This past weekend I gave a presentation at the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics in Chicago. My presentation was entitled “Civil Public Discourse and the Virtue of Open-mindedness.” Here I will summarize the content of my talk.
Today there is a lot of anger and division about political and moral issues. How do we demonstrate civil discourse in the midst of this? Our natural responses to conflict are essentially fight or flight. We either withdraw from those with whom we disagree or we challenge them to show them where they are wrong. But neither approach is constructive because withdrawal kills dialogue and challenge makes people defensive. In neither case is civil discourse achieved.
I argue that the proper alternative is open-minded engagement. I affirm Jason Baehr’s definition of open-mindedness as a willingness to transcend one’s default cognitive standpoint on an issue (The Inquiring Mind, Oxford, 2011). A person who is open-minded in this sense displays a readiness to take seriously alternative perspectives and a willingness to welcome new evidence that could overturn their current beliefs. Although people generally admire those who display such open-mindedness, it is difficult to do so because our current belief set is comfortable, open-mindedness challenges our intellectual pride, and open-mindedness requires moral work, specifically development and application of the virtues of self-control and patience.
Obviously, we should not be open-minded about everything (e.g., being open to the idea that my spouse is actually an alien or that rape is morally acceptable). We should be foreclosed about many things. But regarding issues where reasonable people disagree, we should strive to keep an open mind. I argue that in such cases open-mindedness is an intellectual duty. This is because each of us has many false beliefs, as evident in the fact that we all disagree with many people who are at least as intelligent and responsible as we are. Other factors also guarantee that I have false beliefs about various issues, including the fallibility of my reasoning skills and perceptual abilities, as well as the fact that I don’t have the time or ability to thoroughly vet all of my beliefs.
Some other reasons to be open-minded are that this trait is critical for learning, and open-mindedness follows from the Golden Rule: I want others to seriously consider my truth claims and welcome the evidence I present to them, so I should do the same regarding others’ truth claims and arguments.
So how does one become more open-minded? Here are three practical tips for transcending one’s default perspectives: (1) intentionally build your moral imagination, (2) practice active listening—resolve to speak less than your conversation partner, and (3) be Socratic—develop the art of questioning (which can also expose problems in others’ views).
Finally, it is important to remember that open-mindedness is effective for changing others’ minds. This is because open-mindedness is disarming; it prevents others from becoming defensive. It can also be contagious. If you display an open mind, then your neighbor is more likely to do so also. But even where minds don’t change, open-mindedness improves civility because it makes us less defensive, makes us feel less threatened by those with whom we disagree, and enhances our capacity for calm and patient dialogue.