How should we discuss thorny topics like immigration or anti-vaccination? During her summer break, columnist Monique van der Veen found some answers.
Monique van der Veen: “We need to attribute good intentions to our opponents.” (Photo: Sam Rentmeester)

How should we discuss thorny topics like immigration or anti-vaccination? During her summer break, columnist Monique van der Veen found some answers.

It’s becoming a yearly tradition, going off-grid during my summer holiday. This year, the location was a remote lakeside cottage in Lapland. It means that the only device I’ll use is a phone reminiscent of the 1990s. I read The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt, a professor in moral psychology. The book promises to explain why good people are divided by politics and religion. And I certainly came away with a better understanding of humankind, including myself.

The book doesn’t deal with normative ethics, ‘What is the right thing to do?’, but with descriptive ethics, ‘How do people behave morally, and why?’. The first message of the book already was an eye-opener to me. A whole body of psychological and neuropsychological research distinctly shows that we are not rational in our judgements. We make very fast intuitive judgements. Only afterwards do we rationalise them to come up with good reasons. And we can come with a reason for just about anything we want to believe.

‘If you are against vaccinations please invite me for a coffee

Changing our beliefs purely because of our own rational thinking does happen, but it is very rare. I was disappointed about this finding. I’ve always defended the presence of ethical dilemmas in our curricula, believing that being confronted with ethical dilemmas for which there is no ideal solution would arm students for the rest of their lives with the understanding that reality is often complex, and would prompt them to understand the other side of the argument. Now, it seems that this endeavour is futile.

However, we can be persuaded to change our position through the reasoning of others, especially if they address our intuitions and are able to connect with us. A prerequisite for this is that we need to attribute good intentions to our opponents. So beyond offering courses that tackle ethical dilemmas, universities should nurture a culture where open debate and the assumption of good intentions is the norm. It is only through constructive disagreement that we can see the shortcomings of our reasoning. Any university will agree that this is part of its mission, but constructive disagreement with the assumption of good intentions is increasingly rare. Constructive disagreement arguably matters the most for those topics that cause the largest divide: immigration, abortion, racism, feminism, vaccinations, Black Pete

Of all those thorny topics, the one where I meet my nemesis is the anti-vaccinations. So if you are against vaccinations please invite me for a coffee. I will consider you to be a decent human being who only wants to do the right thing. I will try to listen and understand why you have this point of view. I will not promise to agree with you. It’s rather unlikely I will, but you probably feel the same way. Still, we might come away from the conversation with a better understanding of each others’ points of view, and I would consider that a win.

Monique van der Veen is Associate Professor at the Faculty of Applied Sciences, department of Chemical Engineering. You can read about the work of her research team here and follow her on Twitter at @MAvanderVeen