The study of philosophy might be a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself, but a specific side effect often goes unmentioned. By respectfully engaging with others’ ideas, especially those with which we ourselves disagree, we can better understand why others believe the things they do. This, in turn, has a civilizing effect on disagreement.
I believe the American political environment would be well served by an infusion of philosophic principles.
Often, public policy at the state and federal levels is viewed as a fight with life and death consequences. The curtailment of abortion rights might lead pregnant women to take more drastic, medically unsafe measures in private. The Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, if not well regulated, can leave the gates open to continued mass shootings. And the legalization of some recreational drugs could trigger a cascade of unsafe usage with a high probability of secondhand harm.
Arguments over public policy are so fraught because, in actuality, the content and structure of our laws is a matter of life and death. But that doesn’t mean we must dehumanize our opponents on the other side. When we descend into our own corner, refusing to challenge our opinions with cogent counter-argumentation, not only do we become worse at defending our own views, we begin to dismiss the opposing side’s often legitimate concerns as ignorant and unworthy of attention.
The thing is, human rationality is a supremely flawed tool. People aren’t as smart as they think they are. Often, the views we believe we hold as a result of careful thought are primarily caused by unconscious biases, personal dispositions and the influence of our environment and upbringing.
Multiple social science studies have found that, when it comes to political elections, voters often choose their desired candidate or party before they decide where they stand on the issues. This might be why, in the United States, there is a political party for those who believe gun rights represent liberty and abortion rights facilitate murder, while there is another party for those who believe gun rights facilitate murder and abortion rights represent liberty. There is no logical basis for why so many people hold to one of the aforementioned conjunctions, but why so few Americans are pro-gun rights and pro-abortion rights, or anti-gun rights and anti-abortion rights.
The reason public opinion on guns and abortion is divided in such an uneven way is because of the influence of political parties. Republican and Democratic politicians continually perform an act of inception: we choose a side, it tells us what to think, then we think it, believing it was our decision to do so.
If we aren’t quite as responsible for our policy preferences as we believe, that means the same must hold for our opponents, as well. It becomes immoral, then, to define the other side as evil and uncaring — most simply can’t help but believe the things they do.
The antidote to this is not to cease arguing, however, but to argue in a better way. It’s better for us to attack our opponents views than to attack our opponents, themselves. They are not the true enemy, which is instead the dangerous thought they espouse. This is doubly true in a democracy; though it may be hard to change a political opponent’s mind, doing so may also flip an additional vote to your side. Attacking them personally, however, will not accomplish this. Instead, it may even harden your opponents’ belief.
In my experience, philosophy serves as a vital cleanser for public discourse. There is always another side, and there is always something new to consider. By treating our own beliefs with an air of skepticism, and challenging ourselves with foreign views, we can become smarter, more responsible citizens who are less susceptible to demagoguery. ■