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The Value of Debate and Disagreement

Posted by Maggie Welsh on Mon, Feb 27, 2017 @ 10:02 AM


John Stuart Mill, a 19th century English philosopher, said in his work On Liberty that “… the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion.” He uses the term ‘discussion’ to characterize this gathering of variety of opinion. Mill suggests that it is through discussion with others who have different opinions from ours that we learn. 

However, looking at the world today, people tend to be intolerant of people with differing opinions.  Some see no value in hearing what the other side has to offer, especially those confident in their own beliefs.  An example of this phenomenon is presidential debates. When debating, candidates spend more time viciously attacking the other and name-calling than they do actually debating the issues.  This is so far from Mill’s suggestion that we can only hope to fully understand our own views if we seek and understand the opposing views.

However, the liberal arts education we receive here at Saint Vincent has taught us the true value of discussion. We take classes in philosophy, and are in Honors Seminar as members of the Honors Program, so that we can learn to read and analyze other points of view and, more importantly, communicate our thoughts in a way that respects both viewpoints.

In the classroom, we are invited to think differently, take sides in a discussion and widen the lens through which we see the world. While reflecting on the value of my college education, I was reminded of my Principles of American Politics professor. She asked the class for their opinions on a recent lecture speaker, reminding us it was O.K. if we disagreed with what the speaker said. She talked about the value of debate and discussion, then brilliantly said “You realize that’s why all of you came to college, right? To have your opinions challenged?” She suggested that we have to learn to not be offended when someone suggests an idea that is different from ours. When we develop a healthy attitude about opposition to our ideas, we see others as providing us with a chance to learn more or become stronger in our own convictions. Our college education is rich with opportunity to do this on a daily basis.     

Mill also suggested that it is in difference of opinion and discussion that we experience progress in the world. Just think of what would happen if we all thought exactly the same. We would stifle creativity and new ideas if we did not allow people to think for themselves, and instead create an environment which discourages disagreeing with the majority.

To think of a more concrete example of the relationship between discussion and progress, I began to think of my future career in business. Imagine a meeting to decide a new employee policy or to decide the company’s next strategic move. One person suggests a course of action, and everyone agrees without question. There is one employee who disagrees and has thought of another solution, but is too afraid to challenge the majority. What value does this employee offer his or her employer by being a “yes-man” in meetings? How will the company continue to grow if only one viewpoint is considered in making decisions? About this, Mill says, “Who can compute what the world loses in the multitude of promising intellects combined with timid characters, who dare not follow out any bold, vigorous, independent train of thought …?”  Organizations to which we belong, government, businesses and the world as a whole all lose out when there is neither difference of opinion nor productive discussion of ideas. 

In one of my favorite quotes, Mill says, “No one can be a great thinker who does not recognize that as a thinker it is his first duty to follow his intellect to whatever conclusions it may lead.” I believe students at Saint Vincent are all capable of following their intellect and leading by example, taking our well-formed minds with us post-college as we begin the next phase of our lives. 

Topics: liberal arts, honors program, disagreement, Maggie Welsh, debate, John Stuart Mill

About this Blog

On this blog, current students write about everyday life on the campus of Saint Vincent College, a private, liberal arts college located in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.


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About the Authors

Michael Brinker

Michael Brinker, junior communication major, currently in Orlando, working with the Disney College Program.

Amanda MacMurtrie

Amanda MacMurtrie transferred to Saint Vincent as a sophomore studying English with a minor in Theology. Transferring to a new school is not the easiest thing in the world, but she is steadily finding a home on this beautiful Benedictine campus. Between enjoying life in community, balancing books for fun and books for class, and finding little corners of beauty, Amanda is discovering a few joys of life at Saint Vincent College.

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