Truth, Beauty, and Vagueness

This is a quick and thoughtless response to Jon Ogden‘s post called “Utah is divided by belief, but this ancient idea can help us close the gap“. By way of disclosure, Jon is a dear friend and I consider him a far better person than I am. You can chalk up any criticism in this post to a kind of sublimated envy.

These are his basic claims:

To live a quality life, we must actively pursue the proper balance of truth, beauty, and goodness.


Ultimately, whether your loved ones are believers or nonbelievers, chances are that you still share far more similarities than differences when it comes to truth, beauty, and goodness.

He provides a bevy of famous names that have proposed something like this idea of balance: Socrates, Plato, Plotinus, Marsilio Ficino, CS Lewis, WEB Du Bois, Kant, and his holiness Stephen Covey. He could have gone on — there’s a wikipedia article on it. This kind of categorization is not very interesting to me, but I suppose it is reasonable to say that there is fetishization of this triad.

Once he has associated this idea with a historical context, he goes on to explain that many modern contentions between the faithful and the faithless are due to lopsided prioritization of any one of Truth, Beauty, or Goodness (you can almost hear a soft voice whisper “TRADEMARK PENDING” each time you read those words) — those who love truth to the detriment of beauty and goodness are bitter and cranky reddit atheists, those who love goodness to the detriment of truth or beauty are self-righteous dweebs, etc. etc.

Jon says that if we keep our priorities balanced, not only can we live a more quality life, but that these principles can circumscribe our religious (or nonreligious) beliefs and provide a common framework for people with differing beliefs to find commonalities.

In a strong sense I have confidence in Jon’s premise — I can envision a scenario in which people who commit to his worldview are able to better relate to people who believe different things than they do. Enabling relationships is good work. But I take issue with the coherence of this idea — partly because I want to exercise my pedantic organs, but also because I think practical implementation of this idea could run counter to Jon’s stated aims.

To begin with, I barely have a clue what is meant by the primary terms. These can be useful terms only in ultra-shorthand. There is no consensus on the usage of any of these, but each one presents its own particular difficulties.

On truth: Knowing how much we know is a really difficult thing — I would suggest that many Mormons and Non-Mormons alike would say that their status provides them with better access to “truth” than the other. Or perhaps it would be better to say that they feel that the other has a greatly compromised access to truth. I can’t really imagine somebody actively placing themselves within the model of Jon’s heuristic as one who doesn’t prioritize truth, and saying that they believe what they do regardless of the validity of their beliefs. We’ve all argued at some point with people who believe things that seem ridiculous to us — has it ever been the case that, after talking to them, they defend their points by saying “well, I don’t think I’m correct, I just find these ideas more beautiful?” Incidentally, I love this, and I feel overcome with a need to actually use this in an argument.

On beauty — calling something beautiful is probably simple attribution error. I struggle to replace my own usage of this word with something that is more correct, but there it is. I just can’t find any sufficient evidence that there is some such quality possessed by the art that I love. It seems far more reasonable that what I find beautiful says more about me than it does about those things I find beautiful.

Goodness is something with immense complexity, but I have a sneaking suspicion that most people have a generally common sense for goodness, even if they are wildly inconsistent in their application of this sense. I can’t establish this to any degree of satisfaction, but even if I were able to, it seems that Jon’s usage is totally apart from goodness in a moral sense, and is more like orthodoxy, or reputation for holiness. I believe — perhaps incorrectly — from my conversations with him that he means something to do with building community, but from the article, I find that this sense of goodness is more about what you get out of it than what you give to others. My conception of morality runs almost opposite to that, but that is a topic for another day.

All of these are points that deserve further discussion, but if I abandon my issues with these words and still conform myself to Jon’s usage as best as I can, I still find myself unable to reconcile my worldview with his. The attributes of truth, beauty, and goodness, are set up as a kind of zero-sum trichotomy. I just don’t see why the presence of one takes away from the other. The pursuit of goodness has never inhibited the search for truth in my life — on the contrary, the more I have wanted to do good, the more I have wanted to know how to do good. Searching for knowledge has been one of the great sources of beauty in my life. These are correlated, not opposing, concepts.

There are other concerns to be raised for another day. Fewer people will read this post than will read his, and his post contains the potential for improving relationships and lives — this is far more noble than shoddy criticism. And he is already getting positive feedback elsewhere, which is good evidence that others have found it useful. But I am concerned that the better parts of Jon’s ideas will not touch cankered souls like mine who don’t have the good pleasure of knowing him unless some of these details are addressed in further posts.