Widget Image
HomeCulture & SocietyWhen Civility Matters

When Civility Matters

Bas van der Vossen

Paul Krugman thinks that civility in discussion is not that important. Roughly stated, the idea is this. Sure, we should be polite and civil to our interlocutors, he writes, but some interlocutors are beyond the pale. To those, you can be as rude and dismissive as you’d like. The difference is whether the other is seriously interested in finding the truth.

 When there’s an honest, good-faith economic debate — say, the ongoing controversy about the effects of quantitative easing — by all means let’s be civil. But in my experience demands for civility almost always come from people who have forfeited the right to the respect they demand.

Krugman’s stated target is a kind of stereotypical Austrian economists. (Of whom we have a few here.) For the sake of argument, let’s say he is right about this, and that these people are not serious scholars. Most stereotypes have a grain of truth to them. If so, that would be a tremendous indictment of these people. As you know, I take honestly searching for the truth pretty seriously.

But Krugman calls their ideas cockroaches and zombies. The implication, of course, is that they should not be taken seriously, but eradicated. Brian Leiter seems to agree. In response to Krugman’s post, Leiter linked to one of his essays. It contains the following (important) passage:

Discussion-imageUnderstanding is impeded by uncivil language from the teacher towards the student. Insults, disparaging or derivise (sic) remarks, or expressions of contempt make their targets defensive, alienated, and angry. It is hard to see how such a response is conducive to learning and understanding.

The point is “to insure that the student is, both cognitively and affectively, maximally able to understand and learn”.

Leiter is right, and the point is very important. Civility in the classroom is required to facilitate effective learning. If you ridicule or dismiss people’s beliefs, or the people themselves, you make them shut off. When we think poorly of our teachers as persons or thinkers, we stop taking their ideas seriously. We dismiss them out of hand. Such are the workings of psychological bias.

The significance of this point goes further than that, however. True, civility is important so that other people might continue to learn and discuss with an open mind. But it is just as important for us to learn and discuss with an open mind. When we ridicule or dismiss other people’s beliefs, we shut ourselves off. And no responsible thinker should want to do that, ever.

This is especially true of political views, where the temptation to ridicule and dismiss views with which one disagrees is much, much greater than in other areas of inquiry. When we can either face up to hard questions and admit to some confusion or uncertainty, or dismiss the other as a moron and continue to feel good about our having our hearts in the right place, you can count on our minds taking the latter option almost all of the time.

The problem here is that we judge who is beyond the pale in terms of the moral, political, and social scientific views we already accept. And it is all too easy to put more and more people beyond the pale – especially those with views that, if they were somehow right, would be real threats to our most cherished ways of thinking.

Far too often, libertarians attack egalitarian ideas, philosophers, and politicians as thinly veiled Stalinists. If they do not explicitly defend full-blown socialism, they say, that is only because they do not fully explicate their ideas. It is safe to say that the egalitarians themselves do not feel like this criticism really addresses their views, or even takes them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

Those who attack libertarians – including Krugman – often attack them as dumb, insensitive, cold-hearted, gun-waiving morons. (Just Google “Slate.com and libertarianism”.) Needless to say, most libertarians do not think these attacks puts much pressure on their views, or even them seriously. The combination of the two is no coincidence.

It is tempting to think we can be rude to those who are beyond the pale. But that is exactly the problem. It is with them that should our hardest to be civil.


Bas van der Vossenis Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. He received his DPhil from Oxford University and has published articles in journals such as Law and Philosophy, Politics, Philosophy, and Economics, and Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. 

This article originally appeared on Bleeding Heart Libertarian.

The Indian Economist has rebranded to Qrius. We’ll continue publishing authoritative commentary and analysis on issues you care about. Qrius is run by the same team as The Indian Economist, and continues hosting the talented contributors, writers & partners that produce the content you love. We look forward to your support.