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.