Liberalism and Conflict
Written by Elliot Temple, on July 25, 2011

How are people to deal with conflicts by persuasion? How does that work?

It does not mean that each tries to come up with reasons why he should get his way. Assuming an initial idea is the truth, and then doing everything one can to advocate for it, is not rational. Rationality involves an open mind.

When people have conflicts, usually they are all mistaken. Or put another way: they all have room for improvement. The best thing to do is a least a little different than anyone's initial idea.

To be effective, persuasion should be rational. It shouldn't be biased or closed minded. A step this involves is trying to figure out what the other person wants, and trying to figure out how he can get it without ruining things for oneself either.

For many conflicts, everyone involved can get everything important that they want. There are some common strategies to accomplish this.

A strategy is to discover that not everything a person asks for is what he really wants. There are usually some particular things he wants and he may be mistaken about what is necessary in order to get them.

Changing one's preferences in this way is not very hard. For example, suppose I want to go to Shady Park to walk my dog. But I'm sharing a car with someone who wants to go to a restaurant which is far away from the park. The thing I really want is to walk my dog. That it be at Shady Park instead of Sunny Park isn't important. If we discover that Sunny Park is near his restaurant then it won't be very hard for me to change my preference.

Another strategy is to think of a new idea for what to do which works better. That can be tricky. It often involves questioning ideas one may take for granted. In the park example, it was assumed that we would share the car. But do we have to? One of us could use a taxi.

To summarize, one strategy is to come up with a new idea about how to go about meeting our preferences. And another is to find parts of our preferences that aren't actually important and don't need to be there, and remove them.

Not all conflicts can be resolved in this way. Some require something different. Sometimes people have to change what they want in bigger ways, not just remove parts they realize are unnecessary.

Some things are objectively bad to want.

When something is bad to want, there may not be any way to accommodate wanting it. The only solution may involve not wanting it anymore.

It's not a sacrifice to stop wanting something which is bad to want. One doesn't lose out on anything good. If there is nothing good about something, there is no reason to want it.

To give up wanting something because someone says it's bad would be a mistake. He might be mistaken. It's important to understand why it's bad. And if any of it isn't bad, one should understand that too and can keep wanting the good parts.

We should stop wanting things when we think they are bad. This isn't difficult but comes completely naturally. When a person genuinely decides something is bad, he will not want it anymore.

If he still wants it, he must think at least part of it is good. This can be addressed by learning more. Truth seeking is the way forward.

If something is a mix of good and bad, then the parts should be separated or a new version should be created which is better.

Discovering something is counter productive is a good reason to stop wanting to do it. And people don't find it hard to change their mind at that point. If it will only make things worse, they won't want to do it anymore. The hard part is finding mistakes, such as finding out something is counter productive not productive.

For Americans, it's infrequently necessary to change any fundamental values. We want things like happiness for everyone. That does not cause conflicts of interest between people, and it's not bad to want.

Often when we discover something we wanted is bad, we find out that it's bad for something else we already value, or that a purported benefit of it will not actually happen.

A lot of good traditions have consequences people didn't realize, and understanding their fuller implications can help people change their mind. Here are some examples:

People often complain about how hard it is to change their preferences. They want what they want. But usually the issue is they don't have good explanations about why a preference is bad. They don't have a clear understanding that it's counter productive or has some other major flaw.

The real difficulty, in general, is figuring out good ideas, and finding and addressing mistakes. Apart from that, the rest is pretty easy.

An important issue is the possibility of conflicts of values within one person. What if one wants several things that contradict each other?

Conflicts within one person are fundamentally the same kind of things as conflicts between people. The underlying issue is that ideas can conflict with each other.

When ideas conflict, at most one can be true. All the others have mistakes. And more commonly, they all have mistakes.

When a person is conflicted, he can resolve his conflict by discovering mistakes in his ideas. Then he can stop believing the ideas that are false.

As we learn more and have better ideas, it resolves conflicts in our ideas that were due to our past mistakes.

The attitude of cooperation, instead of fighting, applies not only between people but also between ideas within one mind. Conflicting ideas shouldn't be seen as enemies, and the solution is not to decide a winner. Instead, the goal should be to discover more truth.

Because there is only one truth -- all unambiguous questions have exactly one right answer -- going in the direction of the truth makes people or ideas come closer together. It helps them agree with each other because they have more shared ideas.

Why do they have shared ideas? Because whenever they both figure out a truth, then that truth is an idea they both have. And if they cooperate in truth seeking, and learn things together, then that helps even more.

Sometimes people disagree and get stuck. It's not really the people who are stuck but the conflict of ideas. They don't see how to resolve it and they all think they are right.

That is irrational. If one doesn't see how to resolve a conflict -- if he can't clearly and persuasively explain the mistakes the other ideas have -- then he should take the following stance: "I don't know which of these ideas is best." If he doesn't know the answer, then he has no rational reason to favor his own idea.

One should say that all the ideas might be roughly correct since he doesn't know a good way to decide between them. And he should also say that none of the ideas are perfect, since a really good idea would help him understand why it's the best one. If an idea doesn't make it easy to see mistakes in its rivals then it has room for improvement.

If everyone takes this neutral stance, which is rational, then they all agree. There is no more conflict between the people. The ideas still conflict but the people do not. There is only the shared quest: to find the truth, to improve ideas, and to discover and correct mistakes.

When values conflict between people, or within one person, then one can rationally approach the conflict of ideas, in a truth seeking way, without irrational taking sides.

Resolving conflict between people does not require discovering the final, perfect truth. That's good because we'll never get there, and we can't even be assured that any single true will be discovered anytime soon. We have to live in a way that doesn't require having ultimate answers.

That all conflicts can be resolved with reason is important to liberalism. If such conflicts were unavoidable then it would mean there would always have to be winners and losers. It would pit people against each other and cause fighting. But fighting is not inevitable; with liberalism we can reduce it, and as we improved liberalism we can reduce fighting without limit.

One of the ideas of persuasion as it relates to liberalism is there's always something that all sides can be persuaded of, without anyone sacrificing or losing out. There are always win/win solutions instead of insoluble conflicts requiring that there be losers or victims.

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