Why the Pursuit of Unanimous Beliefs Can Harm Us All

In the pursuit lie the seeds of myopia, discrimination, coercion, dysfunction.

Posted Feb 15, 2021 | Reviewed by Lybi Ma

“R. Kahana said: If the Sanhedrin unanimously find [the accused] guilty, he is acquitted. Why? — Because we have learned by tradition that sentence must be postponed till the morrow in hope of finding new points in favor of the defense. But this cannot be anticipated in this case.” —Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin

I find the idea that a unanimous verdict should lead to an acquittal to be intriguing and counterintuitive. Today, when our culture is so preoccupied with seeking conformity and is so dismissive of different opinions, the idea that unanimity is fundamentally problematic needs serious examination.

As the epigraph says, according to traditional Jewish law, if a court reaches a unanimous verdict, it must be thrown out. The crime’s seriousness doesn’t matter. Nor does it matter whether the accused has confessed or not. The defendant must be set free when the judges convict unanimously. This is the so-called "anti-unanimity rule."

 Europeana/Unsplash
Source: Europeana/Unsplash

Within any reasonably large group, whether it is an extended family, a religious congregation, a cohort of students, or co-workers in a workplace, unanimous beliefs about anything are virtually impossible to reach or maintain.

If we buy into the anti-unanimity rule, the very idea that it is feasible to get everyone in the group to think in exactly the same way, believe in the same things, or draw the same conclusions from the information given to them should be a cause for concern, not celebration. And if we extrapolate our culture’s thirst for conformity in beliefs to a much bigger, more heterogeneous group, say to all Americans, we surely have a major disconnect between what we seek individually and what is good collectively for our society.

In this post, I want to explore the thesis that within the pursuit of establishing and maintaining unanimous beliefs, no matter how uplifting or virtuous or fair they may seem to us, lurk the seeds of myopia, coercion, discrimination, and psychological dysfunction. Contrarily, against this frame of reference, dissent marks social, cultural, and national health.

We are preoccupied culturally with establishing and maintaining unanimous beliefs at the expense of civility, kindness, and openness.

Getting others to see things exactly the way we do has become a central preoccupation in our culture. When someone voices a different opinion or prefers something that we despise, it makes us angry, anxious, and frustrated. This, in turn, leads many people to employ questionable persuasion and censorship methods, often under the cloak of anonymity.

If they don’t fall in line with the group’s beliefs or stances, individuals are called out or publicly shamed or, worse, threatened with physical harm. If none of these strategies work, they are canceled out entirely. Instead of convincing words or thoughtful arguments, the persuasive tools of choice are biting tweets, humiliating memes, and aggressive call-outs. The quest for unanimous beliefs ruins reputations, distorts facts, and, in extreme cases, can lead to physical harm.

The quest for unanimous agreement forces conformity of thinking and behavior.

Economists distinguish between unanimous agreement and unanimity of the decision rule that leads to the agreement. A unanimous agreement is one in which every individual favors the same opinion or choice. The group has a consensus.

A unanimous decision rule, on the other hand, is one where every individual has veto power. Unless everyone agrees independently of the others, there is no agreement. Obviously, unanimous decision rules set a very high bar, indeed the highest bar, on reaching consensus.

But here’s the problem. Even when the group doesn’t use a unanimous decision rule (which is far more common than using a unanimous decision rule in every area of life, whether it is politics, religion, or popular culture), many group members agree with the majority’s opinion just because they feel obligated to do so or are unsure of their own opinion or even silently intimidated by the majority.

The result is what psychologist Irving Janis has described as "groupthink," which is “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group when the members' striving for unanimity overrides their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.” In today’s social-media-influenced world, groupthink doesn’t even require membership in a cohesive in-group. It’s enough to be associated with a loosely defined collective. That the quest for unanimous beliefs devolves quickly to groupthink is another red flag against the quest itself.

The basis for close-to-unanimously-held beliefs is often collusion.

There are other reasons to be suspicious of unanimous beliefs. One interpretation of the Talmudic law that exonerates unanimously convicted criminals is that in a community of independent, debate-embracing judges, a unanimous verdict is only likely when the judges collude. The same concern applies to other situations when a group seeks unanimity for a particular belief.

A person who’s holding out with a different viewpoint when everyone else is on board should be asking, “Do they have an ulterior motive in embracing and advancing the same view and in trying to convert me to their way of thinking?” And very often, the answer will be yes.

A compromise is preferable to the pursuit and maintenance of unanimous beliefs.

Instead of trying to bend everyone to one way of thinking and to one set of beliefs, we may be better served by acknowledging the nuances that lie within every belief and remaining open to the possibility that whatever the current majority position is, or the one held by our favored group or tribe is, may not be the best one in all respects, for us, or others, or for everyone as a whole.

 Isai Ramos/Unsplash
Source: Isai Ramos/Unsplash

Unanimous beliefs about anything are impossible in any free society or even within a large group of people. Differing and even diametrically opposing beliefs should be allowed to coexist.

Beyond a certain point, the pursuit of unanimous beliefs in any domain is counterproductive and even dangerous. A culture that is open to dissent, respects opposing points of view, and encourages open-ended debate is the antidote to the harms that accrue from the one-sided pursuit of unanimous beliefs.

Reject unanimous beliefs first, then consider whether they have any merit.

Each one of us badly needs to embrace the anti-unanimity rule in our lives, for every idea, every belief, and every stance that we are asked to endorse by the groups that we belong to, and especially those that we identify strongly with. We need to be suspicious of consensus perspectives and beliefs that everyone else in the group unquestioningly embraces. Our heuristic should be, “When everyone agrees on something or strives to agree, trouble is lurking.”

I will conclude this post with a quote by the late Supreme Court Justice and the Chief United States Prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials, Robert Jackson. It is chilling, but it captures the perils of striving for unanimous beliefs perfectly:

“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”