Who are you calling stupid? was: Adamant Rudeness

From: Dan Fabulich (daniel.fabulich@yale.edu)
Date: Wed May 03 2000 - 00:34:33 MDT

Ah, the rudeness argument. Lee, I think you've catalyzed this minor war
at least three or four times over the years... I happen to have found it
pretty enlightening. :)

My two cents:

It is obvious that one can imagine lots of examples in which being
courteous would maximize the speaker's self interests, in much the same
way that you can imagine being dishonest might maximize self interests.
It's also easy to see that, at least in some cases, courtesy can maximize
total interests of individuals, a la utilitarianism. In general, the idea
that one should be courteous at least SOME of the time, even in cases
which aren't strictly "self defense," has its place in any
consequentialist act theory. (Though I doubt that you hold such a theory,

More generally, I think I can make the stronger case that this doesn't
just happen in rare instances. By and large, WHENEVER you're trying to
convince someone that something is true, *whenever* you make a statement
in the simple indicative mood, you're almost certain to be more convincing
to a person if you don't call them an idiot or refer to their ideas as
idiotic, and, of course, they're very likely to be happier about it to the
extent that you avoid doing so, people being as they are. (Though it
might be better if they were otherwise.)

So, if you happen to be an act consequentialist, there's a strong argument
in favor of taking "be courteous" as a rule of thumb.

You might admit all this, even admitting to me the advantages of courtesy
as a rule of thumb, but you might go on to say "but whenever courtesy gets
in the way of honesty, honesty should win out. If I believe that X is
stupid, then, it's usually dishonest to withhold information like that.
And, since stupidity is rampant, as everyone agrees, courtesy all too
often has to take a backseat. So I quite often SHOULDN'T be courteous;
quite often indeed."

As I see it, most of those who have criticized you on this argument try to
challenge your view that it is dishonest to withhold that your opponents
or your opponents' ideas are stupid. More generally, even if they ARE
stupid, some would say, you still shouldn't SAY as much.

I'm going to take a different tack entirely and make a completely
different argument: most people, most ideas, even the most wrong ones,
aren't stupid. On the contrary, most views are quite reasonable.
They're the sort of views that reasonable and respectable people hold.
Even to the extent that they're wrong, it's VERY understandable how a
reasonable person could come to believe what they believe. More
generally, almost every position which various thinkers have taken
seriously over the years has been a reasonable position to take, even if
many or even most of those positions are wrong.

Anyone who reasons in day to day life, yet turns out to be mistaken in
some matter or other, must be familiar with examples in which reasonable
beliefs, even the MOST reasonable beliefs, by almost any standard of
reason, turn out to be wrong. Smokers live to be a hundred. People win
the lottery. Information is incomplete. Best guesses are only guesses,
and all too often turn out wrong.

Certainly those cases of incomplete information lead us to conclude
wrongly even when our capacity to reason is working perfectly. But even
broader and totally contradictory positions in ethics, politics and
religion can look reasonable if you view them with an eye towards the
principle of charity, as well as the principle of humanity.

Could you imagine a reasonable person holding that negative freedom is NOT
an important good? What sort of first principles would they have to adopt
in order to believe such a thing? What sort of experiences would a person
have to have in order for them to conclude that something like that were

What sort of axioms would have to be right in order for a belief in God to
be justified? Or for atheism to look implausible? What would it be like
to believe this? How did that guy so-and-so, an otherwise excellent
reasoner, come to reach this conclusion whereas we did not?

Working from a principle of charity and a principle of humanity, you'll
find that it's easy to imagine yourself, or someone else whose capacity to
reason is just as great as your own, coming to believe some things which
are drastically different from what you believe. If you can't see this,
then you may lack a certain very important virtue which we human beings
would do well to cultivate: empathy. When you imagine a reasonable person
believing the ideas, it becomes harder and harder to justify to one's self
the claim that this idea or that person or that movement or that -ism is

Try it and see.


      -unless you love someone-
    -nothing else makes any sense-
           e.e. cummings

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