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Herbert Spencer on the pitfalls of arguing with friends at the dinner table (1897)

The English radical individualist philosopher Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) wisely counsels silence when arguing with others at the dinner table. Sometimes it may be fit and proper to blow one’s own horn. At other times biting one’s tongue when a family member says something foolish or incorrect is the best way to promote “social intercourse”:

Over the dinner table, or in groups of persons otherwise held together, there frequently occur cases in which an erroneous statement is made or an invalid argument urged. One who recognizes the error may either display his superior knowledge or superior logic, or he may let the error pass in silence: not wishing to raise the estimate of himself at the cost of lowering the estimate of another. Which shall he do? A proper decision implies several considerations. Is the wrong statement or invalid argument one which will do appreciable mischief if it passes uncorrected? Is the person who utters it vain, or one whose self-esteem is excessive? Is he improperly regarded as an authority by those around? Does he trample down others in the pursuit of applause? If to some or all of these questions the answer is–Yes, the correction may fitly be made; alike for the benefit of the individual himself and for the benefit of hearers. But should the error be trivial, or should the credit of one who makes it, not higher than is proper, be unduly injured by the exposure, or should his general behavior in social intercourse be of a praiseworthy kind, then sympathy may fitly dictate silence–negative beneficence may rightly restrain the natural desire to show superiority.

  1. A form of selfishness occasionally displayed, and rightly condemned, is that of men who display without bounds their remarkable conversational powers. Of various brilliant talkers we read that on some occasions the presence of others who vied with them, raised obvious jealousies; and that on other occasions, in the absence of able competitors, they talked down everyone, and changed what should have been conversation into monologue. Contrariwise, we sometimes hear of those who, though capable of holding continuously the attention of all, showed solicitude that the undistinguished or the modest should find occasions for joining in the exchange of thoughts: even going to the extent of “drawing them out.” Men of these contrasted types exemplify the absence and presence of negative beneficence; and they exemplify. too, the truth, commonly forgotten, that undue efforts to obtain applause often defeat themselves. One who monopolizes conversation loses more by moral reprobation than he gains by intellectual approbation.

    Over the dinner table, or in groups of persons otherwise held together, there frequently occur cases in which an erroneous statement is made or an invalid argument urged. One who recognizes the error may either display his superior knowledge or superior logic, or he may let the error pass in silence: not wishing to raise the estimate of himself at the cost of lowering the estimate of another. Which shall he do? A proper decision implies several considerations. Is the wrong statement or invalid argument one which will do appreciable mischief if it passes uncorrected? Is the person who utters it vain, or one whose self-esteem is excessive? Is he improperly regarded as an authority by those around? Does he trample down others in the pursuit of applause? If to some or all of these questions the answer is–Yes, the correction may fitly be made; alike for the benefit of the individual himself and for the benefit of hearers. But should the error be trivial, or should the credit of one who makes it, not higher than is proper, be unduly injured by the exposure, or should his general behavior in social intercourse be of a praiseworthy kind, then sympathy may fitly dictate silence–negative beneficence may rightly restrain the natural desire to show superiority.

    Of course much of what is here said respecting the carrying on of conversation or discussion, applies to the carrying on of public controversy. In nearly all cases the intrusion of personal feeling makes controversy of small value for its ostensible purpose–the establishment of truth. Desire for the éclat which victory brings, often causes a mercilessness and a dishonesty which hinder or prevent the arrival at right conclusions. Negative beneficence here conduces to public benefit while it mitigates private injury. Usually the evidence may be marshaled and a valid argument set forth, without discrediting an opponent in too conspicuous a manner. Small slips of statement and reasoning, which do not affect the general issue, may be generously passed over; and generosity may fitly go to the extent of admitting the strength of the reasons relied on, while showing that they are inadequate. A due negative beneficence will respect an antagonist’s amour propre; save, perhaps, in cases where his dishonesty, and his consequent endeavor to obscure the truth, demand exposure. Lack of right feeling in this sphere has disastrous public effects. It needs but to glance around at the courses of political controversy and of theological controversy, to see how extreme are the perversions of men’s beliefs caused by absence of that sympathetic interpretation which negative beneficence enjoins.

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Here is Herbert Spencer mulling over the problem faced by many in a family situation over a meal, to engage or not to engage one’s relatives in spirited argument and risk bad tempers and hurt feelings. Spencer counsels silence for the sake of “social intercourse.

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