11 May 2012

In Defense of Evolution

There are many reasons critics have objected to President Obama's "evolved" position on same-sex marriage: it reflects only crass political calculation, it's an attempt to deflect criticism of more important things like the economy, it threatens traditional marriage, it is hypocritical because he has publicly advocated contradictory positions. And so on--the criticisms are easy to find.

One set, however, focuses on the the act of changing one's mind--of "evolving"--itself, and alleges that this is a weakness, or an intellectual vice. But is it? A former professor of mine once told me that if a person does not change his mind every ten years, he is not thinking hard enough. There is an important truth there: With each passing year we accumulate more experience and (one hopes) we learn more; should we not, then, expect that we should change our mind about many things?

This has certainly been my experience. My views about many issues--including moral, political, and economic--have changed over my adult lifetime. I cringe when I recall some of the things I professed to believe as an undergraduate student, as a graduate student, and even earlier in my career as a professor. As I run through the list in my mind of the authors, books, charismatic professors, and persuasive colleagues and friends who have at various times brought me to see the world through their eyes, I am proud and pleased at some of them--and disappointed and embarrassed at others.

This holds true on both small and on fundamental issues. I have changed my position on everything from abortion to health care policy to organ sales to hunting to the moral implications of evolutionary descent. On many other issues my thinking is still developing: the justification of property, the ultimate sources of moral normativity, the limits of markets, the effects of some kinds of economic regulation, whether Hume or Locke is the greater thinker, what the causes of human prosperity are, Macbeth or King Lear. And so on. 

I do not believe that is a vice or weakness; well, at least it is not a vice. I take it to be rather an acknowledgement of the limitations of my intellect and the skepticism that that implies. There is just so much more to learn, so many more things to consider, so much that is unknown. Everything is more complicated than one initially thought. Everything. So believing one has come to final, definitive positions strikes me as usually rash and hasty. 

One thing I think I have learned over the years is that we are far more likely to overestimate our knowledge than to underestimate it, far more likely to have too much confidence in our beliefs than not enough, far more likely to form judgments with insufficient consideration than to wait too long to judge. Thus I think the virtue is rather to be skeptical and humble, rather to withhold judgment, rather to give others the benefit of the doubt, rather to hold one's opinions tentatively--subject to correction, amendment, even rejection, upon further consideration--instead of the reverse.

So when someone says that as a result of further, considered reflection he has changed his mind, even on something important--perhaps especially on something important--I take that as a sign of an active, inquisitive intellect, not weakness or cowardice or pandering. Even if his new position is one with which I disagree, my first thought is that I need to hear his reasons, because perhaps I will need to change my mind too. 

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