I realized the other day that I didn’t know why I disliked avocado, as I had never tried it.
Of course, this is a silly position to hold. If you haven’t tried a food, there’s not really a way to know if you like it or not.
In my defense, I’ve tried guacamole, made from avocados, which I didn’t like, but to be fair has other things in it that are not avocado.
So, I tried some avocado, and as it turns out, I’m just not that big a fan. The flavor is fine, it’s a texture thing for me.
And just like that, even though I didn’t change my belief about my relationship with avocados, my opinion about them is better formed.
Now, you could use the little story I’ve just told and run away with the conclusion that the only way to know if something is good or not is to try it for yourself.
However, that’s not what I’m going for.
There’s a lot to be gained from the experiences of others. People have tried drinking gasoline. I’m told that it’s quite foul and potentially deadly. So, I’m not ever going to drink it myself, and I don’t even have to try it to understand the downsides.
I’m currently reading 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson. This quote struck me as being almost perfectly tangential to something I was thinking about. “[U]nless your life is perfect, what you know is not enough. You remain threatened by disease, and self-deception, and unhappiness . . . You are subject to all these things . . . because you are too ignorant to protect yourself. If you just knew enough . . . you would suffer less.”1
Here, I think he’s taking a stab at the human condition. In my opinion, there’s more to it than just our lack of knowledge but gaining knowledge will frequently help us reduce our suffering, even if it’s not enough to solve the human condition on its own.
The next question we need to ask is, “where should we look for this knowledge?”
If we were to flip this question around, we instead ask, “are there any kinds of knowledge that are off-limits?”
I think the only really honest answer is that it depends on if the idea causes harm.
Imagine for a moment that I am entertaining the idea of kicking a dog. Maybe it just pooped on me and I’m feeling retributive. Or not, it doesn’t really matter.
As long as I don’t act on the idea and kick the dog, then no harm comes to the dog. Likewise, merely entertaining the idea causes me no harm. I could think about it for a second or for an hour, but as long as I didn’t do it, no one would be worse off.2
Consequently, it is the action of kicking a dog and not the related idea that has any moral weight.
While I could choose to kick the dog after entertaining the idea, it’s important to note that the action was something I chose.
Something that is at least a little bit special about humans is that we’re not given over completely to our animal instincts. We can measure our actions, and choose not to do the things that represent a knee-jerk or instinctive reaction.
What stops us from reacting only with the first idea that pops into our head?
Well, other ideas.
If even I wanted to kick a dog, I wouldn’t because:
- It would cause unnecessary suffering.
- I would feel bad afterward.
- People would judge me harshly for it
- I might go to jail for animal abuse.
As it turns out, what stops bad ideas from turning into bad actions is good ideas that counter them.
Of course, this is a situation where the ideas are clustered at the extremes.
Other situations, most situations, have ideas spread out more along that same spectrum. The biggest problems occur when you think you have a really good idea, but it actually falls towards the middle or “bad” side of the spectrum.
As librarians are wont to say about research, “you don’t know what you didn’t find.”
That’s why you need to engage with ideas that you initially find distasteful. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be critical of them, both in the academic and popular sense, or that you shouldn’t accept or reject what you learn on basis of a serious conflict with your moral compass.
What I am saying is that you need to authentically engage with the ideas before rejecting them outright.
There’s always a chance that you will encounter ideas that are further up the “good” side of the spectrum than your own. If you adopt them, you will be better off.
There’s also a chance that there’s nothing better, at which point you have affirmed what you already believed. In which case you’ve been made aware of the weakness in this particular idea or argument, so when you encounter it again in the future you will be able to respond knowledgeably.
That’s part of the reason that you should engage with people who hold views opposite to yours. The human mind has a quirk. It’s really good at building things up or tearing them down, but it struggles to switch between those two frames for the same idea or object.
The good news is that someone who opposes you is generally going to have an easier time seeing the flaws in your argument than you would. Engaging with them may not change their mind, and may not change yours, but it might help you strip away or refine the weak ideas in your argument.
If you refuse to engage with those you disagree with, you’re mostly just hurting yourself. But you also shouldn’t deny other people the option to engage. They may not be in it to agree, but if they want to be the fullest, best versions of themselves, they know they have to at least consider things they don’t initially agree with.
How do you know that you have the best ideas you could possibly have?
You don’t, and the only way to improve your lot is to keep engaging with new ones.