Why everyone who disagrees with you is right

We often say that its a mistake to discuss politics and religion, but why? Aren’t these the things that are often most obvious to us, where our convictions run deepest? Isn’t the difference between right and wrong most apparent in issues like these? And don’t we have good reasons for believing what we do? So why is it something that only brings out the worst in others (and ourselves!) and that is seemingly immune to simple rationality?

The truth is that our convictions don’t always align in a way that facilitates much common ground. We can’t discuss these issues very easily because we are like aliens to one another. And the deeper truth is that we did not come to these perspectives by rational means. Our reasoning about them is only the veneer over something much deeper and more primitive in our consciousness.  We come by our beliefs in ways that are rarely touched by rational influence. Perhaps it was the only way to make sense of a traumatic event. Perhaps we simply learned to see the world through our parents eyes. Perhaps it was a rejection of our parents. A suspicion of others’ motives….. Anything, it seems, but rational discovery. And yet we often talk as if persuading others was a simple matter of telling them the right reasons, and their own rational discovery…..

Surely within the world of our own beliefs things make eminent sense. We may not have started the road through reason, but there grows up a scaffolding of reasons and rationality to hold it in place. We are so good at our confirmation bias that we accumulate all the evidence we need to validate our own opinions. Amongst our like minded fellows we can appear the pinnacle of reasonableness and rationality. We have that agreement necessary to make sense of one another. The blasphemers and philistines are all touched by an unexplained dementia. They are foreign in a way that we cannot comprehend. They fail to see what is so obvious to us. Their assumptions are wrong. Their facts are disputable. We take exception to their version of logic. And they draw illegitimate conclusions. While we are so obviously the bright standard of our own rationality these others hold positions that seem baseless, trenchant, and a sort of incomprehensible absurdity. And paradoxically they look at themselves and at us in exactly the same way! As if we are the aliens and they the righteous….. Is rationality really so tractable, so fickle, so faithless?


Rationality follows causes. Seldom, if ever, is it the first cause. It is the means we have to support our versions of the truth. Its not the impartial underlying code of the Universe any more than a gun in the hands of a soldier is impartial or decides what is right. It gets pointed at things, and only fired off when it is to our advantage. Its a tool we use to promote our causes and defend them.

And it is therefor quite often of little value in mediating between different perspectives. Its not always a case of comparing guns and deciding. When the rational bullets fly our own guns are our immunity. And because these others don’t believe in our wisdom even our best aimed bullets can’t harm them. Why would anyone put stock in what we had to say if they already believe the opposite? If they have good reasons for believing it? When we believe what we believe despite their evidence…?

We’d like to think that we are all rational actors playing on the same field and by the same rules, but really we are playing different games by different rules and often on different fields. Appealing to rationality doesn’t always help us, as if all it took were showing these others that they are playing the wrong game, have got the rules all wrong, or that they should be playing it on our grounds instead of their own shabby venue. “Our game is much better! Don’t you see?”…. That’s what we say. And that’s what they say to us…..

Causes are simply partisan affairs. And if the tools of reason are only of limited value in conducting a conversation across party lines, maybe its not a conversation that we need to convince them by. If they have an impetus to change it will be because they look at our game and decide that it is somehow also worth playing. In a sense, we have to get them to stop playing their game first in order to learn to play ours. Their conversion has to take hold at a deep level. We are, in effect, asking them to be more like us.

But old ways of doing things die hard. We have to detour around them. Barring schizophrenia (or art), opposing rules and values can’t be in operation at the same time. But we can often suspend one way of doing things in order to pick something else up. We can decide that its good to play baseball at some times and football at others. Occasionally we can never return to the games we once knew……. There are incompatible and mutually exclusive ways of doing things, after all, and it is here that our passions, beliefs, and rationality become the most ingrained and stubborn….

And rather than convincing them of our rationality, our rules, first, we can teach them the way we ourselves learned: We can let them play and pick the rules up as they go. The scaffolding doesn’t come first. Its the activity itself that engenders belief, and the belief that builds the scaffolding….. Reasons accrue as we become more intimate with the new game.

Sam’s McNerney’s new post has a discussion of some of these ideas:


The conclusion he draws can perhaps be summed up with the quote in which Steven Pinker says:

Reason is… an open-ended combinatorial system, an engine for generating an unlimited number of new ideas. Once it is programmed with a basic self-interest and an ability to communicate with others, its own logic will impel it, in the fullness of time, to respect the interest of ever-increasing numbers of others. It is reason too that can always take note of the shortcomings of previous exercises of reasoning, and update and improve itself in response. And if you detect a flaw in this argument, it is reason that allows you to point it out and defend an alternative.

To which I’d respond that Steven Pinker’s take that rationality will win out is probably a bit optimistic and wishful rather than objectively sound thinking. I’d even rephrase his quote above as the following:

Reason is a whip that drives forward our partisanship and bolsters our prejudice. Once it has secured its base in a particular perception of the world it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy of narrowness and intolerance. It becomes reasons not to act open-mindedly. And while reason constructs this scaffolding of reinforcement and imperialism, it is often only some emotional trauma or some non-rational experience that can undermine its foundation. Seeing the world differently is sometimes only possible through letting go of reason and accepting a new basis for our passionate appraisal of the world. Confronting the world is not an argument on a level playing field of reasons. Belief is not a contest of competing rationality. We believe first, and then make up reasons to talk about and justify those beliefs…..

See this study by Dan M. Kahan at the Yale Law School on “Ideology, motivated reasoning, and cognitive reflection” for an interesting insight into the problem.


Social psychologists have identified various plausible sources of ideological polarization over climate change, gun violence, national security, and like societal risks. This paper describes a study of three of them: the predominance of heuristic-driven information processing by members of the public; ideologically motivated cognition; and personality-trait correlates of political conservativism. The results of the study suggest reason to doubt two common surmises about how these dynamics interact. First, the study presents both observational and experimental data inconsistent with the hypothesis that political conservatism is distinctively associated with closed-mindedness: conservatives did no better or worse than liberals on an objective measure of cognitive reflection; and more importantly, both demonstrated the same unconscious tendency to fit assessments of empirical evidence to their ideological predispositions. Second, the study suggests that this form of bias is not a consequence of overreliance on heuristic or intuitive forms of reasoning; on the contrary, subjects who scored highest in cognitive reflection were the most likely to display ideologically motivated cognition. These findings corroborated the hypotheses of a third theory, which identifies motivated cognition as a form of information processing that rationally promotes individuals’ interests in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups. The paper discusses the normative significance of these findings, including the need to develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity.

When discussing our passions, have we learned to “develop science communication strategies that shield policy-relevant facts from the influences that turn them into divisive symbols of identity”? Does our advocacy merely skim the surface of already partisan and divisive rationality? Is our model of advocacy based solely on means of rational persuasion, or have we learned that dismantling a structure of rational prejudice often relies on non-rational means? If our beliefs often follow what we do, where we grew up, who we know, how we identify ourselves, perhaps we can only change what we believe by changing what we do…. And while how we talk about things is part of what we do, the toggle switch between default mental pictures surely has to be more than just words. And the deeper change has to be so much more than simply how we talk….. In fact, I’d say that it comes down to an issue of self-identity. Lets not make the mistake of confusing the cart for the horse……

And for all you arts advocates out there let me put it this way: Its not a question of finding a place for the arts within our community, but shifting the question to finding the arts community within us all. A bit of a Copernican revolution (in reverse?), perhaps…..


Something to think about at least!

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts advocacy, Arts education, Beauty, Creativity, metacognition. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Why everyone who disagrees with you is right

  1. Sam just responded to my comment that my position seems like something ala Jonathan Haidt, more David Hume than Descartes. I knew those last two scoundrels but hadn’t heard of Haidt yet. Turns out Sam got it right!


  2. Pingback: A Copernican Revolution in Arts Advocacy | CARTER GILLIES POTTERY

  3. Bertrand Russell

    Bertrand Russell in A Liberal Decalogue:

    “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”

  4. Oscar Wilde

    Oscar Wilde in The Critic as Artist (Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing and Discussing Everything):

    “Yes: I am a dreamer. For a dreamer is one who can only find his way by moonlight, and his punishment is that he sees the dawn before the rest of the world.”

  5. Just found a Jonathan Haidt article that is worth referencing:

    “Among the most memorable scenes in movie history is Toto’s revelation that the thundering head of the Wizard of Oz is actually animated by a small man behind a curtain, who lamely says, “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.” Modern psychology has, to some extent, pulled the curtain back on human reasoning and shown it to be much less impressive than it sometimes pretends to be, and much more driven by the hidden force of intuition.

    I never said that reasons were irrelevant. I said that they were no match for intuition.

    In separate essays in The Stone last week, Michael P. Lynch and Gary Gutting both argued that reason can do far more than I give it credit for in my recent book, “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch in particular urges us not to give up hope for a democracy based on the exchange of reasons, and he tries to use my own arguments to counter my cynicism: “The judgment that reasons play no role in judgment is itself a judgment. And Haidt has defended it with reasons.” But I never said that reason plays no role in judgment. Rather, I urged that we be realistic about reasoning and recognize that reasons persuade others on moral and political issues only under very special circumstances.

    I developed an idea from Howard Margolis, the distinguished social scientist who died in 2009, that two basic kinds of cognitive events are “seeing-that” and “reasoning-why.” (These terms correspond roughly to what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman and others call “System 1” and “System 2” and that I call the “elephant” and the “rider.”) We effortlessly and intuitively “see that” something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or “reasons why,” which we can give to others. Both processes are crucial for understanding belief and persuasion. Both are needed for the kind of democratic deliberation that Lynch (and I) want to promote.

    I’d like to show how these two processes work together by offering here a figure that I cut from my book a few months before turning in the manuscript, thinking it would be too confusing for a broad audience.

    Margolis cognitive state chart

    In the figure (adapted from Margolis) I’ve drawn a two-dimensional epistemological space showing the four cognitive states you might be in as you hear and discuss a story about X — let’s suppose that X is two adult siblings having consensual safe sex. The horizontal dimension is intuition: you intuitively “see that” X is bad (in which case you start on the left edge of the figure). The vertical dimension is “reasoning-why”: you search for reasons why X is bad (you try to reason your way downward). There are only two safe, comfortable spots on the table: the lower-left corner, where your intuitions say that X is bad and you have reasons to support your condemnation, and the upper-right corner, where your intuitions say that X is good and you have reasons to support that claim. People in those two corners believe that they have knowledge, or justified true belief. So how does a typical moral argument proceed?

    Let’s suppose you find yourself in the lower-left corner: you intuitively condemn Julie and Mark (the two siblings), and you think you have good reasons to back up that condemnation. Your opponent is a libertarian who believes that people should be able to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t infringe on anyone else’s rights, so she starts off in the upper-right corner. She has an intuitive sense of the importance of personal autonomy, and she has reasons to support her endorsement of Julie’s and Mark’s autonomy. According to Margolis, people don’t change their minds unless they move along the horizontal dimension. Intuition is what most matters for belief. Yet a moral argument generally consists of round after round of reasoning. Each person tries to pull the other along the vertical dimension. Therefore, if your opponent succeeds in defeating your reasons, you are unlikely to change your judgment. You’ve been dragged into the upper-left quadrant, but you still feel, intuitively, that it’s wrong for Julie and Mark to have sex. You start sounding like the participants in my studies, one of whom said, “Gosh, this is hard. I really — um, I mean, there’s just no way I could change my mind, but I just don’t know how to — how to show what I’m feeling.”

    This, I suggest, is how moral arguments proceed when people have strong intuitions anchoring their beliefs. And intuitions are rarely stronger than when they are part of our partisan identities. So I’m not saying that reasons “play no role in moral judgment.” In fact, four of the six links in my Social Intuitionist Model are reasoning links. Most of what’s going on during an argument is reasoning. Rather, I’m saying that reason is far less powerful than intuition, so if you’re arguing (or deliberating) with a partner who lives on the other side of the political spectrum from you, and you approach issues such as abortion, gay marriage or income inequality with powerfully different intuitive reactions, you are unlikely to effect any persuasion no matter how good your arguments and no matter how much time you give your opponent to reflect upon your logic.”


    “This is the approach that I took when writing “The Righteous Mind.” Lynch and Gutting both assert that if my argument about the limits of reason were correct, then I contradicted myself by writing a book offering reasons why my argument was correct. But I never said that reasons were irrelevant. I said that they were no match for intuition, and that they were usually a servant of one’s own intuitions. Therefore, if you want to persuade someone, talk to the elephant first. Trigger the right intuitions first. And that’s exactly what I did in the book. I didn’t rush in with summaries of the scientific literature.”


    ” Reasons matter, reasons produce movement on the epistemological map, but only at the right time, when countervailing intuitions have been turned off.”

  6. Another article discussing Haidt:

    “This hope that exchanging reasons matters, not just for what it gets us but in itself is as old as Plato, but it has often been derided as something of a muddle-headed fantasy, as “nothing but dreams and smoke” as Montaigne put it in the 16th century. And of course there is some sense in this. You don’t have to be Karl Rove to appreciate the obvious fact that the evidence often fails to persuade, to suspect that what really works are the tried and true methods of good advertising, emotional associations and having the bigger stick (or “super PAC”).

    Recently, however, some social scientists, most notably the psychologist Jonathan Haidt, have upped the cynical ante. In Haidt’s view, the philosophers’ dream of reason isn’t just naïve, it is radically unfounded, the product of what he calls “the rationalist delusion.” As he puts it, “Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold, hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is.” [1] Haidt sees two points about reasoning to be particularly important: the first concerns the efficacy (or lack thereof) of reasoning; the second concerns the point of doing so publicly: of exchanging reasons.

    According to Haidt, not only are value judgments less often a product of rational deliberation than we’d like to think, that is how we are supposed to function. That it is how we are hardwired by evolution. In the neuroscientist Drew Westen’s words, the political brain is the emotional brain.

    Often “reasoning” really seems to be post-hoc rationalization: we tend to accept that which confirms what we already believe (psychologists call this confirmation bias). And the tendency goes beyond just politics. When people are told that they scored low on an I.Q. test, for example, they are more likely to read scientific articles criticizing such tests; when they score high, they are more likely to read articles that support the tests. They are more likely to favor the “evidence,” in other words, that makes them feel good. This is what Haidt calls the “wag the dog” illusion: thinking that reason is the tail that wags the dog of value judgment.

    Indeed, reason sometimes seems simply beside the point. Consider some of Haidt’s own well-known research on “moral dumbfounding.” Presented with a story about consensual, protected sex between an adult brother and sister — sex which is never repeated, and which is protected by birth control — most people in the studies reacted with feelings of disgust, judging that it was wrong. Yet subjects struggled to defend such feelings with arguments when questioned by researchers. [2] Even so, they stuck to their guns. Haidt suggests that this means that whatever reasons they could come up with seem to be just along for the ride: it was their feelings doing the work of judgment.”

    [1] “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” p. 89. Haidt’s fascinating book concerns much more than the points focused on here; its principal aim is to diagnose the causes of ongoing political rifts.

    [2]I don’t meant to suggest, and neither does Haidt, that such feelings can’t be defended; that is a different topic.

  7. More Haidt related discussion:

    “Nor would Plato object to Haidt’s claim that ethics is based on intuition — direct moral judgments — rather than on reasoning. Haidt’s “reasoning” corresponds to what Plato calls dianoia, the process of logically deriving conclusions from given premises. Such logic yields merely hypothetical knowledge (if p, then q), since logic cannot prove the truth of its premises. Reasoning, therefore, will reliably yield truth only when it is completed by acts of intuition (noesis) that justify the premises from which we reason.”

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