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Intellectual Courage: Being Willing to Challenge Beliefs

Now let's consider intellectual courage:

Intellectual courage may be defined as having a consciousness of the need to face and fairly address ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints toward which one has strong negative emotions and to which one has not given a serious hearing. Intellectual courage is connected to the recognition that ideas that society considers dangerous or absurd are sometimes rationally justified (in whole or in part). Conclusions and beliefs inculcated in people are sometimes false or misleading. To determine for oneself what makes sense, one must not passively and uncritically accept what one has learned. Intellectual courage comes into play here because there is some truth in some ideas considered dangerous and absurd, and distortion or falsity in some ideas strongly held by social groups to which we belong. People need courage to be fair-minded thinkers in these circumstances. The penalties for nonconformity can be severe.

The opposite of intellectual courage, intellectual cowardice, is the fear of ideas that do not conform to one's own. If we lack intellectual courage, we are afraid of giving serious consideration to ideas, beliefs, or viewpoints that we perceive as dangerous. We feel personally threatened by some ideas when they conflict significantly with our personal identity—when we feel that an attack on the ideas is an attack on us as a person.

All of the following ideas are "sacred" in the minds of some people: being a conservative, being a liberal; believing in God, disbelieving in God; believing in capitalism, believing in socialism; believing in abortion, disbelieving in abortion; believing in capital punishment, disbelieving in capital punishment. No matter what side we are on, we often say of ourselves: "I am a (an) [insert sacred belief here; for example, I am a Christian. I am a conservative. I am a socialist. I am an atheist]."

Once we define who we are in relation to an emotional commitment to a belief, we are likely to experience inner fear when that idea or belief is questioned. Questioning the belief seems to be questioning us. The intensely personal fear that we feel operates as a barrier in our minds to being fair (to the opposing belief). When we do seem to consider the opposing idea, we subconsciously undermine it, presenting it in its weakest form, in order to reject it. This is one form of intellectual cowardice. Sometimes, then, we need intellectual courage to overcome our self-created inner fear—the fear we ourselves have created by linking our identity to a specific set of beliefs.

Intellectual courage is just as important in our professional as in our personal lives. If, for example, we are unable to analyze the work-related beliefs we hold, then we are essentially trapped by those beliefs. We do not have the courage to question what we have always taken for granted. We are unable to question the beliefs collectively held by our co-workers. We are unable to question, for example, the ethics of our decisions and our behavior at work. But fair-minded managers, employers, and employees do not hesitate to question what has always been considered "sacred" or what is taken for granted by others in their group. It is not uncommon, for example, for employees to think within a sort of "mob mentality" against management, which often includes routinely gossiping to one another about management practices, especially those practices that impact them. Those with intellectual courage, rather than participating in such gossip in a mindless way, will begin to question the source of the gossip. They will question whether there is good reason for the group to be disgruntled, or whether the group is irrational in its expectations of management.

Another important reason to acquire intellectual courage is to overcome the fear of rejection by others because they hold certain beliefs and are likely to reject us if we challenge those beliefs. This is where we invest the group with the power to intimidate us, and such power is destructive. Many people live their lives in the eyes of others and cannot approve of themselves unless others approve of them. Fear of rejection is often lurking in the back of their minds. Few people challenge the ideologies or belief systems of the groups to which they belong. This is the second form of intellectual cowardice. Both make it impossible to be fair to the ideas that are contrary to our, or our group's, identity.

You might note in passing an alternative way to form your personal identity. This is not in terms of the content of any given idea (what you actually believe) but, instead, in terms of the process by which you came to it. This is what it means to take on the identity of a critical thinker. Consider the following resolution:

I will not identify with the content of any belief. I will identify only with the way I come to my beliefs. I am a critical thinker and, as such, am ready to abandon any belief that cannot be supported by evidence and rational considerations. I am ready to follow evidence and reason wherever they lead. My true identity is that of being a critical thinker, a lifelong learner, and a person always looking to improve my thinking by becoming more reasonable in my beliefs.

With such an identity, intellectual courage becomes more meaningful to us, and fair-mindedness more essential. We are no longer afraid to consider beliefs that are contrary to our present beliefs. We are not afraid of being proven wrong. We freely admit to having made mistakes in the past. We are happy to correct any mistakes we are still making: Tell me what you believe and why you believe it, and maybe I can learn from your thinking. I have cast off many early beliefs. I am ready to abandon as many of the present beliefs as are not consistent with the way things are.

Test the Idea
Intellectual Courage I

Select one group to which you belong. Complete the following statements:

  1. One main belief common to members of this group that might be questioned is … (here you want to identify at least one belief that may lead group members to behave irrationally).

  2. This belief might be questioned because…

  3. I would or would not be able to stand up to my group, pointing out the problems with this belief, because…

Intellectual Courage II

Try to think of a circumstance in which either you or someone you knew defended a view that was unpopular in a group to which you belonged. Describe the circumstances, and especially how the group responded. If you can't think of an example, what is the significance of that realization?

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