Barack Obama recently gave a speech at the Rutgers University graduation ceremony. Part of the speech was dedicated to the importance of knowledge, facts, reason, and science. Here are some of the thoughts that Obama shared:
- Ignorance is not a virtue.
- Qualities like kindness, compassion, honesty, and hard work often matter more than technical skills and know-how, but they shouldn’t come at the expense of facts.
- The rejection of facts, the rejection of reason and science, is the path to decline.
I first came across the idea of the often occurring tradeoff between the truth and happiness in college, after reading this quote by utilitarian John Stuart Mill: “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.”
As Mill points out, sometimes the truth (as attained by knowledge, facts, reason, and science) doesn’t conform to our romantic ideals. It paints the picture of an imperfect world with shortcomings (including our own) that we don’t want to face. However, not facing this truth doesn’t change the reality. It simply obscures our view of it. In doing so, it turns us into fools of our own choosing.
After reading Mill’s quote in college and thinking about how I want to live the rest of my life, I made a conscious decision to prioritize the truth independent of how pleasant it is. As Mill points out, it sometimes leads to short-term dissatisfaction, but it’s an end in and of itself. And the short-term dissatisfaction eventually turns into learning which prepares you for even higher truths.
Also published on Medium.