How to Humbly Disagree

Sunday, August 30, 2020
First Aired: 
Sunday, March 11, 2018

What is it

People like to argue, especially Philosophy Talk listeners! But no matter how hard we try to resolve disputes through rational discourse, sometimes we may still disagree about important issues. One response to this predicament is simply to agree to disagree. But should the mere fact of disagreement lower our confidence in our views? Should we change how we judge our own beliefs when we realize that other people disagree? Or do we only have reason to doubt our beliefs when we learn that experts disagree with us? The Philosophy Talk hosts humbly welcome Nathan Ballantyne from Fordham University, author of Knowing Our Limits (forthcoming).

Part of a six-part series on Intellectual Humility.

Listening Notes

Josh and Ken begin the show by asking the question, how humble should we be when engaging in disagreement? If we are too humble and too receptive to disagreeing views, we risk appearing wishy washy and lacking personal conviction. On the other side of the spectrum, we may be accused of stubborness and intellectual snobbery. Ken and Josh think there should be a balance between these two inclinations but remain unsure of how to distinguish the views worth listening to from those worth dismissing.


The hosts welcome Nathan Ballantyne, professor of philosophy at Fordham University, to the show. The hosts ask Nathan the question they arrive at the end of the first segment--how can we decide which arguments are worth engaging in and which are not? Nathan claims that first, it is important to assess how confident we are about the reasonableness of our own views and conversely, the unreasonableness of opposing views. He cites psychological research that shows that we tend to discredit opposing views based on irrational biases but are extremely generous when evaluating our own views. This happens even when we deliberately look for our own biases. Hence, Nathan argues for the need for some humility despite the difficulty of actually achieving it.  


In the last segment of the show, Nathan, Josh, and Ken discuss the purpose of engaging in disagreements humbly, a subject prompted by a question from a caller. Ken wonders whether there is a strategic reason for being humble. Nathan thinks it is possible, but he also thinks that discussions meant to persuade are distinct from truth-seeking discussions, in which case employing strategies to influence others isn’t the priority. Josh then highlights a potential conflict between the ideal of seeking truth and the ideal of pluralism and comity. Nathan and the hosts acknowledge that there are times when we feel like we should put aside our relentless desire for truth in order for civility. The hosts and guest conclude the show by discussing the ways we can reorder society to cultivate intellectual humility.


  • Roving Philosophical Reporter [Seek to 6:18] — Liza Veale interviews New York Magazine’s Jesse Singal and philosopher Rebecca Tuvel on the reactions that followed Tuvel’s controversial defense of transracialism by drawing a parallel with transgender identities.  
  • Sixty-Second Philosopher [46:22] - Ian Shoales discusses how the advent of the Internet has made it easier than ever to find support for one’s beliefs no matter how ridiculous they are.

Comments (2)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Friday, March 9, 2018 -- 8:58 AM

Disagreement, and other modes of discourse...

I'll begin this short comment with answers to the three questions posed: 1. If we are well-experienced and our views reasonably sound, then no. Our confidence level, if based in knowledge and experience, should not be assailed by ourselves. 2. Maybe so. If we feel humbled enough by what is superior knowledge and/or experience, then deference is eminently honorable. But only if there evolves either a zero-sum outcome for us or a positive-sum effect for us and our adversary. We need not be so humble as to feel humiliated. 3. This one is tricky, but I'm not inclined to honor an expert's opinion in virtue of the fact that she IS an expert. Transactional analysis entails respectful treatment from all parties, but the expert/layman dichotomy does not require unquestioned deference, based upon some inherent hierarchy. Puffery is ineffable and inexcusable in professional discourse. Professionalism is not the sole prerogative of anyone, achievement or the lack thereof, notwithstanding. (If in doubt about this question and response, see #'s 1 and 2.)

My outlook and recalcitrant stance has confounded many in my lifetime experience, and I certainly do not always win arguments. For my part, winning the argument is not the point. Those who always strive to win, even when they are patently wrong, are functionally insecure. Some current examples, in positions of trust, shall remain unnamed. Happy St. Patty's day, to all...'s picture


Friday, September 13, 2019 -- 6:55 PM

I'm wondering if we can help

I'm wondering if we can help determine when to be open-minded to ideas we disagree with by focusing on a few things:

1) The internal consistency and coherence of our own beliefs with other beliefs we hold.

2) How our beliefs and the beliefs of those we disagree with align with facts about the world which are verifiable, and at least haven't yet been falsified.

3) The fecundity of our particular beliefs for furthering the accuracy or helpfulness of other beliefs future derivative beliefs.



Buy the Episode



Nathan Ballantyne, Professor of Philosophy, Fordham University


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