A Decent Respect

Is it an intellectual or a moral virtue to care about what other people think? Let’s set aside the tactical part of this question (we might want to at least pretend to care what other people think if it will make them like us better), and focus on the principle. It’s clear that other people aren’t necessarily right simply because they’re not us, but it’s also clear that some version of the modesty argument recently made on this blog should make us take seriously the possibility that other people in other circumstances are able to see something that we can’t, which goes the other way.

I’d like to add what I think is an important variation on the modesty argument. The easiest and deadliest source of bias is the astounding human capacity to replace “I’m good becuase I’m right” with “I’m right because I’m good” or even worse, “I’m right because I’m me.” That is, while there really is such a thing as being intellectually or morally superior by virtue of a sincere willingness to take the dictates of reason and morality as binding even when they don’t favor us, we must never lose sight of the fact that many more people believe themselves to be right than actually are right, and we can never be sure that we haven’t fallen into this trap; it’s the easiest thing in the world to let the good kind of “moral clarity” morph into the malignant, literally homicidal kind. A policy of listenting to others is a very good innoculation against this; if there’s one thing that almost no one else suffers from, it’s a scary irrational belief that you’re always right.

I think the authors of the Declaration of Independence hit just the right note when they wrote “When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Not bad for a bunch of dudes with wooden teeth and no indoor plumbing.

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  • http://www.catbirdseat.typepad.com Ray G

    Could I correctly say that “caring what other people think” can be more precisely defined as accountability?

    I’ve read a variety of studies over the years citing how people respond in certain sized groups; the smaller the group the more pronounced the effect on overall behavior, positive that is.

    I’m new to this blog, but I’ll read some older posts in a bit, but I don’t know that accountability (i.e. caring what you think about me) has to be exclusively moral or intellectual in its nature.

    What does spring to mind, is how this relates to natural law, and all of the old questions that brings up. “Is morality objective?” which gets to what is natural in our moral compass, or not natural for that matter. I think the inevitable effect of accountability within groups goes a long way in proving the objectivity of morality.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    A decent respect for the opinions of mankind would require them to *listen* to the opinions of mankind, and not just declare their own opinion and reasons. It takes a pretty low threshold of respect to bother to explain your reasons to them; it takes a lot higher threshold to bother to listen to them.