Understanding someone else’s first principles

There are people who believe that you can get other people to agree to a point of view, or change their minds about it, by just using rational argument. As I get older I have become increasingly sceptical about this as I have got to understand people and personal behaviour better.

If you are going to try to get someone to agree with you about a difficult or contentious issue, you have to understand the first principles on which their side of the argument is founded. The first principles are usually based on concepts of personal or public morality, cultural precepts, learned attitudes etc; in other words, they may not be something you can give an objective justification of, they just are.

In situations where both parties seem to be unable to get each other to agree on a point, the issue in my opinion is because they cannot relate to each other’s first principles.

Two recent events have convinced me that the rational argument view is wrong.

  • The ongoing and at this moment unresolved debate between the Republicans and Present Obama in the US, that has led to the US government shutdown.
  • The discussion, most recently on radio, in South Africa regarding the value and purpose of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).

The following are my personal views about the first principles involved.

In the US, the two sets of first principles seem to be:

  • Republicans/Tea Party – personal independence; the importance of self responsibility and accountability; it is up to each individual to look after themselves
  • President Obama/Democrats – it is the responsibility and duty of society to take of those who have fallen on hard times or are in need; the more well-off members of society should help provide for those less well-off

The BEE debate:

  • Business, anti-BEE groups – the need to appoint people to positions based purely on merit – their aptitude, abilities, experience, knowledge; everyone competes on a level playing field
  • ANC government, pro-BEE groups – the history and legacy of apartheid has created an unequal playing field; people do not compete on an equal basis

Dennis Howlett in Diginomica pointed out a discussion of recent research that indicates how people’s emotions (first principles) have a major effect on the way they analyse and interpret information. It seems:

we rationalize what our emotions already want to believe.

The article points out that in one research the emotions were so strong that:

the more advanced that people’s math skills were, the more likely it was that their political views, whether liberal or conservative, made them less able to solve the math problem.

In other words, the ability to solve problems was affected if the issue went against their first principles.

This could make you feel discouraged, but I prefer to see it differently, Instead of spending time at the beginning of an argument on facts and evidence, get to understand your opponent’s side – their first principles. Doing so may not be quick or easy, and may required some understanding of personal history andpsychology. If, however, you base your arguments on their first principles, you may have a better chance of reaching some agreement.

Professional negotiators and dispute mediators must, I think, be experts at identifying first principles.


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