The Philosophy of Conversation: We Owe It to Our Students to Teach Them How to Disagree

We are Bertha Alvarez Manninen, a pro-choice associate professor of philosophy at Arizona State University, and Jack Mulder Jr., a pro-life professor of philosophy at Hope College in Michigan. Since graduate school, we’ve argued with each other about abortion and other issues, while respecting each other’s stances and our friendship. In the current political climate, however, we’ve become exhausted with the increasing polarization as divisions on political values that reached record levels during Barack Obama’s presidency have only continued to grow since Donald Trump took office.

But despite the tribalism that often pervades liberal and conservative politics, civil and fruitful discussions on tough issues are possible, even between two people with opposing views.

Our backgrounds in philosophy have taught us that disagreement is a normal part of life and that the reasons for it are rarely as simple as the other side’s being ignorant or morally bankrupt. Whether it’s through Rene Descartes’s desire to raze his previous beliefs in an effort to be freed “from all prejudices,” the medieval method of the “disputed question” (in which scholars give the best arguments against their own position before articulating that position and responding to objections),1 or whether it’s through attention to a contemporary classic like Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract (which critiques the Western tradition of political philosophy for its role in racism), the disposition of philosophy is deeply self-critical.2 Philosophy emphasizes the use of logical thinking to construct arguments and promotes familiarity with logical fallacies in order to identify flawed arguments. One of the most pervasive fallacies in public discourse is the ad hominem, designed to personally attack the speaker rather than the argument. Another prevalent one is ad hominem tu quoque, or what has come to be known as “whataboutism”—an attempt to deflect your own faults by pointing out that other people also engage in problematic behavior.3 The focus on deconstructing arguments rather than criticizing people helps us remember that it is not the person to whom we are objecting but rather the argument.

At a recent talk, the two of us served as dialogue partners on the abortion issue—one of us pro-choice, the other pro-life. If you don’t like those terms, consider that they are how each side generally refers to itself. To grant the other side its preferred descriptor is to be, at least methodologically, charitable. During our dialogue, we didn’t try to mow each other down with words, and some in the audience were disappointed that we didn’t engage in a no-holds-barred debate. Unfortunately, that method usually results only in the hardening of one’s position and the demonization of one side against the other.

Taking the time to listen and genuinely understand someone on the other side of a debate, even if not ultimately coming to an agreement, makes it difficult to hate that person or to paint him or her as an immoral caricature. In discussing a contentious issue, the two of us consider where the other person may be right and where we may, in fact, be flawed in our own thinking. For instance, while we disagree significantly about contraception (one of us is a practicing Catholic), we can admit that a culture that treats sex in a cavalier and pornographic way is likely to lead to unwanted pregnancies. Likewise, a society that reinforces racial and economic inequalities and lacks a social safety net will bring people to a point where abortion looks like the only way out of a difficult situation. We don’t finally agree about contraception or abortion, but we can agree about background principles, like care for the vulnerable.

Critical discussion of a controversial issue, with an appreciation for nuance and with an attempt to highlight common ground, is sorely lacking in public discourse and often disparaged when it does appear. When politicians change their minds on a topic based on new information, they are derided as flip-flopping. Accordingly, conceding that your opponent may have a good point is considered a weakness. Even listening to a point from the opposite side has become a betrayal.

We must teach our students to start off with the assumption of mutual goodwill, to avoid assuming the very worst of the person with whom they are arguing. We can do this in the classroom by cultivating an environment that gives differing views equal consideration, care, and also criticism—while all will be respected, no view is immune from critical scrutiny. We must teach students to read outside their comfort zones and encourage them to use their imaginations, to challenge themselves first and others later. We must teach that being able to admit when you are wrong is a sign of personal growth and development. And we must model this behavior ourselves and be open to the possibility that our students will catch us in the same mistakes we teach them to avoid, and delight in that possibility.

We talk further with Liberal Education’s Christen Aragoni and each other about not just agreeing to disagree but allowing yourself to see an argument from another person’s point of view.

Abortion is one of those topics that, in today’s climate, can make or break a relationship. How did you become and remain close friends?

Bertha Alvarez Manninen: We were friends way before any of this stuff came up in our discussions. We established a foundation that neither of us was willing to break. I’m not going to lie—I have cut off relationships with people when disagreements reveal a fundamental difference in our moral character. For example, I just cannot have a close relationship with someone who exhibits blatant racism. My disagreements with Jack have never betrayed anything morally questionable about him as a human being.

Jack Mulder Jr.: Bertha is willing to believe that people are usually coming to the conversation with goodwill, even if there are reasons they feel a particular way about a particular thing. She starts off with the position that, nine times out of ten, we do have something to talk about. We do care about similar things. I mean “we” generally, not Bertha and me, because then it’s ten times out of ten.

Are there issues on which someone is simply wrong?

Bertha: I have absolutely cut off people for having what I perceive to be cruel or callous views. We can disagree, for example, on how best to reform our health-care system, as long as we can agree that we need some sort of reformation. If people say things like, “I don’t agree with health-care reformation because if you get cancer, and you’re not me, I don’t care.” That I can’t deal with. That’s not an intellectual disagreement. I don’t want to be friends with someone who’s mean and selfish. Again, those things have never been an issue with Jack. Never in any of our disagreements—and there have been many—have I once questioned his commitment to kindness.

Jack: To have a conversation characterized by respectful and rational dialogue across differing views, you have to hold a view that can at least pass muster in a rational conversation. One of the things about racism is that there actually isn’t any such thing as biological race. It doesn’t pass scientific muster. Thus, racist beliefs don’t have rational grounds.

On the other hand, you can talk about what racism is. You can talk about how we understand race, because it’s a complicated concept. We can discuss the idea that race is no longer the same type of axis of oppression that it once was—I think that’s false, but we could talk about it. If someone harbors openly racist views, you can’t have a rational discussion. You can’t get off the ground.

Bertha: Jack and I actually agree on important things. I agree with the pro-life side, for example, that fetuses are not inconsequential beings. I don’t think that they’re clumps of cells. I don’t think that getting an abortion is like getting a haircut. I am willing, and have done so on paper, to call out the pro-choice movement for that kind of language. That makes my position harder, but I’m willing to embrace that difficulty.

Jack also agrees with me that abortion is a socioeconomic concern and has ties to racism and poverty. We need more equity. We need more rights for women. We need more free and quality child care. If you want to take care of abortion, you need to go to the reasons women are getting abortions. Those are important tenets that we hold and allow us to cross the aisle in ways that perhaps other people don’t, or can’t, or haven’t.

Jack: One of the things that has helped us have a dialogue about these things is that we’re willing to stand apart from what often forms the pro-life pack or the pro-choice pack, where each pack has certain beliefs a card-carrying member cannot question. Well, actually, sorry, you have to talk about that. You can’t treat abortion as merely one issue without realizing that people are going to have abortions if they’re forced into bad choices by socioeconomic circumstances. If you don’t address that, it’s always going to be a problem.

How do you help students to have these conversations and be more open and thoughtful in thinking about issues?

Bertha: When I teach, I present both sides of an issue, with a strong article or essay about the topic from the different viewpoints. I give equal time to either side and present each viewpoint as sympathetically as possible. I like to teach issues that even I’m kind of lukewarm about. In the abortion debate, for instance, I ideologically believe that reproductive rights have the stronger argument, but when a pro-life person talks, I think, “Yeah, okay. I could see that,” because I have certain reservations myself. Same thing with the right to die. I’m sympathetic to the idea that people have a right to decide for themselves that they don’t want to suffer. At the same time, there are questions about sufficient safeguards and euthanizing someone society doesn’t deem valuable.

Jack: You have to cultivate a classroom atmosphere in which you can get people to understand, “We can talk about this, and we can disagree.” You have to carefully choose the readings that can help do this and that are vivid enough to show students what people think on both sides of an issue.

Occasionally, I’ll even assign a piece that I’ve written. I don’t want them to think that ethics and philosophy are just an endless barrage of competing opinions, and nobody ever makes up his or her mind. People actually do make up their minds. Their instructor has made up his mind about something. I also want them to see that I’m not going to treat my view as immune to criticism. There isn’t a view that doesn’t have difficult things it needs to own up to.

Has a student ever caused you to rethink your view?

Bertha: In my philosophy/religion class, we do a section on prudentialism, or pragmatic belief in God, versus evidentialism: Is it permissible to believe in God if there is little or no evidence just for practical reasons—you might get into heaven, it feels good, it’s comforting—versus should you only believe in God because there’s evidence for God? Eventually, we get into a conversation about whether it’s permissible to sacrifice truth for convenience. I’m of the idea that a painful truth is preferable to a nice lie. A student, though, told me about leading his troop in Afghanistan. He is an atheist. They were under attack, and one of his mates was lethally shot. As they waited for help, his mate asked, “Do you think I’m going to heaven?” My student said, “Yeah, of course I do. Of course I believe you’re going to heaven. You’re almost there.” My student wrote this in a paper. He says, “Do I believe that? No, I don’t. I believe that when he died, that was it. Was I going to tell him that? No, I wasn’t.” That made me rethink my commitment to the view that you should always opt for a hard truth.

Jack: I have an example from last fall. You have to draw some hard lines about what kinds of things the state can get interested in, like blood donation, or bone marrow donation, or what kinds of organs you might be called upon to donate. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to that question, not that it’s impossible but that it’s hard. I generally believe that if you’re in a unique position to offer assistance, you should. One student said, “Look, I have a really rare blood type. People call me all the time trying to get me to donate blood, so how often would I be obliged to say yes?” When people offer those things from their own perspective, they tend to have a certain vividness and importance that can cause you to rethink or bring more nuance to your viewpoint.

Bertha: Another example is from when I was teaching twelve or so years ago. A young man confided in me that his girlfriend got pregnant. They were going to keep the baby and get married. Then they got news that the baby had markers for Down syndrome. My student was like, “Okay, well that’ll make things more difficult, but fine.” But without his knowledge, his girlfriend got an abortion, which she’s legally entitled to do, at the very least. He was absolutely distraught. An ethicist needs to take any kind of harm seriously, and so his experience made me think long and hard about what role men should have in an abortion decision. I’ve written quite a bit about that because of that student.

All of this is important in educating students to become democratic citizens. Can you talk about that larger picture?

Bertha: I teach an article that argues it is immoral to believe things based on insufficient evidence. Your beliefs affect your actions, which in turn, affect the world in various ways. You therefore have a moral obligation to make sure your beliefs are rational and sustainable. For example, one time a student wrote that she was against universal health care, or any kind of social safety-net program, because it was in the Bible that “God helps those who help themselves.” Except that it’s not in there. Benjamin Franklin actually popularized that in Poor Richard’s Almanack. So, someone believes something, which affects how she votes, on the premise that God believes this thing, and that’s just false. People in a democracy have power to shape the world they live in, and they need to be responsible with that power. That entails critical thinking and having sufficient knowledge, and that’s what I’m here for. I am here to help shape better, more responsible, and more ethical human beings.

Jack: In a democratic citizenry, it’s important to be humble. To be humble enough to say, “Well, that’s an interesting challenge, and I might need to think about it for a little while.” Technology doesn’t do us a lot of favors in this. The whole “you have to get it inside of 140 or 280 characters” is not helping us. Donald Trump is not a humble man—he’s the apex of pride and a braggart in our contemporary political milieu. But he’s also not a blip. He’s a symptom of our larger unwillingness to engage with one another in deep and meaningful ways and of our insistence that we have to be able to counter everything right away. It’s all about perception—you can never appear weak, you can never say,
“I need a little time to think about that.”

Bertha: I started to notice that my students perceive nuance as a weakness. I teach an essay in which the author claims that the arguments for atheism are stronger than those for theism. But he doesn’t claim that the theists are necessarily irrational. Inevitably, at least one or two students say that this concession destroys his argument. Just admitting that the other side might not be crazy is now, apparently, seen as a weakness. You can’t have nuanced discussions anymore, and that’s concerning. I don’t see a way out of this horrible polarization until we can start going back to a position of nuance.

Do we have any hope for getting back to nuance as a first step?

Bertha: Teaching some form of critical thinking—it doesn’t necessarily have to be philosophy—from early on is probably one of the best chances we’ve got. I already do it with my kids. If we’re eating at the dinner table, and my oldest says, “Well, I believe X,” I ask, “Well, have you ever thought about Y? Have you ever looked at it from this way?” We need to start that from early on, and we’re just not doing it. We’re not doing it around the dinner table. We’re not doing it in schools. The media doesn’t help. There is hope, but the things we need to do to get there are not being done, and that worries me.

Jack: We have to take our hope from person-to-person interactions. It isn’t that important that I use a bumper sticker to flag myself as somebody who thinks like you. It’s more important that you get to know me. Tribalism isn’t more important than friendship. Our echo chambers have a lot of problems, but we’re only going to be able to fight them one person at a time, one friendship at a time. There are moments when there might be an opening to ask, “Why do you hold that view?” I’m not saying the door is always open. Sometimes it’s actually unsafe to try to rationally engage someone who holds an irrational opinion. At the same time, if you never look for those doors to open, and you never walk through them when they’re presented, then that will result in more polarization.

The preceding conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Notes

1. See Descartes’s own synopsis of his Meditations on First Philosophy.

2. Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract, (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).

3. For an extensive list and explanations of many logical fallacies, see Robert Arp, Steven Barbone, and Michael Bruce, eds., Bad Arguments: 100 of the Most Important Fallacies in Western Philosophy (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2019).


Bertha Alvarez Manninen is associate professor of philosophy at Arizona State University and Jack Mulder Jr. is professor of philosophy at Hope College. They cowrote Civil Dialogue on Abortion (Routledge, 2018). They would like to thank Maggie Pavlick for her help with this article.

 

Arguing the Point, Not the Person

The desire to cultivate a society that can heal from its extreme divisiveness should be, at least, a starting motivation to debate a topic rather than to verbally attack a person with an opposing viewpoint. When an ideological difference exists between two people, both must resist the inertia that would pull them apart and into their own echo chambers. Think about the following steps when discussing a contentious topic.

Allow your conversation partner to speak.

• Make sure not to represent the other’s view or caricature him or her.

• Be charitable and avoid vitriolic debate.

• Consistently check in to ensure you’re being fair and are understanding the other person’s argument.

• Find common ground to cultivate respect.

Self-criticism is also key: If you catch yourself saying that you can’t imagine how someone could believe the opposite of what you believe, ask yourself why. Have you read deeply from a serious writer who disagrees with you? Can you even name one? Which of their premises do you grant? If the answer to all of these questions is no or none, that is almost certainly evidence that you have not thought through your own view.

— Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder Jr.

 

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