The Legitimate Difference of Opinion

by Dr. Bruce Arnold

If you don’t have the proper tools, you can’t get the job done. You can use a knife for a screwdriver, and get away with it some of the time, but sooner or later you will bugger the head on the screw and then what?
So, from time to time, I will talk about some tools that are needed for proper thinking.

Or, to be really clear, for doing philosophy.

The ancients understood that philosophy is the root of all understanding. What we now think of as “science” was called “natural philosophy” for instance. Yet the change in term, from natural philosophy to science, is revealing. Philosophy is not just about knowledge, it is love of wisdom. There is knowledge of a topic, and then there is wisdom about it. Much of our science has no wisdom at all. Our knowledge of how to do things has in so many cases far outstripped our understanding of whether or not they ought to be done. We can all think of numerous examples of technology gone haywire.

So, everyone does philosophy, whether they know it or not. Most people do applied philosophy — the search for understanding of one particular subject. When you learned to figure out unit prices in the grocery store — 4 quarts of milk costs twice what one gallon costs, although it is the same quantity — you were doing applied philosophy.

And then there is the kind of philosophy we think of when we commonly use that word: Socrates. Hume. Sankara. Nagarjuna. Wittgenstein. I’m not going to try to define it in this short post. No way. I’m just going to mention that and move on to the main point, having set it up.

So, tools for thinking. Tools for effective philosophy. Here’s one that is all too uncommon: the Legitimate Difference of Opinion. If I think a flat tax is the best way to balance the government’s need for money with the people’s ability to live free and prosperous lives, and you think that a progressive tax is a better way, we have an important difference of opinion. But it doesn’t mean that you are an evil usurper of people’s natural property rights, or that I am a greedy SOB who is insensitive to the human needs of my fellow citizens. You might care very much about fundamental rights as an important part of our national happiness, and I might be constantly on the lookout for ways to meet the needs of my neighbors. We just disagree about the way to get there.

All too often, in political debate especially but in most any arena you can think of, people do not recognize the legitimate difference of opinion. If you don’t agree with me, you are wrong, and furthermore bad. I see this all the time, in matters large and small. Among other things, such as displaying a certain kind of insecurity, and probably arrogance to boot, it is also intellectually dishonest.

And you can’t think straight — effectively — if you aren’t honest. Period.

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