More and more, I find myself attempting to have difficult conversations with people who hold very different points of view. And I consider our general failure to have these conversations well—so as to produce an actual convergence of opinion and a general increase in goodwill between the participants—to be the most consequential problem that exists. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another. The fact that it is so difficult for people to have civil and productive conversations about things like U.S. foreign policy, or racial inequality, or religious tolerance and free speech, is profoundly disorienting. And it’s also dangerous. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value. Conversation is our only tool for collaborating in a truly open-ended way.
[. . .]
. . . conversation is our only hope.
1. A successful conversation produces a convergence of opinion and an increase in good will between the participants.
2. The failure to have such conversations is the most consequential problem that exists.
3. Apart from violence and other forms of coercion, all we have is conversation with which to influence one another.
4. Our failure to have civil and productive conversations about important matters of controversy is dangerous.
5. If we fail to do this, we will fail to do everything else of value.
Should we agree with any or all of these points?
Ad (1). We shouldn't agree with this. It would not be reasonable to do so. Neither of the two conditions Harris specifies are necessary for a successful conversation. I have had many successful philosophical and other conversations that do not issue in agreement or convergence of opinion. And I am sure you have as well. What these conversations issue in is clarification. The topic becomes clearer, as well as its implications for and relations with other topics, the arguments on both sides get better understood, as well as one's views and one's interlocutor's views. Mutual clarification, even without agreement, even with intractable disagreement, is sufficient for successful conversation. If we come to understand exactly what it is we disagree about, then that is very important progress even if we never come to agree.
In fact, I consider it utopian and indeed foolish to think that one can achieve (uncoerced, rational) agreement on truly fundamental matters. On some matters rational agreement among competent interlocutors is of course possible; but on others just impossible. If this is right, then agreement on all important matters of controversy cannot be an ideal for us, a goal we ought to pursue. Ought implies can. If we ought to pursue a goal, then it must be possible for us to achieve it. If a certain goal is impossible for us to achieve, then we cannot be obliged to achieve it.
A reachable goal is clarity, not agreement; toleration, not consensus.
Consider religion. Is it a value or not? Conservatives, even those who are atheistic and irreligious, tend to view religion as a value, as conducive to human flourishing. Liberals and leftists tend to view it as a disvalue, as something that impedes human flourishing. This is an important, indeed crucially important, question. Does Sam Harris really think that, via patient, civil, mutually respectful conversation, no matter how protracted, he is going to convince those of us who think religion important for human flourishing to abandon our view?
If he thinks this he is naive. I respect Harris, something I cannot say about some other New Atheists. But Harris is out beyond his depth in philosophy and religion. And he has a foolish belief in the power of reason to resolve the issues that are of deepest concern to us. Reason is a magnificent thing, of course, but Harris appears to have no inkling of its infirmity.
As for the other condition, an increase in good will, surely it is not necessary for a successful conversation. The quantity of good will may stay the same in a discussion without prejudice to the discussion's being productive. It may even decrease. Admittedly, without a certain amount of initial good will, no fruitful conversation can take place. But it is false to say that a successful conversation increases good will.
Ad (2). If (1) is false or unreasonable, then so is (2). Suppose I have a conversation with an atheist such as Harris and fail to budge him from his position while he fails to budge me from mine. Such a conversation can be very productive, useful, successful, not to mention transcendently enjoyable. The life of the mind is of all lives the highest and best, and its being these things is not predicated on achieving agreement about the lofty topics that engage our interest while quite possibly transcending our ability to resolve them to our mutual satisfaction. The failure to meet Harris's conditions need be no problem at all, let alone the most consequential problem that exists.
Ad (3). Harris tells us that it is either coercion or conversation when it comes to influencing people. This is plainly a false alternative. One way to non-violently and non-coercively influence people is by setting a good example. If I treat other people with kindness, respect, forbearance, etc., this 'sets a good example' and reliably induces many people in the vicinity to do otherwise. In fact I needn't say a word, let alone enter into a conversation. For example, with a friendly gesture I can invite a motorist to enter my lane of traffic. In doing so, I ever-so-slightly increase the good will and fellow feeling in the world, profiting myself in the process. In this connection, a marvellous aphorism from Søren Kierkegaard, Journals, #1056:
The essential sermon is one's own existence.
But more importantly, there is teaching which in most cases is a non-violent but also a non-conversational mode of influencing people. For example, teaching someone how to change a tire, play chess, use a computer. If I have a skill, I don't discuss it with you, I teach it to you. Much of elementary education is non-violent but also non-conversational. Teaching the alphabet, the moves of the chess men, the multiplication tables, and so on. There is nothing to discuss, nothing to have a conversation about. The elements have simply to be learned. Controversial topics open to debate will arise late on. But there is no point in discussing the Peano axioms if one does not know that 1 + 1 = 2.
What about ethical instruction? Only a liberal fool would advocate conversations with young children about theft and murder and lying as if the rightness or wrongness of these acts is subject to reasonable debate or is a matter of mere opinion. They must be taught that these things are wrong for their own good and for the good of others. Discussion of ethical niceties and theories comes later, if at all, and presupposes ethical indoctrination: a child who has not internalized and appropriated ethical prescriptions and proscriptions cannot profit from ethical conversations or courses in ethics. You cannot make a twenty-year-old ethical by requiring him to ake a course in ethics. He must already be ethical by upbringing.
Harris's thesis #3 is plainly false. But this is not to deny that respectful conversation is much to be preferred over coercive methods of securing agreement and should be pursued whenever possible.
Ad (4). Harris tells us that it is "dangerous" to not have civil and productive conversations about important and controversial matters. But why dangerous? Harris must know that even among competent and sincere interlocutors here in the West who share may assumptions and values we are not going to come to any agreement about God, guns, abortion, capital punishment, same-sex 'marriage,' the cluster of questions surrounding 'global warming' and plenty of other economic, political, and social questions. How can it be dangerous to not have interminable, inconclusive conversations? Conversations that go nowhere? That are more productive of dissensus than consensus? That contribute to polarization? Well, I suppose you could say that if we are talking we are not shooting.
Ad (5). Harris is really over the top on this one. Exercise for the reader: supply the refutation.
Conclusion: Conversation is overrated. If it is our only hope we are in very bad shape. We need fewer 'conversations,' not more. And we need more tolerance of opposing points of view. More tolerance and more voluntary separation. We don't need to talk to get along. We need to talk less while respecting boundaries and differences. We need less engagement and more dis-engagement. Everybody needs to back off. Trouble is, totalitarians won't back off. They want a total clamp-down on belief and behavior. And it doesn't matter whether they are 'liberal' totalitarians or Islamist totalitarians.
So there looks to be no way to avoid a fight. Unfortunately, it is reason herself who teaches that it is often the hard fist of unreason that prevails and settles the issue when the appeal to reason is unavailing.