Informed Consent 2

We must be educated. This seems a true enough statement on its face, but what’s involved? Is it a matter of going through several graded levels of schools, getting a certificate, and being deemed “educated”? That’s probably very useful, not only for what we learn academically, but also what we learn about people very different from ourselves and about dealing with social issues.

Probably we all know someone who has not been “educated” in this way but who is very well read, wise, articulate, and a very good thinker – perhaps the formal “education” is not absolutely necessary. But for those of us who have no natural inclination to learn, the structure may be helpful.

If we want to affirm the value in the kind of education that comes from reading, watching educational videos, TED talks, and so forth, we must do several things.

One is to push ourselves to understand things which appear complicated and outside our normal interests and pursuits. A simple example: I recently phoned my country’s tax bureau to ask a question about a certain section in the guide. The official tried to persuade me to do my taxes electronically, warning that the actual meaning of the section and the consequent procedures to comply, would be too complicated for me. I replied that I have two degrees, that in my line of work (ethics) text analysis is an important capacity, and that I was confident of my ability to understand. Only after several more efforts to move me toward electronic filing, did he relent and explain. It appears that my income is not high enough to make the process really, really difficult, and once he realized that, he was happy to explain the matter.

Of course, sometimes the ability to understand a thing is irrelevant.   My car dealership recently informed me that I needed to have my timing belt replaced. This warning came not because a mechanic had looked at the belt (I gather that access is difficult) but because there was an arbitrary factory assignment of 90,000 km. if the car is “heavily used.” A computer informed the service department, and myself, that this was so. The service people’s ability to appraise the matter, and mine, were irrelevant.

The second is to be aware of context. A friend recently sent me an article by David Brooks (whom I admire greatly)

suggesting that U.S. President Trump has been highly responsible for the change in N. Korea’s attitude. Perhaps. But there is a much, much larger context, including maneuvers by South Korea and China, along with all the ramifications of the complex political events in the South China Sea. To ignore the greater context is rather like evaluating an ocean wave while ignoring the rest of the ocean in view. To be sure, there is wonder and beauty in a single wave, but….

Similarly, seeking information about a topic by only inserting words into Google search, may get you very specific information and may appear to answer your question satisfactorily. But read you the actual book or journal article or full interview from which that brief information was extracted, you might become aware of a more useful question and search for answers which could be more satisfying. Indeed, you might be led along an endless trail of related questions and answers (education!). Of course, you must get on with your day, so you must find a way to limit yourself. You must satisfy yourself that you now know enough to be able to give informed consent, or to accept that you will be giving uninformed consent (as with the timing belt).

The third is to seek out different opinions, or ways of understanding a matter. Margaret MacMillan (The Uses and Abuses of History) points out that when states point to history to justify a current decision, one always has to look at earlier events, which perhaps are not being cited because they don’t contribute to the current cause or decision – who actually started this fight, who was here first, etc. Richard Dawkins has claimed that he would no sooner study theology than fairyology. Why? They are ways, along with myths and current interpersonal relationships, of understanding things, of finding your place in the overall landscape of life. Seek them out not only in writings, but in discussions while physically present with other people. The meaning of “seek out different opinions” is obvious. “…ways of understanding” refers to listening to peoples’ life stories about how they came to this point in life where they have this opinion about a matter.

And finally, speak in these ways to others. Make yourself available to be examined and appreciated for your life, for your ideas, for your knowledge, for your abilities to understand things which perhaps are difficult for others. By asserting yourself in these ways as someone on the other person’s landscape of life, you resist having your own thinking overwhelmed by another’s proximity, yet making yourself open to all these types of persuasion, at the same time practicing your methods.

This you must do to protect yourself and Democracy.

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