Thomas Sowell’s A Conflict of Visions is the most elegant expression I have encountered of how intelligent people can reason to fundamentally different conclusions on the same issue. Sowell proposes that each of us reason from different “visions” of human nature. He presents two ends of the spectrum as the constrained vision and the unconstrained vision but is careful to note that each of us may apply different parts of the spectrum to various aspects of our set of values and beliefs. Basically, the constrained vision is the sense of human beings as being limited by our self-interest. On this view, people will behave selfishly by nature. Government must craft trade-offs and establish incentives for actions that are desirable for optimal social harmony. The unconstrained vision is the sense of human beings as capable of rising above self-interest to act for the greatest good of all. From this perspective, the role of government is to enable people to achieve their potential by eliminating incentives and trade-offs that encourage constrained behavior. Reasoning from different starting points on the spectrum of visions leads reasonable people to different conclusions.
Sowell’s work allowed me to acknowledge the rationality of others’ views without giving in to the popular temptation to demonize those with different beliefs and values as evil or stupid or selfish. While not a cure for political and social disagreement,I believe Sowell's distinction between constrained and unconstrained visions of human nature offers a path to restore a higher level of civility in our discourse. It may be the case that seemingly intractable problems can be advanced or resolved by leaders willing to discuss solutions and compromises without the emotional handcuffs of strict partisan ideology.
I have recommended this book since I first read it in 1992, and I still feel it should be mandatory reading for all first year college students... maybe even seniors in high school.