How Civility Allows Idea Orgies

Riffing off a Douglas Adams parable about intolerant tree dwellers, J. Daniel Sawyer makes a case for civility that includes a great paragraph about how ideas get it on with each other:  

Through most of the world, throughout most of history, the proper and expected response to a person who trespasses upon your ideology has been to cast them out of the tree–and often to slit their throat or bash their head in before you throw them out. Even more important than family, the ideas you have about reality, morality, and knowledge are the things by which we demonstrate our belonging to certain groups.

The problem is, when ideas are this important, civil discourse is impossible. But when we can share ideas, our ideas (as Matt Ridley puts it) can have sex. They affect each other, and they allow us to do more extraordinary things than we could do alone. Libraries, Internet forums, twitter, and universities (where they don’t enforce idealogical conformity) are essentially idea brothels with an open orgy policy.

A little later he adds,

The genius of civil discourse is that we can separate the ideas from the people who hold them, even while understanding that some kinds of goofy ideas, which I’ll call “evil,” can damage or pervert the personalities of the people who hold them. We can let our ideas have sex, we can cull the herd of culture through conversation, and never feel so threatened that we must hurl someone else out of the tree. Sometimes we might be tempted, but we know through experience that we don’t have to do it. As long as someone’s actions and character comport with civility and a willingness to accept responsibility, we don’t ever have to throw them out of the tree. In fact, the goofiest ideas will often move their owner to jump out of the tree voluntarily, because the goofier an idea is, the more prone its owner is to feeling insecure.

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Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • John Moriarty

    Reminds me of fight club, and more than in passing, the breaking of its first rule.

  • http://polyskeptic.com shaunphilly

    “In fact, the goofiest ideas will often move their owner to jump out of the tree voluntarily, because the goofier an idea is, the more prone its owner is to feeling insecure.”

    This simply is not true. Like even a little bit. Cognitive dissonance is a real thing, and people with silly ideas often feel quite secure about them, and argue for them genuinely. Even smart people do this. Especially smart people.


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