Are You a World-betterer?

By Chen Yehezkely / May 2004



As a student of philosophy, I find myself at odds with my past. I am an Israeli, a Jew, born and raised on a kibbutz, and an ex-member of The Emin Society, which I joined after military service. The Emin Society is a small esoteric group, considered, if at all, a kind of a cult. One common feature to all of my past and present identities – Israeli, Jewish, kibbutz, and Emin – is that they all turn around one aspiration, the aspiration to better humanity. They differ, of course, in that each has its own peculiar vision of a better humanity, as well as its own peculiar way for realizing its vision. What all these aspirations and visions share, however, is their filling their bearers with a sense of purpose, or, to use Bernard Shaw’s expression, they make them world-betterers. Unfortunately, they all come in package deals ─ together with hostility to any doubt and any dissent, especially criticism, dispute, or controversy.

I know: numberless groups answer to the same description. Many of my good friends fit this description as well. Of these, some are political activists, some are spiritualists, some belong to religious or philanthropic communities, and so on. With almost no exception, they all are very kind souls. Yet they express frank and open hostility to doubt and to dispute. This puzzles me. It does not make sense. Their kindness clashes with their hostility. And so do their noble aspirations for a friendlier world. Moreover, their sharp disagreement between themselves on a thousand and one issues clashes violently with their firm condemnation of all doubt and all disagreement. If engagement in criticism and dispute disqualify one from serving as a world‑betterer, then, I dare say, there is not a single world-betterer in the whole world. Are they aware of this? Does it bother them?

It is hard to tell. Some put efforts into showing that world-betterers cannot really disagree, that at heart all their diverse teachings are one. This has become one of the trendiest spiritualist ideas worldwide: all great teachings are one. This trend sounds ultra tolerant. Sadly, I differ. On the contrary, it seems to me to be a distinct expression of the hostility towards doubt and dispute. It seems to me an attempt to present a picture of a world that is neatly divided into the virtuous, the wicked, and the indifferent. In this make-believe world the virtuous are never in dispute amongst themselves, and they have only two problems, the problem of vanquishing wickedness, and the problem of recruiting the indifferent to the cause. Once the common cause is met, we will have Heaven on Earth.



The hostility towards doubt, criticism and dispute, is so deeply rooted, that most people accept it as too natural to require justification. Still, if you are interested, there is an entire arsenal of justifications, each of which, in its turn, is very popular and deemed undisputed. Amongst the most common are the ideas that doubt weakens, and that controversy and criticism are expressions of hostility. These ideas are so deeply rooted and so generally endorsed, that they have become part of language. That is to say, people take “doubt” to be synonymous with “weakness”, “faith” with “strength’, “controversy” with “strife”, and “absence of controversy” (or “unity”) with “peace” (or “harmony”).

Anyone who relinquishes these views ─ as I did ─ must marvel at their almost unparalleled endurance and popularity. This has a few sources. Central amongst them are utopianism, infallibilism, loyalty and circularity. Utopianism (more precisely, “the Utopian approach”, to use the name given to it by Karl Popper, who was the first to bring it up for discussion), is the idea that without perfect knowledge of the ultimate truth (or goal, or end) we cannot act rationally or responsibly, progress, or hope to improve matters. This is because progress is by definition the advancement towards a set end, which gets its power by being, in itself, a step towards a higher end, up to the ultimate end. Given this, doubt not only weakens us; it renders us downright helpless.

Infallibilism is the idea that we (or some of us) possess perfect knowledge. Doubting or disputing such knowledge is, at best, a waste of time and a diversion. Those who know cannot engage in doubt or dispute, and those who do not know cannot do better than follow those who do. The demand to do so is loyalism. More particularly, it is the demand to be loyal to one’s beliefs and to the beliefs of one’s group, as well as to the group itself and to the group leaders, who are in the know.

At the last resort, circularity can always help. It is not a doctrine but a technique that comes in several variants. One variant is the self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, those who believe that doubt weakens learn to feel threatened by doubt, and it thus weakens them. Those who believe that dispute is hostile, react to it in hostile ways. Another variant is the logical cycle: those who believe that it is good to be loyal to a belief, apply this belief to itself recursively.

World-betterers endorse utopianism, infallibilism and Loyalty without fail, and as a matter of course. Thus they institutionalize (mostly unofficially) incentives and penalties to encourage consent and discourage dissent. These immediately reinforce circularity: rewards for loyalty to one’s group’s beliefs, and penalties for disloyalty to them, render loyalty strengthening and doubt weakening indeed. They thus render loyalty rational and responsible. This is how I read Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperors New Clothes”. Most commentators view the two swindlers of the tale as pivotal. But I believe that they are insignificant: the plot could have remained unchanged if they were honest believers in the ideas that they advocate, particularly if the source of these ideas was tradition. Even the irrationality and the irresponsibility of the emperor and all his staff, are not the crux of the story. The crux, rather, relates to the presence of a wrong system of incentives and penalties. That system caused the idea that responsibility prescribes dishonesty not merely to seem true, but also to become true, especially for those who had families to support. Indeed, just as related in the fable, under such circumstances, truthfulness can only ever be expected from the naïve child who has no responsibility.



Perhaps the most zealously avoided disputes concern the Manichean worldview that divides the world to black and white, and puts the white always above dispute amongst themselves. In principle, every dispute within the camp of the virtuous is an obvious refutation of the view that there are no disputes within the camp of the virtuous. The refutation sometimes leads to an adjustment. The denial of the existence of disputes then gives way to a denial of the existence of disputes on fundamentals. Thus, disputes on minor, say practical, or tactical questions are tolerated with relative ease.

Take, for example, the personal question about any given person: is this person a world-betterer or not? This is considered a legitimate question. Not so the general question, what is minimally required of individuals for them to qualify as world‑betterers? Such questions as the personal questions may seem petty and dull, but for many a world-betterer they come as top priority. It troubles world‑betterers every time they make new acquaintances: do these belong to our crowd? Or do they belong to the enemy camp? Are they indifferent, perhaps? If so, do they merit the effort to convert them? Such questions, to repeat, are considered completely legitimate, providing you avoid taking them up one level of abstraction, since then you will be opening the door to wide disputes within the camp of the faithful.

Outsiders also do not ask this question, but this is because it usually occurs only to world-betterers. The only way this question can interest outsiders is when it is taken to be a variant of another. It is this: what are the minimum requirements for responsible attempts to effect progress? What, in other words, is the minimal responsibility of anyone who wishes to improve matters?

This last question engages a different kind of world-betterers, namely, the simple folk who, on the most part, do not even view themselves as world-betterers at all. Take, for example, the child who sees a wounded animal and feels the urge to help it. If this is its first time, the child will help with utter oblivion to responsibility and thus may even cause damage. But then he will have acquired the lesson that responsibility comes first and, with the right support, he will also have learned not to take this as a discouragement, or as an obsessive drive, such as comes with an over-developed sense of responsibility. This is why child psychologists recommend encouraging children to have pets. Children and simple folks can easily learn both about the need for responsibility, and about the dangers of over-responsibility, namely, that over-responsibility is, quite simply, irresponsible. They learn, in brief, that responsibility means minimal responsibility, such as the effort to avoid causing damage while trying to do good. This lesson is not inborn, but it is easily acquired and hardly forgotten.

We can crudely divide the organizations of world-betterers in accordance to their view of responsibility. Some completely ignore it and even reject it. Some say that the responsibility of a world-betterer is maximal: to stick unwaveringly to a clear vision, to invest all of one’s energies and resources in the right goal etc. Some add to this opposition to violence. Some add to this the demand to stay within the bounds of the law. And some say, all the above is excessive, since the minimal requirement should suffice to avoid doing obvious irreversible great damage. This requires no more than openness to criticism, which in turn, requires no more than the admission of our fallibility.

One who says this is called a fallibilist and a critical rationalist. One sides then with the child and the simple folk in that one equates responsibility with minimal responsibility. Usually this elicits some expression of amazement. It seems bizarre: given the truly horrid state of humanity today, and that there is so much that needs to be done, why should we permit minimizing the requirements?



The answer to the last question is simple: Although minimal responsibility is no guarantee, quite obviously any failure to meet it constitutes irresponsibility. Also, the requirement for over-responsibility makes the identification of minimal responsibility less likely. This is the commonsense of the open society: the requirement for over-responsibility invites irresponsibility, as was demonstrated in Anderson’s story in which demand was made for knowledge and wisdom. This demand is an unrealistic excess responsibility. In the story, the outcome is hardly problematic. In real life, however, the outcome all too often tends to be catastrophic.

Thus, to institutionalize the possibility and the incentives for responsibility, we need to view responsibility as minimal, and to ask repeatedly, what it is. This view is at the heart of so many of our democratic institutions, up to, and including, democracy itself. It is at the basis, for example, of such items as the separation of powers, the institution of standards, democratic control, transparency of government, parliamentary committees, and the prevention of conflict of interest as much as possible, which means, of course, the prevention of conflict of responsibilities. All these institutions and principles rest on the view of responsibility as minimal, and on the insight that excess responsibility leads to irresponsibility.

This is all there is to the social and political philosophy of critical rationalism, the originator of the latest version of which was Karl Popper. The failure of all other philosophical schools to exhibit honest interest in the question of minimal responsibility leaves the critical rationalist school alone on the scene. Translated to our present discussion it says, the minimal requirement from responsible world-betterers (as is from us all) is that they should avoid doing obvious, irreversible damage. This requirement is lower than even the Hippocratic maxim ­– “first – do no harm”. This is no guarantee, since we do not know. But it opens the door for learning, both on the personal and on the social or institutional level: since what is obvious to you is not obvious to me and vice versa, we need each other’s criticism, and we need disputes, and we need research, and we need experimentation and refutations, and we need open democratic, public debates on controversial questions of all sorts. And we need to learn to welcome criticism in good grace and even in gratitude.

The popular umbrella title for this cluster of practices is “learning (or progressing) by trial and error”. Karl Popper prefers the term “conjectures and refutations” to “trial and error”. Another term is “the practice of open-ended rationality”, and, let me add to this the term “the practice of open-ended responsibility”. “Open-ended” signifies the admission of imperfection and of fallibility, the open recognition of doubt and of ignorance.

The demand ─ from others or from ourselves ─ to be more and to do more (say, to be in possession of a clear vision, to commit ourselves without wavering, etc.), inevitably results in compromising the minimal demand that we should openly recognize our fallibility and exhibit a friendly attitude towards criticism. In brief, responsibility that is more than minimal is, in truth, less.



The above is in complete clash with the commonsense of all ages. This commonsense prescribes hostility to criticism and dispute. Critical rationalists hold that this hostility is the major obstacle on the path of progress and hope everywhere, especially where it is agreed that progress and hope are most desperately needed. This claim was first made by Plato 25 centuries ago, and last by Popper, 50 years ago. His followers are repeating it at every chance they get and in every way they can, but are mostly ignored.

The hostility of world-betterers towards doubt, dispute and criticism causes them to do great damage to their own, admittedly noble and urgent causes. At best, they block the way. By undertaking to further a given cause, they attract resources and attention, and raise hopes. These resources and hopes are then monopolized, thus prevented from being critically invested. Yet, the damage is even greater. In fact, the damage of the hostility towards doubt and dissent is as great as the cause in question is truly noble and important, or expressing the urgent needs of a great many people, often of the entire human race. The questions that pertain to the means for furthering these needs, or serving these causes, must be controversial. Blocking the way towards the open, democratic debate of these questions, is blocking the way to improving the service that we give to our own cause. In addition, it leads to the exclusion of many good people whom we may otherwise recruit through rational debate.



When critical rationalists criticize the Manichean division of humanity into black and white, the virtuous and the wicked, they do not mean to deny that some people are wicked or that some disputes are expressions of bad faith. Rather, they mean to deny that all people who are not virtuous are wicked, and that all disputes with the virtuous are expressions of bad faith. The Manichean view that all disputes are wicked rests on the view that my views are obviously true. At times even this Manichean view may be true. For example, we should not contest the view that pollution destroys our environment and that this destruction threatens our survival. Also, we should not contest the view that both terrorism and the suppression of human rights are intolerable and dangerous, or that the mortifying poverty of billions of people on earth is unacceptable. Dispute about these obvious truths is, indeed, a cause for suspicion of bad faith. Thus, the dispute pertains, or should pertain, not to the truths of these and similar assertions. It pertains, or should pertain, to the vital questions that these assertions give rise to, such as the question, how can we stop and reverse these dangerous processes? How can we better our world in significant ways? How can we bring humanity back to humanity? We have no good answers to these questions, and any reasonable answer that anyone can offer should be a welcome item for our agenda for public debate.

One of the central items on the agendas of almost all world-bettering organizations is the campaign for raising public awareness to their causes. Raising awareness to a good cause is always good, need one say. Yet they all too often try to raise awareness to their causes, in the fashion of preachers, on the assumption that some assertion of theirs are not controversial at all. Thus, like preachers, they present those who dispute them as misguided indeed, if not outright wicked.

Treating people as though they need convincing that a good cause is, indeed, good, is an insult to them. The same is true about insinuating that if they embrace the cause, they must also embrace your views on how to best serve it. By speaking fervently in support of an obviously noble cause, one may easily give the impression that the nobility of the cause is in dispute. By speaking about the means to further an obviously noble cause, as if these are not disputed, one suggests that there is no room for dispute where there is. More often than not, the truth is the exact opposite. We are all for the rescue of the environment, for the quick implementation of human rights, for world peace, for the control of nuclear weapons, for the protection of weak minorities, and so on. We all agree that those who are not for any of all this, are not our friends. But we do not know how, and we are divided as to how, these truly noble causes can best be served. Preachers, to repeat, create the false impression that the exact opposite is the case, i.e., that those who dispute them in regards to means, in truth are enemies of the cause. Thus they invoke hostility on the one hand, or uncritical acceptance, on the other, both of which attitudes are counterproductive and self-defeating.


For the sake of contrast, let us compare two campaigners. One who preaches to the converts about the value of the cause, and who whips up enthusiasm or guilt alternatingly. The other campaigner takes it for granted that we all are aware of the importance of the cause, and invites us to offer answers and to partake in the debate on the controversial questions that follow. Picture vividly these two campaigners and compare them to each other, and I rest my case.



The rejection of doubt, controversy and criticism, can also be taken as an expression of the idea that they bring nothing good. It is thus the denial of the benefit of the doubt. The idea of the benefit in doubt, in dispute and in criticism, was formulated and put forth as a comprehensive philosophy by Sir Karl Popper, who traced it back to Socrates and even to some of his forerunners. To repeat, Popper called it critical rationalism. The title itself suggests an answer to the question, what is the benefit of the doubt? Namely, it suggests that the benefit of the doubt is its rationality, and, let me add, responsibility. Popper and his followers claim that where there is no doubt, no criticism, and no dispute, rationality and responsibility are impossible: open-ended, fallible and imperfect rationality and responsibility are the only rationality and responsibility that are humanly available. The benefit of the doubt may seem wonderfully huge to some, and disappointingly tiny to others, but, huge or tiny, in the end, it is all we have.

To embrace doubt, criticism and dispute, we should avoid the extreme positions: we are neither perfect nor entirely helpless. Those who reject doubt maintain that fallibility must lead to helplessness and helpfulness comes from perfect knowledge alone. Thus, they conclude, we should not be friendly to doubt, criticism, and dispute: for perfect knowledge renders them pointless and in its absence they will be of no use. This is refuted, of course, by the way babies learn, by the way science progresses, by the way democracy keeps reforming and improving itself. All these things, as well as many others, refute the view that the enemies of doubt and dissent advocate. Still, they are unimpressed. Their knowledge that without perfect knowledge we are helpless, and that there is no benefit in doubt, seems to be perfect and beyond doubt. This philosophy is truly hopeless, and so are we, so long as we cling to it. Responsibility requires that we try even without being assured of success.



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