APOLOGIA is a column in which I address issues having to do with faith, science, and ethics, and in which I try to use careful reasoning and evidence to seek what's true. Undoubtedly I will end up disagreeing with at least a few people. And probably I will make a mistake here and there. My hope is that I will show respect to those with whom I disagree, that I (and others) will learn from my mistakes, and that we'll get closer to what's true, good, and beautiful. - Hendrik van der Breggen
July 09, 2015
The good of disagreement
Hendrik van der Breggen The Carillon, July 9, 2015
The good of disagreement
can be tough, but also good. Disagreement, when done well, can develop
general, a virtue is an excellence of character, where character is a
disposition (tendency/ habit of mind) to act in accordance with what's true and
Apostle Paul famously set out the theological virtues: faith, hope, and love
(the greatest being love). Prior to Paul, Plato presented these virtues of the
soul: wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. Augustine later
"baptized" Plato's virtues, adding them to (and explaining in
accordance with) Paul's list. Other well-known virtues include kindness,
patience, gentleness, and self-control.
understood, virtues are centered in God's holiness and love.
about intellectual virtues? Enter:
Princeton University philosopher Robert P. George. Much of what follows is
gleaned from Professor George's contribution to "The Cost of Freedom: How Disagreement Makes Us Civil," a conversation between George, Cornell West,
and Rick Warren.
a preface to understanding intellectual virtues, George prioritizes truth and
emphasizes, following John Henry Newman (1801-1890), that truth should be pursued
for its own sake. Knowledge of truth, though it has instrumental value, is an
intrinsic good (i.e., it's good, period).
following John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), George points out that freedom of
thought and freedom of expression are essential conditions of truth-seeking. (We
could be mistaken, so such freedom allows us to learn from others.)
then, to excel at truth-seeking we should cultivate personal character traits
conducive to achieving knowledge of truth. These are the intellectual virtues.
are three such virtues.
Commitment. In our discussions and debates, we should commit ourselves to discerning truth. Truth is (as mentioned) an
intrinsic good. But sometimes it takes work to discover. And sometimes it's
unpopular. Commitment is a love of truth, which calls for tenacity and courage.
helpful is proficiency in logic and critical thinking.
Friendship. In our efforts at discerning truth with our interlocutors, we
develop what George calls the "bond of truth-seeking." Humans are
relational (not merely intellectual) beings, so disagreement—good
disagreement—provides opportunity to develop personal relationships rooted in
disagreement yet stronger than the disagreement.
so? By striving in a common project to arrive at truth together. By listening to each other and learning from each other,
even in the midst of stress. This enriches us and ennobles us.
bond of truth-seeking takes truth to be more important than agreement. Thereby
this bond provides a ground for ongoing friendship in spite of disagreement.
Humility. We are fallible creatures. Our reason is imperfect, and our sin/
self-centeredness darkens the intellect and weakens the will. We should
humility, according to George, doesn't mean we should give up on reason and
knowledge of truth. Nor should we conform to cultural orthodoxy. Rather, we
should acknowledge our limitations and enter into respectful dialogue plus
careful, fair-minded, truth-seeking study.
should listen to others and learn from others, so those others, if not
mistaken, will correct us—i.e., teach us. Humble truth-seekers will welcome
the other hand, if we are right—which we sometimes are—we shouldn't feel
superior. Nor should we shut down our conversations with those who disagree.
Rather, we (again) listen. Thereby, says George, our interlocutor teaches us
"why reasonable people of good will can disagree."
a bonus, if we still have the better reasons after running the gauntlet of
criticism, we "now have deeper understanding of truth because we have
knowledge that arguments against it fail."
of truth can be held humbly, in other words. And further argument and its
accompanying friendship, the bond of truth-seeking, can help us draw nearer to
truth and help us flourish socially.
live in a world in which many people disagree over much. Let's encourage the
development of virtue—intellectual virtue included.
(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, teaches
philosophy at Providence University College. The views in this column do not always reflect the views of Providence.) For further reading: