How Philosophy Might Rescue Our Polity

The 2016 Presidential race has distinguished itself most remarkably by the extreme breakdown in dialogue we have witnessed throughout the past year. Respectful conversation is at the core of the American constitutional system and its antecedents dating back to ancient Greece. Voters spanning the political spectrum would likely agree that our noble tradition of dialogue is endangered.

We in America stand at a moment of great opportunity. We are directly addressing critical issues including healthcare, taxes, immigration, foreign policy, counterterrorism, police and community relations, and Second Amendment rights. "Voter apathy" has not been a problem this time around. More and better dialogue can position us to mature as a polity. Without it, our society runs the risk of deepening anger, dissension, fear, and chaos.

Amidst an epidemic of little respectful or nuanced conversation in our political process, how might we reach toward this ideal?

We certainly have a strong foundation on which to build. Dialogue is an inherent component of our political infrastructure. We maintain three branches of government, expecting they will engage in meaningful conversation about the long-term needs of the nation rather than just the short-term wishes of individuals. We conceptually divide sovereign authority amongst all citizens, in the hope that an informed electorate will consider a broad range of ideas and vote to advance the nation's best interest.

Continuous vitriolic attacks on both sides of the political spectrum have revealed a major gulf between this ideal and the reality on the ground. In fairness to both major party candidates, they have clearly and forcefully put essential issues on the table for Americans to consider. The questions and issues are not nebulous or vague. But as the positions are articulated in increasingly polarized ways (and laden with nasty personal attacks), the hope of rational dialogue and of sound decision making seems to be slipping away.

This is a time for philosophy once again to reassert itself as the queen of the sciences, a distinctively human activity characterized by careful thinking and civil discussion of ideas. Philosophy elevates these pursuits as the summum bonum -- the highest good. It reminds us to pause, think, converse, and draw humble conclusions that empower us to navigate our complex lives.

The only mention of philosophy during this election cycle was pejorative -- Senator Rubio's statement that we need more welders than philosophers. It is debatable whether we have the optimal number of academic philosophers studying and teaching in our universities (the numbers are modest and not growing). But we as a society undoubtedly can benefit from more opportunities for civil philosophical discourse. What might those dialogues look like?

Let's first recall that Plato carefully distinguishes between dialogue and sophistry. We enter dialogue with humility and the intent to learn, not to advance a personal agenda or prove a point. Sophistry uses techniques of philosophy and rhetoric with the express intent to win an argument. The highest form of dialogue, on the other hand -- the one to which we should aspire at a critical moment in our history -- acknowledges shared values and promotes growth through considering the ideas of other people (especially our adversaries) in a serious and open-minded way.

Consider the possibility of a Presidential forum in which each candidate is asked to assume the positions of his or her opponent for an entire hour or more. They would be required to articulate and provide justification for the views of the other, charitably and authentically. A moderator would facilitate the dialogue and viewers could assess whether each candidate "gets it" about the other's viewpoint.

What's the benefit of this approach rather than the usual Presidential debate format? Empathy is an interpersonal skill that can serve as a bellwether for essential leadership traits, including a capacity to acknowledge multiple perspectives, avoid impulsive reactions, seek counsel, and make well-considered decisions. Empathy toward others helps us to develop humility within ourselves. And humility is valuable because it opens our minds to further learning and more careful decision making. Some individuals have a natural tendency in this direction, but research shows that empathy can improve with training. One empirically proven approach is structured reading and discussion of philosophy and other humanities texts.

Formal training programs are not necessary to enhance these skills, however. Open inquiry can be practiced in a structured way with family and friends. Consider sitting down for 20 minutes with an interlocutor and ask him or her thought-provoking, open-ended questions about a pivotal issue (e.g., "what is the major justification for and against banning immigration of people from a particular country?"). Make sure they are not "leading questions" that come with the implication that there is a correct answer (e.g., "we shouldn't let people in who might be radical Jihadists, right?"). Then switch places and allow your interlocutor to inquire of you. The back-and-forth is likely to breed deeper understanding of the issue, respect for varying positions, and collaboration toward potential compromises and solutions.

We may be approaching the eleventh hour, but perhaps it is not too late for our Presidential candidates -- and all of us -- to step back, ask the hard questions with curiosity and openness, and affirm that the age-old ideal of respectful human dialogue is as valuable in 2016 as it's ever been in our history.