The Supposed Merits of Open-mindedness (and a bonus bit of Virtue Ethics)

Yesternight I had a conversation with a friend who’s from Florida and now goes to school in California. In a critical tone he expressed that one of the things that shocked him most about Californians was our lack of open-mindedness.

When I asked him how he defines “open-minded”, he said it was “to be accepting of other groups or opinions that don’t match your own or the ones you grew up with/around.” I’m not so certain this definition is correct, but let’s assume that it is and use it for this discussion.

He seemed to think that being open-minded, in this sense, is a good thing – i.e., we ought to be accepting of out-groups or differing opinions, and there is a defect in our character we are not.

I’d like to push back against this idea. Open-mindedness, in itself, is not necessarily a good thing. Indeed I believe there are groups or ideas for which we ought not be accepting of. Take, for example, people who hold the view that gay people ought to be subjected to conversion therapy, or that white people are superior to non-white people. Such views ought not be accepted. Contrary to what my friend seems to think, a willingness to take an open-minded stance in such instances would, I submit, be the mark of a serious moral defect in an individual.

I suggest that we should not urge people merely to be open-minded, but rather to develop their critical thinking skills such that they become good judges of when and when not to be tolerant of different people or ideas.

And perhaps the thought behind the latter prescription may have been what my friend was trying to get at – while it is not so much a criticism to say that Californians are not open-minded, it is bad to have poor judgement about when to be open-minded. Certainly a phenomena I’ve witnessed time and time again is people immediately shutting down new ideas or dissenting opinions that truly deserve our serious consideration (an example that immediately comes to mind is the moral wrongs of consuming animal products), and I admit it’s incredibly frustrating.

• • •

When I was thinking about this yesternight/this morning, I came to the realization that this could very easily be tweaked to become an Aristotelian analysis of the virtue of open-mindedness: Open-mindedness is a mean between the two vices of being too accepting and being close-minded, and we need practical wisdom to help us “hit the mark”.

I find it amusing how perfectly in line with Aristotle’s ethics this could be when I wasn’t even purposely going for that – or even consciously thinking about Aristotle. I guess it’s because I’m taking a class on Aristotle right now and my instructor assigned a fuck ton of reading for the week (we’re talking hundreds of pages), so I’ve been balls-deep in this stuff for the past few days just trying to get this assignment done.

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