How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others?

A reader made this insightful comment on my recent post: “On Belief and Skepticism“:

I empathize with this exact scenario. I too am a dedicated skeptic, but find it difficult sometimes to “disagree without being disagreeable.” Many people I disagree with most fundamentally are the ones I love most profoundly. Do you maintain close relationships with people holding drastically different beliefs? It’s hard to separate the person from the ideas they hold especially when there is so much vested emotionally in those ideas. I hate the idea of “agreeing to disagree.” I’m not going to dance around the issue; We are adults and honesty is important. How do you approach these relationships?

Here is my reply.

As far as “disagree without being disagreeable” I suppose that’s a matter of attitude. You can disagree in a disagreeable manner, but you can also disagree in a non-disagreeable way. I don’t think you can disagree in an agreeable manner since that would imply you were agreeing. So it’s best to voice your disagreement with the ideas expressed, but not personally attack the person who expressed those ideas.

I do think that we can have relationships with people who hold different views. There are people in the most intimate lifelong relationships who disagree about politics, religion and other subjects. Still, it’s easier to have good relationships with people whose values and beliefs you mostly share, and marriages are more successful between persons who have similar personalities, as far as I know.

Yet it’s hard to separate people from their ideas. If I’m progressive and someone is a fascist, or if I’m an agnostic and someone is a biblical literalist, that’s very hard to overcome. In such cases, it would be hard to say: “she is ok, but she is also insane because she’s a biblical literalist and that involves holding contradictory ideas simultaneously as well as believing things that conflict with well-established scientific truths.” Yes, people certainly have a lot invested emotionally in their ideas, which in large part explains why they are so resistant to changing them, even in the face of good reasons to do so.

I think the best you can do is to decide when it’s worth it to enter into a polemic. For me, that’s when I feel the truth is being distorted, and the issue is important. For example, if someone says that Asians are inherently inferior to my racial group and we should kill them all, then that’s something to challenge. If they say that it is generally colder in Florida than in Minnesota then it probably isn’t such a big deal to let their ignorance slide.

Now suppose I encounter a gravitational, germ, or evolutionary theory denier. In such cases, I should be willing to enter into a polemic because any educated person knows these are well-established scientific truths. Furthermore, to deny them might entail someones jumping off a building thinking they’ll fly; not washing their hands before handling food; or counting on last year’s flu shot to work this year. (Viruses evolve quickly.) Of course, you probably won’t change their minds, since so many persons are willfully ignorant.

Now suppose you encounter a climate change denier. You tell them that the intergovernmental panel of climate scientists now claim with 98% certainty that humans are the cause of global climate change. But then you probably have to leave it at that. The fact that they are mistaken about climate change (and arrogant to think they know more about the subject than the world’s experts), probably doesn’t matter that much. True you might convince them not to vote for a climate change denier, but one vote isn’t that significant and their mistaken view is unlikely to change anyway.

Of course, if someone is getting upset or violent then you should agree with anything they say. After all Galileo recanted the Copernican view of the solar system in the face of the Catholic Church’s threatening his life. (Bruno had been recently burned at the stake for advocating such a view.) But among friends—and if someone is willing to kill you over your beliefs they shouldn’t be your friend—I think you just have to decide how serious the issue is and take each case on an individual basis.

I will say this; as I get older I let a lot more slide than when I was young. And that’s because you rarely change people’s minds—people are just emotionally attached to their ideas. After 30 years of university teaching, I can affirm that few people ever change their minds.

But when someone says: “let’s start another war,” or “let’s deny people health care,” well those claims hurt people. And if that doesn’t matter then what does? In such cases, you should probably enter into a polemic.

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2 thoughts on “How Far Should We Go in Agreeing with Others?

  1. Thank you for this eloquent response. As it so often is, the answer to my question is “it depends”.some relationships are more important than trying desperately to change an incorrigible mind. especially when it’s something as trivial as the temperature in Florida versus Minnesota. And sometimes the issue is worthy of engaging in debate, as in your healthcare example. thank you for your illuminating thoughs. I really look forward to your further posts.

  2. Thank you for the thank you. And you sound like a good thinker, which is good. As Pascal said: “Our whole dignity consists in thought. Let us endeavor, then, to think well: this is the principle of ethics.”

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