Civility and the Presumption of Goodwill



A debate underway on the Students for a Free Economy website about school employee compensation has me thinking about the institution of civility. We take for granted in this country that the way to resolve political and ideological differences is though reasoned debate and democratic procedures. We shouldn’t take it for granted: In many if not most parts of the world such disputes are “resolved” by blowing one’s opponents’ heads off with an AK-47.


The essential prerequisite for civility is according one’s ideological and political adversaries the presumption of goodwill. This is what separates societies that settle political disagreements with ballots from those that do it with bullets.


In practice, its operation is very simple: I am free to think that your policy preferences are extremely misguided and to say so loudly and in no uncertain terms, but I am NOT free to presume that you are motivated by anything other than goodwill toward all humans. You are required to accord me the same presumption. We can “slash and burn” each other with angry rhetoric and polemics, we can use sarcasm and tough talk, we can claim that the outcomes of the other’s policies will lead to tragedy and disaster.


The one thing we can’t do is declare that the other person either doesn’t care if bad things happen to innocent people, or wants them to. This can be expressed in various ways such as, “you don’t care about kids,” “you are motivated by greed,” “you want to exploit people,” etc. Those and similar slurs are all different ways of saying, “You are evil.”


I won’t pretend that this is always easy. I can imagine that when a person’s livelihood and entire career is wrapped up with a particular institution – no matter how dysfunctional it may be – it’s difficult to view institutional opponents as being motivated by goodwill. Nevertheless, doing so is required anyway. It actually just comes down to developing the habit of doing so. (That’s not a bad thing to teach schoolchildren, as a matter of fact.)


Dismissing one’s debate opponents as motivated by evil is also a form of mental laziness and sloppiness. The presumption of goodwill requires introspection when one engages an ideological or political adversary. One must ask, “Given that the other also has goodwill, how could he think the way he does? What mistaken premise or logic accounts for his misguidedness?”


At the end of the day it’s likely that both sides just have different underlying premises about reality or human nature or some other philosophical matter, but having performed this exercise makes one more sympathetic toward ideological adversaries, and potentially allows both sides to discover shared values on which future harmony may arise.


When a group of people lose (or never learn) the habits of civility, they bring their society closer to the tragic status of Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, etc. This is because if you claim that I am “evil” you have closed off any possibility of civil discourse based on reason. What response can I possibly make to that assertion? Resorting to such uncivil behavior may suggest that the uncivil person cares primarily about getting or keeping power, and believes that the end justifies the means. At the very least it indicates that he is disrespectful of core democratic habits.



6 Responses to “Civility and the Presumption of Goodwill”

  1. Bill Says:

    When a group of people lose (or never learn) the habits of civility, they bring their society closer to the tragic status of Bosnia, Rwanda, Darfur, Iraq, etc.”

    Yes, we see that here in this country when abortion clinics are bombed and doctors killed.

    The thesis should be pointed at your side of the aisle as well. Especially so.

  2. William Freeland Says:

    Some of my favorite work in economics is the work of James Buchanan & Gordon Tullock known as Public Choice economics. Public Choice economics assumes politicians & those in power are self-interested. They postulate that much of government failure comes from this self-interest.

    In a way, this appears that this branch of economics does not conform to the presumption of “goodwill” by assuming self-interested ends at the heart of decisions of those in power.

    Thoughts on this?

  3. jmchugh4u Says:

    Coincidentally, I posted this on Trying Liberty, “I Reject Your Notion of “Self-Interest” yesterday ( – the Buchanan quote:

    ‘Benevolence, as defined by David Kelley in his book Unrugged Individualism (which details the selfish basis of benevolence) is a “commitment to achieving the values derivable from life with other people in society, by treating them as potential trading partners, recognizing their humanity, independence and individuality, and the harmony between their interests and ours”. Benevolence is thus clearly rationally selfish. It is not a sacrifice of one’s interests to those of others. Rather it reaffirms a positive view of human beings and recognizes the potential of humans.’–1230-Benevolence_and_SelfInterest.aspx

    Here’s where clarification is needed: “The concept of self-interest is of limited usefulness.” I think you mean to say that the notion that humans are motivated SOLELY by self-interest, the so-called “rational actor” model – is insufficient to explain many forms of human behavior. It does fully explain some forms – choosing brand X vs. brand Y in the grocery store, for example. Many on the left go so far in seeking to dismiss the rational actor model that they even reject it’s value in explaining these kinds of actions.

    In my view, pure rational actor-ism is as much a form of determinism as is Marxist materialism, the view that all human behavior can be expplained by understanding the means of production in a particular society. Both theories provide useful “lenses” for understanding human action, but pushed too far both distort rather than clarify. (My apologies to real scholars for butchering some of these concepts).

    Here’s the bottom line: Man is a complicated mixture of motivations. One subfield of the rational actor mode, public choice theory, uses it to explain the actions of politicians and bureaucrats. But even the person most identified with that theory, James Buchanan, wrote, “Each political actor, regardless of his role, combines both of these elements (pursuit of the ‘general interest’ and their own ‘pecuniary interest’) in his behavior pattern . . .”

    The rational actor model has come in for it’s share of criticism in academia. One of the tools used to challenge it is voting – why do people vote? It’s irrational, at least at the presidential levelm becuase your single vote will never matter. But even one of the theory’s critics has said this: “(I)t would be absurd to give up the extraordinarily useful insights into political behavior the theory has given us.” (Jane Mansbridge)

  4. William Freeland Says:

    But if we are considering the motivations of a politician on a policy that has failed, are we to assume self-interest and therefore issues of rent seeking in the political process (Virginia public choice critique of Buchanan & Tullock) or that the politicians probably had good intentions of helping people but that the unintended consequences of the policy caused the failure (Austrian political economy critique). Assuming the former would appear to not be assuming goodwill of the politician but instead, the politicians self-interest over the general welfare or even corruption.

    Put another way, does public choice economics assume “goodwill” or does it assume more unethical motivations?

  5. Bill Says:

    Rockefeller once said “it’s my duty to make money and even more money.” How can goodwill coexist with that viewpoint, let alone work harmoniously together? I contend the human animal is essentially greedy by nature, interested in self-preservation at the core. Goodwill can be artificially practiced through discipline (and for good public relations at times), but it goes against our basic natures.

  6. wctaxpayer Says:

    Jack, I agree you should always start out with the presumption of goodwill. I do believe that it is naive to continue such attempts, when someone proves over and over again that his/her motivation does not allow for the same respect. While one should alway try to do things with integrity, I am not willing to be the martyr for some jackass bent on my destruction or the destruction of anything I believe.


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