by Michael W. Austin Ph.D. Ethics for Everyone
A Virtuous Mind: Fair-Mindedness
Fourth in a series on intellectual character traits
What does it mean to be intellectually fair-minded? In his book, Virtuous Minds(link is external), Philip Dow makes the case that there is a good deal of confusion about this trait. Many people wrongly equate intellectual fair-mindedness with some sort of relativism. This, Dow aptly argues, is a mistake.
While it is true that we should be open to new or different ideas and ways of thinking, this is not the same as the belief that all claims are equally valuable or worthy of acceptance. In fact, acceptance of this kind of relativism is harmful to learning, growth in knowledge, and the acquisition of wisdom. If all ideas are on an equal footing, then questioning ideas and the evidence for or against them is nonsensical.
A relativistic openness is inconsistent with progress in the intellectual realm. Progress assumes a goal, an end that one is pursuing. In the realm of the intellectual life, one might have a goal wisdom, truth, or knowledge. But the acceptance of relativism by definition excludes these objective goals.