If You Can’t Explain Your Opponent’s Beliefs, You Have No Right to Critique Them

You can’t critique what you don’t understand. Well, you can, but nothing good will come of it. That is because you will not know what you are talking about.
It is easy to demonize one’s political opponent. We focus on ideological talking points. We fail to understand the basic values and principles that organize what a person believes. We often say things like, “I don’t understand how he can believe that…”, or, “That person is ‘out of touch’, ‘stupid,’ ‘crazy’ or even ‘evil’.
Here are some typical examples of comments that people make on issues related to the abortion debate.
The brutality of the Republican party toward women is manifest, desiring to force other people’s children, teenagers, to have unwanted babies they are not able to care for well. [1]
This comment depicts anti-abortion legislation as “brutality toward women” rather than in terms of any argument actually made by an anti-abortion advocate.
The idea that sex is to be primarily for pleasure rather than for birth of a child has been the key to women and men believing that the resulting child they have produced can be murdered if inconvenient [2]
This comment makes a series of polemical statements designed to represent people who advocate pro-abortion rights as irresponsible perpetrators of crimes. This includes the characterizations that people who advocate pro-abortion rights believe that sex is primarily for pleasure and that abortions are performed out of mere inconvenience. Neither of these arguments addresses real arguments made by real people. The statement that abortion is the murder of a child fails to address the issue in terms that reflect the actual positions of abortion rights advocates.
The confederates, papists and holy rollers have combined to unholy effect. Luckily there will be a backlash. [3]
This comment merely advances ad hominem attacks. It neither advances an argument nor does it address anti-abortion arguments on their own terms.
Gotta love how the pro-abortion crowd has no concern for the life of the child. [4]

This comment makes a broad characterization of the beliefs of pro-abortion rights activists. Use of the word “child” places the developing fetus in the same category as children. This misrepresents the views of abortion rights advocates by extending them beyond their intended application.

There is much going on when we say these things. In our polarized time, much of this has to do with the moralization of our political identities. We not only identify with our political positions, we define those political positions in moral terms. When this happens, I become my moralized political identity.
This is a formula for polarization. If my political position is a moral one, it follows that your political position less moral or even immoral. If this is so, then I can dismiss your political position as immoral at its base. Because you advocate an immoral position, you are an immoral person, and I can cancel you.
Such everyday comments are not constructive. They advocate partisan positions by mischaracterizing and misrepresenting their opponent’s beliefs. Such practices, of course, occur on all sides of an issue. They are not, of course, intended to engage their opponents in constructive dialogue. Instead, they function as moral positions designed to elevate the self and cast the opponent in negative moral light.
Cultivating Credulity
To counter this way of thinking, it is important that we develop a sense of moral and intellectual humility. Humility is born of an awareness that we just might be wrong – either intellectually or morally. Moral humility is often difficult to cultivate. We often think of moral judgments as universalizing. Moral judgments are not simply prescriptions about what is right or wrong for me – they reflect what we take to be right or wrong for all people.
Credulity is a closely related to humility.
Credulity is the idea that the other person is credible. To treat the other person as credulous is to understand that even though what they believe may not make sense to us, it makes sense to them. If that is true, if I really want to understand the other, I have to understand how and why the world makes sense to them in the way that it does.
I don’t have to agree with the other person. However, I must suspend my judgment of the other person’s perspective long enough to entertain that there might be something right about it – or at least to treat the other person’s perspective as though it could be right. I have to be able to accept that the other person believes something, even if I do not agree with it. I have to climb into the other person’s experience and look at the world as if I believed what the other person believed. Only then do I have a chance to really understand the other.


The Importance of Understanding Others on their Own Terms
It is not difficult to get people to discuss their genuine beliefs about an issue. It does require that we suspect judgment long enough to genuinely listen to what they have to say. It requires that we understand what they are saying on their own terms – rather than in ours.
For example, consider the following argument from “Why I am Antiabortion”, written by Lucy O’Keefe (1979) in the The Harvard Crimson:
Writing an article about “Why I Am Against Abortion” is like writing about “Why I Am Against Killing High School Students.” How do I explain that one group of people is indistinguishable from any other group of people, and so should enjoy the same basic rights?
I oppose abortion just as I oppose killing people generally; the potential of a human being, to appreciate the world and freely respond to it awes me. Since I oppose killing people, the task of explaining why I am against killing very young people strikes me as conceding something before I begin: that there is a relevant distinction between a fetus and a newborn, or between a newborn and an adult. [5]


The writer is clear about her position on abortion: she regards the personhood of the developing fetus as indistinguishable from that of a newborn or an adult. As a result, aborting a fetus is tantamount to killing a person. There are many arguments that one can make to dispute this position. But there no effective arguments can be made unless we understand the writer’s beliefs on her own terms. We can disagree, for example, about when the fetus can be considered to have personhood – but we cannot change the subject and argue, for example, that the writer is seeking legislation designed to control women’s bodies. The latter argument distorts the argument being made by the anti-abortion advocate.
Alternatively, consider the following statement from “Why I am Pro-Abortion, Not Just Pro-Choice” by Valerie Tarico (2016), published in Free Inquiry:
I’m pro-abortion because being able to delay and limit childbearing is fundamental to female empowerment and equality. A woman who lacks the means to manage her fertility lacks the means to manage her life. Any plans, dreams, aspirations, responsibilities or commitments—no matter how important—have a great big contingency clause built-in: “… until or unless I get pregnant, in which case all bets are off.” Think of any professional woman you know. She wouldn’t be in that role if she hadn’t been able to time and limit her childbearing. Think of any girl you know who imagines becoming a professional woman. She won’t get there unless she has effective, reliable means to manage her fertility. In generations past, nursing care was provided by nuns and teachers who were spinsters, because avoiding sexual intimacy was the only way women could avoid unpredictable childbearing and so be freed up to serve their communities in other capacities. But if you think that abstinence should be our model for modern fertility management, consider the little graves that get found every so often under old nunneries and Catholic homes for unwed mothers. [6]
Here, the writer is clear about the reasons for her pro-abortion stance. She embraces the value of female empowerment and equality. For this writer, the inability to have an abortion would limit the capacity of the woman to manger her own life. There are many ways, of course, to disagree with this person’s stance. To do so, again, one must address the writer on her own terms – without distortion or (mis)characterization. One could argue, either convincingly or not, that a woman’s right to “manage her own life” cannot override concern for the life of the developing child. However, one cannot attribute beliefs to the writer that she herself does not make. One could not, for example, state that the writer has “no regard for children” or that advocates abortion as a matter of mere convenience.
Credulity, Compassion and Conflicting Beliefs
To have a genuine discussion about contentious issues – as opposed to engaging in a mere battle of positions – it is necessary to understand one’s opponent on their own terms. This doesn’t mean agreeing with the other. It does mean suspending judgement long enough in order to climb into the experience of the other and look at the world from the perspective of that experience.
You may not be able to believe that a pro-life advocate believes that a fetus is a person. But you can suspend your own judgment long enough to understand this view, and then to ask, “How would I feel if I believed this?” “How would I feel about abortion if I believed this?”
You may not be able to understand why a woman would want to abort what you might believe is a child. But you can suspend your own judgment long enough to understand the person’s view, and then to ask, “How would I feel if I believed this?” “How would I feel if I felt that the developing fetus were not a child, and that my life would be over if I gave birth?”
You don’t have to agree with the positions of the other in order to give them the gifts of credulity and compassion. To do so would be the beginning of genuine understanding – and the capacity – however slim – of seeking novel ways to resolve conflict.


[1] Comment by “Louis”, April 14, 2023, Comment on “Virtual Clinics Have Been a Fast Growing Method of Abortion. That Could Change”, New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/04/14/upshot/abortion-virtual-clinics.html#commentsContainer)
[2] Comment by Barbara Hoshiko on Lucy, C. (92022), “Support for Legalized Abortion Grows Since Dobbs Ruling, WSJ Poll Shows”, Wall Street Journal (September 3). https://www.wsj.com/articles/support-for-legalized-abortion-grows-since-dobbs-ruling-wsj-poll-shows-11662210020#comments_sector
[3] Comment by Richard Porter on “Abortion Goes Back to the People”, Wall Street Journal, June 24, 2022. https://www.wsj.com/articles/abortion-goes-back-to-the-people-supreme-court-roe-v-wade-dobbs-v-jackson-samuel-alito-11656107148#comments_sector
[4] Comment by RobertdB on “North Dakota lawmakers pass near-total abortion ban with veto-proof majorities. Associated Press, posted on Fox News, https://www.foxnews.com/politics/north-dakota-lawmakers-pass-near-total-abortion-ban-veto-proof-majorities
[5] www.thecrimson.com/article/1979/11/7/why-i-am-against-abortions-pwriting/
[6] https:/secularhumanism.org/2016/07/cont-why-i-am-pro-abortion-not-just-pro-choice/

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