I have said in the past that Openness is the only one of the Big Five personality traits which cannot be excessive. It is always a good idea to increase one’s own Openness; for all other traits, only some people would be well served for increasing it.1 The precise ideal point for any such trait might be different from trait to trait; higher-than-average Agreeableness is probably a good thing, while Extraversion may have a broad range in the middle within which no individual position is better or worse than another. For Openness, that ideal point is at the extreme high end. In other words, if open-mindedness is a virtue, it is not a virtue which is the median of two extremes, as Aristotle said all virtues would be; it is still a virtue if it is taken to the extreme.
This is what I said, and this is still largely what I believe, but of course there are people who disagree and I thought I might take some time to consider some possible objections; furthermore, this is not the whole story. There are cases where open-mindedness can be corrupted, but I think I can explain how such a thing would not happen as a result from an excess of open-mindedness but rather from a deficit of some other virtue.
The place to begin is with the phrase, commonly misattributed to G K Chesterton, that you should not keep your mind so open that your brain falls out. (Some short Internet research suggests that this quote should be attributed to Walter Kotschnig in 1940.) A possible reason for this misattribution is that Chesterton did say something similar:
For my friend said that he opened his intellect as the sun opens the fans of a palm tree, opening for opening’s sake, opening infinitely for ever. But I said that I opened my intellect as I opened my mouth, in order to shut it again on something solid.
Finally there is another phrase which you might hear sometimes if you advocate for, or are assumed to advocating for, open-mindedness: If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything. (Its original attribution was much more specific, incidentally.) This is something I’ve been told from time to time in comboxes.
Between these phrases, I think I can identify two concerns about open-mindedness:
- Being too open-minded will condemn a person to being eternally unmoored;
- Being too open-minded will make a person vulnerable to bad ideas and poor reasoning.
I will tackle these in reverse order because the second has already been well-addressed by Carl Sagan. Continue reading