On the need to convince people to agree with us

Christopher asked:

Why do you think it is that everyone tries to convince or convert others to believe the same way/ thing they do? Personally, I think that we inherently need/ desire to conform in some way or another. We seek others who are like us, and if we don’t find any then we try to make others like us. Or maybe we are unsure/ insecure of our own beliefs so we seek confirmation in others, sometimes proactively seek it. Any other ideas that make more sense than mine?

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Well I think this is what Bob Dylan called, in one of his songs, trying to get everyone down in the same hole that you’re in.

There is a natural human tendency to try to convert others to our own beliefs and the more unsure we are of our own beliefs the more we need to convert others.


Answer by Geoffrey Klempner

I sense a paradox here, in that in one sense if you have a factual belief then that is inconsistent with saying that it is perfectly OK for another person to have a contrary belief. You can’t believe something without thinking that you are right in believing it. And if you are right, and the other person doesn’t believe as you do, then they are wrong.

This isn’t anything to do with forcible conversion or planting bombs or waging war in order to get other people to believe as you do. People are, or should be (as Mill argued in On Liberty) free to believe whatever they want to believe. However, as a matter of logic, two factual beliefs that contradict one another cannot both be true.

If you believe that someone you know has a false factual belief, you may or may not depending on the circumstances feel an ethical obligation to persuade them to change their minds. Let’s say a friend has been diagnosed with a serious illness but refuses medical treatment because, ‘doctors don’t know anything.’ That’s a belief that could lead to a very unhappy outcome. On the other hand, if you vote for the Blue party, and your friend leans towards the Red, you might enjoy an argument over a drink over the economic policies proposed by the Blues and Reds, but there is no urgency to convince them.

Not all beliefs are like factual beliefs. The question of religious belief is more complex. Not all religions (just to consider the three main traditions in monotheism) are the same in this regard. Christianity and Islam both have articles of belief, things you must believe to be a true Christian or a faithful Muslim. In Judaism, the emphasis is far more on things you must do, if you call yourself a Jew. Despite these differences, great progress has been made in inter-faith dialogue. As an example of this, I would cite a book which appeared recently: Beyond the dysfunctional family: Jews, Christians and Muslims in Dialogue with Each Other and With Britain edited by Tony Bayfield, Alan Race and Ataullah Siddiqui http://www.philosophypathways.com/index2.html.


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