Why I Wanted to Debate Peter Singer

Published Date: December 18, 2016 | Topics: Philosophy

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Students, pay attention: There’s always value in listening to those who see the world differently.

By Robert P. George Dec. 18, 2016 4:57 pm ET

Photo: iStock

If you are a student at a college or university, you are there to learn—from the faculty, from the speakers who visit campus, and from each other. It is a precious opportunity.

Making the most of these years requires cultivating and practicing certain virtues, including dispassion, intellectual humility, openness of mind and, above all, love of truth. Your willingness to listen attentively and respectfully to intelligent people who challenge your beliefs, who represent causes you disagree with and points of view you do not share, will allow you to strengthen these virtues.

Take courses from professors who will challenge your views, whatever they are, and attend lectures by visiting scholars whose ideas you find uncongenial, because, after all, you may—as any of us may—be wrong. And even if you are right, seriously and respectfully engaging these thinkers will deepen your understanding of the truth and strengthen your ability to defend it.

None of us is infallible. Whether you are a person of the left, the right, or the center, there are reasonable people of goodwill who do not share your fundamental convictions. This does not mean that all opinions are equally valid or that there is no truth. Nor does it mean you are necessarily wrong. But they are not necessarily wrong either.

A person who has not fallen so deeply in love with his or her opinions as to value them above truth will want to listen to others who see things differently. This is the way to learn what considerations—the evidence and arguments—have led them to conclusions that differ from one’s own.

A few weeks ago, I was pleased to be Peter Singer’s conversation partner at a forum at Princeton (where both of us teach). The event was tied to his new book “Ethics in the Real World.” Mr. Singer defends the morality of practices—not only abortion but euthanasia and even infanticide—that I strongly reject. Yet I welcomed the opportunity to read his book, listen to his arguments, and talk with him. Why? Because I know how much can be learned from engaging an intelligent and well-informed scholar whose convictions on many issues of morality, justice and human rights are diametrically opposed to my own.

We all should be willing—eager—to engage with anyone who is prepared to do business in the currency of intellectual discourse by offering reasons, marshaling evidence and making arguments. The more important the subject under discussion, the more eager we should be to listen and engage—especially if the person in question will challenge our deeply held beliefs, even those that form our identity.

It is common these days for people to try to silence dissent from campus orthodoxies by questioning speakers’ motives, calling them names, disrupting their presentations, demanding that they be excluded from campus or disinvited. Sometimes students and even faculty members turn their backs to speakers whose opinions they dislike. Other times they simply walk out and refuse to listen. Of course, the right to peacefully protest is sacrosanct. But before exercising that right, we should ask: Might it not be better to listen respectfully and try to learn from a speaker with whom we disagree?

A willingness to listen and respectfully engage is vital to maintaining a campus milieu in which people feel free to speak their minds, consider unpopular positions, and explore lines of argument that may undercut established or fashionable ways of thinking. Such an ethos protects against dogmatism and groupthink, which are toxic to the health of any intellectual community. The maintenance of this ethos is the shared responsibility of every member of such a community—faculty, administration and students.

Mr. George is a professor at Princeton University and director of its James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

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