The Capacity to Hold Thoughts in Tension

My colleague, Mark, once described a psychological study that he had heard about indicating that people often have difficulty keeping two thoughts which are deeply in tension in their minds simultaneously.  Here are two such thoughts which I have been trying to reconcile.

The first thought is that we ought to debate and argue with one another about which vision of the good life and morality is the best, and that these debates ought to generate rules about how to live.  We certainly disagree with one another about many things on this score.  And government is permitted to engage in that debate.  It participates in it all the time.  One tacit assumption lying behind this first thought is that thinking rightly about the good life, and acting accordingly, is very important — perhaps even the most important thing we can do.

The second thought is that there ought to be some limits to the first thought.  Though we may reach an impasse, the second thought counsels that we abstain from pressing further — and certainly that we refrain from pressing to the point of official compulsion.  The second thought is in deep tension with the first because its tacit assumption is that thinking and acting according to the best understanding of the good may actually not be the most important thing that we can do.

I have thought for a while that the most likely place for these two thoughts to co-exist is in the court system, in part because training people to hold two thoughts which are in tension together at the same time is part of what it means to be a lawyer.  But I recognize that others disagree.  It will be interesting to see, as various debates develop, whether people — lawyers and non-lawyers — are capable of living within the tension generated by these two thoughts.

2 responses

  1. This is a terrific meditation, Marc. I have a couple of observations, but I don’t think any conclusive agreement or refutation.

    1. Government participates in that deliberation about the good life, but there is an extent to which that conversation must be undertaken primarily by people. Organizations (government, corporations, etc.) arguably occupy a secondary or instrumental role: they participate and perhaps offer leverage for obtaining the fruits, but are not “deciders” in the same way individual people are. In a way, this offers a limiting principle to your “first thought” without reaching the same value conclusion as your “second thought.”

    2. For the “second thought,” there seems to be a reason for not pressing further. Perhaps respecting that reason *is* “thinking and acting according to the best understanding of the good”? If so, then the tension between the first and second thoughts is transformed, or at least moved.

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