Identity, Truth, and Stoicism in the Face of Crumbling Norms of Civil Discourse


Yo. Check it. You can’t have a functioning democracy without at least two things: a concern for truth and civil discourse. Although perhaps too obvious to state, democracy requires citizens have a concern for truth. Without it, policy will be ineffective at best. Y’see, in (many conceptions) of democracy, policy represents, to some degree, the will of the people. If “the people” are more concerned with short-term political one-up-manship rather than quality of evidence and argument, a country will be governed by policy disconnected from the best evidence and arguments.

A political community often contains an assortment of views on the same issues. While some differing views might each partake in some aspect of the truth, there’s no reason to suppose all will. I know this will come as a shock to some of you, but some beliefs just are false. 

Let’s assume it’s better to get everyone to buy into a policy or view than it is to force it onto a segment of the population. If each is equally convinced of their own ‘rightness’, how do we not only reach agreement but also lead those holding objectively false views into the light of reason–without outright coercion? That is, how do we get people with false beliefs to change their minds and endorse the policy based on the best evidence?

Think about how it is you discarded previously held views that turned out to be false. Did your change of mind occur by someone shouting at you and calling you an idiot? Did it arise after being ignored? After being mocked? My guess is probably not. 

While not the only means of effecting doxastic change, engaging in respectful discourse probably increases the odds. It also helps when people present compelling arguments, counter-arguments, and evidence. In other words, tone, attitude, and content all matter for changing people’s minds. I’ll call this loose cluster of methods and attitudes, the norms of civil discourse. [Note: There’s a fair amount of philosophical literature on the exact content of the norms of civil discourse. For my purposes, a broad intuitive account is sufficient].

In this post, I want to explore the ethical dimensions of belief, and how the various things we cling to sabotage our path to truth and civil discourse. By drawing on Stoic ideas, I’m going to suggest we all have within us the resources to reconcile the competing passions that have lead to the current breakdown in civil discourse and its corrosive effects on good policy-making. 

Setting the Stage
In perhaps one of the best known psychological studies of the 20th century, subjects are asked to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. As they do so, they receive feedback on how well they are able to make the distinction. He’s the twist (one of them, anyway): The feedback they receive has nothing to do with their performance. It’s all a sham. Before they even began the task, experimenters had randomly pre-sorted the subjects into three groups: Those that will be told they are excellent, average, or below average. To summarize, experimenter feedback is predetermined regardless of how subjects perform and has no relation to subject performance

In the next phase of experiment, the fact of the predetermined feedback is revealed to the subjects. That is, the subject are told that the feedback was totally unrelated to their task performance. Subjects are then asked to self-assess their ability to distinguish between real and fake suicide notes. 

Of the 20 assigned to the ‘good-guesser’ group, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the predetermined nature of the experiment was revealed to them? E.g., how many people who were told they were good-guessers evaluated themselves as average or below average? Keep that number in your head. Now, of the 20 who were told they were bad guessers, how many do you think changed their self-assessment after the reveal?

Now that you have those two numbers in your head, I’m going to give you a choice. I can tell you the real numbers from the study, or I can invent some fake numbers to tell you.

Which do you prefer that I do?

I’ll reveal the real numbers in a moment but I want to make my first claim which is central to Stoic philosophy (it actually comes from Plato but the Stoics adopted it…): Every soul is deprived of the truth against its will. By this, the Stoics mean that it is human nature to want truth and knowledge. We have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. If we have false beliefs, it is only because we have been mislead or we have not yet been taught.

When I asked you whether you wanted me to tell you the true numbers or fake numbers for the study, you very likely wanted the true ones. I’m even willing to go so far as to say that you felt pulled to know the truth. And if I’d given you the fake ones, you’d have probably been upset with me. Human beings have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge. You just experienced it yourself.

Not so fast though. What is the content of the study that you want to know the truth about? After debriefing, only three of the 20 subjects who had been told they were good guessers didn’t continue to believe that they were above average! Of the 20 who had been told they were below average, only three of them revised their beliefs about their abilities too! (For anyone familiar with all the p-hacking issues in psychology, this effect size isn’t one that can be waived away.)

I just finished telling you that a drive for truth and knowledge is intrinsic to human nature. But here we have a well-designed and multiply replicated study in which subjects were given the truth yet refused to take it into account in revising their self-conception. Their self-assessments were completely impervious to countervailing evidence. Only 15% of subjects in each group responded to evidence that undermined a prior belief.

What gives? Well, an affinity for truth isn’t the only component of human nature. As Aristotle observed, we are by nature social and political animals. In other words, we have an intrinsic affinity for being part of a group. Being part of a group requires two things: First, that we share the cluster of beliefs, behaviors, and values particular to the group of which we are a member. Second, that others see us as sharing those beliefs, behaviors, and values.

Let’s return to the study. Why didn’t the subjects merely accept the truth of what the experimenters were telling them and revise their self-assessments accordingly? To quote the study:

It is proposed that personal impressions and social perceptions become relatively autonomous from the evidence that created them. As a result, subsequent challenges to that evidence, and hence to the impression it fostered, will have surprisingly little impact— far less impact than would be demanded by any logical or rational impression-formation model. (Ross, Lepper, and Hubbard, 1975)

In other words, subjects began to self-identify and see others as identifying them as members of particular groups—‘good guessers’ or ‘bad guessers’. To generalize, when you challenge someone’s beliefs, you are not only challenging beliefs but their identity. In order for people to relinquish beliefs tied to their identity they must also change their identity. 

But that’s not even the most difficult part: They have to surrender their membership in a group. Groups are defined, in part, by their beliefs. If you no longer share the same core beliefs as that group, not only can you not self-identify as a member but the other members can no longer identify you as a member. When a group identity is central to someone’s life—like a political or religious group—you best believe they’re going to reject evidence before they compromise the relationships that imbue their lives with meaning.

Stoicism, Truth, and Civil Discourse
I began by telling you that we have an intrinsic affinity for truth and knowledge but even if you hadn’t read about the above study, that claim is on the face of it worthy of ridicule. Everything we’ve witnessed in the the current political climate undermines it. Now we have an explanation: Another intrinsic human drive—belonging to and preserving identity and group membership—completely sabotages our natural affinity for truth.

I’m going to argue for two solutions that come out of ancient Stoic thought. Stoic thought can be boiled down to two practices: 
  1. Discover what is necessarily true of the world and 
  2. Determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. 
Below I’ll suggest what I take to be three facts about the world and then I’ll  suggest what you can do about them. The first applies to how we self-identify and the second applies to how we conceive of others. The third, to how we handle our political environment.

Fact 1 About the World: If you self-identify primarily in terms of a group that is defined by particular beliefs you will sabotage your path to truth.

On it’s own, merely being a social animal doesn’t undermine our affinity for truth. It’s the nature of the particular groups with which we identify that do. People ARE interested in truth but only so long as personal identity and group membership aren’t threatened. From the individual point of view, this means that individually we can be part of the solution to civil discord if we reconceptualize or, at least, re-order our identity. Instead of primarily self-conceiving as a member of a particular political group, I can self-identify as a member of the group “rational animal.” 

What are the values and behaviors of members of the group “rational animal”? Good reasoning and a concern for truth. In other words, self-conceiving in this way pulls us away from a conclusion-based identity and towards a process-based identity. A reasoner examines the strength of reasons (evidence and claims) and the logical relationships between reasons and conclusions. ‘Rational animals’ are primarily concerned with quality and method of justification for beliefs rather than dogmatically clinging to and defending particular beliefs.

Importantly, when we identify primarily as rational animals, it shifts our disposition towards others: First, we more likely come to view those with whom we disagree as partners rather than adversaries in the shared enterprise of pursuing truth. We become more calm and charitable because we want to learn rather than impose or defend a view. 

Our concern for the process of justification–i.e., why someone believes something–helps us become better listeners since we can only evaluate justifications if we listen carefully. Not only are we better off for being better listeners, but we likely diffuse much of our interlocutors’ animosity when we present ourselves as genuinely interested in why they hold certain beliefs. In short, we begin to turn down the dial on the reactive emotions and attitudes that have rendered political discourse so intractable. 

Epistemic Humility: We ought to always take seriously the possibility that our current view is mistaken. Self-conceiving primarily as a rational animal makes it easier to change our views in the face of new or better evidence and arguments.  Consider for a moment how many beliefs about the world you hold. There are probably an almost infinite number. Now consider all the other people in your country. How likely is it that there are more than a handful that share each one of your millions of beliefs? The odds are staggeringly small. Now consider the millions of people with whom you don’t overlap on at least some beliefs. What are the odds that YOU, in the face of widespread disagreement, are the only one in the country that holds all the true beliefs about the world? 

As someone who primarily identifies as a reasoning being, you are not wedded to any particular conclusion but to standards of evidence and a process. So, your views can more easy be responsive to new or better evidence and arguments.

Fact 2 About the World: Conceiving of our Political Others as Evil or Idiots or Both is a Poor Strategy for Changing Minds
Stoic thought offers us insight in how we ought to conceive of others if we hope to mitigate the culture war and our own emotional outbursts that obstruct the pathway to truth. I argue we ought to adopt the Stoic teaching to act as though “every soul is deprived of the truth against its will.” 

There are two ideas contained here. First, humans have an affinity for truth (despite the fact that other variables interfere with its attainment); and second, as members of the human species, we are ‘rational animals’–which implies we are all sensitive to reasons and arguments (although, perhaps to varying degrees).

Here is Epictetus counseling his student on how to handle someone with an obviously false and harmful view:

Student: Yes, but she is in error.
Epictetus: Well, act on her idea. As long as you don’t lay it out for her, though, she has nothing besides her own idea of right and wrong to guide her. So don’t get angry at [her] for being confused about what’s most important, and accordingly mutating from human to snake. (Discourse I. 26)

Marcus Aurelius had similar thoughts in this somewhat amusing example:

Are you angry with him whose armpits stink? Are you angry with him whose mouth smells foul? What good will this anger do you? He has such a mouth. He has such armpits: It is necessary that such an emanation come from such things–but the man has reason, it will be said, and he is able if he takes pains, to discover wherein he offends. Well then, and you, too, have reason: by your rational faculty stir him up his rational faculty; show him his error […]. (Meditations Bk V. 28)

And here is more of the same from Epictetus again:

Well, when a guide meets up with someone who is lost, ordinarily his reaction is to direct him on the right path, not mock or malign him, then turn on heel and walk away. As for you, lead someone to the truth and you will find that he can follow. But as long as you don’t point it out to him, don’t make fun of him; be aware of what you need to work on instead. (Discourse II. 11. 3-4)

Think of it this way. When a student reasons incorrectly on a math problem, we don’t get angry with them. We assume they genuinely wanted to get the question right: They aimed for truth not falsity. No one would think it reasonable to yell and get emotionally upset because of the student’s error.  

Instead, as a teacher or peer, we adopt a compassionate disposition and work through that student’s reasoning process to help discover where they erred. I submit that reconceiving of our cultural and political *others* as truth-seekers–inadvertently making errors in judgment in good faith–will dispose us to be more kind and dial down our own animus both of which opens the door for civil discourse. [All the while we should adopt a stance of epistemic humility; i.e., we should continue to take seriously the possibility that our own view is mistaken unless it aligns with a consensus of relevant experts. Then more confidence is warranted.]

I can hear some of you, including my past-self, mocking this idea:

“This is lunacy. Have you ever read the comments section of an article on vaccines, climate science, GMOs, Trump, Obama, etc…? There is no way these people are even remotely deprived of the truth against their will. Their ignorance is entirely willful.”

This may be true for what I call the ‘true believers’ but I don’t think it’s true of the vast majority of people.  There’s selection bias in the comments sections of the internet. Those with the most extreme views and loudest voices are going to be disproportionately represented. Let’s not make the mistake in believing those holding extreme views and attitudes are representative of all with whom we disagree. 

I think the vast majority of people are responsive to argument and evidence when its presented in a way that doesn’t immediately threaten their identity or make them out to insufferable morons. Treating people as though they are genuinely concerned with truth raises the odds that they will be open to evidence and argument. And even if agreement isn’t reached, we can all count as a win the gain in civility.

Final Fact: You Can’t Outrun Disagreement
In closing, I want to dispense (draw on?) some wisdom from an American philosopher. In Fed #10, James Madison is trying to solve what is called The Republican Dilemma: How do we give power to the people but at the same time avoid the tyranny of the majority; i.e., avoid a large faction from ganging up and trampling the rights of a minority group. Part of his answer involves arguing against Rousseau. Rousseau’s solution revolves around ensuring that political communities have relatively homogenous values, interests, levels of wealth, and ways of living. If everyone is in the same ‘faction’, the worry of some factions suppressing others is mitigated. Madison rejects Rousseau’s view on the grounds that it is human nature for factions to form. He says

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. (My italics for emphasis)

Here is the insight: We can’t outrun disagreement. So long as people have different talents, values, and interests as well as the liberty to pursue them, we will disagree with each other. Even in our own families we must live with and get along with people with whom we deeply disagree. 

Again, we can appeal to the Stoics’ useful advice: Figure out what is necessarily true of the world then determine what is and is not in your power to do about it. Knowing that you will never outrun disagreement with people with whom you must live, you must determine how to respond to it. They ain’t going nowherez and neither are you. 

Are you going to demand that everyone believe what you believe? Are you going to get whipped up into an emotional frenzy with every dissenting view? Are you going to treat each person with whom you disagree as though they are idiots? This path is exhausting and yields no fruit. Trust me. I’ve tried it. I’ve tried it a lot.

To summarize, I instead suggest the following: (a) avoid identifying primarily as a member of a group defined by particular beliefs; (b) Identify primarily as a member of the group of people concerned with the process and standards of justification for beliefs rather than with conclusions; (c) take seriously the possibility that you could be wrong, particularly if you aren’t an expert and your view conflicts with a consensus of experts; (d) engage with others as though they are deprived of the truth against their will; (d) avoid the temptation of identifying the loudest and most obnoxious as representative of a group (availability bias, sampling bias–for those keeping track!).

Drawing on Kant and Rawls and every major wisdom tradition, there’s perhaps an even simpler way to think about the problem of disagreement and the norms of civil discourse: Employ the principle of reciprocity. How would I like to be treated by those with whom I disagree? You may be tempted to reply, “Ya, but…they aren’t very nice to me!”  Ok. But barring some special cases, do you increase or decrease the likelihood of persuading them to your view when you adopt acerbic strategies? I mean, what are you even trying to achieve in engaging? 

And what about the state of civil discourse? We are all all responsible for the tone of discourse within our purview–regardless of what others do. That is in our respective control. Nothing I can do will guarantee someone’s civility towards me, but this doesn’t mean I can’t affect the probabilities one way or the other.

Jefferson and Adams: A Beautiful Bromance 
A Case Study In Civil Disagreement
If there ever was a model for the kind of civil dialogue I’m talking about, it can be found in the friendship and correspondence between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. These two life-time friends and political adversaries wrote letters almost daily to each other despite fundamental political disagreement. They weren’t perfect though: After Jefferson won the presidency (against Adams, the incumbent!) they didn’t write to each other for 13 years. However, once the ice thawed, they resumed their regular correspondence in which they regularly disagreed, until both their deaths in 1826. (Crazy history note that boggles my mind: The two friends died only 5 hours apart. Adams’ last words were ‘Jefferson still lives’. But that’s not all. They died on July 4th) 

There is lengthy exchange of letters between the two in 1813–the year they had renewed their friendship. The topic concerned equality and how to ensure that the ‘pseudo-aristocracy’ (i.e., those whose status and power are a consequence of wealth and birth–not virtue, talent, and wisdom) don’t hijack government to their ends. Before addressing Adams’ view, Jefferson writes:

On the question of which is the best provision, you and I differ, but we differ as rational friends, using the free exercise of our own reason, and mutually indulging in its errors. [my italics]

Notice a few things: The appeal to the values of friendship; that is, they can disagree on fundamental matters while maintaining mutual respect and while avoiding animosity. The value of the relationship and civility supersede any outcome. Also important is the acknowledgment and mutual conception of both as appealing to reason while also admitting their mutual fallibilityeven under optimal conditions. 

Later, after presenting his arguments against Adams’ view, Jefferson writes,

It is probable that our disagreement of opinion may, in some measure, be produced by a difference in character in those among whom we live.

Here, Jefferson importantly acknowledges the more general point that different life experiences shape our respective assumptions about the world. We cannot expect those who haven’t lived our lives, met the people we’ve met, or shared the various circumstances that we have to hold the same views as us. Each of us experiences only a very minute subset of the human experience. And if our experiences shape our beliefs about the world, of course we will have different beliefs about the world, human nature, institutions, and so on… (Caveat: Relativism and infallibility don’t follow–people can still be wrong).

Disagreement produced by differing life experiences has implications for our basic assumptions about the world. From the point of view of the norms of civil discourse, Jefferson’s comments underscore the importance of mutually recognizing and acknowledging in one another the possible effects of our different experiences. I would venture that it is the failure of acknowledgement and consideration of differing experiences which draws out the reactive emotions.

Finally, in closing the letter Jefferson writes:

I have thus stated my opinion on a point on which we differ, not with a view to controversy, for we are both too old to change opinions which are the result of a long life of inquiry and reflection: but on the suggestions of a former letter of yours, that we ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other.

The take-away here is that we needn’t always agree. Sometimes agreement isn’t forthcoming. However, given that we cannot outrun disagreement, what matters at least as much as reaching resolutions is how we engage with each other. Also, on matters where we do disagree deeply, there is an obligation to explain to others our reasons for the views we hold. That is, we must be willing to submit our own justificatory reasons to rational scrutiny. We can’t simply demand that others agree with us.

Closing Thoughts
I study ethics and political philosophy. I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my research over the last couple of years. Every time I come up with what I think is a good idea, a voice in my head goes, “Hey, wait a minute. Didn’t my parents tell me this when I was, like, five?”  And I don’t think much of what I’ve said here is any different. Nevertheless, that fact that so many, including myself, forget to employ these common sense ideas testifies to the value of their reminder. 

Additional note regarding self and group identity in terms of beliefs: I think there’s an important distinction to be made between how we treat identity made up of empirical beliefs (observable facts about the world) vs identity made up of normative (i.e., value) beliefs. Without going into a lot of detail, I think there are good reasons for people to hold on more tightly to the value-based beliefs that form their identity. But I think we ought not hold on so tightly to an identity constituted by empirical beliefs. Doing so forces us into a position where we might have to deny a scientific consensus (think vaccine-safety denier, flat-earther, creationist, global warming deniers, etc…). This not only forces us to adopt dishonest strategies to maintain our beliefs and to dismiss legitimate argument and evidence but it undermines the important political role of empirical experts in forming policy. In clinging to empirical beliefs, as non-experts we apportion an inappropriate amount of credence to our own beliefs relative to those of a consensus of experts.

What I have said applies to the vast majority of disagreement. However, there are special cases where I’m not convinced such a conciliatory attitude is appropriate. Most obviously, this applies to how we deal with overt neo-Nazis deliberately intimidating the well-being of others. 

Finally, before I’m inundated with tu quoques, let me make the following brief comment. We can acknowledge all I have said above and also agree that there is a time and place in discourse for humor, rhetoric, satire, and sarcasm. In fact, they are what can make political discourse fun–especially when done tastefully and between friends. Furthermore, in some contexts, humor and satire have shown to be effective means of persuasion (google it yourself–there’s a lot of literature!). 

Finally, with respect to my failings, the Stoics present their virtues as aspirational; i.e., they recognize the human propensity to screw up sometimes despite knowing better. Nevertheless, they give us a target at which to aim as we bumble through life. I have screwed up and continue to screw up a lot in terms of acting on these norms of civil discourse but I’m working daily on hitting the target more than missing it.

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