Is Certainty Immoral?

Have you noticed that it's not nice to be sure? If you express convictions with certainty, you sometimes hear the word "Nazi." Certainty is "cold-hearted," and "uncivilized." To be considered nice, one avoids saying "It is true." Instead, one says, "I think it is true," But even that is suspect; better make it, "I happen to think it is true," or even, "It seems to me that it might be true."

What lies behind the pause, the frown, and the raised eyebrow is an implication that certainty is immoral. Certainty is "extreme." It is "in your face." It threatens. It provokes argument. It prevents social cooperation. Get rid of the demon certainty, and we'll all be better off.

The first thing to notice about this idea of certainty is how narrowly it applies. In a normal working day, it would not apply at all. You do not feel relieved to find yourself in the right car driving on the right road to the right place of work; you know all that for certain. You are certain how to answer the phone and what name to give. If someone asks a question and you are uncertain how to answer, that does not make you feel moral; it makes you want to find out.

Certainty that comes from experience is the norm of everyday life, and not seriously criticized by anyone. It is the other kind of certainty that gets attacked: the certainty that results from judgment. What you are told is that the issue is not can you be certain of your judgments, but should you be certain of your judgments. For those who hate certainty, this is a matter of urgency, because Ayn Rand's epistemological discoveries show that in fact you can be certain of reasoned judgments.

If you agree that you should not make sure judgments, is it because certainty would be bad for you, or bad for others? Would confidence in your reasoning be good for you, but bad for others? Would confidence in the process of reasoning be bad for everyone, or good for everyone?

To make objective judgments, says Ayn Rand, you need objective standards. When you measure things against an objective standard, you can be sure of the result whether it is the length of a room or the worth of a public policy. That is, there is no difference between the certainty that comes from experience and the certainty that comes from judgment. When you first drove to work, you made a logical judgment about the route. That judgment was confirmed by experience. The method of every judgment is to use logic, objective standards, and comparison to experience. If you do that, and then declare that the result is not certain, the question is: what makes you certain that you are not certain?

If it were actually immoral to be sure about things, then it would have to be immoral to be sure that your key fits your lock, that your remote controls your TV, that water comes out of your faucet. If you felt guilty about such certainty, you would be feeling guilty about living.

If, after reading Ayn Rand, you decide in favor of a guilt free life, then that will be a decision that it is entirely moral to be entirely certain.

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