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Robert P. George on Friendly Disagreements

Like my Swarthmore peers, I wanted to be sophisticated and enlightened — and to be regarded by others as sophisticated and enlightened. So a lot of what I believed simply as a matter of tribal loyalty was reinforced by a tendency to adopt views that conformed to the beliefs of what the late Irving Kristol dubbed “the knowledge class” — professors, elite journalists, and the like. With the exception of abortion, which I had thought about a lot, I hadn’t really thought myself into the positions I held. Rather, I had taken the short cut: I was content to believe what I thought sophisticated and enlightened people believed, or at least were supposed to believe. I simply, and rather unselfconsciously, assumed that an approach of that sort would reliably place me on the correct side of the issues. And, of course, it would give me access to a world I wanted to enter more fully — the elite world of important people who really counted and made a difference. If I got the right credentials, beginning with a Swarthmore degree, and held the right views, I could be someone who mattered. It was then, as it is now, a common motivation for students at elite colleges and universities.

I had views, but I was scarcely entitled to them. I was a skilled debater, but skilled in talking for victory, not for truth. I regarded my interlocutors, especially those with whom I had partisan or ideological differences, as adversaries, not as partners in the quest for knowledge and wisdom. My arguments did not reflect any actual thinking that had gotten me to where I stood on this issue or that; rather, they were offered as justifications for positions I held for all sorts of questionable reasons: tribal loyalty, personal preference, applause, the wish to be and be seen to be sophisticated, the desire to fit in with others at the College and in elite sectors of the culture generally. Plato taught me that I was in need of serious intellectual reform.

It was a bit unnerving — since I did not know where this train was taking me — but also exhilarating. I was being persuaded by arguments, and I was beginning to think critically and for myself. The desire to “be sophisticated” and to “fit in” with my peers and other “enlightened” people no longer mattered to me. I was free.

There was, to be sure, a dominant ethos — one very much to the left — but it did not crush the spirit of those of us who found ourselves led by the logos into dissent. Orthodoxies were not enforced. There were no speech codes, nor were people subjected to what J.S. Mill describes in On Liberty as “the moral coercion of public opinion.” A spirit of liberty of thought and discussion prevailed, a spirit of the sort described by the great jurist Learned Hand of “not being too certain one is right.” People at the College who refused to conform to left-liberal opinion on this or that issue were not subjected to name-calling or accused of having nefarious motives. One could expect to be challenged, that’s for sure, but one could also freely challenge dominant beliefs. The currency of discourse consisted of reasons and arguments, and if one was prepared to offer reasons and make arguments one was welcome to hold and defend one’s views, even if they deviated from — or offended — the sensibilities of those whose views were widely shared. There were, to be sure, a few dogmatists around — mainly of a Marxian stripe — who were sure they had all the answers and would write off those who weren’t buying their doctrines as ignoramuses and tools of the capitalist class. But they were a small minority, even among students and faculty on the left edge of the spectrum, and they had no real power to stigmatize dissenters or bully people into acquiescence or silence.

Mutual respect between persons with different ideologies does not preclude us from wanting to work for reform in the academy and society. For many people, the essential first step is to stop living one’s life in an ideological echo chamber. Break free. Read the work of serious thinkers who espouse ideas that are contrary to one’s convictions. For me, that means reading — in an open-minded, self-critical way — thinkers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, Hume, Bentham, Nietzsche, and Foucault. For others, it might mean reading Plato, Augustine, Burke, Anscombe, and Gandhi. And for everyone, it is important not to surround oneself with people who simply reinforce one’s pre-conceived notions. Hang out with at least some people who thinking differently, and who will question one’s presuppositions, assumptions, and prejudices. A — perhaps the — central virtue in the truth-seeking and wisdom-seeking enterprise, the enterprise of the great teachers of mankind from Socrates to Gandhi, is intellectual humility, a virtue that is impossible without the real (and not merely notional) acknowledgment of one’s fallibility — the recognition that even when it comes to important matters, matters on which one is deeply emotionally invested in one’s opinions, one could be wrong. One’s pat answers, so satisfying emotionally, might be woefully inadequate from the rational vantage point. From my own experience, I would say that a particular danger to avoid is that of believing in the idea of self-validating experience. When it comes to things we really care about and treat as identity-forming (religious beliefs are an example, but there are many others), it is a serious temptation — and a grave danger. It serves as an excuse for the practical belief that on those issues one is, in fact, infallible. It makes genuine intellectual humility impossible and is therefore toxic to the pursuit of knowledge.

The main thing in considering a competing viewpoint is this: openness to the possibility of its validity. If that possibility is closed off in advance, then one is talking for victory, not truth. Argument is reduced purely to a rhetorical business. The questions we ask our interlocutors are mere “gotcha questions” designed to embarrass or intimidate. We are in the domain of sophistry (in the literal sense). If, by contrast, we practice the virtue of intellectual humility, we will regard and treat our interlocutors not as enemies, but as our truest friends. They are friends precisely because they challenge our beliefs and question their presuppositions. If we are in error, they can help lead us in the direction of truth. If we are on solid ground, engaging people who disagree will deepen and enrich our understanding, even if they are the ones in error. Even people who profoundly disagree can form what Professor Cornel West and I call “the bond of truth seeking.” It can provide a secure basis for deep friendship—friendship built around the collaborative (if dialectal) pursuit of a common objective, a common good.

For example, I have been asked: “Take an issue such as the nature of marriage? You’ve got a view on the subject, and you’ve defended it vigorously in your writings and in public debates. What would it take to persuade you that your view is incorrect?” The answer is that I can be persuaded by the same thing that it would take to persuade a reasonable person of goodwill on the other side of the question to revise his view, namely, a persuasive argument, one that is accurate in its descriptive premises, applies sound normative principles, and draws logically warranted inferences while avoiding unwarranted ones. … I am inclined to think that writers like Plato, Augustine, Aquinas, Gandhi, and Anscombe are more reliable guides on these questions. But perhaps someone will persuade me of the unsoundness of that judgment. To close off that possibility would be to succumb to dogmatism. The same, of course, would be true of people on the other side who closed off the possibility that they are wrong about marriage and sexual morality. Fallibility places all of us in the same boat.

I am friends with persons who holding competing views from my own, including some people I’ve mentioned. … The bond of friendship between us enables us to explore these matters more deeply than is ordinarily possible when strangers are questioning each other’s deeply held, sometimes deeply personal, beliefs. My exchanges with these friends, some of which are in written and published form, others of which occur over meals or coffee, have deepened understanding and improved the quality of the arguments on both sides. That’s what happens when people, despite their differences, unite in the common pursuit of knowledge and — when they argue for truth, not victory. This unity of purpose among interlocutors is especially important when the issues are difficult ones that have occupied history’s greatest thinkers about morality and the human condition from antiquity to the present.


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