Book excerpt: Why We Argue

From Halloween through Thanksgiving and past Christmas Day, we generally keep political discussions off the table at home. In opposition to Gloria Steinem, the personal is not nor should it be political. That way madness lies.

But now, on this last Sunday of 2019, we look past New Year’s Day to what will likely be a highly politicized year.

Bitter, argumentative, suspicious — and that’s before we get to the primaries.

So I thought I might offer an excerpt from Why We Argue (And How We Should): A Guide to Political Disagreement in an Age of Unreason, Second Edition by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse. The authors are professors of philosophy and political science at Vanderbilt University. You can follow updates to their discussion on Twitter @WhyWeArgue.

The need for this was brought home to me most recently during public comment on a petition for a new charter school within the boundaries of Orange Unified School District. It appeared that members of the audience felt that he who evoked the loudest response should win the vote.

Even at the level of a local school board, that isn’t how our system of government is supposed to work. The elected representatives — in this case, members of the Orange Unified Board of Education — vote the question up or down. That is a republican form of government rather than a direct democracy.

As shown at that meeting, direct democracy tends to crumble into mob rule and curdle into unelected bureaucrats favoring one bloc over another rather than serving impartially to carry out the instructions given by elected officials.

This excerpt is from Chapter 15, “Civility in Argument,” in Aikin and Talisse’s Why We Argue:

Accordingly, argument is not what people often say it is.

Argument is not merely fighting with words.

Nor is it simply a competition for verbal dominance over others.

Nor is it merely the art of persuasion.

Argument is ultimately the attempt to examine beliefs with others by means of our reasons and evidence.

None of those other conceptions of argument would even be a little appealing were this not the case.

Were argument not primarily about the assessment of reasons, it wouldn’t be persuasive or be effective as a means of doing anything else.

This means that when argument is done well, one often comes to change one’s mind, either about the question under discussion, or the strength of one’s position, or the force of the opposing views.

In proper argument, then, we come to better understand those with whom we disagree.

That is, we come to see more clearly how our fellow rational creatures could hold views that oppose our own; and even when we come in the course of argument to see those with whom we disagree as mistaken or wrong, we still inoculate ourselves from the thought that their failure to see the truth entails that they are stupid, benighted, dim, irrational, or worse.

All of this is to say that argument, properly understood, is not a means for shutting down one’s critics or ending a discussion.

Argument is how to conduct an ongoing discussion.

(Paragraph breaks have been added to make it easier to read.)

Mull this over the next time that Woke Wights shout CANCELLED!!! or Militant Trumpists holler SWAMP CREATURE!!!