The Most Important Question You Can Ask…

Alexander C. Cartwright ’13

Changing ideas is difficult; especially when it comes to our most cherished beliefs. Even though it’s easy to pass on a well-written and well-argued article to a friend, there is little chance that the article is going to have much effect on his on his or her thinking. I have found a very effective strategy for debating and speaking with those who don’t necessarily agree with me: ask the following: What hypothetical or theoretical fact, logical mechanism, statistic, or conclusion would cause you to change your mind regarding that position?

Though most of us do not have an answer to this question for each position we hold, we should. What would cause you to believe that the welfare state is a good thing? That socialism is the superior method of social organization? That natural rights exist? Or even that Jesus died for our sins? By having an answer to this question, you are acknowledging that there is a hypothetical case in which you would change your position, given that your hypothetical threshold (whatever it may be) is met. By acknowledging that there are circumstances under which you would change your mind, you are demonstrating that your position is not one that you dogmatically hold but rather one that is the product of, at least some, critical reflection.

Answering this question for each and every debate we have is so fundamental that I’m comfortable saying, those who have no answer it are not worth talking to. If someone explains that there is no hypothetical or theoretical world under which they would change their position, then it is not possible to debate with them. They have, by responding ‘no’, acknowledged that there is nothing that would convince them that their position is wrong or unfounded. Those who respond ‘no’ to this question are by definition being dogmatic, not valuing the pursuit of truth, showing disconcert for reflecting on their own positions, are not practicing the virtues of intellectual honesty, and quite possibly are ‘irrational’ individuals.

I’ve found that even though many people see the value in answering these questions, they feel as if they are conceding their own positions by admitting a theoretical circumstance in which they would change their mind. This is incorrect. By simply acknowledging that if, for example, socialism led to a more just and prosperous society to capitalism, one would advocate socialism, he is not at all conceding his position or undermining the strength of the argument for capitalism; in fact, by admitting that the set of circumstances in which you would change your view, makes your own view appear to be the product of critical reflection and thus stronger.

One might object to this method of forcing your opponent to be intellectually honest by pointing out that it appeals to consequentialist intuitions. By asking someone under what circumstances he or she would change his or her position, or asking the person to imagine a hypothetical outcome that would cause the person to change an opinion, the question explicitly appeals to the ‘consequences’ and has nothing to say about any intrinsic good, value, or honor that comes from the act of holding a position or doing what one believes to be correct regardless of consequence. This is a reasonable and correct objection. This question is consequentialist in nature; I don’t see that as any mark against it.

In order to stay on the pursuit of truth and practice the virtue of intellectual honesty, there should be a hypothetical or theoretical fact, logical mechanism, statistic, or conclusion which would cause us to change your minds for each and every position we hold. Furthermore, before any debate, we need to be asking our opponents this question not only so that we can make sure they are worth debating, but also because it allows us to discover which points we need to appeal to in order to win the argument.

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