The Difference Between Intellectual Hastiness and Dishonesty

September 12, 2015 — Leave a comment

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If you look closely at the background of the book cover, you can see all seven intellectual virtues. I’ve already talked about carefulness and intend to hit on all of them. After the last post, a friend corresponded with me offline about how it might not have been as clear as it could be. Specifically, I don’t think I laid out how to distinguish well between intellectual carefulness and intellectual honesty. Or, on the flipside, intellectual carelessness and intellectual dishonesty. Since I was strongly critiquing assumptions made on a lack of information, it could look as if I’m suggesting dishonesty on Carl Trueman’s part.

First, it might help to clarify what intellectual honesty looks like. Philip Dow makes an important distinction in the way intellectual honesty relates to the other virtues:

Unlike the other intellectual character traits, intellectual honesty is not primarily about the process of getting knowledge but rather about how we choose to use or present the knowledge we already have. In that sense, intellectual honesty is the link between the rest of our thinking and our actions (61).

He then describes the intellectually honest person this way:

[T]he aim of intellectually honest people is to communicate what they know with integrity. Because their main objective is to help others get at the truth, they are consistently careful not to use information taken out of context, to distort the truth by describing it with loaded language or to otherwise mislead through the manipulation of statistics or any other type of supporting evidence (61).

Dow adds an additional point about intellectually honest people citing their sources so as to not take credit for ideas not their own. From this, we could then say that intellectual dishonesty would come down to:

  • Intentionally taking information out of context in order to exaggerate or distort
  • Intentionally using information in a biased way
  • Intentionally taking credit for evidence or ideas not your own

The key word in the list is “intentionally.” In the Trueman situation, I’d have to know for sure that he knew all the relevant information related to the situation and then chose to only use the information that was helpful to the point he was trying to make. Suggesting he over-looked accessible information is pointing to a lack of carefulness. Suggesting he intentionally ignored information he already had would be pointing to a lack of honesty. While the latter is possible, I doubt that’s the case, and if it were, I don’t think I’d be able to know.

I realize looking at it now that my post could be read as suggesting that Trueman was being biased in the way he approached the situation. He does have a history of criticism when it comes to Tchividjian, so that is entirely possible. However, I specifically focused on his overlook of available evidence rather than misuse of the evidence he had. He made a judgment about the situation on an improper basis. One could still argue that it was unwise to hire Tchividjian, but not necessarily for the reasons Trueman cited. Rather than suggesting Trueman went about things in a biased manner and took things out of context, I just want to suggest he rushed to judgment and did a lot of assuming instead of researching. After the research, I imagine he’d come to similar conclusions, but at least they would be well grounded at that point.

In this light, to suggest that assuming a lack of carefulness when someone gets their facts wrong is giving them the benefit of the doubt. It is a way of practicing a charitable interpretation of their mistake. To directly suggest that they misused evidence is to charge them with dishonesty and in most cases goes beyond what you can know. In a culture that encourages a hermeneutics of suspicion it may be hard to go against the grain. I don’t always find it easy to do myself (see the comments on the last post). But learning to practice charity in interpreting other people’s mistakes is a discipline worth investing in.

As a recent example, I was listening to a sermon where the pastor made three pretty elementary mistakes in setting up the background of the passage he was going to preach. It would have been easy for me to mentally assume rather negative things and to discount or tune out the rest of the sermon. I fought against it and tried to just assume that in this instance, the pastor didn’t have enough time to study the passage well and so made some assumptions that were entirely reasonable, but factually inaccurate. He was either hasty or lazy, and I chose to assume the former since the latter is going beyond what I could actually know for sure. I assumed he overlooked the available correct information about the passage, or overlooked the correct information in his notes while he was speaking. Had he been more careful, he wouldn’t have made the mistake.

If I had assumed some level dishonesty on his part, it would have cast a long shadow over the rest of the sermon. It is particularly easy to think that if I can’t trust someone to get basic background details right, that I shouldn’t trust them with the rest of what they have to say. On the one hand, that can be reasonable. But on the other, it could be an assumption of dishonesty coming into play. At the very least, you may doubt that they are using the information reliably even they are not intentionally trying to deceive. Or, you could assume that in getting some background details wrong early in the sermon, that means more time was spent crafting and developing the latter part, which was the case in my recent experience. Those early background details could have gone unmentioned and it wouldn’t have affected the remainder of the sermon. In fact, for me, it would have strengthened it.

At the end of the day, there is much overlap in the virtues as well as the vices. It can seem that charging someone with intellectual hastiness may also suggest dishonesty, or even laziness. In some cases, they may coalesce. In the previous case I discussed, I think it just simply a matter of hastiness to pass judgment on the matter. That is someone a result of the age we live in and the culture the internet encourages. But, it is much better to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger as someone once said. And like all things, that is easier said than done.

Nate

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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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