Acton Institute Powerblog

The economic principle that could reopen humble, heartfelt dialogue

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If it’s true that “to err is human,” one might be tempted to conclude from today’s public discourse that we have already entered an era of Artificial Intelligence. Educated people once sought out other views, entertaining the notion that they may be wrong about any given matter. Now, increasingly, they won’t entertain anyone whose presence threatens their comfortable dogmatic bubble. The good news is that economic principles may hold the key to opening thoughtful dialogue in the new year.

The problem of unwarranted ideological self-assurance is a growing one. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last year found that 16 percent of Americans (including 22 percent of Democrats) had stopped talking with a family member or close friend over the presidential election. Some justify the isolation of the echo chamber as the price of political passion.

But in a new essay for Acton’s Religion & Liberty Transatlantic website, Steve Stapleton laments the wholesale dismissal of dialogue – the West’s historic crucible of an idea’s value. Recovering the West requires a return to rationality, he contends.

The refusal to countenance the mere possibility that our views may be less-than-infallible comes even as science underscores how little we truly know. Stapleton writes:

Ironically, this coarsening of society is happening amid a growing body of scientific evidence that demonstrates how the human brain can err in its conclusions and convictions. Some of this evidence comes from the field of behavioral economics. Research is discovering how and why we can sometimes ignore facts or reason in our decision making – particularly when they conflict with our preexisting understanding or strong desires. These kinds of errors surely exacerbate our growing incivility.

Stapleton cites both the works of behavioral economists, like Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler, and the unintended consequences caused by their preferred brand of “nudges” to show that every human being is flawed and fallible: both those giving and receiving the “nudge.” Getting more feedback from people who are not ideological clones may have yielded more successful results, Stapleton argues:

Reason is built upon learning and sharpened through dialogue. The importance of reason to human progress has been recorded since the ancient Greeks. Reason allowed primitive man to survive in a hostile world. Applied by theologians like Thomas Aquinas, reason gave birth to the concept of human equality. Reason ushered in the Enlightenment. All of man’s progress in the humanities, science, and industry came through reason.

But before dialogue can resume and reason can once again guide our conclusions, pride must be cast out. Pride, which some Church Fathers considered the root of every other sin, clearly has no place in the life of the believer. But for secularists, economics may be the route to a renewed civil discourse, Stapleton writes:

For those of us who are people of faith, our faith informs us that humility is a virtue and excessive pride a sin. We know that we need to work on making a habit of humility. But what about the non-religious among us who do not share these views? For those who do not believe in God but who do believe in “science,” perhaps the science behind behavioral economics can bring them to realize that they, too, will benefit from cultivating the habit of humility. If we are to stop “ignoring our own ignorance,” we will need to listen in order to understand, not merely to respond. Our discourse will become more civil if we will argue as if we were right, but listen as though we could be wrong. Perhaps with newfound humility, people of goodwill on both sides of our cultural and political divide can bring tolerance, reason, and civil discourse back to the public square in the new year.

Let’s hope that 2018 gives rise to fewer riots like those in Berkeley and Charlottesville, and more enlightening debates among people of goodwill.

You can read his full essay here.

(Photo credit: Public domain.)

Rev. Ben Johnson Rev. Ben Johnson is Senior Editor at the Acton Institute.

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