Practical advice: I’m too nuanced for my friends, what should I do about it?

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B. writes: I am a young 23 British man, about to start a PhD here in the UK. For several years now, I have been experiencing a marked shift in how I think about problems and events that I come across in the news, social circles, chats with strangers in the pub, etc.. Whereas once I could wholeheartedly defend and argue for the position that I thought of as ‘right’ or against something that was ‘wrong,’ that has now become much harder. 

I think this is just due to being more informed about specific issues; the world is a messy, complex place so it shouldn’t be surprising, to anyone, that the more we understand about an environmental, political, economic (or other) problem, the more difficult it will be to support a simple form of sound-bite position. The problem, whatever it is, should be addressed at the level of its own complexity. 

Yet many of my friends, family and colleagues, some of whom are exceptionally well educated and traveled, seem to quite vehemently oppose this way of thinking. As an example, I am often asked about the problems of climate change and its effects, which I will happily answer as it is an area of my field of study. But this has (increasingly) resulted in awkward disagreement when it becomes clear that the questioner was really looking for support for ‘their side,’ whatever that may be. I have had various comments along the lines of, ’He just sits on the fence,’ or ‘Don’t bother asking him, he will just say something complicated.’

The worst area is, of course, politics. Since the Brexit referendum (in which I voted to remain), political discussions have really been something to avoid. I do engage in some areas, but unlike climate science, I have no expertise to draw on, only what I can learn from experts and self-education. Recently, the possibility of Scottish Independence reemerged. This was a movement I supported, as a teenager I was excited by the political shake up. But some research and reading into what this process (following a Yes vote) would entail, has completely changed my mind. Because such as scenario would seriously affect the lives of family and friends, I engage with discussions about it. But my attempts to discuss the real mechanisms and their complex implications results in deaf ears and occasionally anger. 

I have seen you say several times that it is the job, moral obligation even, of a voting citizen to be informed, to use their ability to reason and any expertise they may have to best use their vote and their voice. I find this increasingly hard to do.

How should a concerned individual balance the level of nuance needed in complex discussions, whether taking place nationally or in a pub, with their own mental and emotional well-being, without falling to the methods used by climate deniers and unscrupulous politicians?

Are you sure you are not a Skeptic rather than a Stoic? Just kidding. Though your dilemma does remind me of John Sellars’ discussion of the long conversation between the Stoics and the Skeptics, which eventually resulted in the adoption of less rigid positions by both schools of thought. (Here is an essay where I discuss the episode, which is recounted more in depth in chapter 4 of Sellars’ The Art of Living.)

In fact, that diatribe between ancient schools is a good starting point to reflect on your problem. The Skeptics (which came in a variety of flavors, from Pyrrhonism to Academics lice Cicero) maintained that human knowledge is impossible. Consequently, we should hold onto any particular opinion, floating on a cloud of epistemic agnosticism. This was not just a theoretical position, but their recipe for eudaimonia, the life well lived. Your friends and family are experiencing precisely what the Skeptics warned against: anger and a generally troubled mind as a result of their fierce attachment to positions to which they have no business being attached.

The Stoics responded that of course human knowledge is possible, because we are endowed with the Logos, the ability to reason. Indeed, that (and our high degree of sociality) is precisely what distinguishes us from the rest of the animal world, by Zeus! Then again, they immediately qualified their position by saying that, technically, only sages acquire knowledge. The rest of us have to be content with more or less reliable opinions. (For more on Stoic epistemology see here.)

Wisdom here lies somewhere in between. While the Skeptics were right in pointing out that human beings are epistemically limited, so that Knowledge (note the capital K) is outside of our reach, it is also the case — as the Stoics insisted — that not all opinions are created equal, and that we do need to pick some positions over others in order to actually act in life. The bottom line is: endorse whatever opinion seems most reasonable and best supported by the available facts and act on it, but be prepared to change your mind in case better reasons or facts turn up to challenge that opinion. Which, seems to me, is exactly what you are doing. Don’t stop.

The problem, as you point out, is with other people and their psychological need for certainty and for feeling supported, aspiring to the security and comfort of belonging in a group of like minded individuals. One way to think about the issue from a Stoic perspective is the laid out by Marcus Aurelius:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

As members of the human cosmopolis, we have a duty to help our brothers and sisters, not just materially and psychologically, but also epistemically. Good reasoning, after all, was a type of arete for the Stoics, something we want to excel at. But as you noted, sometimes we fail in that duty, through no fault of our own. The backup attitude is also mentioned by Marcus:

“People exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them." (Meditations, VIII.59)

Endurance is highly valued by the Stoics, because we have limited powers to influence other people’s opinions. When we cannot agree, then the only other path open to us is to bear with them, for both our own and their sake.

Sometime ago I wrote an essay on virtue epistemology that may turn out to be useful in this context. Virtue epistemology is the epistemological equivalent of virtue ethics. In virtue ethics we do not ask “is action X right or wrong?” but rather: “how can I be virtuous?” Likewise, in virtue epistemology the focus is not on whether opinion X is right or wrong, but rather on whether we’ve done our due diligence in arriving at a (tentative) conclusion about X.

Here is a helpful checklist for the aspiring virtue epistemologist, which you could even make into a small printout and hand it to friends and family, as a conversation starter:

  • Did I carefully consider the other person’s arguments without dismissing them out of hand?
  • Did I interpret what they said in the most charitable way possible before mounting a response?
  • Did I seriously entertain the possibility that I may be wrong? Or am I too blinded by my own preconceptions?
  • Am I an expert on this matter? If not, did I consult experts, or did I just conjure my own unfounded opinion?
  • Did I check the reliability of my own sources, or did I simply do an internet search looking for whatever was convenient to throw at the other person?
  • After having done my research, do I actually know what I’m talking about, or am I simply repeating someone else’s opinion?

And let us not forget that as Stoics our knowledge should not be for its own sake, but aimed at making life  more bearable for everyone. As Epictetus reminds us:

“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)
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