There are a lot of things that it’s possible to have an opinion on. Maybe an infinite number! And on a lot of these issues there are a whole range of possible opinions. There are fairly binary questions like ‘child labour – yes or no?’ (though even here a glance at history reveals a whole variety of ‘moderate’ positions on the question). But then there are questions like ‘what’s the right top tax rate?’ where there is just a huge amount of space to carve out different positions.
Given this, what are the chances that two randomly-chosen people will agree on everything? On anything like close to everything? They should be infinitesimal. What about people who have a lot of ideas and values in common? Statistically, they should still disagree on a lot. There’s just so much to disagree about. If two people agree on everything or almost everything, chances are they’re both taking their cues from someone else.
Now that’s not a problem if whoever they’re taking their cues from is right about everything, or almost everything. What are the chances of that? Again, very, very low. A person might be astonishingly smart and well-informed, they might even be right about most of the questions they actually think about, and they’d almost certainly be wrong on a vast number of other ones. This shouldn’t surprise us: there are just so many things that one can be right or wrong about. As Gandalf says, ‘even the very wise cannot see all ends’.
A lot of the organisations people take their cues from are not very wise. Political parties, for example, are not the kind of institution you’d expect to be brilliant at truth-seeking. Parties are consensus-builders: they hack out policy platforms by working out difficult compromises between the different views of their members, supporters, and potential voters. Those coalitions are themselves subject to random variation and historical accidents.
Parties do this kind of messy compromising because in a democracy that’s the only way to get things done. It’s a good method for bringing about changes – but it’s a pretty terrible method for actually finding the truth. A political party, particularly a large one, is one of the last institutions I’d expect to be right about everything.
And yet – vast numbers of people have views that line up more-or-less well with the policy platforms of various large political parties. So many seem to assume that what, say, the US Democratic party happens to believe now constitutes some kind of coherent political vision that needs to be believed or rejected wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t! The Democrats are more likely than their main rivals the Republicans to support increased spending on social welfare. They favour more aggressive measures to address racial inequalities. They’re also the (slightly) less interventionist party on foreign policy. One could look at these three positions and think ‘oh yeah, they’re liberals’. But these positions could have been otherwise, and were in recent history. Rewind the clock a few decades and it’s the Democrats who are more likely to launch a war. Rewind a few more and they’re the biggest party in the Jim Crow South. But throughout this whole period they were still by and large more left-wing on economic questions. This is not because the fundamental nature of liberal thought changed: it’s because giant parties are weird grab-bags of interest groups and opportunists, idealists and ideologues, campaigners and cash-grabbers. Pick a different country with a different electoral system and you’ll get different arrangements of parties with different arrangements of views.
So a political party, or a politician who subscribes to that platform, is very unlikely to be right about everything. If you find yourself agreeing entirely or almost with a party’s policy platform (or indeed with the views of any large organisation that has a position on a wide variety of issues), you need to ask yourself some serious questions. Those questions might have answers! It’s always possible that for some special reason the organisation might actually be right on everything, or nearly everything. (Some religious traditions claim to be divinely preserved from error on at least some questions). But the default attitude should be suspicion. The chances of any individual being right about everything are very low. The chances of a large political party or similar organisation being right about everything are even lower.
Here’s the fun part. Every claim I’ve made so far is also an argument against the likelihood of any person or organisation being wrong about everything. In fact, it’s an even better argument for that conclusion. That’s because truth and falsehood aren’t symmetrical. It’s basically impossible to be wrong about everything or almost everything and still function as a human being. People have to be right about huge numbers of basic beliefs like ‘if I put my hand out I’ll be able to grab small items within my reach, at least under most ordinary circumstances’ or ‘communication is generally possible with other humans’ or the world would be impossible to navigate. This also applies to a lot of ethical beliefs. If most people didn’t believe something like ‘you shouldn’t lie, at least most of the time’ or ‘you shouldn’t lie without a special reason’, trust would be impossible and human society as we know it would collapse.
This is part of the reason why despite all I’ve said above it’s more rational, at least in principle, to follow a person as a moral guide than it is to use someone as a kind of anti-guide. A person could at least theoretically be right on everything: more realistically, they could be right on more things than you would be with your own unaided judgment, so that by adopting their positions entirely you’d still improve your likelihood of finding the truth. But unless they’re completely insane, disagreeing with any person on literally everything will rapidly make you insane.
What’s more, everything I’ve said about the sheer number of opinions one can have makes it very unlikely that anyone is wrong about all or almost all of them, even when we move on to the more seriously disputed opinions. Even if a person chose all their opinions randomly they would likely have loads of correct opinions on contested ethical or political questions.
Even if you’re really evil you’re probably still right on some things. For a political leader to be truly wrong on everything they’d have a platform that was bizarre. ‘The death penalty for shaking hands! Million-dollar subsidies for building vehicles that produce more carbon emissions than competitors!’ Even within slightly more realistic boundaries, Benito Mussolini supposedly ‘made the trains run on time’, and he made solid investments in Italian infrastructure. To be clear, these would be terrible reasons to support Mussolini! But he was right in some of his economic policy choices. It would be astonishing, almost an anti-miracle, if he hadn’t been.
So what’s the upshot of this? It’s just this: exactly as you shouldn’t assume that a person or organisation is right on everything, you shouldn’t assume they’re wrong on everything either. Even if you disagree on a lot, even if you disagree about very important things, and even if they’re your constant political opponent.
Not only is this bad truth-seeking, it’s giving your political opponents a weird kind of power over you. It’s letting them dictate your opinions. If I say ‘if Aodhán Ó Ríordáin says it, I’m agin it’, then that’s giving Deputy Ó Ríordáin way too much room in my head. I disagree very strongly with Deputy Ó Ríordáin about abortion (and about other issues too, like whether or not religious schools should exist): but it would be wrong of me to let my disagreement with him on these issues turn me against him on the abolition of direct provision.
How does this apply to abortion? Well, as is often the case there are two parallel dangers. The first is to let the fact that we disagree with pro-choice people about a fundamental issue push us to automatically disagree with them on others. The other is to let the fact that we disagree with some pro-lifers on other very important questions make us doubt the justice of the cause of human rights for all humans. It would be nice if all good opinions went together. Unfortunately, they don’t.