Remarks on the Willingness to Dissent
All thought begins in the middle of things. It takes its first steps upon ideas already thought. It uses words previously defined. Thought is situated in history; it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. All thought begins with presuppositions. Thinking about the particulars of moral truth presupposes that there is such a thing as moral truth and that we can know it. Thinking about aspects of human nature presupposes that there is such a thing as nature (and humans!) and that it’s intelligible. Even debates about whether such things exist presuppose that the questions about the existence of these things can be answered.
It’s with this in mind that I wish to address the topic of dissent. The word dissent has a negative connotation in orthodox circles because it implies a disagreement with what is true. It may well mean that, in particular instances of dissent, but I want to consider the idea in a more favorable light. While I wouldn’t go so far as to encourage dissent in every situation, I do here advocate for the willingness to dissent from the prevailing presuppositions upon which our acts of thinking begin. A few remarks:
First, while the pursuit of truth requires making presuppositions – there’s no way of pursuing truth from nowhere – these presuppositions may be an aid to the exploration or they may be an obstacle. Or they may be both. If we pursue the truth earnestly and responsibly, then no presupposition should achieve an untouchable status, a position where we hold it as unquestionable and beyond critique and contestation. To do so is to cease the pursuit of truth, and at most to pursue a particular way of thinking about it.
Second, responsible thought means responding to what has been thought. It is irresponsible, in the willingness to dissent, to take hold of an opposing idea and run with it as if the opposing idea had never been thought of or considered at length. Doing so not only reveals an arrogance of the dissenter, but also puts the dissenter in an imagined vacuum in which he or she is seemingly detached from the history of ideas. It may be responsible to reconsider morality not as living in accordance with moral truth but rather as having arisen from a psychological source and genesis, but it is irresponsible to assume 1) that the former conception has no answers to give to the latter and 2) that history hasn’t witnessed debates between these positions from which one can learn.
Third, if the willingness to dissent from prevailing presuppositions means something more than an academic exercise, it must imply a willingness to change one’s way of thinking and, as a consequence, a change in the way one lives. The willingness to dissent implies a willingness to go where the journey leads.