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The more certain we are that we’re right, the greater the chances that we’re wrong

One of these days I need to read The Brothers Karamazov.

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It’s a favorite of Jordan Peterson, who is my number one contemporary intellectual hero. Professor Peterson extols Dostoyevsky for creating villains who articulate a well-reasoned and compelling defense of their evil.

In contrast, Jordan shows little admiration for Ayn Rand, observing that her villains are two-dimensional caricatures, straw men whose only function is to make her protagonists look smart in comparison.

What passes for political debate in our postmodern society is clearly the legacy of Ayn Rand.  Whether right or left, pundits rarely allow the other side a fair hearing or fair representation.

And neither do we.

This says a lot about both sides.  If I’m not confident enough in my own beliefs to accurately present the opposing view, what does that say about the factual or logical soundness of my own beliefs?

My other modern hero, Jonathan Haidt, describes setting out to write the book that became The Righteous Mind with the intent of repudiating the views of conservative Republicans. Fortunately for all of us, Professor Haidt possessed the intellectual integrity to recognize that before he could critique them he had to understand them.  And when he made the effort to inquire honestly into their positions, he discovered that they weren’t nearly as wacky as he had supposed.

2000 years ago, two great academies of Jewish study guided their people by interpreting and applying the ancient laws handed down from Sinai. History records that the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai debated with such passion it was as if they fought with swords and spears. Each had its own angle on higher truth, and each was committed to preserving the integrity of Jewish legal tradition.

But when they left the study hall, they were fast friends. They married their sons and daughter to one another. Their different visions never became personal.

Ultimately, it was the opinions of the House of Hillel that prevailed, and later authorities explain why. Not only did the scholars of Hillel always record the opinions of the scholars of Shammai along with their own – they always recorded the opposing opinions first.

Only when we understand the other side of the argument can we truly understand our own. That’s why intellectual integrity demands that we ask ourselves these questions:

If I don’t understand why you believe what you believe, how can I be sure that you’re wrong?

And if I don’t understand why you might reasonably disagree with me, how can I be sure that I’m right?

So here’s your homework.  Read the following statement:

Donald Trump incited the Capitol riots and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  Moreover, those senators and congressmen who enabled him are complicit and should be sanctioned or prosecuted as well.

Your assignment is to write an article between 800 and 1000 words defending this statement or arguing against it.  But here’s the condition:

If you agree with the statement, you must write an essay opposing it.  If you disagree with the statement, you must write an essay defending it.  And your essay must be reasonable and rational enough that those with whom you disagree would accept it as an accurate representation of their views.

You have 24 hours to complete the assignment.  You may begin now.

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Rabbi Yonason Goldson is director of Ethical Imperatives, LLC. He is an ethics speaker, strategic storyteller, TEDx presenter, and author. He is also a recovered hitchhiker and circumnavigator, former newspaper columnist, and retired high school teacher. Visit him at http://ethicalimperatives.com.