One of the most intriguing verses in the Bible is this:
Every man’s way is right in his own eyes… ~ Proverbs 21:2 NASB
This is a statement, in scripture, that confirmation bias and self-enhancement fallacies are universal. It is not a positive affirmation that whatever you think, and whatever you do, is right! It is a statement declaring that every person believes themselves and the conduct of their lives to be right.
Clearly, everyone’s ways are not right.
This raises two puzzling questions: What is right? Who determines what is right?
Now, I am not making an appeal to you, dear Reader, that you believe the verse is true by using the authority bias and appealing to a scripture that you may hold no truck with whatsoever, which is, of course, your prerogative. I just find it fascinating for such a clear declaration of a linked set of universal biases to be sitting in the middle of sacred texts.
Rather, my appeal as to the veracity of the text is to the evidence of your own life. Do you make decisions and take actions because you believe yourself to be wrong? Or, do you do what you do, believing yourself to be right, at least right for you?
The outworking suggested by the verse has been true for me, and I suspect, has also been true for you. One effect is that it causes us to project our own set of values, norms, and beliefs onto others. We will have a tendency to judge others by standards we hold to be true for ourselves. We may deceive ourselves into thinking that everyone shares the same value hierarchy that we ourselves hold. We may think everyone prefers and is pursuing the same thing. This is not the case.
We don’t all value the same things. Even long-time couples, whose lives are intertwined in a myriad of ways so that they end up more as one thing, than two separate things, may have different values, different preferences and pursuits. They may entertain different goals and hopes. Enough difference between ultimate ends and there is a problem.
If we all shared the same values, we could easily produce an algorithm that would assure us of using the appropriate means to achieve the goals we seek. The only debate would be about means, not about ends, since those would all be universally shared and agreed upon. Everything from dietary choices to politics would be easy.
But we don’t all value the same things. It is a plausible argument that we should, but most of us are too myopic to look down the road far enough to see what true value looks like, that state (I posit here that true value consists in states of being, not in things possessed) in which you say, ”This is a good as it gets. I am content. I am satisfied. I could ask for no more.”
In the political realm (which by extension affects the social aspects of Americans, at least), Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence inked in some values. These were well thought out by the political philosophers of his day, vis. ”all men are created equal”, and the idea that each of us has been endowed with some inalienable rights, among which are ”life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.
These are value statements. If like me, you’re American, you will give hearty assent that these are valuable ends, worthy of pursuing and protecting. But Dear Reader, consider; what is life to a man who has no liberty? What is liberty to a man who is not treated equally? How can either pursue happiness?
These values are interconnected, they fall apart if pursued singularly, with a willy-nilly disregard for their interlocking nature. Which, of course, is why Governments are instituted among men. (The sentence immediately following the enumeration of inalienable rights above). Inherent in the very idea of government is the individual’s sacrifice of unrestrained liberty.
Yet to some, having not well considered these things, and believing their ways to be right, Liberty is the highest value. And so they have proven they are willing to use their liberty to jeopardize their neighbors lives during a pandemic. To them, the pursuit of happiness is more important than either equality, or life. But I submit that unrestrained liberty is as equally devoid of true value as unrestrained pursuit of happiness. And is as equally un-American as it is inhumane.
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to counsel. ~ Proverbs 12:15