Our brains evolved on the African savannah, but are now expected to deal with complex statistical information and other intricate concepts every day.
Should you cling to your beliefs even when others disagree? Or should you reconsider your beliefs whenever they’re challenged? Is it possible to disagree without being disagreeable? You might think that the answer to this last question is a resounding “no!” That’s because, these days, people too often try to shut up and shout down those who disagree with them.
Now I don’t mean to deny that, to some extent, it’s always been that way. Why did Cain kill Abel? Because they disagreed over some silly sacrifice! And that was just a family squabble. Still, that shows how it important it is to disagree agreeably. Otherwise, we could end up killing each other.
Nor do I deny that diversity of thought and opinion are good things. Besides, you can’t force people to agree. This means disagreement is bound to be a permanent feature of human life, which gives us all the more reason to find better ways of dealing with it.
Here’s a simple, seemingly seductive principle for handling disagreement. When other people disagree with you, at least consider the possibility that maybe you're the one who’s wrong. That sounds like a good strategy, but the problem is that one quickly encounters cases in which one will feel fully justified in violating this simple principle. For example, I believe firmly in the theory of evolution. And I am not at all disposed to abandon that belief just because some creationist questions it.
That doesn’t make me a hypocrite. I still say you should question your beliefs when others disagree, but only the right others. You aren’t required to question yourself whenever some random know-nothing disagrees. Of course, that raises the crucial question: Who are the people such that disagreement with them should give you pause?
Here's one proposal: you should care about disagreements when people who are reasonable and well-informed. And by “reasonable and well-informed” I don’t just mean people who happen to agree with me. But I do think that I should care more about disagreements with people who share my habits of mind—with what we philosophers call my “epistemic peers.” I am thinking of people who have the habit of basing their beliefs on evidence, who care about the truth, who aren’t prone to wishful thinking or self-deception, who think logically rather than emotionally. When people like that disagree with me, it’s much harder to dismiss them as completely wrong-headed.
One could worry, I suppose, that the claim to be able to say in advance whose habits of mind are worth respecting and whose are not is itself a form of intellectual arrogance of just the sort we set out to avoid. I mean, who is to say which habits of mind have a better chance of delivering true beliefs? Why isn’t my confidence that I can pull that trick off just a form of intellectual snobbery?
Perhaps it is, but if you are totally unwilling to divide people into the reasonable and the unreasonable, it’s not clear how you’re going to avoid having to listen to every Tom or Tina with a dissenting opinion. But perhaps the problem lies in our attempt to have it both ways, that is, to find a middle path between two competing tendencies. Humility may seem to require you to be open to the possibility that you are wrong and so to be willing to reconsider in the face of disagreement. But it would be folly to listen to everybody who comes along.
There is another possible approach. Don’t be so wishy-washy! Stick to your guns regardless of what other people think, no matter who they are! Of course, you should take time and care making up your mind. While you’re doing that, you should weigh all the evidence you can get your hands on, and expose yourself to different points of view. But once you’ve made up your mind, you can’t go changing it every time anybody disagrees with you.
Now the advocate of not sticking to your guns in the face of disagreement will, of course, reject this approach. They will say that if one of your intellectual peers takes just as much time and care as you did—maybe more time and care—and they come to a different conclusion, that should give you at least a little pause. But the problem is that there will always be people who disagree. And you can’t just give into them because if you start down that path and where does it stop? Trying to find the middle ground between wishy-washiness and stubbornness is like trying to remain a little bit pregnant. So perhaps sticking to your guns is the right approach.
I’m not saying this is a perfect strategy. Indeed, you could see it as an attempt to turn intellectual stubbornness into an intellectual virtue. But if you're so intellectually stubborn that you never listen to anybody who disagrees, you may get stuck in a rut of falsehood! But the opposite intellectual tendency is no intellectual virtue either. If you are so intellectually wishy-washy that you always listen to those who disagree, you will never have any convictions! So there really has to be a middle ground. Finding it may be hard, but with your help, maybe we can. So I hope you will agree to help us search for the golden mean of intellectual virtue.