Over the last week I’ve been reflecting on a number of related blog posts on whether it is OK to be “mean” to other bloggers, especially academic bloggers.* One surprisingly forthright defense of being mean can be found in one of Jonathan Chait’s February blog posts entitled “Why I’m So Mean,” where Chait argues that it is OK to be mean to people who make false or misleading claims and lack sufficient qualifications to speak authoritatively on their subject matter. For Chait, being mean is a public service because it helps non-experts in “distinguishing legitimate arguments from garbage.”
Of course, Chait’s being mean only directly indicates which arguments Chait believes are garbage. For Chait’s meanness to serve as a reliable signal of argumentative quality, it must be the case that he actually is a reliable judge of argumentative quality in his field. And that’s one problem with being mean: it often indicates that you aren’t a reliable judge of argumentative quality. Bloggers get mad and nasty when they’re emotionally invested in the outcome and emotional investment signals potential bias. After all, being mean isn’t the only way to help people sift through good and bad arguments. You could simply stick to the argument or state a clear, dispassionate judgment about whether a particular argument is legitimate or not.
To my mind, though, the best reason not to be mean is due to what Rawls called the fact of reasonable pluralism. Reasonable pluralism is the state of a society that obtains when rational, honest and thoughtful individuals disagree about even the most significant matters in life. Rawls believed that reasonable pluralism was the natural “outcome of the free exercise of human reason under conditions of liberty” (PL, 144).
Reasonable pluralism is the natural result of what Rawls calls the burdens of judgment. These are features of evidence, concepts and social constraints that produce disagreement among reasonable and rational persons:
a. The evidence—empirical and scientific—bearing on the case is conflicting and complex, and thus hard to assess and evaluate.
b. Even where we agree fully about the kinds of considerations that are relevant, we may disagree about their weight, and so arrive at different judgments.
c. To some extent all our concepts, and not only moral and political concepts, are vague and subject to hard cases; and this indeterminacy means that we must rely on judgment and interpretation (and on judgments about interpretations) within some range (not sharply specifiable) where reasonable persons may differ.
d. To some extent (how great we cannot tell) the way we assess evidence and weigh moral and political values is shaped by our total experience, our whole course of life up to now; and our total experiences must always differ. Thus, in a modern society with its numerous offices and positions, its various divisions of labor, its many social groups and their ethnic variety, citizens’ total experiences are disparate enough for their judgments to diverge, at least to some degree, on many if not most cases of any significant complexity.
e. Often there are different kinds of normative considerations of different force on both sides of an issue and it is difficult to make an overall assessment.
f. Finally … any system of social institutions is limited in the values it can admit so that some selection must be made from the full range of moral and political values that might be realized. This is because any system of institutions has, as it were, a limited social space. In being forced to select among cherished values, or when we hold to several and must restrict each in view of the requirements of the others, we face great difficulties in setting priorities and making adjustments. Many hard decisions may seem to have no clear answer (PL, 57).
This is quite a list, but it is surely an adequate one. It explains why people of goodwill disagree, and disagree radically, and probably always will if they are permitted to reason under free conditions.
I find that most people reject implicitly reasonable pluralism. When they attempt to explain why others disagree with them on moral, religious or political matters or even interpretations of data and models, they point to some blind spot, culpable ignorance or character flaw in their opponent. To get an idea of what I’m talking about, consider a counterexample. Of the hundreds of academic bloggers I have read, Tyler Cowen best respects reasonable pluralism. I know of no academic blogger who is more willing to respect his opponents’ arguments as legitimate (though I can think of some ties). I won’t name those who I think fare poorly. Suffice it to say, they are legion and span the ideological spectrum.
But people should accept reasonable pluralism. And they should allow that acceptance to affect how they treat others. Rawls did not always set the best example. While he was famous for his saintly kindness to his critics, he wrote off Nozick, his own colleague, and other libertarians as unreasonable. Recognizing reasonable pluralism is thus a demanding spiritual and moral standard that even its preachers fail to live by.
Being mean to one’s interlocutors is usually inappropriate under conditions of reasonable pluralism. It’s just wrong to be mean to rational and reasonable people of good will even if being mean is a helpful signal. If reasonable pluralism holds, your theory about why others disagree with you is probably wrong. At the very least, due to the fundamental attribution error, you’re more likely to attribute people’s views and behaviors to character traits rather than how they think through a particular problem at a particular time.
Of course, a person who agrees with Chait is going to argue that her interlocutors aren’t people of good will precisely because she thinks she can demonstrate that they are obviously wrong. As a result, they deserve to be treated with derision. But I think that much more often than not, we simply have too little information to have justified beliefs about why others disagree with us. After all, we bloggers mostly encounter one another only in blog form, with all the relevant personality and historical information that leaves out. In the blogosphere, I’m not sure we even have enough evidence to reduce our epistemic credences in cases of epistemic peer disagreement (assuming we can even justify our judgments about who our epistemic peers are!). We just don’t know the ultimate sources of disagreement in specific cases. And in the absence of sufficient evidence of vice, we should be respectful and kind.
*This post is not evidence of what I think of my recent interlocutors.