Many years ago I believed that if people could just discuss issues calmly that they could resolve them. I no longer believe that. I now think that the best one can reasonably shoot for is that everybody will agree that the other people are not idiots.

The basic problem is that people don’t change their minds. Most people (including me) believe through their life what they believed when they were 20. I think there is a setting point where you decide that you’ve thought an issue through, and you don’t need to think about it any further. When you reach that point, you are immune to logical argument.

This applies to basic issues such as who is like you and who is not, and how you feel about those who are not like you, and what is right, and what is wrong, and what should happen when somebody does something wrong, and what you think about religion. These then build up into larger ideas, like political ideas, which govern your view of the world.

This doesn’t apply to less fundamental issues, like science or art, where people do change their minds.

This means that major philosophical divisions between people will never go away. There will never be a right answer.

This doesn’t mean that it is impossible to get anything done. The art of diplomacy is about working effectively with people you disagree with. The same is true of politics at its best.

I think that if more people agreed with me, it would be possible to get out of the partisan traps that are making it very difficult for the U.S. political parties to work together. Politicians today are often rewarded more for ideological purity than for accomplishments. The effect is that little gets done. If people realized that others will not believe as they do, perhaps they would put less emphasis on ideology.

Of course, by my logic, I will never convince anybody of this unless they already believe it.


  1. jldugger said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 7:29 am

    “Of course, by my logic, I will never convince anybody of this unless they already believe it. ”

    That’s not true; you just need to get to them while they’re young. Like the cigarette companies.

    Truthfully, I think the mark of a developed intellectual mind is being open to changing it. Of course, intellectuals were never popular, least so currently.

  2. ncm said,

    August 15, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

    It’s easy enough to convince me to change my mind, given good evidence, because I’m so frequently mystified by what I see, and unconvinced by my own hypotheses.

    However, the problem with harmonizing adherents of different political parties is not in obtaining agreement on facts. Generally each side considers its own facts (or myths) deciding and the other’s facts entirely beside the point. Remarkably many “conservatives” still consider the Bush/Cheney presidency a great success. They like having a war on, they seeing billion-dollar no-bid contracts handed out to themselves and their people, they like taxing the middle class to pay themselves interest, they like duping the lower-class into voting them continued power, and they especially like tricking the opposition into making one-sided concessions for the sake of comity. Why would they even want to discuss anything?

  3. Ian Lance Taylor said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 10:16 pm

    jldugger: good point, I’m currently experimenting on my daughter.

    ncm: I agree that agreeing on facts is not the issue. As you say, the problem is that people weigh the facts differently. Agreeing on how to weight the facts is the issue.

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