Ethics for Everyone

Moral wisdom for the modern world

A Virtuous Mind: Fair-Mindedness

Fourth in a series on intellectual character traits

What does it mean to be intellectually fair-minded? In his book, Virtuous Minds, Philip Dow makes the case that there is a good deal of confusion about this trait. Many people wrongly equate intellectual fair-mindedness with some sort of relativism. This, Dow aptly argues, is a mistake.

While it is true that we should be open to new or different ideas and ways of thinking, this is not the same as the belief that all claims are equally valuable or worthy of acceptance. In fact, acceptance of this kind of relativism is harmful to learning, growth in knowledge, and the acquisition of wisdom. If all ideas are on an equal footing, then questioning ideas and the evidence for or against them is nonsensical.

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A relativistic openness is inconsistent with progress in the intellectual realm. Progress assumes a goal, an end that one is pursuing. In the realm of the intellectual life, one might have a goal wisdom, truth, or knowledge. But the acceptance of relativism by definition excludes these objective goals.

Returning to our original question, Dow states that to be fair-minded is to “earnestly want to know the truth” and to be “willing to listen in an even-handed way to differing opinions on the subject” (p. 49). For the fair-minded person, truth is more important than ego, or the views he or she currently holds, no matter how cherished.

There are many benefits to being fair-minded. The fair-minded person is more likely to acquire genuine knowledge over the course of her life. Such a person will also have fewer false assumptions that drive her thinking, because she is willing to put them to the test and examine them in the light of reason. The fair-minded person will gain and keep more friends, because she’ll tend to be a good listener and have fewer biases.

In practical terms, consider how fair-mindedness is helpful for marriage. Spouses may have very different views in some area of conflict, but being fair-minded can help them to see from the perspective of the other spouse, because it makes one less inclined to bias in one's own favor. The concern for truth at the heart of fair-mindedness, then, can help us appreciate the perspective of other people, including those we love. This enhances the quality of such relationships, enabling the resolution of conflict and deepening of trust.

@michaelwaustin

Michael W. Austin, Ph.D., is a Professor of Philosophy at Eastern Kentucky University.

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