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The Fallacy of Knowing Best

You have to know when to fold 'em.

by Barnabas
May 14, 2003

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The Fallacy of Knowing Best_Barnabas-You have to know when to fold 'em.
And, as an iconoclast in contemporary culture, Bennett posed classical arguments –
many gleaned from Scripture and the teachings of the Church – for "truth" rather than "trends." "People are looking for something solid and reliable," he said.

For much of his public life, Bennett has defended that "truth" against the faddish trends of society. His public pronouncements and best-selling books have provided valuable lessons for millions of people hungering for "solid and reliable" standards in a culture run amok.

—The Presbyterian Lay Committee, May 6
The “outing” of William Bennett’s passion for casino gambling is the occasion but not the subject of this column. His story has already died in the headlines anyway. Public — or at least journalistic — interest in such subjects seems to be limited to celebrity embarrassment, a one-line joke and the least interesting aspect of the story. Of greater import in this one is the public and journalistic perception of ethical living, as it is being fed by various Know-Best groups.

Many of these were founded and are funded by conservative Christians, both Protestant and Catholic, who of all people should know better than to Know Best. Christianity in its orthodox mainstream sees itself as the steward of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ, God’s only son. Its primary rites of prayer, preaching, and sacrament are called “means of grace.”

Standing behind these rites is the biblical assertion that the world is populated by sinners like Madonna, Mother Teresa, President Bush, Dr. Death, Dr. Bennett, Billy Graham, the Apostle Paul, you and me. Only sinners need grace. Perfect people are content with justice, because they deserve to be treated well. The trouble is that, in biblical Christianity, only God himself in Jesus Christ qualifies as a perfect person.

Sinners do not deserve to be treated well, so when by faith they believe in Jesus they are relieved to learn that God is gracious as well as just. To the world outside of itself, Christianity offers the way of grace and salvation. For those who believe and come into its fold, it develops structures for fellowship, worship, and service. For those who remain outside it keeps on praying, proclaiming, and loving, in the hope that more will repent and believe.

At least that’s the idea.

It’s been deeply corrupted in our generation by the “Know-Best” people. Like the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado, they “have a little list.” They spend a huge amount of time, energy, and money publishing lists of what other people should do and not do. Then they lobby legislatures at various levels toward making laws which will punish those out of compliance with the list.

Knowing Best often comes down to personal preferences, customs, and distastes. The little list in The Mikado was highly personalized; for example, it included peppermint eaters and lady novelists. This extended joke is not so funny when applied to Dr. Bennett; gambling was not on his list, but it turned out to be on the list of his allies.

Law is not for the application of private opinion, but for the protection of society from stuff that is really dangerous to human well-being. Murder, theft, adultery, perjury, are examples from the Ten Commandments. Knowing Best, therefore not only confuses the nature of Christian witness; it may also trivialize both civil and criminal law.

The Fallacy of Knowing Best is two-fold:
  • As generally applied, it is the exercise of political power, in a free society, to impose the preferences and tastes of a specific group on society as a whole.

  • As specifically applied to Christians, it burdens sinners with a righteous standard that is not part of their faith and which, in Christian theology, they are not empowered to keep because they do not believe. It reinforces the notion that Christianity is an attempt to get people to behave.
No, ethicists are trying to get people to behave. Christians have bigger fish to fry. But ethics is not knowing best about what other people should specifically do and not do; rather, it is the effort to get them to understand the reasons why a given behavior is right or wrong. We’re not interested in arbitrary lists.

Therefore, Bennett’s being a gambler does not, for ethicists, challenge the validity of what he said when he called for foundational ethics: truth instead of trends, “something solid and reliable” as more significant than any lists he made.

The Presbyterian Lay Committee quoted above, being list-makers themselves (with gambling on it as a no-no), had thought of Bennett as their ally, so were deeply disappointed in his behavior. But, good for them, they were able to distinguish what he said from how he behaved. And that is a good idea any time you discern a discrepancy between words and behavior. Sometimes the words are better than the behavior, and sometimes the behavior is better than the words.

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