In many ways, life in 2018 is incredible – better than it’s ever been at any point in human history. At the same time, we find ourselves facing unique challenges in the digital age. Some of these problems can be deceptively damaging to your eudaimonia and require deep introspection and integrity to overcome.
For today, I’d like to focus on just one of these problems in particular, one that is hugely prevalent in every corner of the world. It’s called being “second-handed,” and it refers to the practice of deferring to so-called authority figures or the consensus of a group, rather than using your independent, rational judgment to arrive at and defend your ideas.
A flourishing individual is “first-handed” in all things. That is to say, she holds no firm convictions that she has not arrived at through a process of objective, independent thinking. This does not mean that it’s never appropriate to consult other people or sources; rather, it means that you must never substitute their judgment for your own. The difference is fundamental, and critical to human life.
Common, everyday examples of second-handed behavior include undying allegiance to any given political party, taking a firm stance on climate change without having thoroughly evaluated lots of data yourself, or repeating a “fact” you heard from your best friend without first checking its validity. In these situations or any other, the truth or falsehood of the particular claim is not relevant to the issue at hand; even if you happen to be correct in a given instance, it is by happenstance. Knowledge is objective and hierarchical, which means: you don’t know anything unless you have closely examined the issue with your own mind and integrated it without contradiction into the entire sum of the rest of your knowledge.
In other words: a truly independent, thinking person knows what they know, and just as importantly, knows what they don’t know.
Let’s use climate change, a hot-button issue if ever there was one, as a convenient real world example. I have an opinion about it, but I won’t get into it here – it’s not what matters. What matters is the severely flawed methodology employed by nearly everyone who has something to say about it; the vast majority of people I engage in conversation about climate change can’t even explain what carbon dioxide does in the atmosphere at a Bio 101 level, and yet they are so deeply entrenched in their position that they seem liable to suffer an aneurysm at the slightest whiff of a different opinion.
This kind of thinking – or rather, lack of thinking – is not conducive to flourishing. You owe it to yourself to be thoroughly informed by reference to primary sources, or to refrain from having an opinion if you aren’t.
I’m not suggesting that you need to be an expert in any given field in order to have a legitimate opinion about it – I’m saying that you must do your own research, draw your own conclusions, and be constantly aware that, sadly, a great many people are intellectually dishonest. You must fully understand the fundamental facts of any given issue and what those facts mean in light of the essential standard: individual rights. In my experience, most people don’t think about climate change – they emote about it. They’re not informed and able to articulate and integrate relevant facts, they’re just mad. Your emotions are not an argument.
Deferring to the judgment of an authority figure over your own – no matter how vast their training or expertise – is second-handed. This doesn’t mean you never consult experts for advice; it means you don’t assume that they are infallible, or even correct in a given instance. By extension, deferring to the judgment of a group of authorities – even a very large group – is no less second-handed. Consensus does not establish the truth or falsehood of any given idea – reality does. If this sounds dubious to you, I refer you to well-known instances in which very large groups of people were very wrong: Nazi Germany, the entire Catholic church in Copernicus’ day, every culture that has ever deemed slavery an acceptable practice (historically, nearly all of them, ever).
A person who loves life and wants to live it to the fullest is a person who gathers lots of relevant data and draws their own conclusions, submitting to no authority other than reality itself.
In a very real sense, this means that a rational person is positively delighted to be proven wrong. Being shown that something you believe is incorrect demonstrates that a portion of your mind is out of sync with reality; it offers you an opportunity to expel a contradiction from your mind and to replace it with truth, increasing your ability to live well. This is a pretty linear relationship: the extent to which you acknowledge and live within reality is the extent to which you are capable of living properly as a human being.
The psychological benefits of being first-handed in all that you do are myriad, as are the penalties for not doing so. When you make a deep and genuine commitment to think carefully about everything you do, to withhold judgment if you know that you don’t have enough knowledge to form a reasoned opinion, and to hold nobody else’s mind or authority as sovereign over your own, you are in fact making a commitment to live according to your nature as a human. As I briefly discussed in my 3-part series on productivity, humans survive and thrive by use of reason and reason alone. Serenity, confidence – and ultimately, success – are possible only to people who are not conflicted, people who accept that things are what they are and that nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.
In the next week – and indeed, indefinitely into the future – I invite you to practice being first-handed. Even if you already think carefully and are generally objective about things, I encourage you to try being more explicit about this particular concept. Anytime another person or organization makes a claim – about anything – ask yourself: does this seem plausible? Does it contradict something I know to be true about reality? If so, something, somewhere in your knowledge base or within the claim needs to be corrected. If there is no immediately obvious contradiction, this does not automatically mean the claim is true. Perhaps the person making the claim is recalling something incorrectly, has made an honest error in interpreting the data, or is even lying in service of a particular agenda. It’s okay – in fact, it’s ethically mandatory – to say “I don’t know” if you can’t validate or disprove the claim right then and there, or if you don’t care enough about the issue to do so. Lacking knowledge is not unethical and does not inhibit your flourishing, but accepting any idea for which you personally don’t have convincing evidence is, and does.
I’ve talked a lot in this post, and in previous ones, about your nature as a human being, but I haven’t been able to get into what that means as deeply as I’ve liked, so that’s the topic of the next post. Tune in Thursday for an in-depth discussion of what it means to be human, what sets us apart from any other living organism, and why these concepts are so critical to eudaimonia. In the meantime, please share your thoughts about being first-handed in the comments below.
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