The Sad Prospects for Reasoned Agreement


“And what kind of man am I? One of those who would gladly be refuted if anything I say is not true, and would gladly refute another who says what is not true, but would be no less happy to be refuted myself than to refute…”

That is Socrates (Gorgias 458A). I put that quote on all of my syllabi, as a reminder to my students of what I like to call the “philosophical disposition.”

And here’s part of the lead-in to an essay by Ezra Klein detailing the research of law professor Dan Kahan:

Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements.

Aaack! The piece goes on to explain the evidence for what Kahan calls “Identity-Protective Cognition,” according to which “individuals subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values.”

This kind of work, along with other research in social psychology (e.g., cognitive biases), can lead one to be pessimistic about the prospects of reasoned human agreement. But perhaps part of the value of good philosophical training, especially if it includes the development of the philosophical disposition, could be that it helps people resist this and other forms of motivated cognition. Perhaps. That at least seems worth looking into.

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