Ethical Realism

September 29, 2011

No, We Don’t Have To Agree With You!

Do you think everyone has to agree with you about something? Do they have to agree that God exists, Christianity is true, atheism is true, Islam is evil, libertarianism is true, socialism is true, Obama is the antichrist, or Harry Potter is satanist propaganda? Many people seem so confident that they’re right and they know that you need to agree with them. The other person might think that you’re an idiot for not agreeing. This attitude of certainty and confidence often leads to intolerance and insults. Of course, few people are perfect and almost everyone suffers from over-confidence and immodesty at one point or another.

Sometimes everyone should agree with you, but usually not. Each person has a different set of knowledge and experience that indicates that one belief is true rather than another. It can be rational for people to disagree. We don’t always know for sure who’s right and we don’t always have to agree.

I will argue that (1) sometimes we should agree, (2) sometimes we don’t have to agree, and (3) many people fail to identify the difference and suffer from an irrational form of dogmatism as a result.

1. Sometimes we should agree

We should agree that 1+1=2 because we know it’s true. Anyone who understands math at all will know it’s true. We should also agree that mathematics is reliable, science is very reliable compared to the alternatives, and the Earth is round.

We know mathematics is reliable because as long as its done correctly the correct answer never changes. If an answer can be found, then we can know it’s right.

We know science is reliable because it has consistently given is good results, and it’s self-correcting. Bad science and false scientific conclusions do exist, but errors can be discovered by repeating the experiments. If science isn’t reliable, then it is extremely coincidental that we have discovered safe drugs, we’ve figured out how to build safe cars, that we’ve built TV sets and computers, and that we’ve got to the moon. We all rely on technology precisely because we know that the science behind it is very reliable.

We know that the Earth is round (in part) because we’ve left the Earth and taken pictures of it from a distance. We can all see that it’s round.

Anyone who disagrees with any of these facts is ill-informed and should be educated. Once educated, they should agree with these facts. To disagree with these facts would be absurd.

One strong piece of evidence that we should agree about something is when the experts agree, and we often have no choice but to trust the opinion of experts. Nonetheless, when the experts agree, they should be able to prove that they are right to anyone willing to take the time to be educated.

2. Sometimes we don’t have to agree

The best evidence that “we don’t have to agree” about something is when the “experts” don’t agree. We should all agree that Einstein’s theory of physics is accurate because the scientists agree and they can educate us why. However, not all philosophers agree that God exists, not all economists agree that a libertarian “free market” economy is best, and not all religious experts agree that Christianity is the true religion. When the experts disagree that is generally good evidence that the experts can’t know something for certain. In that case we have no reason to think that we can know something for certain that the experts can’t. If anything, we know less than the experts and our sense of certainty is based on our ignorance.

We can only attain a high level of certainty when we are presented with all the relevant facts. We must consider all the pros and cons to a belief. There are often considerations for and against beliefs and all of these considerations must be accounted for before we ought decide what we should believe once and for all.

To ignore various considerations distorts our assessment of what we should believe and often exemplifies the suppressed evidence fallacy. This can lead to one-sidedness or a confirmation bias, and it is often manifested as cherry picking. When we engage in cherry picking of the worst sort, we can purposefully only consider evidence favorable to our opinion while marginalizing or ignoring the counter-evidence. Sometimes we can feel a false sense of certainty from our own ignorance.

3. Dogmatism

A false sense of certainty can encourage us to engage in confirmation bias and ignore counter-evidence because we would then figure there’s no way we’re wrong! This can make us closed-minded and closed-mindedness is also known as “being dogmatic.” If we refuse to change our mind—even when we’re proven wrong, we’re being irrational. The alternative is to struggle to be modest, open minded when presented with counter evidence, and skeptical of dubious evidence (we might have assumed to be reliable in the past).

Finally, being dogmatically irrational is dangerous. To have a false sense of certainty encourages us to behave in ways that can hurt people for no good reason. Once dogmatism has an effect on our moral decisions, we have a good chance of confusing moral right and wrong, and deciding to do something morally wrong. It seems likely that many religious terrorists fall in this category and are willing to kill others based on false beliefs.


No one is perfectly rational or informed. Everyone suffers from confirmation bias, a false sense of certainty, and dogmatism from now and then. Nonetheless, we should do our best to understand what “rationality” consists in, when everyone should rationally be required to agree, and when everyone shouldn’t be rationally required to agree. Moreover, we should actually put our understanding of rationality to use and actually behave rationally.



  1. Thanks for this thoughtful piece on the value of open-mindedness! This is very insightful and informative.

    Comment by Cynthia Sue Larson — September 30, 2011 @ 11:59 pm | Reply

  2. While I agree with most of it, it would be very dangerous to rely on ‘experts’ in order to decide whether to agree or disagree with anything.

    Comment by Alma — October 1, 2011 @ 7:12 am | Reply

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