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Practicing intellectual virtue

By Wendy McElroy
web posted August 5, 2002

Political correctness has made mudslinging -- and worse -- into a norm of social discourse. A return to the Intellectual Virtues is overdue, if not in the name of civility than for the sake of self-defense. These virtues are nothing more than good habits that further communication and understanding.

One of the virtues is "listening."

Communication consists of two processes: speaking and listening. But many people utterly lack the latter skill. Perhaps their minds wander when someone else is speaking; perhaps their thoughts cloud over if the topic is unfamiliar or intimidating. They may become impatient and interrupt constantly.

Listening is an active, conscious process of paying attention to:

The literal content. This is the meaning of the words being spoken and the accuracy of what is being said. Be active in evaluating what you hear. For example, in listening to an argument about sexual harassment, you might ask yourself, "How does she know that particular 'fact' is true?" or "Does this contradict my own experience?" or "Is the meaning of the term 'sexual harassment' changing from sentence to sentence?"

The tone of voice. This is the spice that can change literal content. A speaker's tone will tell how seriously to take his words and what emotional response is appropriate. The same words can have entirely different meanings if they are said in jest, sadly, flirtatiously, in accusation, in rage. A disadvantage of e-mail and the printed word is that it strips away the spice that can define meaning.

Body language. This is unspoken communication through which a speaker reveals his feelings about you and about what he is saying. You should react to body language as strongly as you do to literal content. For example, everyone has experienced a sense that someone is lying to them. This is often based on body language, e.g. does the speaker refuse to look you in the eye, does he turn red. The description "beady little eyes" comes from the fact that pupils are said to constrict when people are being dishonest. Pay attention to such body language and take your intuitive response seriously.

Your attention should often shift back and forth from listening to content, to tone, to body language. If the speaker is dispassionately sketching a complicated theory, however, you might concentrate entirely on the literal content. If she is screaming in your ear, you may concentrate entirely on tone. If the person is standing too close to you, body language may dominate.

What are some of the other Intellectual Virtues?

When it is your turn to speak and you are delivering literal content, the most important virtue is dispassionate thinking. People falsely assume that being dispassionate means being cold or indifferent. What it means in intellectual terms is that you try to be guided in arguments by evidence and arguments, not by your feelings. You don't let emotions determine your judgment of what is true and false. 

Intellectual honesty is almost a subcategory of dispassionate thinking. It involves: Never pretending to know more than you do; always admitting an error or an area of uncertainty; acknowledging other people's good arguments.

Courage is the willingness to take a risk with ideas. When you reach out intellectually into the world to argue a point, you run the risk of being proven wrong or, worse, of appearing foolish. The fear of embarrassment silences many people who have valuable things to say.

Intellectual responsibility means not blaming others. Someone may be trying to humiliate you but you are not a helpless pawn of circumstance. You are responsible for your reactions, e.g. of staying in the conversation, of becoming belligerent in return. There is one aspect of the exchange you can always control: your reaction.

Humility does not mean "false modesty." Be proud of your accomplishments or abilities but do not be arrogant and never use them to make others feel inadequate.

Intellectual simplicity means using ideas and language as tools of communication, not of social status. Be simple and direct about your beliefs and your language. Don't "dumb down" your conversation or lose the subtlety but also don't try to become part of the intellectual elite, complete with buzz words and tangents into German philosophy.

Self-restraint means avoiding intellectual hedonism. People like to believe in what makes them feel good. This is a form of intellectual hedonism that leads away from searching for what is true.

Collectively, the above virtues could be called "a philosophy of arguing." And a good argument, as much as good meal, is one of the joys of living. The Intellectual Virtues are meant to give you control of arguments, not to be used as a prudish rule book that strips color from your conversations. So ... laugh, lose your temper, make bad puns, cry at someone's misfortune, clink glasses to punctuate a discussion. As long as emotions are strapped into the passenger seat when you evaluate the truth or falsehood of ideas, then your arguments will be a good ride.

Wendy McElroy is the editor of ifeminists.com and a research fellow for The Independent Institute in Oakland, Calif. She is the author and editor of many books and articles, including the new book, Liberty for Women: Freedom and Feminism in the 21st Century (Ivan R. Dee/Independent Institute, 2002). She lives with her husband in Canada.

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