Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Should We Force The Truth On Others? Choosing to be Neo or Socrates

I am presently working on a paper that deals with the problem stated in the title of this post. I am presenting a brief outline of the main argument below and would welcome any comments. In so far as I do not know how to post the entire draft, if you would like to read it, please let me know and i will email it to you. You can contact me at

Once while watching the Matrix with my son Micah, he commented that he thought that Neo would be acting unethically if he exposed the reality of the Matrix to others without their consent. Even though doing so would expose the illusion that they actually live in a world as it appears to them and act as they think they act, he thought that people have a right to choose to remain ignorant and that Neo’s proposed actions would violate this right. When I teach an intro to philosophy course I use the Matrix in discussing the nature of knowing and skepticism. I ask my students to write a short paper on which pill (the red for knowledge or the blue to remain ignorant) they would take and to explain their reasoning behind their decision. Inevitability about 1/3 of the students will choose the blue pill to remain ignorant. The reason most often given to justify their position is that they are happy with their worldview and lives and they do not want to consider the possibility that they may not be correct regarding the truth status of their beliefs about the way the world is and what constitutes happiness. For them, remaining ignorant of possible viable alternatives is the preferable alternative. They simply do not want to investigate their core beliefs and have them challenged. This is an understandable position in that core beliefs are these that form the foundation upon which we build our conceptual frameworks. It can be very difficult for us to put these beliefs under critical scrutiny. If a foundational core belief turns out to be false, then a major portion of our framework crumbles and we may be left “dazed and confused” without a concrete reference point to regain our intellectual bearing so that we can continue to knowingly and freely move forward in our lives.

According to Hope May, the Socratic method is designed to expose two types of ignorance; definitional ignorance where we do not end up with an acceptable definition for what is being investigated and inconsistency ignorance where the definition that we are investigating leads us to conclusions that are inconsistent, or contradictory, to what was originally stated. Consequently, there is an important normative, as well as pedagogical question that confronts us as educators; “should we force our students to accept what we believe to be true if doing so could radically change the way they view and live their lives?” Neo thinks that it is permissible to force the truth on others and is going to proceed to expose the existence of the Matrix to others without their consent. There is an alternative approach exemplified by Socrates. While agreeing that we should expose ignorance, he would act differently; he would simply offer us the opportunity to uncover the truth for ourselves through critical reflective dialogue around an important issue, but would not force us to learn the truth regarding that issue without our first giving our consent to follow where the argument takes us. Socrates would allow people to enter into, or remain in, the dialogue as they choose. Assuming that it is part of our duty as philosophers to expose ignorance (and I think that it is), if we, as educators, decide to follow the example of Neo, do we violate any ethical parameters that should define the pedagogical role that the teachers of philosophy should play in exposing ignorance?

It is interesting to note that Neo would fail to give others the very choice that Morpheus, the true Socratic figure in the Matrix, gave him when he was first confronted with the opportunity to discover the truth concerning the nature of our existence. Socrates’ approach represents a more passive and nuanced approach then Neo’s in exposing ignorance because it rests on the belief that others do not have to participate in the dialogue, or can even leave the dialogical process, if they so choose. In fact, for Neo there is no dialogue, there is simply exposure to the truth, no quarter given to those to whom he would force the truth upon. However, there is an important moral constraint in the way the method functions when utilized by Socrates: it is not forced upon anyone. Those engaged in the dialogical process must consent to be part of that process even if they are bystanders. Socrates never gives an argument for not forcing people to learn the truth in undertaking his investigations, he simply incorporates it into the way he conducts his investigations. Although he is committed to exposing ignorance and discovering the truth about important issues, he never forces anyone into a discussion, or into remaining in a discussion. At any point in the dialogue we, like Euthyphro, are free to end the discussion and walk away. In fact, we are free not to enter into a dialogue. Even if we make a statement that was to catch the interest of a Socratic-like investigator, we do not have to answer the question posed by that person. Socrates believes that we will suffer a great harm by not investigating the truth of important issues, namely we will never arrive at a firm foundation for making the correct decisions on how to live our lives so that we can find true happiness, but we are free not to know and to be harmed by not knowing.

Neo, on the other hand, is like a freedom fighter. He knows that we are living in slavery and that slavery is an undesirable state of existence if people are to be self- determining moral agents. Neo assumes that there is a contradiction between being self-determining and choosing to become a slave. He must believe that no self-determining agent would knowingly and freely choose to become, or remain a slave. If people choose to become slaves, or to remain ignorant if the opportunity for knowledge is presented to them, they must be somehow being compelled or tricked into making this wrong life altering decision. How can we be morally responsible for our lives if we do not control them? How can we control our lives if we are in a dream-state like existence with our experiences simply being the result of a computerized program designed to deceive us into believing something to be true which is in fact false?

Socrates seems to be arguing that we must know in order to be free, while Neo is arguing that we must be free in order to know. This might be the real issue, the right to be free versus the right not to know. Neo sees the evil of the Matrix, not as a limitation on what we can know, but on our freedom to choose and to act as self-determining moral agents based on those choices. Socrates has a different agenda then Neo; he wants to expose ignorance to arrive at knowledge while Neo wants to expose ignorance to arrive at freedom.

The question we have been discussing is not an unimportant one. To bring in an example that you might face (in one way or another) in real life: suppose that you are a physician and that you have a patient who is suffering from an incurable terminal illness that will kill him in one year. The patient doesn’t know that he has this illness; but you know that the patient’s knowing that he has this illness will not help him recover (nothing will) and will bring him a great deal of misery for the remaining year of this life. Are you obligated to tell the patient? What if the patient is also your friend?


  1. Hi, John. Wonderful stuff. One place to start with your son would be to question what consent amounts to when a person is not fully (or sufficiently) informed. This is related to what you mention as our fear that examining our beliefs/worldview might lead to a total "crumbling." I've been thinking a lot about this, and it seems that one might wonder whether the "fear of crumbling" is overblown, or is, in other words, a fear of the unknown. Changing certain moral or religious beliefs would seem, from our current point of view, to be devastating. We would no longer be the persons we are now (in some important sense). That's scary if we like who we are now. But if I don't really understand what it's like to have that different view, it's not clear that I know enough to fully reject it. Our tendency to conservatism here seems to leave us with a sense that any significant change must be a change for the worse. (We might then say that if we came to believe differently, we'd be wrong, or miserable, and so the worse for that.) An important dialectical move that you could make here would be to get a person to reflect on past occasions of belief-revision which turned out, from their current point of view, not to be completely devastating. (This might not work with some people, but I'd guess you can get some traction here with many.)

    Now it is true that some people say they would prefer not to know (or find out) about certain things. And 1/3 seems roughly in accord with my vague recollections of other things I've read about this (e.g. when people are asked whether they want to be informed about having certain kinds of terminal illnesses). The point I began with raises questions about whether honoring such requests is a legit instance of respecting another person's autonomy, and there might be other things at issue (such as that we think it is good for people to come to terms with the prospect of death, etc.). There are similar discussions about whether the Milgram experiments could be regarded as beneficial to the participants insofar as it forced an insight upon them (that they are highly submissive to authority). I don't know that you can get an answer to these sorts of questions independently of a fairly substantive theory of well-being, for example, as well as more work on the limits of "informed consent" (i.e. how much ignorance can be present without rendering the giving of consent meaningless).

  2. Interesting post. One thing that needs to be considered--and has not been mentioned yet--is the effects on others of one's own ignorance. Far from it being the case that one's ignorance about x only affects oneself, in many cases it affects others, often for the worse. (I think we can all think of some readily available examples here--persecuting homosexuals, willful ignorance of evolution, etc.) I suppose the extent to which one's ignorance affects others will depend upon the subject matter; in the matrix case, it is not clear to me that any harm is done to others by choosing to remain ignorant. Yet in a great many domains, I believe one's ignorance does have detrimental effects on others. This makes me think that at least in some cases, it is not only morally permissible, but morally obligatory, to induce others to examine their beliefs.

  3. Matthew, thanks for your comments. I particularly like the idea of having students reflect on "past occasions of belief-revision which turned out, from their currant point of view, not to be completely devastating." Assuming that Rawls and others are correct and our beliefs and judgments about the way the world works are developed and modified over time, this approach might be the least objectionable way to get others to examine their core beliefs. I suppose we could also turn to examples in literature for examples that demonstrate a character undergoing significant concept change. The character of Paneloux in Camus' The Plague comes to mind as an example.

    Anonymous, thanks for your comments also. I think that you are correct and that we need to assess the potential harm that mistaken beliefs might have on others. But is it not also the case the true ideas can cause harm to others? Also, it is possible that mistaken beliefs might have some positive outcomes for others. For example, while I do not think that there is a theistic God I do think that good can come about by having some continue to people believe that there is such a being if that belief is part of what motivates them to do good unto others.

    Matthew, you might well be correct that what is needed is a substantial theory of well-being, but I do not see how that is ever going to be arrived at such that alternative theories are not possible. Following Walzer, the best we might be able to do is to get agreement on what is undesirable about being in the human condition, i.e., extreme poverty, slavery, etc. If we can agree that some states of existence are not in the best interest of any human-being, such a list of 'evils' might be theory neutral and getting agreement would not necessitate a change in core beliefs.

    Anyway, as we move towards another semester of engaging others' minds in dialogue, I hope that the issues raised here will be in our thoughts. We do have an interesting professional duty; to challenge others (and ourselves) to think critically about the world without destroying self-esteem.

  4. Dear John,
    I believe that one may force the truth, inquire if the person is ready for the truth and then if yes then present it to him/her(or else try to judge if the person is ready and then accordingly present it to him/her), or not say the truth at all....depending on the truth.
    This is because as I believe nobody is ready to know the complete truth, thats why we have beliefs. And sometimes these beliefs are more valuable than the truth.
    I believe that a person must reveal the truth only if he/she has experienced both sides of it(knowing and not knowing of the truth) and is certain that knowing the truth might benifit some or all.
    I hope that helped.

  5. Hi Karthik
    Thanks for your helpful comments. I think that you are correct and that we need to distinguish between knowing that something is true and believing that something is true and that believing something to be true is an epistemically weaker position the knowing something to be true. I also like the idea of trying to determine if someone is ready for the truth. The problem is, how do we make such a determination?

    Consider an important propositional statement; there is a God who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and completely good. Now we know that this proposition is either true or false - either there is such a being or there is not. I seem to fulfill your criterion for being able to present what I think the truth is regarding this proposition because I once thought it be the case that there is such a being but now think that is is more likely not to be the case that there is such a being. The question is, is my present belief true or false?

    In my intro courses we discuss this problem, but I do not force my students to accept my position. This is much different from the problem that faces Neo. If Neo forces others to see and understand reality then they will not be able to reject what they are seeing as being an illusion, or dream, or ???? - they must accept the truth that the Matrix has caused them to believe that the world is not what it is. They cannot walk away from it and remain ignorant. If Neo has his way, then everyone will be forced to reject the Matrix (everyone will be forced to reject God).

    This is, for want of a better phrase, the 'philosopher's paradox'. As philosophers we individually accept certain things as being true without having much agreement on what those things are. We can all defend our individual positions - in fact that seems to be our calling - to find and defend our little acre of truth. But while my acre may be suitably defended, from my point of view, I am reasonably confident that those who disagree with me think they have suitably defended theirs - the 'other' is simply wrong, or misguided, and by the way here's why. We can see this phenomena time and again in the literature.

    What I am trying to suggest in these rambling thoughts is that as philosophers and more importantly as educators (whatever that means)I think we need to be mindful of the idea that while we take our positions seriously as ones that we have developed over time to help us make sense of the world, others have done so also and they may have developed significantly different conceptual frameworks for accomplishing the same goal. Not believing in God makes sense to me while believing in God makes sense to others. I can defend my position, so can they. I know that one position is wrong, but I haven't a good clue as to which one it ultimately is. This is why I think that the Socratic dialogical approach is normatively superior to Neo's. It does allow, given a modification is what truth means that is different then Plato's, that there may well be a plurality of worldviews that are internally rationally defensible even though they externally contradict one another at key points.


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