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What is Closed-Mindedness?

20 November 2017

On March 7 2017, Jason Chaffetz who was then a member of the US House of Representatives (R-Utah) told a CNN anchor: “Americans have choices….rather than getting that new iPhone…they should invest…in their own health care. They’ve got to make those decisions for themselves.”[1] Later the same day, in a discussion of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) on Fox News, Chaffetz reiterated his point: “people need to make a conscious choice and I believe in self-reliance.”[2] Setting aside the debate over the ACA, Chaffetz’ remarks point to a broader assumption about poverty in the United States—namely, that it is the result of choice and laziness.

Let’s use this as a starting point for thinking about closed-mindedness. Imagine that Donald believes that poor Americans are simply lazy. Like many upper class Americans of his generation, Donald grew up thinking that the United States is a land of opportunity where people would not be poor if they worked hard. He has stuck with these beliefs and is unwilling to engage seriously with competing ideas, summarily dismissing any that cross his path. When the conversation turns to low wages as a cause of poverty, Donald deems it nonsense and shuts down. When he sees an article arguing that lack of opportunity contributes to poverty, he thinks it silly and scrolls past it. Donald recognizes that such ideas compete with his own, and rejects them because they seem implausible. In short, Donald is closed-minded, and paradigmatically so, at least with respect to the causes of poverty in the United States.

How can we avoid closed-mindedness? We can at least follow the dictum: don’t be like Donald. But, will that be enough? The answer depends on what closed-mindedness is. Donald is unwilling to engage seriously with competing ideas. Is this the only way to be closed-minded, or are there other ways of being closed-minded that we will also need to avoid?

I think there are additional ways to be closed-minded. Donald is closed-minded, but his case doesn’t exhaust the category. The key point I will try to make is this: being unwilling to engage with alternatives to a belief is one way to be closed-minded, but it isn’t the only way. Let’s make this argument by exploring four features of Donald’s case.

(1) Already having beliefs about the topic. Donald already believes that poor Americans are lazy, and in dismissing alternatives to his belief, he is being closed-minded. But, does closed-mindedness require already having beliefs about a topic? Couldn’t we be closed-minded in the ways that we initially conduct inquiries into a topic, even when we don’t have any beliefs about it? Imagine a person who has never been exposed to evidence about poverty in the US and has no beliefs about the topic. Assume that she grew up in a different part of the world, and that she is now being confronted with evidence about the causes of American poverty for the very first time. Even though she lacks any beliefs about the topic, couldn’t she still arrive at an initial belief about the causes of American poverty by ignoring relevant evidence? Perhaps she does this because of an implicit bias that operates below the level of belief. And, when she ignores relevant evidence, isn’t she being closed-minded? If so, closed-mindedness does not require already having beliefs about a given topic.

(2) Ideas and evidence. Donald is closed-minded with respect to ideas and evidence. But, is the locus of closed-mindedness restricted to ideas and evidence? Or, are we also closed-minded when we dismiss relevant questions, sources, and methods? Imagine a person who dismisses poor Americans as sources of information about their own poverty. She thinks poor Americans are untrustworthy sources because they will be motivated to maintain their ‘entitlements’ to welfare, Medicaid, and so on. In dismissing sources, isn’t she being closed-minded? If so, closed-mindedness is not restricted to ideas and evidence. One can also be closed-minded with respect to other intellectual options, like sources, questions, methods, and even which inquiries one pursues to begin with.

(3) Engaging with intellectual options. In dismissing alternative ideas that cross his path, Donald does engage with those ideas, but only insofar as he recognizes and rejects them. He doesn’t engage seriously with them—he doesn’t evaluate their merits in any way—his engagement is entirely superficial. Let’s now consider whether closed-mindedness requires even this much: does it require engaging with alternative ideas and other intellectual options? Or, could one be closed-minded by failing to engage? Suppose a person is oblivious to intellectual options—she fails to recognize or notice them in the first place. She might be so invested in ‘the American dream’ and its concomitant claims about poverty and laziness that she fails to notice defeaters—she sees the working poor not as industrious, but as demanding ‘entitlements’ and not working hard enough. Alternatively, a person might fail to seek out intellectual options. Consider a conservative voter who fails to seek out moderate or progressive sources, who fails to look beyond her own echo chamber—who only looks for sources and evidence that confirm her conservative views about poverty. In failing to engage with relevant intellectual options, aren’t these people being closed-minded? If so, closed-mindedness does not require engaging (superficially) with intellectual options.

(4) Willful refusal. Donald is unwilling to engage seriously with intellectual options—he simply refuses. What about people who are willing, but unable, to engage seriously with intellectual options? Are they also closed-minded? Imagine a person who, like Donald, believes that poor Americans are simply lazy. Unlike Donald, this person is genuinely willing to engage seriously with relevant options. However, due to indoctrination, he is also systematically oblivious to these options—he moves through the world utterly unaware of them. He fails to see poor people as credible sources about their own poverty, and fails to notice that poor people are industrious. He fails to engage seriously with these options because he is unable to perceive them. In being unable to engage with these options, isn’t he being closed-minded? Even if his myopia isn’t his fault and even if he shouldn’t be blamed for it? If so, closed-mindedness does not require a willful refusal to engage with alternative ideas or other intellectual options. And, it might not even require being blameworthy in the standard sense.

If the above is correct, none of these four features is required for closed-mindedness. This means that there are lots of different ways to be closed-minded. Donald’s way is only one of them. Donald seems to have a specific sort of closed-mindedness: he is dogmatic. That is, he is unwilling to engage seriously with relevant alternatives to a belief he already holds. But, closed-mindedness is much broader than dogmatism. Roughly, it is an unwillingness or inability to engage seriously with relevant intellectual options. The upshot: if we want to avoid closed-mindedness, we will need to avoid dogmatism. But, we will also need to avoid much more than that. Former Representative Chaffetz clearly has some work to do. And, given the breadth of closed-mindedness, so do many of us.

Image Padlock by Brenkee from Pixabay CC0 Creative Commons