The Value of Treating Others Better Than They May Deserve

For the past few months, I’ve thought a lot about the presumption of good will. It’s one of the principles of the Mackinac Center: Assume that the people and organizations disagreeing with us do so with the best intentions.

This principle challenges us to work smarter. It forces us to examine the issues we deal with from multiple sides, and to acknowledge that nearly all of our so-called opponents actually share our goals: higher employment, less poverty, better education and more. It causes us to see weaknesses in our own approach, so that we can address them. 

It also allows us to approach discussions from a position of well-reasoned calm: “I want to raise people out of poverty, too, Aunt Sally. Did you know that free markets have done that better and faster than any other system in the world?” Aunt Sally may never be convinced, but she’s been given a perspective she may not have considered, and she can attribute good will to her niece. That good will, in turn, may be the key to turning her opinion on another day. At the least, you’ve done your best to keep the relationship intact — a good testimony to the proposition that some things are too important to be left to politics.

When we fail to assume good will, we start from an adversarial position. Rather than remembering a shared goal, we assume our opponent has a sinister motive. When we don’t bother to get inside the world of those who don’t already see things our way, we usually fail to win a new ally or even make incremental progress to our goal. Our arguments suffer because they start at an incorrect assumption, and so fail to address the concerns of anyone who isn’t on our side.

The applications for the good will principle are endless. I’ve managed to cut down on the stress of driving by reminding myself that most people on the road with me want to get where they are going quickly and safely. When someone cuts me off, they probably have a good reason –having to make a turn sooner than they thought, for example. It might be the result of poor planning, but they probably weren’t trying to be a jerk. This brings me to a close cousin of the good will principle: Hanlon’s Razor. “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

Unfortunately, in election season it gets harder and harder to attribute good will. Humans often define themselves not only by “who is in my group?,” but “who is not?” Media outlets build market share by nursing grievances for ideological communities. My social media feeds are filled with political commentary spilling out of highly partisan echo chambers, making it that much easier to live in a bubble. Not everyone I meet is happy to assume that my political beliefs come from a genuine desire to make the world a better place, and it can be so tempting to return mudslinging and baiting in kind.

As we survey the state of affairs in this country, it’s easy, and right, to be angry at the injustice and folly we see. The divisiveness of people who respond to what they see is real and it’s frustrating, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to examine and present alternatives in ways others can hear rather than ignore.

No, not everyone acts with good intentions, and not everyone who acts with good intentions succeeds in doing good. But the world is a better place when we start by assuming good and then wait to be proven wrong.