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.
"Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035," said Patrick O. Brown at the 2020 Web Summit.
- Impossible Foods is a company that makes plant-based meat alternative products.
- At the 2020 Web Summit, CEO Patrick O. Brown spoke about the impacts of meat production on the environment, and his company's long-term goal of phasing out the industry.
- Livestock currently contribute about 14.5 percent of global emissions.
Impossible Foods' plant-based beef
Impossible Foods<p>If getting nations to set and stick to emissions policies is tough, try asking billions of people to stop eating meat. What's the solution?</p><p>For Impossible Foods, it's to appeal primarily to consumers' taste buds, not their inner environmentalist. The company is aiming to make its meat alternatives more delicious, healthier and cheaper than the real thing.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"By next year, I think our mainstream product will actually, if we do a side-by-side comparison with nothing by meat eaters, will be preferred by a majority of them," Brown said.</p><p>The ultimate goal is to phase out the meat industry.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Our mission is to completely replace the use of animals as a food technology by 2035," Brown said. "We're dead serious about it. We totally believe it's doable."</p>
Land deforested to make room for cattle pasture
Imago Photo via AdobeStock<p>That may seem like a quixotic goal. After all, meat alternative companies like Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat have been around for about a decade. And while both have been undeniably successful, <a href="https://www.forbes.com/sites/hankcardello/2019/09/30/why-the-beef-and-dairy-industries-are-on-a-cow-path-to-oblivion/?sh=4e4f376174e9" target="_blank">meat consumption in North America hasn't changed much in recent years</a> (although people are eating slightly less beef).</p><p>Still, mainstream meat-alternative options — like <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/impossible-whopper" target="_self">Burger King's Impossible Whopper</a>, added to menus last year — are a relatively new phenomenon to most consumers. And as people become increasingly familiar with these products, and as meat-alternative companies <a href="https://news.yahoo.com/beyond-meat-founder-plantbased-meat-is-on-its-way-to-being-cheaper-than-animal-protein-140141254.html#:~:text=Sozzi%3A%20You%20actually%20think%20you,Brown%3A%20Absolutely.&text=And%20we're%20going%20right,is%20as%20simple%20as%20scale." target="_blank">scale up to make plant-based products cheaper than meat</a>, preferences could start to tilt.</p><p>One industry that's betting on that happening: big meat. In 2019, leading meat companies like Tyson, Smithfield and Perdue all began rolling out their own alternative meat products.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"There is a growing demand out there," John Pauley, the chief commercial officer for Smithfield, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/14/business/the-new-makers-of-plant-based-meat-big-meat-companies.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>The New York Times</em></a>. "We'd be foolish not to pay attention."</p><p>Brown might advise these companies to invest even more heavily in plant-based foods.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's game over for the incumbent industry, they just don't realize it yet," he said.</p><p>If Brown's right, phasing out the meat industry could measurably reduce climate change, considering livestock currently contribute about <a href="https://academic.oup.com/af/article/9/1/69/5173494" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">14.5 percent of global emissions</a>.</p>
Italian meatballs recipe from Impossible Foods
Impossible Foods<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"By replacing animals as our technology for making meat, we can <a href="https://medium.com/impossible-foods/meatisheat-and-plantsarecool-wecandothis-turnbacktheclock-5a63176ebe8c" target="_blank">turn back the clock on global warming</a> and restore native ecosystems," Impossible Foods wrote in a <a href="https://science.impossiblefoods.com/" target="_blank">blog post</a>. "The recovery of biomass on land currently devoted to livestock would remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to offset 20 years of emissions at current levels, and once livestock methane emissions stop, rapid decay of atmospheric methane would effectively negate another 10 years of total GHG emissions at current rate."</p><p>Still, even if alternative-meat companies destroy the beef industry by 2035, that wouldn't solve the problem of climate change. It's also worth mentioning that some methods of raising livestock and producing meat are worse than others. </p><p>A <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fsufs.2020.00128/full" target="_blank">2020 study published in the journal <em>Frontiers in Sustainable Food Systems</em></a> notes that the "carbon footprint of meat alternatives is likely lower than the majority of beef consumed" in the U.S., but that the:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"...ecological impacts of human diets are not as simple as plant vs. meat discussions might suggest. The global food system is far too diverse and contingent on unique environmental and socioeconomic circumstances to allow for one-size-fits-all policy recommendations."</p>
The future of meat alternatives<p><br></p><p>For Impossible Foods, the main goal has always been to keep tweaking their plant-based meat alternatives until they taste better than the real thing. Assuming the company solves that problem and displaces the meat industry, what might it do next?</p><p>I asked Brown whether Impossible Foods would ever consider developing entirely new forms of plant-based foods, instead of products that mimic familiar meat flavors.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Oh absolutely, and this is something internally, and in our [research and development] team, we love to think about," Brown said. "Once we've completely replaced animals as a food technology, then the gloves come off. There's all sorts of novel meat flavors and textures we could create and we're super eager to do it."</p><p>Traci Des Jardins, a chef and restaurateur in the San Francisco area who also participated in the 2020 Web Summit presentation, said creating new types of plant-based "meats" might not be as strange as it sounds. </p><p>After all, we already have strange foods that have "become their own thing" simply because we give names to them. Case in point: the hot dog. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I can imagine products that we could create at Impossible that would be amazing things that could become as iconic as the hot dog," Jardins said. "Because a hot dog really means nothing. It's just a name that's been attributed to this thing that goes in this bun. And so, I think there are many, many possibilities, and that we could create all kinds of delicious things that don't have the environmental impact that animal-produced meats have."</p>
First picture of worldwide bee distribution fills knowledge gaps and may help protect species
Bee diversity<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2NzM0My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNTY3NzgyMH0.sdzn0MenrQ85gIvjYM4rm-7oOVd3dO9gx7nqcm9QMwM/img.jpg?width=980" id="fe916" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2961b6dac8da97fa083cb568b19bab10" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bTwelve different species of bees swarming a flowery meadow. Etching by J. Bishop, after J. Stewart." />
Twelve different species of bees swarming a flowery meadow. Etching by J. Bishop, after J. Stewart.
Credit: Wellcome Collection, CC BY 4.0<p>How many bee species are there? Wait a minute: honeybee, bumble bee, erhm… five? Five hundred? Five thousand? Not even close: the total is well over 20,000 – which means there are more species of bees than of birds and mammals combined. </p><p><span></span>There's no shame (nor surprise) for bee civilians like you or me in not knowing that. What is surprising, is that even those scientists who specialise in bees didn't quite know how those species are distributed all over the world. Until now. </p><p><span></span>By combining and filtering more than 5.8 million public records of bee occurrences, a team of researchers from China, the U.S. and Singapore have built up the very first comprehensive picture of bee diversity worldwide. And that picture presents a few surprises, both for laypersons and specialists.</p><p>Bee ignoramuses will be surprised to learn that the United States is the throbbing heart of bee diversity. The U.S. has far more bee species than any other region on earth. And by the fact that large tracts of Africa and the Middle East remain <em>terra incognita</em>, in terms of apiary diversity. <br></p>
Counter-intuitive distribution<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2NzM0NS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNzQ3NTMwMX0.poqkJqPj6CPWWN9u_FOt7nBu1lrOc2aSnv1vRO4yOHY/img.png?width=980" id="2acb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="407b1e60d42246f6cdfd91cfc6ef7839" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bRelative bee species richness in the New World. Note the low density in the Amazon Basin." />
Relative bee species richness in the New World. Note the low density in the Amazon Basin.
Credit: Current Biology, open access<p>In general, there are more bee species in the Northern Hemisphere than the Southern and – confirming previous hypotheses – more in arid and temperate climates than in the tropics.</p><p>That goes against the common pattern in biology known as the 'latitudinal gradient', which predicts that species diversity (of most plants and animals) increases towards the tropics and decreases towards the poles. Bees are an exception, with a higher species concentration away from the poles (in what scientists call a 'bimodal latitudinal gradient').</p><p>To give that difference some visual immediacy, imagine a graph with one hump in the middle (i.e. the latitudinal gradient) versus one with two humps, one on either side of the middle (i.e. the bimodal latitudinal gradient). In other words: dromedary (one-hump) versus camel (two-hump). </p><p>It seems counter-intuitive that bees would thrive better in arid deserts than in lush tropical jungles; but that's because trees – the dominant vegetation type in the tropics – provide less bee food than the plants and flowers that grow elsewhere. <span></span></p>
Much-needed baseline<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2NzM0Ni9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzY5ODU4MX0.0B0Ixka9uJpMFDozhQ9YcJAX0a6LFuy1HZ0rWWvEA3A/img.png?width=980" id="c7b8b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5d8f1e55aeeda42ef836931ad0095101" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Three ways of measuring species richness in the Americas: (A) richness of polygons, (B) sPCA and (c ) turnover. All suggest a large, distinct bee fauna in the southwestern U.S." />
Three ways of measuring species richness in the Americas: (A) richness of polygons, (B) sPCA and (c ) turnover. All suggest a large, distinct bee fauna in the southwestern U.S.
Credit: Current Biology, open access<p>Also, bees don't like it too wet, unlike their cousins the ants, whose populations peak in the humid tropics. The researchers think humidity may play a role in limiting bee distribution by spoiling pollen resources.</p><p><span></span>The relative absence of bees from the tropics has consequences for pollination, which in those regions is performed by a wide variety of alternative species: wasps, moths and even cockroaches.</p><p><span></span>Previous datasets of global bee distribution were either inaccurate, incomplete or difficult to interpret. This world map clearly establishes that bees prefer dry and temperate zones to wet and tropical ones. For bee scientists, it provides a much-needed baseline to predict the geographic distribution of bees and interpret the relative richness of species. </p><p><span></span>While much work needs to be done to fill additional knowledge gaps, this baseline is an excellent starting point, not just for greater understanding, also for better conservation. Because bees are not just for making honey. In many countries, they're the top pollinator species. And they typically visit 90% of the leading crop types. </p>
Carpenter bee (Xylocopa latipes) pollinating a flower in the Indian state of Kerala.
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies — Square, Fidelity, SoFi — have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value — digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection: The price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The ownership of"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
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