There is a scene in the movie Sherlock Holmes starring Robert Downey Jr. where Holmes analyses Mary Morstan, Watson’s soon-to-be, at dinner. Even though he hesitates in the beginning, he relents after Mary “insists”.
Holmes deduces some rather embarrassing details about Mary which makes her throw a drink on his face. Even though Holmes said the truth, it “hurt” Mary’s feelings.
There are two fundamental ethical orientations that guide human behaviour: deontological ethics and consequentialist ethics.
Deontological ethics is an absolutist view of ethical standards. The rule is final. It dictates everything. There are no exceptions. For example, it’s never correct to lie, no matter what the circumstances.
Consequentialist ethics, on the other hand, evaluates actions based on consequences. For example, It is at times acceptable to lie to spare someone’s feelings.
Humans operate under both systems. If your wife asks you if she looks overweight, you will utter “no” without flinching, whatever you actually think. On the other hand, all of us consider it morally wrong (under all circumstances) to make sexual advances on children.
There are however no clear rules about when to operate under which system. This fuzziness creates an interesting dilemma.
Say a professor from a reputed Indian university announces she wants to study the relationship between religion and intelligence. Say she decides to see how being a Hindu or a Muslim or a Christian or a Sikh in India affects our intelligence, would you be able to keep a straight face?
Let’s take a bit more extreme example: if a politician criticises a religion, say Islam, and its growing influence in India, isn’t there a good chance you’ll call him Islamophobic?
But if you think about it, people should have the right to criticise a religion in a free society. They should have the right to do so, and of course their criticisms are themselves open to criticism. Isn’t that the essence of freedom of speech and thought?
In fact, the above examples aren’t completely fictitious.
In 2010, Geert Wilders, a Dutch parliamentarian, was charged with a slew of crimes for criticising Islam and its influence in the Netherlands. When Mr. Wilders sought to call on expert witnesses to show that his concerns weren’t unfounded, the response from the prosecutor’s office was: “It is irrelevant whether Wilders’s witnesses might prove Wilders’s observations to be correct. What’s relevant is that his observations are illegal.”
In 2018, British sociologist Noah Carl was investigated and subsequently dismissed from his position as a Toby Jackman Newton Trust Research Fellow at St Edmund’s College, Cambridge after over 500 academics signed a letter refusing to accept his research on race and intelligence.
A deontological view asserts that it is never justified to suppress the truth. A consequentialist perspective asserts that the truth must at times be altered, fudged, or suppressed to avert bad consequences.
A consequentialist perspective forces you to be “politically correct” which is important in a lot of circumstances but is a fundamental problem when it comes to the pursuit of truth.
Any human endeavour rooted in the pursuit of truth must rely on facts and not feelings.
Legal proceedings are a good example. We do not establish the innocence or guilt of defendants using feelings, do we? Instead we rely on a broad range of available facts to make a case. The threshold for establishing guilt is set purposely high: the cumulative evidence must be beyond a reasonable doubt to convict someone.
It is important to be concerned about feelings, especially when it comes to sharing the truth, but this concern should never prevent us from finding the truth!
For example, if gender or race really affects intelligence, it’s natural to be concerned about longterm adverse consequences if this information is shared publically, but this concern shouldn’t stop somebody from pursuing the answer.
Otherwise it’s a slippery slope. If we prohibit somebody from studying the relationship between gender and intelligence today because we are afraid of “public sentiments”, tomorrow we might prohibit them from studying the relationship between lack of education and religious fanaticism, or the authenticity of palmistry, or the effectiveness of gau mutra (cow urine). Soon all we’ll care about is public sentiment (which loosely translates to: make sure people like us) and have clue about what the truth really is.
While it might have been okay if Holmes would have saved Mary from the truth and didn’t hurt her feelings, it wouldn’t be okay if he didn’t catch a criminal because it would hurt somebody’s feelings. The nickname of Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi (created by writer Sharadindu Bandyopadhyay) is Satyanweshi or the pursuer of truth, and this isn’t without reason. It’s their job; their only job.
The pursuit of truth should always be deontological. There’s no room for exceptions or feelings or public sentiment or political correctness in the quest for truth.
Feelings are related to humans; truth is related to the universe. The universe doesn’t care about humans. Truth ignores feelings.
Truth is relentless. Truth is ruthless.