Months have passed since my last entry. In the interim, I finished my master’s degree, moved my family halfway across the country, helped my wife welcome our fourth child into the world, and began a new job teaching philosophy at the U.S. Air Force Academy. I had been wondering how and when I would resume these reflections on civility, when I happened upon the following quote by John Stuart Mill:

“persons, even of considerable mental endowments, often give themselves so little trouble to understand the bearings of any opinion against which they entertain a prejudice…that the vulgarest misunderstandings of ethical doctrines are continually met with in the deliberate writings of persons of the greatest pretensions both to high principle and to philosophy.”[1]

Mill’s observation comes in the context of an extended defense of utilitarianism—an ethical system he helped to champion—against a host of objections, some of them rooted in mere ignorance. One need not be a utilitarian in order to appreciate the quote. Indeed, if Mill’s claim holds true, then the phenomenon he describes extends far beyond his particular dispute, with relevance for many a contemporary debate.

Doubtless, I am guilty of committing the very fault Mill so eloquently describes. Yet I have also known what it’s like to be the object of those “vulgarest misunderstandings”—to have my views vilified and represented with all the accuracy of a straw man. In a culture as divided as ours, who hasn’t had this experience?

It was out of those sorts of situations that I first developed an interest in the subject of civility. I pondered what it would take—what sorts of societal practices would be required—to enable people like Mill, myself and those whom I’ve misunderstood to make a fruitful defense in the public square. It seemed to me then, and still does, that we would need to adopt a certain style of disagreement: namely, one constrained by the intrinsic worth of our opponent. By pursuing our disagreements in this way, we increase the chances of gaining clarity about each other’s beliefs—and with that clarity, newfound avenues for reconciling with our neighbor.

How, exactly, does this work? If you’ve followed my blog from the beginning, then you’ve heard me explore the mechanics at some length. If you haven’t—and even if you have—I encourage you to check out my master’s thesis, where I delve into these and other ideas concerning our civic health.

Civil (that is, respectful) disagreement may not be the only ingredient needed for resolving the widespread misunderstandings Mill laments. Nonetheless, it strikes me as indispensable, a practice worth cultivating as widely as we can.

 

[1] Mill, J.S. “Utilitarianism.” Classics of Moral and Political Theory, edited by Michael L. Morgan, 5th Edition, Hackett, 2011, pp. 1079-1080.

 

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