Perhaps belief doesn’t matter

Any regular readers know that I spend a good chunk of my time on this blog musing about things of a philosophical nature. In other words, I spend a lot of time trying to analyze the subjective: religion, politics, the meaning of life–things of that nature. I consider myself to be a very rational person. I enjoy trying to objectively analyze why people believe what they do and how it correlates to objective reality.

Lately, though, I’ve come to somewhat reconsider this practice. I still believe that it’s important to understand what makes people tick, what makes them act and behave the way they do–and beliefs are an important influence on most of our actions. However, I’ve now come to realize that perhaps there’s a more practical way to understand what drives people.

Whenever we’re faced with meeting or interacting with someone who has a point of view or an opinion that differs from our own, the first thing we usually ask is what does this person believe? This is a dangerous question, because inevitably it’s going to lead to the following question: how could anyone believe (or not believe) that?! That’s not exactly the best way to build any sort of a functional relationship with someone. For exhibit A, please consider the United States Congress. This also manifests in religion. Atheists can’t understand why anyone would still believe in God despite an overwhelming lack of evidence, and religious people can’t possibly understand how anyone couldn’t believe in God. People can’t understand how anyone could possibly believe that climate change doesn’t exist.

What I’m trying to get at is that comparing beliefs is almost an automatic death sentence to any sort of productivity or learning because it forces both parties to take a defensive posture. Instead of trying to accomplish something meaningful, we end up either trying to defend our own beliefs or trying to attack the legitimacy of the beliefs of the other party. Conservatives and liberals are guilty of this, atheists and the religious are guilty of this, and the list goes on and on. But there’s something fundamental that’s missing from this conversation.

Call me crazy, but I believe that deep down most people are good. Or at least that they wish to not harm others. I also believe that most people basically want or desire the same things in life and for others regardless of their belief system. So when we have to interact with someone who has a different worldview than we do, we ask the wrong question right off the bat. Instead of asking about what the other person believes we should be asking, what does this person want?

I’m pretty sure that if you sat a liberal and conservative down separately and asked them what they want for this nation they’d give nearly identical answers: a robust economy, a strong middle class, the chance for people to move ahead in life, etc. They just disagree about how to get there. I’m pretty sure that atheists and Christians both agree that murder and stealing are bad. I’m sure there are even pro-life atheists out there. I’m sure that whether or not you think that climate change is real, most people could agree that nature is awesome and our natural resources and environment should be managed wisely for our future benefit.

But we don’t start from that position. People almost never concentrate on the goal; they concentrate on the way to get there. And that’s where the breakdown occurs. Let’s go back to the example of murdering and stealing. Objectively, I don’t really care why people choose to be law abiding citizens. I just care that they don’t murder and steal from people. At the end of the day, I don’t really care where you get your ethics and morals from so long as they jive with the common goal, which in this case is the maintenance of a civil society.

Now I’m not saying that starting from the goal and working backwards won’t lead to conflict. The important part is changing the nature of that conflict. If you assume good will and realize that the other person wants the same thing you do, then it becomes more of a negotiation and less of a battle of principles. Let’s go back to the political example. We can probably establish that both liberals and conservatives want to grow the economy and the middle class, but they disagree how to do it. The ACA is a primary example of why dealing in belief isn’t productive. Liberals believe that the ACA (or a single payer system) reduces the financial burden on the middle and lower classes. A lot of conservatives believe that it will harm business and that it’s wrong to force people to purchase a private product. This issue is illustrative of the biggest danger of starting from beliefs: people will often incorrectly infer goals from beliefs.

Do you know how many people I hear in daily conversation say things like, “Well obviously the Republican healthcare plan is just not to get sick!” There are memes scattered across the internet dedicated to the idea that since the Republicans are against the ACA, they’re really for the status quo and that they don’t care about sick people. The reality, though, is that obviously conservatives care about sick people. There isn’t a conservative I know that wishes that people get sick or doesn’t have empathy or sympathy when they do. And once again, I’m sure if you sat a conservative down and asked them if they want healthcare to be cheaper and easier to access, they’d say yes. They just don’t believe that the ACA is the way to do it.

Now, determining what exactly is the best way to do it is a different matter altogether. But you’re never going to have a productive dialogue if you start inferring the goals of the other party from their beliefs. Obviously, tough decisions will eventually need to be made in whatever matter you’re dealing with. But it will be a much easier sell if you emphasize the results rather than the principles. Honestly, the average person probably wouldn’t care one iota how healthcare prices were lowered or which party was responsible for it so long as the savings were reflected in their bottom line. The results are what matter, so long as the path to get there doesn’t cause harm (because I still believe that a rational person would want to do good or prevent harm).

So the next time you’re confronted with someone who doesn’t share your beliefs, don’t ask yourself what it is that they do believe. Instead, try asking what they want. You just might get better results.


23 thoughts on “Perhaps belief doesn’t matter

  1. I enjoy your musings, so please continue! And Happy New Year to you!

    I was taking part in an endless thread on Facebook the other day about beliefs and science. As I probably mentioned before in a comment to one of your blogs, belief is strongly tied to learning and so belief isn’t something that we can just wish away and it’s gone. We will constantly form beliefs. And in fact belief works great if you are actually being fed some good information. You can take in information at a pretty fast rate if you believe what someone is telling you is in fact true. If I had never seen a dog and someone told me that dogs walk on 4 legs, it would be in my best interest to believe them. Rediscovering everything that we know (or at least think we know) about the world can be costly in terms of exploring and answering the questions at the forefront of human knowledge. That being said kids need to be taught better critical thinking skills at an earlier age, and learn the process of discovery instead of just spending all their time memorizing facts. The mind needs to exercise both parts.

    I don’t so much worry about somebody believing in something, but rather are they willing to be skeptical about those beliefs and accept new conclusions based on new evidence presented. When we form beliefs it forges neural pathways in the brain and reinforcing those beliefs releases dopamine. This strengthens the neural pathways formed, making it much harder to change our beliefs about things over time. It takes a great deal of discipline to free oneself of one’s biases. This is the powerful part of the scientific method because it encourages self-correction as well as requiring that others independently obtain the same conclusions based on evidence just in case we are bias in our own testing and experiments.

    While I agree that Republicans don’t want people to get sick in general, it’s not always clear to me that they want people to be well either. lol I mean all things being equal they might be right in their attitude, but all things are not equal. The idea that “if you don’t have health care you must be doing something wrong, and I’m not paying for your health care. You’re obviously not working hard enough to get a job that gives you health care.” Or the other common attitude “The government shouldn’t get involved with health care because it will be a failure.” Even though the government already does many things that ensure good health such as food inspection, air and water quality etc. So what’s frustrating is not that they believe in something, but that they believe in something that is easily revealed as untrue and are still unwilling to approach the problem of health care from a more reasonable point of view.

    So what you said is exactly correct. We have to focus on results, or rather look at actual evidence in order to form an opinion about what direction to go next. If the best solution can’t be found or agreed upon, should we accept a mediocre solution in the meantime? I guess I lean towards the answer to that question being yet. I mean if we have 30 million uninsured people and we want to insure everyone, isn’t it better in the meantime to use a solution that might cover 15 million of them, or cover all of them, but just not very well as opposed to not coverage at all? Before ACA we were already paying more than most countries do on health care that give health care coverage to ALL their citizens. So it’s clear we needed to make a change. The original proposal for the ACA was actually much better than what we had, but since the Republican politicians were so adamant about opposing anything Obama did, there was compromise and as a result the ACA is lacking. I am not sure you can chalk it up to Republican beliefs about health care as the problem, but quite simply the goal of politicians is not to serve the people better, but to get elected. As long as this continues to be the case, our political system will continue to be wholly inefficient.

    1. I once read a book wherein the author posited that it’s better to have a poor plan that everyone agreed upon rather than an excellent plan that nobody could agree upon. I don’t know exactly how I feel about that, but I think that the idea is similar to what you were getting at.

      I didn’t really intend for the post to be statement about healthcare or the ACA. It was just the most relevant political example that I could think of. But I think that you make an excellent point in that politicians are really only trying to secure their reelection instead of serving the will of the people.

      In that case I make a distinction. When I talk about conservatives what I’m really talking about are citizens–not politicians. Most politicians– regardless of party–are affiliates in name only. The little R or D next to their name is almost a formality. In public they espouse different philosophies in order to win votes. But a politicians will say whatever they need to get elected, and once elected, they all speak the same universal language: money.

      So, to me at least, the average citizen who identifies as conservative is much more likely to actually walk the walk, so to speak, and actually abide by and believe in conservative ideals and values. This is what I’ve found in my dealings with most conservatives, at least. And it’s also why I give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to empathy and sympathy.

      The politician is controlled by the dollar, and as such any “solution” to a problem is going to be reflect that, NOT their principles. And that even extends to the democrats and the ACA. I won’t pretend for one moment that the law doesn’t tremendously benefit insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. Make no mistake, big business had a hand in the ACA, even if it happens to benefit millions of uninsured Americans.

      But the average conservative citizen doesn’t have to deal with lobbying, special interests, big business, and all the other baggage that comes along with politics. So they’re more likely to look at something purely from a philosophical lens. So while a politician is looking out for his or her own behind, the average citizen isn’t. They’re probably thinking about things from a local context. I believe that this allows the conservative citizen to be much more sympathetic or empathetic than the conservative politician.

      But to get back to one of the other points you made, I also believe that the important part is whether or not people are capable of reevaluating their beliefs and determining whether or not they aligns with the facts. I think that’s an excellent point, and I think that it’s the key thing missing from the mix for most people. I agree that learning more about critical thinking at an earlier age would help immensely, but what about all of the people who are already out in the world?

      1. I apologize, I only was attempting to continue to use the ACA as an example, not to imply that’s what your blog post was about. I am easily distracted as you can tell. 🙂

        Politicians are indeed a different beast. Although one could argue that in a democracy you get the government that reflects the attitude of the people. Politicians have the free reign the have simply because people are unwilling to hold them accountable for their promises and what they’ve actually done in office, over simply voting them in again because they are in the party they like. Of course in a system with only two parties to choose from, it often forces you to choose the lesser of two evils.

        Ordinary citizens I agree are different, and I wouldn’t say that any conservative is heartless by any means, but their beliefs can be self-contradictory. This is the part that bothers me the most. Not that they have beliefs but that they can hold two beliefs that simply oppose each other. Like not wanting to pay taxes on things that don’t directly benefit them, even though they expect other people to pay taxes on things that do benefit them even if it doesn’t benefit the other people. And liberals definitely do it too.

        In terms of what we can do about it, ultimately education is the long terms answer. There is no quick fix for the current generation but we can help the next one. As far as how to address people with strong beliefs as an adult that’s an area of study that I have been quite interested in and I failed to mention in my initial response your very salient point about where you state “That’s not exactly the best way to build any sort of a functional relationship with someone”. You make a lot of good points in there actually and this is ultimately what’s missing especially in all this electronic commenting. Ultimately the question we must ask, how do we get through to someone with strong beliefs? The answer is, forging a positive relationship with that person. Connect with them as a human. Learn about them, laugh with them, find common ground and then see what you can do about your differences. Someone may have some really wrong ideas about something, and the only way for them to really listen to you, is for them to know you and trust you. I wrote a blog post about this a while back In it there is also a very interesting article that I linked about how often making a weaker argument is better than a stronger argument. Blowing someone out of the water with a whole list of facts often makes people defensive and less likely to listen to you, because it requires too great of a re-evaluation of their beliefs. Basically the idea is that if we accept that we are really wrong about something we must then question what other things we might be wrong about as well. And literally are foundation becomes shaken to the point where we simply can’t change our views for fear of starting to question everything and that’s not a place that most people can be comfortable being. Surviving requires being certain about most things at any given time. Psychology is fascinating stuff! 🙂

      2. I’ll have to give your post and the link a thorough read! And I forgot to say it, but a happy new year to you as well, my friend!

        I really like the idea of forging a positive relationship with someone. That’s why I’m friends with conservatives and religious people. Not because I’m just waiting for a chance to try to prove them wrong, but because beliefs are transmitted culturally. It’s my hope that my knowledge and ideas will be transmitted to others. Maybe it’ll change their beliefs, maybe it won’t. Maybe along the way mine will be changed. But I always try to keep things very civil and congenial.

    2. I’ve gotta respond to several of your statements Swarn. I’m glad you mentioned that Republicans don’t want people to get sick in general, but disappointed that you said that it’s not clear to you that they want people well either. I take it that this is tongue in cheek, but I also get the impression that Democrats and liberals do believe this to some degree or another, and that’s upsetting because it’s not true at all. Conservative Republicans want everyone to be well, and that’s why we propose legislation that will benefit all Americans.

      You’ve created some straw man arguments. It’s not that, “If you don’t have health care you must be doing something wrong, and I’m not paying for your health care.” Conservative Republicans have proposed many solutions to ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care. First, we want to grow the economy and put as many people to work as possible. We need to lower unemployment and get people working again and put people in a position to succeed. Conservatives have called for tort reform and health savings accounts. We want to create competition by allowing people to cross state lines, pay cash for health care, and there are other good ideas that were never considered by Obama and the Democrats.

      Now it’s true that big government is bad. We should be skeptical of all politicians because they don’t have in mind what’s best for us. So it’s in our best interest to keep government manageable rather than unmanageable, which is the case now. The government is wasteful and doesn’t do anything efficiently. The private sector will always be more efficient and accountable. The trick is having a strong justice system to make sure the private sector is always held accountable. Government is rarely held accountable for their mistakes or criminal activity.

      And it’s not true that we believe in something that is easily revealed as untrue, or that we’re unwilling to approach the problem of health care from a more reasonable point of view, or that our beliefs are self-contradictory. The problem is that liberal Democrats obviously aren’t listening to our solutions, which are better than anything they’ve proposed.

      And your comments on not wanting to pay taxes on things that don’t directly benefit us misses the point. We don’t want to pay taxes on government waste and failed solutions. Politicians promise that if they raise taxes they’ll lower the poverty rate, for example, but instead they give the money to unions and their cronies and end up creating a bigger disparity than there was previously. Let us keep more of our money, and then let the good will of fellow Americans help those in need directly. Conservatives help people in need out of their own pockets, and resent politicians taking it from us in the guise that they’re compassionate. We’d rather help people out of our own generosity than be forced to give to failed government policies that only waste our money.

      1. I would again respectfully disagree that the private sector is always more efficient or that government is naturally ineffective. There was a time when our government built the interstate highway system, the Hoover dam, and put men on the moon. Sounds pretty efficient and effective to me.

        Businesses fail and lose money everyday. Nepotism and buddy capitalism exist in business. How many politicians and political appointees are businessmen?

        Ineptitude isn’t some monopoly held by the government. To be frank, stupid people exist everywhere, in all jobs, at all levels, and in all sectors. Any government or business is only as effective as the people who lead it. If you elect inept people to office, you not so shockingly get an inept government.

      2. I wasn’t saying that you couldn’t find any examples where the government did something right. My point is that the private sector, as a whole, will always be more efficient, while the government, as a whole, will always be wasteful and inefficient. Coming up with some examples of government success doesn’t overcome the mismanagement, wastefulness and corruption of thousands of examples, such as the stimulus, bailouts, Solindra, IRS, the education system, union thuggery, wiretapping, welfare fraud, spending over $98,000 for an outhouse in Alaska, a $1 million heated bus stop in near DC, grants for trivial psychological studies and absurd artwork, well over $5 million on booze, etc.

        Yes, businesses fail and lose money every day, and they go out of business. The government never goes out of business when it fails. It just takes more of our hard earned money. Failed businesses can’t do that unless government props them up.

        Bigger government is never the answer. We’ve got to stop putting politicians and government on a pedestal, as if they’re here to help us or are the solution to all our problems… they now exist to help themselves and get reelected before anyone else.

      3. Well, you lost me when you started to deal in absolutes. Quite frankly there’s literally zero evidence to support the idea that business will ALWAYS be effective at doing everything and that government will ALWAYS be wasteful. Such a statement is reflective of your bias, and nothing more. Clearly, if there are examples of the government doing something well and efficiently (even if it’s few and far between), then saying that they’re ALWAYS wasteful and inefficient is a factually incorrect statement. I just don’t follow the logic here. Human beings are corruptible in any setting. You don’t think that businesspeople use shady dealings and methods to cut corners and save costs? You don’t think businesses ever sacrifice safety for efficiency? Or that they wouldn’t if the government didn’t exist? You yourself said that I’m mistaken that people are fundamentally good–why doesn’t this extend to the private sector? If people aren’t fundamentally good, then if we got rid of the government or it completely stepped out of the way, explain to me why heads of business wouldn’t abuse their power and money.

        Not the least of which is that yes, I do agree that politicians are corruptible and bought and paid for…but they’re bought and paid for BY BUSINESS. Private entities, private individuals, entire industries of the private sector, are the ones flooding Washington with special interest money. So I really don’t understand why you’re putting the private sector on such a pedestal.

        If you really truly believe that if government regulation completely disappeared, that child labor wouldn’t come back, that 80 work weeks wouldn’t come back, that company stores wouldn’t come back–that all private businesses and owners and CEOs would willingly play by the rules and police themselves, then I’d say you’re the very definition of idealism and that you think people are more fundamentally good than I do.

        Personally, I still stand by the idea that any organization, private or public, is only as effective as those in charge. And, to be clear, I’m not in favor of relying on the government for all our solutions, but nor am I in favor of relying exclusively on the private sector either. Greed, stupidity, and laziness are just as ubiquitous in the private sector as they are in the public sector. Personally, I believe that a good solution is a good solution no matter where it came from. If midterm elections this year ushered in a group of people who could balance the budget and create jobs, great, let’s do it. I’m not going to turn away a perfectly legitimate and feasible solution to a problem just because “government is evil.” And on the same token I’m not going to ignore a business that tomorrow creates a new way to harness solar power just because it came from the private sector and it doesn’t pay employees a living wage or whatever. In reality, both the private and public sector can and should work together to provide a myriad of options.

      4. I don’t think I was dealing in absolutes because I gave qualifiers and disclaimers. I said the private sector is “more” efficient “as a whole”, as opposed to government. I think I can provide countless examples to support this claim. Sure, it may sound biased, but I can back it up with example after example. When I used the word “always”, that was meant to be understood as exaggeration, but still applies in a general sense when compared across the board.

        Yes, humans are corruptible in any setting, and that’s precisely why I suggested that we need a strong justice system- to maximize the private sector by holding it accountable. Bad people need to be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law, no matter how important, rich or influential they are.

        So it should be clear that I’m not putting the private sector on a pedestal. I’m merely looking for the best solution to our problems. A free private sector that is being held accountable will create prosperity, and we have history as our example. The USA is the most prosperous nation in the world, and it got that way because of Americans who chose to excel with LIMITED government.

        I’ve never suggested that government regulation disappear. I think we need common sense government regulation. Not over regulation or under regulation. Just enough to make sure private businesses don’t abuse their own power.

        In this way both the private and public sector ARE working together exactly how they were designed when this country was founded. The problems we see today are primarily due to government overreach. The government has created far more problems that it’s resolved, and that’s why we need to reduce the size of it.

        Obama constantly tells us that he’s the last one to know what’s going on, so maybe we should help him out by getting rid of the bureaucracy 😉

  2. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this, but I can’t help but think that this is much more complicated than you’re letting on. It sounds like you’re trying to make a political statement, saying that people and politicians need to learn how to compromise and negotiate so that we can reach a common goal? I think this assumes a lot of things about human nature and political motives that are hiding deep below the surface. I don’t think you’re taking into consideration money and power and ideology. You’re assuming that people are basically good, yet we know that’s not true, especially when it comes to politics. If politicians could be trusted, we wouldn’t need the three branches of government; we could elect a king for life and let them bring us utopia. But our founders new that politicians were especially corrupt, and that’s why we have a separation of powers that serves as a check and balance. If people were more skeptical of politicians, I think we’d be much better off than we are today.

    I don’t think that asking someone what they want is a solution simply because it won’t get us very far. Sure, if you want to start there, that’s fine, but we’ve got to get beyond that. In order to accomplish anything you need to know who they are and what they believe. You’ve got to understand what motivates them religiously, politically and ideologically, just for starters. How can you negotiate with someone if you know what they want, but don’t know or care what they believe?

    Now I did read the comments further down, and it looks like you’re making a distinction between politicians and regular citizens, and that’s good, but there’s still more to it than simply finding out what people want.

    1. I would agree that it’s important to understand where people are coming from–I fully acknowledged that. What motivates people is obviously important. My main objection to using that in negotiation is that principles are fundamentally non-negotiable. It’s like an unstoppable object and an immovable force; by letting belief dictate the terms of any conflict, you’ve already produced an intractable situation. So why even bother with that? Why not just entirely skip that? You can’t make an argument based upon principle with someone who doesn’t share yours–so it seems foolhardy to start from that position.

      1. But how do you simply skip the conflict? It’s not so easy. You’ve got to confront the issues at some point in order to come to any resolution.

        If one side isn’t willing to budge, then it comes down to leverage. And that’s what Obama did with Obamacare. He wanted it and made sure nothing got in his way. The Republicans were too scared to stop him, so he’s gotten away with it. That’s not good for America, so now we’ve got to find a way to fix the damage he’s caused. I think ultimately you have to answer to the American people, and that’s what the Conservative Republican base needs to do. They need to offer better solutions and bring that before the American people. If they offer solutions that work, then it won’t matter what ideology or non-negotiable principles the Democrats bring to oppose them. Doing the right thing and educating the public is what I think the solution is.

  3. Ryan, I find that you are quite open minded and this article to be most insightful. I think the one of the biggest problems with our society is we want to put titles to everything and these titles automatically divide us from each other. I remember writing in one of my articles that by calling oneself a “democratic” or “republican” causes division right away when we could really say this person believes in human rights and so do I. It’s the title that makes people dislike each other before getting to know each other. I honestly think the term “God” could be anything. To you it could be an energy (with nothing to do with the ultimate creator) and for me a consciousness, either way, we are talking about the same thing, We just imagine them differently, right? I am trying to undo the set of beliefs I was taught because “beliefs” are problematic in general. I remember talking to you about this topic and you said something along the lines of the things we know have been taught to us as oppose to universal truths. I disagreed with you then, but I do agree with you now. Sometimes I feel like atheists and theists are talking about the same thing, but their use of words and titles are different, therefore, they disagree. I don’t think I have ever had a truly productive talk about “religion” face to face with another person. Someone always becomes defensive. I would like to try to understand people more without getting defensive at all, without a belief in mind. I wonder if this is possible. I’d like to think so.

    1. I’d like to think that it is possible as well. Obviously everyone has values and preconceived notions about things, various biases, etc. But human beings are perfectly capable of recognizing that and checking all that baggage at the door, so to speak. It’s not always easy, but it’s possible. It’s ok to be emotional or passionate about something and still remain rational and logical. I think that’s what most people have trouble with; acknowledging their own feelings and beliefs but setting them aside long enough to allow rational thought to resume and allow them to objectively hear another point of view.

      And don’t worry about the typos. 🙂

  4. Ryan, I like the idea of people from different perspectives and faiths trying to understand each other without judging and trying to prove the other one wrong. At the same time, I also believe people are selfish in nature. We have to learn to be compassionate and merciful in order to have a peaceful community. If we let our human nature dominate us, then we will be fighting each other for our own rights and survival. But with a little bit of selflessness, we can reach some peace.

    1. I like that idea. Compassion and empathy are extremely important in any sort of a relationship. Thank you for the very insightful comment! Any ideas about how to not let human nature get the best of us, or tips on how to remain compassionate and empathetic?

      1. The only idea I can come up with, based on what I have learned in life from religion, personal experience, and literature, is stop defending the ego so much (denying the self) , which is the fabricated self that we so arduously defend in order to prevent being hurt again, and start focusing more on the needs of others. This is not an easy task (narrow path) but I strongly believe it is essential for us to actually live a full life.

  5. Thank you! I could not agree more.
    Cognitive dissonance works both ways, doesn’t it?

    Through all of our discussions (in person or Facebook) you have taught me something valuable: there are people who can be rational. For this, I thank you.

  6. The only way I see the world from stopping this ridiculous rhetoric from hurting all of us is when people start becoming rational.

    If I had a nickel for every time a “liberal” or whatever shouted down my throat over economics or a “conservative” walked away from a good discussion about same-sex marriage….I wouldn’t be rich….ha! I would probably have at least several nickels.

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