Navigating intellectual challenges

KYLE DAY, Opinion Columnist

Welcome, freshmen! And welcome back, sophomores and upperclassmen. In enrolling in a university, you are joining (or rejoining) a grand tradition of Western civilization, one of thought-provocation and intellectual challenge with the aim of greater understanding and, ultimately, greater development of one’s self, especially of one’s mind. You are going to be exposed to a whole slew of new thoughts, ideas and philosophies that will amaze, intrigue, puzzle and even infuriate you.
This is good. But this exposure can be dizzying. So much so that I think this is what (at least initially) compels people to be suspicious or hostile to those who disagree with them. It’s simply easier, to borrow from progressive terminology, to “otherize” those who don’t share our opinions on controversial issues than to do the hard work of intellectually understanding opposing positions in and of themselves, much less why people believe them.
Unfortunately, your fellow students are likely only as equipped to navigate this terrain well as you are, and your professors’ helpfulness may only come in bits and pieces, with little wider applicability to issues outside their particular fields. But there are other ways to get a leg-up on your peers (and even some of your professors). Most notably, there are at least two books, published in this decade that stands out as essential for understanding various worldviews and philosophical conflicts.
The first is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Based in good part on Haidt’s own research, this book reveals the underlying psychology that drives diverse opinions on right and wrong. Why do religious people make a big deal about sexuality (or at least appear to do so)? Pick up Haidt to learn about the Purity Foundation and its natural home in ethic of divinity, contrasted with the ethic of individuality and the ethic of society.
Want to understand why the Republicans are (historically, at any rate) better at campaigning than the Democrats? Read on to learn how conservatives tend to have a more expansive universe of moral thought than liberals do, one that’s much more in line with how average folks have thought for millennia (and still think). Haidt’s work is illuminating and thought provoking without falling into the traps of either narrow partisanship or bland neutrality.
The second book is The Great Debate by Yuval Levin. This near-magisterial work of political philosophy thoroughly explains the worldviews of two eighteenth-century British writers and political actors: Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine. Want to understand both Paine’s staunch individualism and Burke’s communal emphasis? The second chapter describes their rival conceptions of the “state of nature,” as well as their differing desires to even understand man’s pre-societal origins (Paine thought it essential, Burke thought it impossible).
Despite the Western and American focus, even foreign students reading this article stand to gain greatly from the book, given that the left-right debate in this country has disproportionately far-reaching consequences in the Pax Americana of our time. Levin masterfully dissects these two giants of the eighteenth century and brilliantly translates their conflict into the debate that, for better or worse, rules the world today.
Levin describes philosophically what people tend to think about important and especially controversial issues, taking the content of thoughts and ideas themselves at face value; Haidt psychologically explains why people think the way they do about such issues, while maintaining a healthy respect for the content that Levin dissects (i.e., Haidt very consciously avoids succumbing to over-simplistic, pop-psychology explanations, such as “racism=fear of the unknown”). Levin and Haidt, therefore, end up tackling the same basic set of questions through different modes of inquiry, as well as arriving at not only compatible but strikingly similar answers.
They are both somewhat long but remarkably easy reads, given the complexity of their subject matter. If you take the time to read one, or the other or even both, you will not only have a better framework than you might have otherwise for understanding differences of opinion, but also a great deal more empathy for those who disagree with you. You will even be a happier person, I think. You will be much less likely to live a life marked by political suspicion and religious hostility.