My friend Paul sent me a few thoughts about my recent post on holding fewer opinions. He’s formulated an approach that involves holding fewer opinions about other people’s opinions. This seems valuable, and related to a post I wrote four years ago entitled “Why Do You Think What You Think?” My introspective conclusion then was that I can’t always assign praise or blame for the contents of my thoughts; extending this to other people is a good example of what Arnold Kling calls cognitive empathy: instead of demonizing people who disagree with you, suspend judgment or at least try to understand where they might be coming from. (It’s probably best to build up such a practice first in matters that aren’t very consequential – and we all have our limits regarding the opinions we find acceptable!) The flip side is not deifying your own thoughts, which we could express in the following aphorism: “if you think well of your own opinions just because they’re yours, then you’re not thinking well.”
6 thoughts on “Opinions about Opinions”
Are you familiar with the practice of “steelmaning”? It’s the opposite of setting up a strawman. When you steelman you describe the opinion of someone you might disagree with so well that he would agree with your statement of it. It’s little bit like playing devil’s advocate.
The idea is that until you can think of some idea or theory on its own terms, you are not entitled to criticize it. I would add that you are not entitled to criticize the person who holds that opinion either.
The possibility for error in human life is immense. People don’t come with an instruction booklet. Ayn Rand said to make all possible allowance for honest error. We see that in Andrei the communist in We the Living and Rearden the conflicted in Atlas Shrugged. I don’t thing she always practiced what she preached, but her idea seems sound. “There are no evil thoughts, except the refusal to think.” Judging when an idea is “too large” to be held without evasion is a delicate task. You have to know an enormous amount a person’s history and knowledge before you can be sure, except in the most egregious cases.
Oops, I got off-topic. Oh well, this is what you inspired me to think about!
Hi Kurt, thanks for sharing your thoughts. Andrei in We The Living and Rearden in Atlas Shrugged are excellent examples. I’ve heard the term steelmanning but I don’t tend to use it (along with other newfangled terms like gaslighting). My challenge with cognitive empathy is that some positions strike me as deeply wrongheaded and I become impatient with people who advocate them; usually such positions intersect with what I see as conspiracy theories or power-laden ideologies. Perhaps I need to talk more often with people who hold such positions…