How to Sharpen Your Judgment
By Bertrand Russell
To Avoid the various foolish opinions to which mankind is prone, no superhuman genius is required. A few simple rules will keep you, not from all error, but from silly error.
If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to open her mouth. He did not do so because he thought he knew. Thinking that you know when in fact you don’t is a fatal mistake, to which we are all prone.
Many matters, however, are not easily brought to the test of experience. The most savage controversies, indeed, are those about matters as to which there is no good evidence either way. In such a case, you can make yourself aware of your own bias. If an opinion contrary to your own makes you angry, that is a sign that you are subconsciously aware of having no good reason for thinking as you do. If someone maintains that two and two are five, unless you know so little of arithmetic or geography that his opinion shakes your own contrary conviction. So whenever you find yourself getting angry about a difference of opinion, be on your guard; you will probably find, on examination, that your belief is going beyond what the evidence warrants.
A good way of ridding yourself of certain kinds of dogmatism is to become aware of opinions held in circles different from your own. If you cannot travel, seek out people with whom you disgrace, and read a newspaper belonging to a party that is yours. If the people and the newspaper seem mad, perverse and wicked remind yourself that you seem so to them. This reflection should generate a certain caution.
Another good plan is to try to imagine an argument with a person having a different bias. Mahatma Gandhi deplored railways and steamboats and machinery; he would have liked to undo the whole of the industrial revolution. You may never have an opportunity of actually meeting anyone who holds this opinion, because in western countries most people take the advantage of modern technique for granted. But if you want to make sure that you are right in agreeing with the prevailing opinion, test the arguments that occur o you by considering what Gandhi might have said in refutation. I have sometimes been led to change my mind as a result of this kind of imaginary dialogue, and, short of this, I have frequently found myself growing less dogmatic and cocksure.
Be wary of opinions that flatter your self-esteem. We are all, whatever part of the world we come from, persuaded that our own nation is superior to all others. Seeing that each nation has its characteristic merits and demerits the rational man will admit that the question is one to which there is no demonstrably right answer.
Other emotions beside self-esteem are common sources of error; of these perhaps the most important is fear. Fear has many forms-fear of death, fear of the unknown, and that vague generalized fear that comes to those who conceal from themselves their more specific terrors.
Fear is the main source of superstition, and one of the main sources of cruelty. In the Punic wars, when the Romans won victories, the Carthaginians became persuaded that their misfortunes were due to a certain laxity which had crept into the worship of Moloch. Moloch liked having children sacrificed to him, and preferred them aristocratic; but the noble families of Carthage had adopted the practice of surreptitiously substituting plebeian children for their own offspring. This, it was thought, had displeased the God. And so, at the worst moments, even the most aristocratic children were duly consumed in the fire. Strange to say, the Romans were victorious in spite of this democratic reform on the part of their enemies.
Neither a man nor a nation can be trusted to act humanely or to think sanely under the influence of great fear. Until you have admitted your own fears to yourself, and have guarded yourself by a difficult effort of will against their myth-making power, you cannot hope to think truly about many matters of great importance. To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.