Humble Disagreement

15 March 2018

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.


Comments (5)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Thursday, March 15, 2018 -- 11:39 AM

It is relatively easy to be

It is relatively easy to be wrong about some notion or belief you possess---some position or stance you assume. Chance favors the prepared mind and if one is prepared and has done the requisite homework, chances of winning an opponent over to his/her camp are measurably improved. This can be achieved, even in the presence of superior intellect. I mentioned before that I do not always win arguments, stating affirmatively that winning is not always the point, nor even a necessity. Why do I say this? Because, in rare instances, losing an argument achieves an even rarer result: the winner finds that the victory was, in fact, a hollow one. Although his argument was well-presented, with appropriate facts and impeccable strategy, the outcome shows him that his intention was based on ego rather than finding a useful and viable solution. Great minds make this sort of blunder every day: Albert Einstein allegedly stated that God does not play dice. Any reasonable thinking human being is pretty certain that this is false, given the evolutionary nature of life on Planet Earth. I suppose we might say, in Einstein's defense: evolution DOES play dice, and always has. But, that too, would be unsatisfying, inasmuch as evolution has no such notions, pro or con. Albert had a problem with Darwin. Of course, this did not hold him back, as far as we can tell...

Above all, we need to pick our battles. And not waste time on any of those that have neither added nor fundamental value.

Mr_Joe's picture


Friday, March 16, 2018 -- 12:42 PM

Einstein wasn't referring to

Einstein wasn't referring to evolution (or any vague idea of a lack of chance, or destiny) when he stated that god does not play dice, he was saying it in relation to quantum mechanics. Niels Bohr championed the Copenhagen Interpretation quantum mechanics, but I think Einstein didn't like the idea of entangled particles (or more broadly quantum mechanics, though I'm not too sure on what he thought towards the end of his life).

Wikipedia has a good article on the Bohr-Einstein debates.

Mr_Joe's picture


Friday, March 16, 2018 -- 1:21 PM

Interesting piece. I've

Interesting piece. I've always found it interesting how competitive we can be when we discuss differing points of view, and how much of ourselves we invest in what we believe.

Personally I think the issue is that we take too much of our self worth from what we believe. By doing this, when what we believe is challenged, it feels like we are being challenged. And I suppose in a sense, we are. If we consider ourselves, and our worth, to be a mixture of our utility and what we believe about how the world is and ought to be. But I think that if we were to have some kind of inherent worth, that is, to consider ourselves at least to some extent worthwhile with little regard to our utility or how others see us , this effect would be lessened, and we could have more constructive debates. Maybe (ok, probably) I'm naive in thinking that's viable, but I don't think that if we all thought more of our own worth then our motivation to be useful, good, productive people would be lessened.

The dialectical method isn't the only way of investigating something. I like to think that if we were a bit less competitive as a society we would be much better at discussing issues, or disagreeing without so much vitriol.

I like the idea that much of our issues with each other disagreeing comes from our desire to not be seen as stubborn or anti-intellectual through our inability to consider the views of others. The problem would then become how to get people to care about the truth, before becoming set on it (at least enough to only care about their own investigations of it). I've always had an unreasonable amount of respect (or maybe it's just envy) for people who are self-assured enough in their opinions that they're unlikely to have them be changed, but there are two ways to get there: To be so knowledgeable and studied in an issue that you know you cannot be given new information that will change your view. Or to be very ignorant. If the stick to your guns approach is to be a reasonable one, then it can only be so in the former case.

I think like everything it's a murky shade of grey.. The more you know about any given issue the more reasonable it is to expect that your opinion won't be changed, because you're less likely to encounter new information that might change your view. Of course, that doesn't consider that emotions may also play a large part in deciding what we feel about certain things. I've read of vegetarians who've only become vegetarian after encountering something that made them feel awful about eating meat, even if whatever they encountered was already known to them. There's a difference between considering how you might feel if you were "x" in "y" situation, and actually experiencing being "x" in "y" situation.

Tim Smith's picture

Tim Smith

Sunday, September 27, 2020 -- 10:46 AM

Skepticism toward one's own

Skepticism toward one's own belief is valid. Humility is steeped in self denigration and comes with baggage. Encouraging someone to be humble is to take their power. Encouraging them to be skeptical does the opposite.

So what does it mean to disagree. I like the persuade vs. truth angle. Those are two different actions. To this I would add trust. At different points in our lives we have limited ability to agree at all. Some never have that ability - these people need care not persuasion. That care is compromised when trust is not secured (think of children, seniors, injured and disabled people.) Building agreements based on trust are the most important of all actions. This is missing in this discussion.

The call for solace in method is vapid. Saying it is complicated is a cop out. Let's get it on people. This was indeed a terrible place to leave it.

Here is a worthy project in this vein.

The funny thing here is that the scene they dissect is 3 minutes or so after the first shot that set a gunman running to the protection of mother culture.

What I find worthy in this journalistic approach is to put readers/viewers in the scene. Perhaps with virtual reality this sort of approach could reduce disagreement on belief and reduce opinions to matters of fact. The surveillance such a world would require is too malleable in the hands of the few IMO. That is another story playing out in our lives.

This was a good show. I listen to these and find comments I left in past shows or think about where I was when this aired...

Often, I disagree with the self I experienced only a year ago (more often not if I am being honest.) To that person (and his time honored well packed bias baggage) only ... I am humble... well... and maybe to the self who will read this blog or show note when it again is aired... if I make it until then.

Cross posting with the September 27, 2020 airing of the show...

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Tuesday, December 6, 2022 -- 8:46 AM

When last I thought about

When last I thought about this topic, philosophy talk was the only blog I read and submitted comments on. Now, after a few years, there are others. These are largely fortresses of academic intellectualism. That stated, the blog owners are vastly more humble than a majority of commenters who delight in tripping up their hosts and attempting to promote their own intellectual prowess. Of course, your forum here has its' own imps and scoundrels. Which shows me one thing: the world of public intellectuals is the same everywhere. There are all kinds of interests, preferences and motives.

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