Listening to the Other Side Isn't Enough

Audi alteram partem -- a Latin phrase meaning "listen to the other side" -- is often found in a judicial context. The phrase accompanies a painting above the quarters for the city tribunal in The Hague. It is found in our own constitutional government in the form of due process. 

Listening to the other side is critical to maintaining the civil rights and liberties guarented by the U.S. Constitution. For instance, if your property is taken, you will surely want the judicial system to listen to your side and also to take it seriously as part of the proceedings. 

But listening to the other side is not enough. We need language and sympathy too. Language to adequately communicate our position and sympathy to adequately understand the position of others.  

John Stuart Mill believed that discussion was critical to a functioning democracy. The type of discussion that Mill was referring to requires both language and sympathy. You must be able to understand what the other person is saying and also be open to taking their side. This requires being able to see things from other perspectives. As the economist Frank Knight wrote, discussion “cannot be an attempt to ‘sell’ a solution already reached, or it is not discussion.”

Discussion fosters mutual respect for one another by way of repeated interactions. Mutual respect then reduces the transaction costs associated with additional discussion. Like most things, listening to the other side and taking a sympathetic view becomes normalized with practice. 

Adam Smith thought discussion was critical to private exchange and, therefore, the division of labor and economic growth. You had to have the ability to both express your wants and values as well as to understand the wants and values of your trading partners. When these conditions were met, reciprocal trade was possible and everyone benefited from exchange. Non-reciprocal trade, on the other hand, was extortion.  

Sympathy can also be thought of as the foundation of justice by how we connect with one another. For Smith and Mill, sympathy was effectuated through Christ’s Golden Rule — to treat your neighbor how you would like to be treated. In other words, treat everyone equally. At the same time, your conscience was the internalization of justice.

Here is Smith in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (I.V.5) on the Golden Rule: 

As to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is the great law of Christianity, so it is the great precept of nature to love ourselves as we love our neighbour, or what comes to the same thing, as our neighbour is capable of loving us. 

A democratic society cannot exist without discussion. And discussion cannot exist without sympathy. Here's Smith again in Sentiments (II.II.3): 

Society, however, cannot subsist among those who are at all times ready to hurt and injure one another. The moment that injury begins, the moment that mutual resentment and animosity take place, all the bands of it are broke asunder, and the different members of which it consisted are, as it were, dissipated and scattered abroad by violence and opposition of their discordant affections. 

This said, bodily harm is not a precondition to mutual resentment and animosity which can have destructive powers even without bloodshed. Insofar as bitterness towards the political system generates resentment, therein lies a major problem resulting in the breakdown of discussion. 

The intent of language is no longer to be persuasive but rather to express one's view(s) publicly. Language is used, in these cases, to put down a flag or to draw lines. To differentiate ourselves from others which is to declare war on other world views. 

The "end of political correctness" is a manifestation of this transition. People are not upset with political correctness because they're simply tired of its overuse -- but rather they're sick of political correctness because it does not have a useful role in political conversations without discussion. 

Put slightly differently, groups that have grown resentful of other groups are no longer interested in transacting in a public dialogue using politicaly correct language. The "end of political correctness" is therefore a signal that discussion has ended and not an inherent threat itself. 

So what happens when we have a breakdown in discussion? The implications can be dire translating on one extreme to a breakdown in constitutional government. Future posts will explore these issues, and the causes of the breakdown, in more detail.