The Virtue of Open-mindedness

Richmond Walker, Twenty-Four Hours a Day

Open-mindedness is probably the one virtue we are most likely to claim for ourselves. We may readily concede that we are not always honest, patient, or tolerant, for instance. But none of us wants to think of ourselves as having a narrow or a closed mind—or have others see us that way.

There may be two reasons for this. One is cultural, the other linguistic. The cultural is suggested by Bill W. in the first quote below. Open-mindedness is an attractive personal quality in our science- and progress-minded society, and this makes it subject to what in psychology is known as a “social desirability bias": We all want to have it. This bias is heightened by the nature of the terms we use in English for the virtue and its opposing vice. They are graphic and emotionally loaded. One has a very positive and the other a very negative charge. One attracts, the other repels.

Thus, while we might want to be patient, let us say, we can always rationalize being impatient. But we can’t rationalize being narrow-minded. That would be like admitting we are dumb and ignorant and objects of pity, like the poor folk in Ehrmann's quote from the Desiderata. Instead, like the scientist who Bill says is reluctant to try out the God hypothesis, we rationalize not being open-minded on this particular question. We convince ourselves that open-mindedness just doesn’t apply here. The dumb and the ignorant, we'll self-righteously claim, are those who believe in such old religious myths. After all, there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God or for miracles or anything else attributed to him. We, on the other hand, are rational and realistic. 

The 12&12 tells an anecdote about a sponsor who identifies with this type of objection on the part of his newcomer sponsee. “I had a scientific schooling. Naturally, I respected, venerated, even worshipped science. As a matter of fact, I still do—all except the worship part. Time after time, my instructors help up to me the basic principle of all scientific progress: search and research, again and again, always with the open mind. When I first looked at A.A., my reaction was just like yours. This A.A. business, I thought, is totally unscientific, This I can’t swallow. I simply won’t consider such nonsense" (pp. 2627).

Our reluctance is really not that strange. For us, open-mindedness is a secular virtue, one which is understood in the reductive terms of a social-utility category. This accounts for the phenomenon the sponsor describes. The more open-minded some of us think of ourselves, the more close-minded we are about God.

Hence the Big Book quote following Bill’s. Only when faced with alcoholic destruction do we become as open-minded on spiritual matters as we were about everything else (p. 48). “Then, and only then,” adds the 12&12, “do we become as open-minded to conviction and as willing to listen as the dying can be" (1, p. 24). 

Only when we’ve been knocked off our high horse (as a certain man was on a certain road a very long time ago), can open-mindedness be motivated by humility rather than self-aggrandizing pride. Only then can we begin to practice open-mindedness, not only as an intellectual, but as a spiritual virtue. It is no longer a sign of how smart we are but a sign of surrender, indeed, a matter of personal survival. 

For AA, God is precisely what we need to be most open-minded about. There are a number of good reasons for this. We’ll mention three. First, if there’s any possibility—the slightest possibility—that there’s a God who can restore us to sanity, reason would dictate that we should be open to that possibility. Two, if there’s such a God, we need all the resources we possess to understand him. Simply put, the question of God’s existence, nature, relation to us, and role in our lives is too big a question for us to pursue with anything but an open mind. Third, in most cases, religion has given us such a negative view of God that our natural tendency is to want to have nothing to do with the issue. We just don’t want to be bothered.

These reasons explain why AA invites us to conduct an experiment. Because it concerns our very lives—sometimes quite literally—it is certainly the greatest and most consequential of all possible experiments. The 12&12 explains this most succinctly: “A.A.’s Twelve Steps are a group of principles, spiritual in their nature, which, if practiced as a way of life, can expel the obsession to drink and enable the sufferer to become happily and usefully whole" (Foreword, p. 15).

Indeed, open-mindedness is one of the three “essential” and “indispensable” principles of recovery, together with honesty and willingness. Not incidentally, we are told this in the Big Book’s Appendix II, Spiritual Experience (p. 568). Because what open-mindedness is essential and indispensable to is precisely having such an experience or awakening. That’s the goal of the experiment we are conducting by working the Steps and practicing their principles, as the opening clause of Step 12 declares: “Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all affairs" (our emphasis).

That’s also why the 12&12 associates open-mindedness with waking up, as the scientifically-minded sponsor we cited above concludes the telling of his own experience: “Then I woke up. I had to admit that A.A. showed prodigious results. I saw that my attitude regarding these had been anything but scientific. It wasn’t A.A. that had the closed mind. It was me" (p. 27).

As we explain in the post on honesty, the connection between open-mindedness and recovery has to do with what experience has taught us in AA about the nature of our problem and the solution to it. On this view, ours is a threefold disease: physical, mental, and spiritual. Medical and psychological treatment may sometimes be necessary—and we are open to these—but they are simply not sufficient. We need a spiritual course of treatment. That’s what AA offers. That’s what the Steps make possible. That’s why their goal is a spiritual awakening.

However, such an understanding of our problem is new to us and is subject to a lot of resistance. Bill writes about this in As Bill Sees It: “Mine was exactly the kind of deep-seated block we so often see today in new people who say they are atheistic or agnostic. Their will to disbelieve is so powerful that apparently they prefer a date with the undertaker to an open-minded and experimental quest for God" (p. 174). But the resistance is not only from the agnostic and the atheist. It comes in different ways from the believer, the ex-believer, and a variety of other alcoholics, as the 12&12 discusses at length in Step 2.

That’s why open-mindedness is critical. And why it is critical that we grasp the understanding of open-mindedness AA proposes, even if its presentation in our two texts is less than systematic and may be less than clear to many of us. This is the understanding of open-mindedness as a character trait, a virtue of intellectual character which is guided by practical wisdom and which of necessity has moral ramifications.

As Peter Kreeft notes below, open-mindedness is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. That end or goal is the truth, in the case of us alcoholics first and foremost the truth about ourselves, the truth that will set us free from our alcoholism and from the defects of character and emotion that cause us to harm ourselves and others and which prevent us from realizing the promises of the program in our lives.

To arrive at a working and practical understanding of open-mindedness, we will briefly sketch three types of situations that call for its practice. The first involves the 12 Steps themselves. With our program of action, we are faced with a whole series of ideas, arguments, and propositions which at least in the beginning (and in some cases for a very long time), challenge, conflict with, or are opposed to our own. This may be particularly the case with those of us who may be atheists or agnostics or have had very bad experiences with religion. Practicing open-mindedness here involves temporarily putting aside our own commitments or attachments in the areas in question, or resigning “from the debating society” as the 12&12 puts it (S2, p. 26), so that we can give AA a fair hearing.

The same approach applies to similar situations of conflict outside of AA where, again, we may have our own commitments, loyalties, or allegiances. Some of these may involve very controversial issues. Be that as it may, we nevertheless give serious and impartial consideration to the other side and follow the reasoning or the evidence where it leads, without ignoring, distorting or caricaturing it—and without indulging ad hominem diversions. In all such situations, whether in AA or outside, open-mindedness works as the antidote to narrow- and closed-mindedness, bias, prejudice, and dogmatism.

A second type of situation involves conflict between opposing points of view where we have not taken a position and remain neutral. This typically doesn’t involve AA itself, but outside issues on which AA has no opinion. We face such issues all the time. Like the other principles, open-mindedness is a principle which we need to practice in all our affairs. In all such situations, open-mindedness involves a willingness to listen seriously to both sides and not make any hasty judgments or come to any premature conclusions. Here open-mindedness serves as a corrective to vices or defects of character involving impatience and laziness which prevent us from staying with the arguments and keeping an open mind.

In a third type of case, there may be no conflict or opposition, but an intellectually demanding challenge instead. In AA this may apply to believers who don’t have a problem with God or religion or questions of character or morality, but who nevertheless are faced with an array of ideas that are new or different and difficult to assimilate and put into practice. Here open-mindedness calls for an extra effort to understand difficult subject matter. No defects are necessarily involved. We just need to do the work.

As these three situations suggest, open-mindedness works in concert with other virtues. In the last case perseverance, for instance. No matter how difficult it may be for us to understand something, if we persevere a day at a time in our work and practice, we will surely make progress. Willingness helps us become receptive rather than close ourselves up. Patience helps us to hear the other side out and not quit before all the evidence is in. Generosity of spirit enables us see those holding an opposing point of view not as enemies, but as potential teachers from whom we may learn and grow.

These virtues are instrumental, aides to open-mindedness. The foundation is humility. If we are humble, we know our knowledge is limited and flawed, whatever the subject of inquiry, including those we have degrees or expertise in or have written books about. Reason would have it that would be all the more the case when it comes to God.

Therefore Step 2 rightly concludes: “True humility and an open mind can lead us to faith, and every A.A. meeting is an assurance that God will restore us to sanity if we rightly relate ourselves to Him" (12&12, p. 33).

[Image: Richmond Walker, Boston Oxford Group and early AA member; author of Twenty-Four Hours a Day ("The Little Black Book"), a review of which can read in Ray’s Book Reviews. To hear him speak, please click on link.]    

Bill W."Since open-mindedness and experimentation are supposed to be the indispensable attributes of our ‘scientific’ civilization, it seems strange that so many scientists are reluctant to try out personally the hypothesis that God came first and man afterward." – Bill W., As Bill Sees It   

Big Book"Faced with alcoholic destruction, we soon became as open-minded on spiritual matters as we had tried to be on other questions. In this respect alcohol was a great persuader. It finally beat us into a state of reasonableness." – Big Book   

12&12"True humility and an open mind can leads us to faith, and every AA meeting is an assurance that God will restore us to sanity if we rightly relate ourselves to Him." – 12&12  

Life Recovery Bible"Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened." – Matthew 7:7-8

"It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." – Aristotle  

Marcus Aurelius"If someone is able to show me that what I think or do is not right, I will happily change, for I seek the truth, by which no one was ever truly harmed. It is the person who continues in his self-deception and ignorance who is harmed." – Marcus Aurelius    

Abraham Lincoln
"I shall adopt new views as fast as they shall appear to be true views." – Abraham Lincoln   

Henry David Thoreau
"The question is not what you look at, but what you see." – Henry David Thoreau 

Francis Bacon
Let the mind be enlarged . . . to the grandeur of the mysteries, and not the mysteries contracted to the narrowness of the mind." – Francis Bacon 

G.K. Chesterton
"Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid." – G. K. Chesterton   

C. S. Lewis
"'Dogs and cats should always be brought up together,’ said someone, 'it broadens their minds so.'" – C. S. Lewis

Max Ehrmann
"[L]isten to others, even the dumb and the ignorant; they too have their story." – Max Ehrmann, Desiderata   

Samuel Alito
"The most important quality for a judge is open- mindedness to the arguments." – Samuel Alito   

"Books, minds, and umbrellas are only good if you open them." – Anonymous   

"A wise person knows there’s something to be learned from everyone." – Anonymous  

Frank Zappa
"The mind works like a parachute. It doesn’t work unless it’s open." – Frank Zappa  

Montague Brown"To think that there is no truth or that no action is better than any other is not to be open-minded, but to abandon any attempt at rational discrimination. It is to shut down reason, rather than to pursue free inquiry." – Montague Brown   

Daily Reflections
"Because I did not feel used or conned by those in A.A., I was able to approach the program free from bias and with an open mind." – A.A.'s Daily Reflections    

ODAT"’I will not resist the impact of a new idea. It may just be the one I’ve needed without being aware of it. I will make my mind more flexible and receptive to new points of view.'" – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon   

Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts "Sometimes, when the going gets especially hard, we're tempted to follow the path of least resistance and live by our old ideas again. We forget that our old ideas were killing us. To live a new way of life, we need to open our minds to new ideas." – Just for Today: Daily Meditations for Recovering Addicts   

PTP123"A secular view of open-mindedness, however, carries a built-in exception where the virtue doesn’t apply. That exception is God and the spiritual realm. For many of us being open-minded and believing in God were mutually exclusive." – PTP123

PTP4"We don’t live in a vacuum, and so the depth and breadth of our self-knowledge—which is the central goal of ourself-examination in the inventory process—is ultimately a function of our knowledge of other human beings in all their diversity and complexity." – PTP4   

Practice These: Open-mindedness - Peter Kreeft
Practice These: Open-mindedness - Linda Zagzebski

For more PTP123 passages on open-mindedness, see pp. 26, 29, 134–136. For PTP4 passages, see open-mindedness and faith, p. 405; and spiritual angle, 381; as intellectual virtue, 264, 380; as essential to recovery, 295; vs. close-mindedness, 264, 295; vs. narrow-mindedness, 293. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search open. See also entries in As Bill Sees It. On this website, see Character Defects: Narrow-Mindedness and The Virtue of Honesty.

Additional Resources

  1.  “Open-mindedness,” entry in The One-Minute Philosopher, by Montague Brown     
  2. "Open-mindedness," chapter by Jason Baehr in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett, Editors     
  3. "Open-mindedness," in The Inquiring Mind: On Intellectual Virtues & Virtue  Epistemology, by Jason Baehr

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