Do You Really Know What You Believe?

One of these days I need to read The Brothers Karamazov.

It’s a favorite of Jordan Peterson, who is my number one contemporary intellectual hero. Jordan extolls Dostoyevsky for creating villains who can articulate a well-reasoned and compelling defense of their evil.

In contrast, Jordan shows little admiration for Ayn Rand, observing that her villains are two-dimensional caricatures, straw men whose only function is to make her protagonists look smart in comparison.

What passes for political debate in our postmodern society is clearly the legacy of Ayn Rand.  Whether right or left, pundits rarely allow the other side a fair hearing or fair representation.

This says a lot about both sides.  If I’m not confident enough in my own beliefs to accurately present the opposing view, what does that say about the factual or logical soundness of my own beliefs?

My other modern hero, Jonathan Haidt, describes setting out to write the book that became The Righteous Mind with the intent of repudiating the views of conservative Republicans.  Fortunately for all of us, Professor Haidt possessed the intellectual integrity to recognize that before he could critique them he had to understand them.  And when he made the effort to inquire honestly into their positions, he discovered that they weren’t nearly as wacky as he had supposed.

Intellectual integrity can be summed us this way:

If I don’t understand why you believe what you believe, how can I be sure that you’re wrong?  And if I don’t understand why you might reasonably disagree with me, how can I be sure that I’m right?

So here’s your homework.  Read the following statement:

Donald Trump incited the Capitol riots and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.  Moreover, those senators and congressmen who enabled him are complicit and should be sanctioned or prosecuted as well.

Your assignment is to write an article between 800 and 1000 words defending this statement or arguing against it.  But here’s the condition:

If you agree with the statement, you must write an essay opposing it.  If you disagree with the statement, you must write an essay defending it.  And your essay must be reasonable and rational enough that those who disagree with you would accept it as an accurate representation of their views.

You have 24 hours to complete the assignment.  You may begin now.


Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson
Yonason Goldson works with business leaders to build a culture of ethics, setting higher standards to earn loyalty and trust. He’s a rabbinic scholar, repentant hitchhiker, and co-host of the weekly podcast “The Rabbi and the Shrink.” He has published hundreds of articles applying ancient wisdom to the challenges of the modern world, and six books, most recently “Grappling with the Gray: an ethical handbook for personal success and business prosperity.” The ninja were covert agents in feudal Japan who practiced espionage, deception, and surprise attacks. Doesn't that make Ethics Ninja a contradiction in terms? Not at all. Just as the master of martial arts turns an opponent’s strength against himself, the Ethics Ninja turns attacks against moral values back against the adversaries of ethics, exposing groupthink and double-standards through rational argument in asymmetrical battle to vanquish the enemies of moral clarity.

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  1. Thank you for sharing this one, Yonason. I have not written two essays as you assigned here, but I did give a lot of thought to how those on the other side of the political arena would respond, and more importantly, why. We all view the world through our own lenses which are always filtered by experiences and biases. I think what I’ve been struggling with throughout this whole culminating explosion of emotion is when to call it a day? When should you decide that, even after listening – really listening – to the other POV do you determine that their perspective is in direct opposition to your values the conversation becomes an exercise in futility?

    Thank you for the thought-provoker…

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Melissa. I think the answer to your question is simple, albeit far from easy.

      Once you can articulate their point of view to their satisfaction, and then articulated sound reasons why you disagree, then you’ve done all you can do. If constructive disagreement continues to provide deeper understanding and productive discussion, continue. If continued debate leads only to rehashing the same points again and again, move on.

      I think the ideal model is the friendship of Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Antonin Scalia. Despite their ideological differences, they shared a deep respect for one another. It can be done.