A friend of mine asked me the other day why I had published two successive posts – one, apparently in favour of contraception and one apparently against contraception.
The reason is bias blind spot, which I mentioned in my post Simply disgusting. This is the universal flaw which leads us to being blind to our own biasses – and very quick to spot the biasses of others. If you visit the Blog often you may find it relatively easy to spot the bias of some regular contributors, but how about your own?
I learnt about this from a valuable personal experience. Nearly fifty years ago my wife and I ran a youth club for adolescents, and with their help we set up many activities. Amongst these, we had debating. We thought that practising the skill of speaking persuasively in public could be valuable to all.
On this occasion the topic was the morality of capital punishment – the issue being much discussed at the time. It soon became clear that the participants knew very little about presenting their views persuasively. So I gave them a demonstration by way of a speech in favour of capital punishment. Then, for balance, I crossed the ‘house’ and gave a speech against capital punishment.
Looking back I realised that, when I was planning my first speech, good arguments for having capital punishment simply floated into my mind – it was very convincing. A few minutes later I was speaking against capital punishment and – lo and behold – the arguments against it appeared like magic, and the arguments for it dwindled and disappeared. I had apparently convinced myself for and against the same issue in a matter of minutes. And done so quite honestly.
That was when I realised that, if I really wanted to understand both sides of a question, I had to put myself deliberately into the place of likely opponents and to see the question from their point of view.
The thought came back to me when I read Cardinal Ratzinger (aka Pope Benedict) on the subject of conscience. He wrote: “Gorres shows that the feeling of guilt, the capacity to recognize guilt, belongs essentially to the spiritual make-up of man. This feeling of guilt disturbs the false calm of conscience and could be called conscience’s complaint against my self- satisfied existence. It is as necessary for man as the physical pain which signifies disturbances of normal bodily functioning. Whoever is no longer capable of perceiving guilt is spiritually ill, a “living corpse, a dramatic character’s mask,”
I did a double take, for I had often thought that the Church devoted too much time to telling us about what we did wrong, and too little about how we might do right. But, if I understand the message aright, we are being warned to be aware how easily we can fool ourselves. If we face up to our fallen natures, we will recognise our profound tendency to “miss the mark” – which is the etymology of the word used for sin in both Greek and Hebrew parts of the Bible. It is only when we have opened ourselves – freed ourselves – to be really honest in our guilt, that we can start to talk about the rights of conscience.
A scientific note.
Our readiness to apply different standards to our own behaviour than we do to other’s behaviour, has been explained by the tendency to judge our own behaviour through the limbic (emotional) part of the brain, and other’s behaviour through the neocortex (thinking part of the brain). Thus, as I deliberately switched my point of view on capital punishment (above), so my brain fell dutifully into line by making an emotional commitment to my new point of view, and thus masking the contrary arguments which had been so obvious to me just before.
The extract above is taken from this address.