Open-mindedness and the Invitation to Debate

"Unfortunately for the good sense of mankind, the fact of their fallibility is far from carrying the weight in their practical judgment, which is always allowed to it in theory; for while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precau- tions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposi- tion that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable." ("On Liberty", Chapter II, Page 1018, J. S. Mill)

Mills in the quote above expresses concern about people's refusal to acknowledge the fallibility of their thoughts. Ordinarily, people tend to be very confident in their opinions without considering how impractical those opinions are and how wrong they may be.

In reading that entire chapter, I reflected a lot on how impractical many decisions I have made have impacted other people. The effects of conceiving and acting on a fallible idea may not be significant if that idea or thought is about what attire to wear, for instance. But if that idea were to be conceived 10,000 feet above ground in a fighter jet, then the risk is higher, and one fallible thought would result in a lot of wrong things.

So when Mills encourages us to take precautions against fallibility and to not have absolute confidence in our opinions, especially when they are not factually proven, I think he makes a strong statement. Very often, our ideas are limited by naivety or the smallness of our scope and understanding of the world. It is also limited by who and what we choose to trust. We are constantly refining the world around us, forming circles of trust, and making big decisions that affect other people, depending on the size of responsibility we have, especially as leaders.

In acknowledging the potential wrongness of my ideas, I always begin any strong claims I make with "I may be wrong" and encourage other people to do so as a means of keeping an open mind about other opinions and theories.