circumstance, human imagination presupposes unsubstantiated regularities in nature rather than objective analysis and judgement. In the idols of cave, particular life experiences of the individuals, e.g., education, can lead the individuals to opt for specific concepts or methods over the others. In the idols of market, information exchange and social interaction influence the way people use words. People interpret and use words based on their own understanding and preferenceS, which, if not conducted well, could become an obstacle for the understanding of the others. Lastly, in the idols of theatre, people accept certain (philosophical or political) dogmas, unwisely or unconsciously. Politicians often use these idols of theatre to promote their ideologies, because people can be influenced more easily in theatrical, dramatic settings.

In short, our mind is confined in truth judgements and decision making by our own limits — the natural subjectivity of the mind, personal experiences, social interaction and specific circumstances. Together they form an obstacle in the way we pursue truth and work based on it. For this reason, fundamentally, truth cannot be used properly for political functions. If we cannot rely on politicians to make good use of factual truth, can we make good use of the rational truth — the scientific, philosophical and artistic knowledge? Can we build a scientific society with the rational truth that we have established?

I also read the article: Science for Global Sustainability. Toward a New Paradigm, in which Paul Crutzen et al. (2004) explored how earth system sciences may be employed to support global sustainability. The knowledge of earth system sciences is an important foundation on which we can enhance our social and technological capacity. A sustainable socioeconomic transition can be achieved if the political willingness is aligned. A normative change is required in that science need to integrate both the “hard” and “soft” disciplines and evolve towards stronger interconnectedness of all human and nature subjects.

Is the scientific approach enough to achieve sustainable civilisation? What else is needed? Thomas Homer-Dixon, a Canadian political scientist and ecologist, expressed his view on what’s needed to complement the scientific approach in order to create a sustainable civilisation in his Address to the Royal Society of London in 2003. Dixon points out that, for many years or even centuries, we thought human intelligence — our capacity for rationality, logic, and analysis is what we rely on for survival and evolution. On the other hand, our emotional responses to the world — fear, love, wonder, hatred and like have been depreciated as primitive, animalistic, and often dangerous. It is wrong. Recent brain research shows that our capacity to integrate reason with emotion is what makes us extraordinarily creative, intelligent and flexible. Our emotions allow us to see ourselves as entities that persist from the past through the present and into the future. Our mind’s ability to travel back and forth in time and experiences help us evolve, through learning from past experiences, anticipating and planning for the future.

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