Treat people and their ideas separately

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock | Philosophy Major Ben Giles argues against voluntarism in politics and suggest ways to improve interpersonal connection with those we disagree with.


I wish to add one further contribution to the ongoing discussion taking place in the Op-Ed section of the Newswire about ideological diversity on Xavier’s campus. I do not wish to engage this issue as directly as some of the other columns before this one but to take a more abstract, philosophical look.

One of the defining aspects of modern political philosophy is what I would call voluntarism. This is, to put it succinctly, a philosophical position that elevates the role of the will over other human aspects such as imagination or intellect. Along with this claim about the power of the human will, voluntarism holds that, since it is the most powerful human faculty, the expression of individual wills and choices ought to be protected in society.

Voluntarism, then, lies at the core of much of modern politics. One way to understand the myriad of protections that exist for citizens in both state constitutions and the Federal Constitution is as measures meant to provide strict limits on government so that, for the most part, individual citizens are free to pursue their own visions of the good life. In other words, we may understand our current political order as designed to allow ourselves as individual citizens to live our lives as we choose to live them and to believe what we choose to believe.

It is with this observation that voluntarism moves beyond the realm of political philosophy and begins to apply to very real issues. If we truly believe that one of the greatest goods our societies can produce is the unshackling of individual will and choice, then we must also think of our choices and our beliefs as extensions of our character and convictions. This connection is not necessarily problematic, but it can be when it is applied to issues of intellectual diversity and free speech on campuses.

To clarify, I am not at all opposed to the many freedoms we have access to as citizens of a liberal democracy. To a large extent, we need these freedoms to have an effective inquiry into questions of the good life. Totalitarian governments that claim to have this question answered and impose that answer on their societies have an extremely lackluster record of political success.

Instead, I propose a corollary to the political situation created by voluntarism. If we believe in freeing individual will and choice, then we will make the easy, subconscious jump to the idea that people are more or less inseparable from the decisions they make. Individual choice and individual beliefs become a kind of unity. It becomes incredibly easy for disagreement to degenerate into ad hominem attacks, especially if we are skeptical about the ability of people to change their minds.

I believe that this sort of arrangement has done a great deal to contribute to the current speech climate we see at American universities in general and, to a lesser extent, at Xavier. More and more, we see intellectual disagreements devolve into assaults upon an interlocutor’s character. We may be inclined to break off personal relationships because we fall into the trap of thinking that people who profess ideas we believe are evil or wrong are themselves evil or wrong. This is incredibly harmful to individual intellectual development. If all we seek is to have our own ideas and beliefs affirmed, we are weakening those ideas and beliefs, thereby removing ourselves from serious pursuit of questions of justice and the good life.

None of these difficulties are insurmountable, but addressing them requires a serious reevaluation of the way we think about how people develop their ideas. Having a serious climate of intellectual diversity at institutions like Xavier requires a combination of both intellectual maturity and humility that is open to engaging differing ideas and positions. More than anything else, a robust speech climate requires the ability to separate people from the ideas they hold and to consider ideas by themselves. This is no easy task, but it is possible as long as we are willing and able to temper our voluntaristic perspective on the convictions of our peers.


Ben Giles is a senior Politics, Philosophy, and the Public and Philosophy double major. He is a staff writer for The Newswire from Denver, Colorado.

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