In today’s post, I would like to encourage you to take some steps to avoid a very common and very dangerous human disposition – the disposition to read or to watch only those things that conform to our world view, and to ignore anything that might conflict with it. In selecting what we read or view, we are not actually seeking to learn something new. We are seeking to find something that confirms the things we already (think we) know – to derive comfort from ‘evidence’ that our world view is intact.
Even when we do look at things we disagree with, we tend to do so with the attitude that, “This person is wrong. So, where is that mistake?” I had a philosophy professor who described the average experience of a philosophy faculty member when attending a presentation at a conference. He listens to the paper until the speaker says something the listener disagrees with. Then, the listener latches onto that ‘error’, forms a question that he will ask at the end of the presentation, and does not go any further.
If the reader or listener does not find something that is ‘obviously wrong’ with the other person’s presentation, then he will interpret an error into that presentation. He will study the material until he can find an interpretation that he can attack, and that is what he will attack.
These are tendencies, not natural laws. There are a great many exceptions. However, the number of people who claim, “I have given a fair hearing to views contrary to my own,” who are wrong is substantially greater than the number of people who claim, “I have not given a fair hearing to views contrary to my own,” who are wrong. There is an orders of magnitude difference.
In my own intellectual history, there are two cases where the effect of encountering ideas that contradicted my own thinking were extremely influential.
In the first case, since I was 16 years old, I called myself a libertarian. I remember thinking, “These ideas are so obvious that I cannot imagine how anybody would question them. How can any sane person say they are mistaken?” I said this to one of my libertarian friends, and followed it up with, “But, obviously, there are a lot of people who think that these ideas are wrong. Can you provide me with something that somebody has to say against this view? I want to find out why they object.”
He handed me an article. I do not remember the source, but I remember the content of that article. The author wrote that the libertarian philosophy violates the classic is/ought distinction. Libertarian philosophy begins with a series of ‘is’ statements like, ‘man qua man is a rational animal,’ and from this it draws the whole set of libertarian moral principles such as, “It is always wrong to engage in aggression against another person,” and, “Taxation is theft.” However, it fails to explain how one can go from ‘is’ premises to ‘ought’ conclusions – how prescriptive conclusions can be derived from purely descriptive premises. The arguments they give typically take the form, “See, it is clearly possible to derive ‘ought’ from ‘is’, because that is what I do in this argument.
Regular readers know that I object to the is/ought distinction. It is not the case that I believe, as many do, that this gulf cannot be crossed – only that the libertarians fail to do so. Against the is/ought distinction, I argue that postulating two different types of ‘relationships’ is as problematic as postulating two different types of ‘entities’ – minds and brains, for example, or material and immaterial substance. Dualism in any form is an exceptional claim that requires exceptional proof – or at least some evidence that the second entity exists.
In the case of is/ought dualism, there is no evidence. Hume’s own argument for the distinction between ‘ought’ and ‘is’ is an argument from ignorance. He asserts only that he imagine how it can be done – that ought can be derived from is. He forces us to choose between two options: (1) that Hume is suffering from a lack of imagination, and (2) that a we live in a universe with two types of relationships that are distinct and separate from each other yet somehow interact. Of the two, “failure of the imagination” is the more likely culprit. The claim that one cannot imagine how ought can be derived from is does as poor a job of proving two types of relationships as the inability to imagine how live could have evolved does at proving the existence of God.
So, one consequence of asking, “Why do people disagree with this view that I think is unquestionable?” is that I gave up libertarianism.
Another significant incident in which exposure to views that contradicted my own produced significant results happened while I was in graduate school. I went to graduate school to study value theory (specifically, moral philosophy). Yet, the Philosophy department graduate program required that I take 6 of my 12 classes in fields outside of moral philosophy. I was forced to take a class in the philosophy of science, and ultimately enrolled in a class in the philosophy of psychology.
Science has absolutely nothing to do with morality, or so I believed, so there was absolutely nothing that I could learn in a science class that would be relevant to my interests in value theory. This was the whole ‘is/ought’ problem again, back when I believed the received view that no ‘ought’ could be derived from an ‘is’.
My teacher in that class, Dr. Georges Rey, quickly got into a discussion of ‘folk psychology’ or the ‘theory’ theory of beliefs and desires. On this account, beliefs are propositional attitudes. A person who ‘believes that P’ (for some proposition P) has the attitude that P is true, and will behave as if P is true, to whatever degree he is able to do so. If he believes that a glass contains clean water, he will drink it if thirsty, even if (in truth) the contents are poison. Desires, on this model are also propositional attitudes. A ‘desire that P’ for some proposition P is a motivational attitude that a proposition P is to be made or kept true.
Desires are reason for action. And, insofar as beliefs and desires are scientifically significant entities (like black holes, things we cannot see but which we can know about through their effects), we can, in fact, link reasons for action (the foundation for all ‘ought’ statements) to the world of science.
In this case, I did not look for material that proved that an earlier view of mine was mistaken. I found one nonetheless when I was forced to confront material that I thought was entirely irrelevant to my interests.
We should resolve to confront material we do not agree with – and to confront it with the idea that the people who wrote that material are at least as smart as we are, and might well have something useful to say.
Now, there is a limit to this. If one has made a fair effort to confront an opposing view, and has already engaged it, there is less of a need to continue to confront that view. As a philosophy graduate student, I was forced to engage a number of arguments for the existence of God, and the flaws with those arguments. I have not read every new book that comes out arguing for God’s existence or against the ideas presented by people such as Dawkins and Harris. Then again, I am waiting for people who are experts in that field to announce that somebody has thought up something new.
I take a similar attitude to the idea that there is an ‘evolved’ sense of morality – that morality can be traced back to a series of evolved traits. As I see it, this view is as easily defeated as the Divine Command theory of ethics, using almost exactly the same argument.
When somebody claims that morality comes about through evolution, I ask him to answer a simple question; “Is X moral because it is loved by our genes, or is it loved by our genes because it is moral?” If they say that X is moral because it is loved by our genes, then, if our genes loved killing our stepchildren (as lion males do when they take over a pride) then this would be moral. Tribalism, racism, and rape might ultimately be moral, to the degree that evolution has selected these dispositions.
On the other hand, if the genetic moralist makes the opposite claim that X is loved by our genes because it is good, then the genetic moralist needs to (1) provide an account of what ‘goodness’ is that is independent of evolution, and (2) explain how it is that our genes came to select goodness when, at least hypothetically, evil might have had evolutionary advantages in some cases.
I feel no need to listen to an evolutionary moralist until I find one who is aware of this problem and has an answer to it. It is sufficient, in cases such as this, to wait for somebody to come along who can actually make a serious attempt to answer the question.
This is not the type of closed-mindedness that I spoke about above. This is an example of saying, “I want to hear your response to this problem with your views.” The type of behavior I am condemning above is not exhibited by people who ask questions of other views and demand an answer. It is exhibited by the person who does not ask, or who does not listen to the answers provided, or both.
This is not an easy task. I worry every day whether I am capable of giving objections to my own ideas a fair hearing. It would be arrogant, and wrong (as in mistaken) for me to claim that, even though I am human, I have risen above these human failings. I am as susceptible as others. Moral responsibility comes from recognizing short-comings such as this, and making an effort to prevent them from causing you (or me) from doing harms that a more open-minded person and intellectually honest person could have avoided.