"The Truth Lies Somewhere in the Middle": Does It?
Moderation, in many camps, is fashionable. A belief in the wisdom of moderation serves the purpose of containing perceived dangerous ideas by keeping them "within accepted boundaries." Many people, when hearing two sides of a debate, feel they are taking the rational position by making a compromise. The rationale is that when you hear two parties at extreme ends on a given principle, we tend to think that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." Is this really so? Let's consider a few points.
(1) The a priori correct conclusion is that there are arguments being made for both sides, not that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Where do we go from there? Well, we must account for why there are arguments being made on both sides:
(2) It is possible that both extremes are wrong, and that the truth really is something somewhere "in between" the two opposing extreme claims. Both sides are just "erring from the true (central) truth."
(3) It is also possible that the truth is far more extreme than either side is willing to discuss, but for some reason, views that are dubbed "too extreme" are not being discussed. For instance, if you lived in Nazi Germany, perhaps the "hard" position is that all Jews should be destroyed, but the "soft" position is that Jews "just shouldn't be allowed into positions of leadership authority." However, if you don't think like a Nazi, you probably recognize that neither the "hard" nor the "soft" position against Jews is morally correct. A position that is outside of the "range of publicly acceptable opinions," a position outside of what the Nazis considered to be "within the accepted boundaries," is called for--not moderation.
(4) Sometimes the "moderate" position doesn't really make sense. For instance, if person A claims that "the earth is a spheroid," and person B claims that "the earth is a big flat plate," one of the two is definitely wrong. And there is really no sensible "in-between" position: how can the earth be "in between" being a spheroid and being a plate?
(5) Sometimes the true differences in sides is a difference in rationality or knowledge on the subject. Example: The Church excommunicated Galileo on the idea that the view that "the sun revolves around the earth" needs more respect.
(6) A better idea might be to say, "When I hear two conflicting ideas, I don't know which one is correct. Unless one side is more convincing, I can't assess the likelihood of either side being correct." Here there is not a claim that "the truth is in between," but the more rational position that "I can't tell which argument is correct." This often underrated position of deferring judgment stands as an appealing third option to extremism and centrism.
(7) Usually what "the truth being somewhere in between" can meaningfully amount to is that some claims similar to those at both extremes are simultaneously true. For instance, consider the smoking debate. At one extreme, some people say, "Smoking is good: it is fun." At the other extreme, some people say that "Smoking is bad: it kills." In reality, there is a hybrid, correct position: that (1) smoking has the good aspect that is usually pleasant to smokers, and (2) smoking also has the bad aspect that it often kills the people who do it.
(8) But the true appeal of saying that "the truth usually lies somewhere in between" is not just based on a belief that that's usually the case. For if that were the case, one side can simply win the argument by making its claims increasingly extreme, so that the center is "pulled" in its direction. Example: "The death penalty is good" vs. "The death penalty is okay" leads to the moderate position that "The death penalty is better than okay, but not quite good." But if the latter side changes its claim to "The death penalty is the single greatest act of barbarism in all civilized nations," then the moderate position is now something like, "The death penalty may be bad, but not the worst thing in the history of civilization." The person who believed that the death penalty is "okay" has won the argument, just by exaggerating his side.
(9) The moderate position, far from being good evidence that a person is being faithful to his convictions, might be taken as evidence that the person is avoiding taking sides. This allows moderates to be "less confrontational" by character, less likely to highly offend anyone. It may be wise for a person to do such a thing in order for them not to disturb anyone who would make a big ordeal out of a small disagreement. However, just because the lack of confrontation may be a more pleasant choice of life, does not mean that the moderate position is to be taken as more likely to be true.
To tie up these observations, let me conclude that (10) The better alternative to moderation, when one really must know the truth, is the following procedure: (a) See whether the fact that a given person is making an argument is reason enough to take that claim seriously. (b) Consider the claim. (c) Until one claim is found more convincing, express an uncertain position (and withhold from concluding on whether the moderate belief is true or false). (d) If neither claim seems totally true, create a possibly more elaborate third claim which takes into account what the other claims don't. Or more simply put, if two extreme positions are brought up, consider both positions: discern what is right and wrong about both sides. Consider the possibility that an unseen third position--not necessarily a moderate third position, but very often the case--is the true position.