In Defense of Misguided People

Misguided people are all around us.

Of course, which people we call misguided depends on how misguided we are, ourselves.

So I want to say a few words in defense of misguided people.

They might not know the facts

I do not bake my own bread. I do not churn my own butter. I do not repair my own car. I depend on other people to do those things for me. If they do a lousy job, then I end up with lousy food and a car that doesn’t work.

Likewise, I do not personally verify every story in the news. I do not personally check the results of every scientific report. I do not inspect the evidence for every event in history. Occasionally, I do those things. I know how. But most of the time, I depend on other people to give me truthful reports. If they give me inaccurate or biased information, then I end up with false beliefs about reality. If I act on those beliefs, then I do the wrong things.

They might not know the motives

I have no direct way of knowing what motivates any other person. I can only deduce their motives by observing what they do. If I don’t know the people first-hand, it’s even worse: Then, I can only deduce their motives by what some other people tell me that they did. It’s doubly unreliable.

And often, we don’t even know what motivates us. Human motivations are complicated. Sometimes, we plainly lie to ourselves. Other times, we just don’t know what feelings and goals are hiding in the back of our minds.

People do things and hold beliefs for all kinds of reasons. Often, they don’t know the reasons or they can’t explain them.

They don’t distinguish between action and character

We can evaluate other people’s actions as good or bad. But it’s tricky to evaluate their intentions. We assume that we have only good intentions, even if our actions cause harm. When possible, we should extend the same benefit of the doubt to others.

The distinction between intentions and actions leads to a final point. If you try to do something good but unintentionally do something bad, then:

  • Did your action produce a bad result? Yes, it did. It was the wrong thing to do.
  • Are you morally to blame for the bad result? No, you’re not, unless you were negligent. Doing the wrong thing does not by itself make you a bad person.

Of course, repeated patterns of behavior make a difference. Good people have developed a habit of doing the right things, so it becomes almost an instinct. For example, if you saw a man drop his wallet, you’d pick it up and give it to him. You wouldn’t need to think about it. Bad people have the opposite habit. Their instinct is to pick up the wallet and steal it.

Giving people the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean being a fool. It just means keeping in mind that we all try to do our best in life, even if we’re misguided.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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