Why the presumption of good faith can make our lives civil again
Taking time for thoughtful consideration has fallen out of fashion, writes Emily Chamlee-Wright. How can we restore good faith and good judgement to our increasingly polarized conversations?
- The clamor of the crowd during a heated discussion can make it hard to tell who is right and who is wrong. Adam Smith wrote that the loudness of blame can stupefy our good judgment.
- Equally, when we're talking with just one other person, our previous assumptions and knee-jerk reactions can cloud our good judgment.
- If you want to find clarity in moments like that, Emily Chamlee-Wright recommends practicing the presumption of good faith. That means that we should presume, unless we have good evidence to the contrary, that the other person's intent is not to deceive or to offend us, but to learn our point of view.
I recently returned to Beloit College, where I taught for nearly 20 years before moving on to Washington College and the Institute for Humane Studies. Slated to speak on the topic of campus speech at an institution still wrestling with its own speech-related controversy, I was somewhat nervous.
I needn't have been.
Perhaps it was the bookish title of my talk -- "Conversational Ethics: What Would Adam Smith Have Us Do?" Perhaps I still had some street cred on campus. Or perhaps folks were simply worn out. But no one came loaded for bear.
Adam Smith suggests we imagine an 'impartial spectator' to help us find clarity and weigh our responses in difficult times.
Smith has a lot to teach us about the ethics of conversation, particularly when public discourse becomes acrimonious. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments, he observed that the "violence and injustice of faction" tests us in ways that the ordinary "bustle of business in the world" does not. He writes, "The violence and loudness with which blame is sometimes poured out upon us seems to stupify and benumb our natural sense of praise-worthiness and blame-worthiness." In other words, the clamor of the crowd can make it hard to tell right from wrong.
Smith counsels that to prepare ourselves for the prospect of unjust condemnation, we must gain practice at viewing our beliefs and conduct not from the vantage point of the crowd but from the perspective of a well-informed impartial judge. If this imagined "impartial spectator" approves of our stance, then we are justified in ignoring the clamor. With practice, we become wiser and more accustomed to summoning the "self-command" we need to stand tall in the face of injustice.
But a sophomore in the audience recognized that this advice only helps the speaker. It doesn't stop us from being part of the unjust crowd. He asked, "What can we do, in practical terms, to keep the conversation positive?"
It was one of those moments when a dozen possible answers come to mind, but the voice in your head says, "Pick one!" The words that came out of my mouth were, "We could all do a better job of assuming good faith." Then the voice said, "Why did you pick that one?"
As soon as I said it, I realized that the 19-year-old asking the question might not know what I meant by such an old-fashioned phrase. I realized too late that though I use the phrase frequently, I had not thought through a full explanation of its meaning. As I started to unpack it in the moment, I realized what a potent concept it is and how far we have drifted from it.
"A presumption of good faith demands a lot from us. It requires that we suspend judgment long enough to ask questions in a spirit of openness and curiosity."
Assuming good faith means that we expect that our conversation partner is interested in learning from us and is seeking to understand our point of view. It means that we should assume, unless we have good evidence to the contrary, that their intent is not to deceive or to offend. We can certainly point out when an error has been made or why offense has been taken, but it should be with the intent of making the conversation better, not closing it down.
A presumption of good faith demands a lot from us. It requires that we suspend judgment long enough to ask questions in a spirit of openness and curiosity. If the student in the audience and I disagree, I should focus first on figuring out why it is that he and I draw different conclusions even though we are looking at the same world. Perhaps there's something in his history, or mine, that led us to different places.
Good faith means that I should take my time to thoughtfully consider his perspective before I decide to praise it or condemn it. But time for thoughtful consideration seems to have fallen out of fashion. As we saw in the Covington Catholic story -- in which a viral video clip inspired many to signal their disgust for a group of teenage boys accused of racism and disrespect, only to learn later that the story was far more complicated -- we feel pressure to be the first to signal our moral commitments to the world. We fear that if we take our time we will be seen as being complicit with wrongdoing. So, we take shortcuts. We bypass the hard work of moral reasoning, and instead praise or condemn based on factional affiliation.
But through the cracks of the political divide we are also seeing positive examples emerge. University of Michigan students Kate Westa and Brett Zaslavsky, for example, lead WeListen, a bipartisan club dedicated to civil cross-ideological debate. At the national level, StoryCorps' One Small Step is facilitating one-on-one conversations in which people who disagree listen and respond to one another with respect. This is good faith in practice.
Arguably, there are exceptions to when we are expected to assume good faith. If we extend this and other conversational courtesies to incendiary speakers who gain prominence by violating those same courtesies, it is out of grace, not entitlement. We are obliged to respect their First Amendment rights but nothing more.
Incendiary speakers, however, are the exception. And we shouldn't base our ethical standards on the exception. Our default should be the presumption of good faith.
The practice of good faith is not an obvious remedy. It's a difficult discipline. It offers none of the psychic rewards that moral outrage delivers. But it's a practice that keeps the conversation going. And it's a practice that allows everyone in the conversation to teach and to learn.
Water may be far more abundant on the lunar surface than previously thought.
- Scientists have long thought that water exists on the lunar surface, but it wasn't until 2018 that ice was first discovered on the moon.
- A study published Monday used NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy to confirm the presence of molecular water..
- A second study suggests that shadowy regions on the lunar surface may also contain more ice than previously thought.
Credits: NASA/Daniel Rutter<p>Still, it's not as if the moon is dripping wet. The observations suggest that a cubic meter of the lunar surface (in the Clavius crater site, at least) contains water in concentrations of 100 to 412 parts per million. That's roughly equivalent to a 12-ounce bottle of water. In comparison, the same plot of land in the Sahara desert contains about 100 times more water.</p><p>But a second study suggests other parts of the lunar surface also contain water — and potentially lots of it. Also publishing their findings in <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1198-9#_blank" target="_blank">Nature Astronomy</a> on Monday, the researchers used the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to study "cold traps" near the moon's polar regions. These areas of the lunar surface are permanently covered in shadows. In fact, about 0.15 percent of the lunar surface is permanently shadowed, and it's here that water could remain frozen for millions of years.</p><p>Some of these permanently shadowed regions are huge, extending more than a kilometer wide. But others span just 1 cm. These smaller "micro cold traps" are much more abundant than previously thought, and they're spread out across more regions of the lunar surface, according to the new research.</p>
Credit: dottedyeti via AdobeStock<p>Still, the second study didn't confirm that ice is embedded in micro cold traps. But if there is, it would mean that water would be much more accessible to astronauts, considering they wouldn't have to travel into deep, shadowy craters to extract water.</p><p>Greater accessibility to water would not only make it easier for astronauts to get drinking water, but could also enable them to generate rocket fuel and power.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Water is a valuable resource, for both scientific purposes and for use by our explorers," said Jacob Bleacher, chief exploration scientist in the advanced exploration systems division for NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, in a statement. "If we can use the resources at the Moon, then we can carry less water and more equipment to help enable new scientific discoveries."</p>
The area of the brain that recognizes letters and words is ready for action right from the start of life.
- There's an area of the brain specializing in the recognition of letters and words.
- Neuroscientist wonder how this faculty develops since it would not be a trait associated with survival.
- fMRI scans reveal that this region is already connected to the brain's language centers in newborns.
Newborn and adult VWFAs<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU5MTY1MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjAwMzY2NX0.fDytqpINSvS8Lf6Xy7z9WAtqwp4FENjLzIZON0IoABg/img.jpg?width=980" id="cbab8" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="33228e0b095d0c486ff19de367fbb222" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Credit: Christian Bowen/Unsplash<p>Saygin, Li and their colleagues Heather Hansen and <a href="https://ccbbi.osu.edu/people/osher.6" target="_blank">David Osher</a> analyzed fMRI brain scans from 40 newborns and 40 adults that had been made as part of the <a href="http://www.developingconnectome.org/" target="_blank">Developing Human Connectome Project</a> and the <a href="http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/" target="_blank">Human Connectome Project</a>, respectively.</p><p>The researchers found that even in the newborns — who were less than a week old — the VWFA was different from the visual cortex in that it already had connections to the language areas of the brain. While the VWFA and visual cortex share some characteristics — they both require high spatial resolution in order to accurately comprehend what they're seeing — the study reveals, says Saygin, that "The VWFA is specialized to see words even before we're exposed to them." We're primed for reading from the start, apparently.</p><p>Comparing the newborn VWFA to the adult VFWA did reveal <em>some</em> differences, however. "Our findings suggest that there likely needs to be further refinement in the VWFA as babies mature," Saygin explains. "Experience with spoken and written language will likely strengthen connections with specific aspects of the language circuit and further differentiate this region's function from its neighbors as a person gains literacy."</p>
Tracking the VWFA<p>Saygin's lab is currently attempting to better understand the sort of further VWFA development that may occur prior to reading, by studying the brain region in 3- and 4-year-olds. Her team is also interested in identifying the types of visual stimuli the VWFA responds to at those ages.</p><p>Learning more about the VWFA is more than just interesting — it may also help experts address reading and other cognitive issues. "Knowing what this region is doing at this early age," says Saygin, "will tell us a bit more about how the human brain can develop the ability to read and what may go wrong. It is important to track how this region of the brain becomes increasingly specialized."</p>
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