Balancing conviction and open-mindedness

For as long as I’ve taken ideas seriously I’ve been preoccupied with this question: Is it possible to believe in something with complete conviction while also remaining open to the possibility that you might be wrong about it?

This is an intellectual riddle, but also a practical one. It’s hard to get anywhere in life if you don’t commit completely to a course of action; but at the same time, when you really put your head down and go for something, it becomes harder to tell if or when you’ve lost your way.  This line of thinking is one reason why I tried out so many different careers in my 20s: I was always afraid of committing to the wrong path so I didn’t commit to any path at all (and consequently, didn’t get very far).

One of the things I love most about being a parent is that the responsibility of taking care of Jay and Wally compels me to act.  Those boys run fast, and if I waffle or take too long to deliberate about a choice, they’ll pass me by.  As a result, I make a lot of mistakes with Jay and Wally- I’m lenient when I should be stern, or I lose my temper when even a moment’s reflection would have made it clear that yelling at Jay was only going to make the situation worse.  But another thing I love most about parenting is that there’s always tomorrow- the chance to get up and do it better than I did the day before.

I’ve got an essay up on The Millions today called “The Moral Value of Surprise: Lessons from Literature for a Fracturing Country” that talks about these themes (though not in the context of parenting).  The essay is based on an article by the philosopher Martha Nussbaum which describes a process for reaching the truth that is neither dogmatic nor endlessly deliberative.  I consider Sussbaum’s argument in light of the recent contraception debate and the more general trend among Americans to cluster into communities of like-minded people:

The contraception debate — and relative détente — reflects contributions from both Mrs. Newsome’s perspective and Strether’s perspective. Consider just one piece of that debate, the issue of teenagers having sex. On the one hand most parents are against teenagers having sex, because they think it’s wrong or risky. On the other hand, most parents also take a pragmatic Stretherian perspective developed from their own experiences: Given that kids are going to have sex, let’s help them do it as safely as possible.

The fusing of these views — the moral and the practical — is possible because parents and teenagers know and (for the most part) understand each other: They live in the same homes and all parents were once teenagers themselves. But now imagine how the contraception conversation would be different if all parents lived on the West Coast and all teenagers lived on the East Coast, or if no parents had ever been teenagers themselves.  Mutual misunderstanding and stridency would abound…[continue reading]


2 thoughts on “Balancing conviction and open-mindedness

  1. I went to high school in the late 60’s and early 70’s, when abortion was illegal in my home state (Illinois) and the Pill was not in wide use, at least not among my peers. Several girls in my senior class got pregnant before graduating, and a couple of them bore their children either before or shortly after they graduated from high school, and a fair number of girls traveled to Wisconsin to have legal abortions. The boys in my high school class just missed the tail end of the draft and avoided going to Viet Nam, although many would have fled to Canada or or least tried to get a student deferment. Many had long hair and smoked a lot of pot and did underage drinking.

    So, it was with shock that I have learned of the strident attitudes of many of my former classmates, mostly male, who are chiming in on the contraception debate by saying they don’t want tax payers to pay for birth control. (Never mind that the issue might be more properly framed as a freedom of religion in that some religions do not believe birth control should be used and therefore do not want to provide coverage in their health care policies.)

    I find that I am more of a “Strether” type the older I get, and I just cannot understand the shift in many of my former classmates to a more “Newsome” posture on many topics.

  2. After reading your excelent article in The Millions I was moved to add the following:
    The Search for Truth … the frank, honest, and fearless search for true causes gave birth to modern science: It turned astrology into astronomy, alchemy into chemistry, and magic into medicine.
    One unerring mark of the love of truth is not entertaining any proposition with greater assurance than the proofs it is built upon will warrant. – John Locke, philosopher (1632-1704)
    The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie – deliberate, contrived, and dishonest – but the myth – persistent, persuasive, and realistic. – John Fitzgerald Kennedy, (1917-1963)
    In influencing the expanding evolutionary mind, the power of an idea lies not in its reality or reasonableness but rather in its vividness and the universality of its ready and simple application.
    Further it is helpful to recall that the power of any idea lies, not in its certainty or truth, but rather in the vividness of its human appeal.

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