How philosophy can help us have better arguments

Arguing politics can be tricky—so do your opponent a favour, and tell them the real reason you think like you do. Who knows? They might even listen

May 18, 2018
Philosophy can teach us to have bette arguments.
Philosophy can teach us to have bette arguments.

“Bad for children; bad for schools; bad for freedom.” These were the headline arguments of Christian groups lobbying for a ‘no’ vote in last year’s Australian referendum on same-sex marriage. Rather than appealing to the Bible or the authority of the Church as you might expect, they used ostensibly secular reasons.

It turns out that this is part of a wider trend. In an interview study conducted in Britain, the political scientist Steven Kettell found this to be an increasingly common feature of political lobbying by conservative Christian groups.

Somewhat ironically, this is putting into practice a liberal ideal that has been prominent in political philosophy since the eighties. One proponent of this idea is Charles Larmore, who argues that when two people disagree, “each should prescind from the beliefs that the other rejects,” instead “retreating to neutral ground, to the beliefs they still share.”

The thought here is that when deliberating together about political issues, we should argue using public or neutral reasons. These are reasons which offer grounds that reasonable people can accept independently of their views on more controversial matters.

A matter of respect?

A similar idea is found in the later work of John Rawls. He thought that for political decisions to be legitimate, they must be justifiable to the people that they affect. Public discussions that feed into political decision-making must, therefore, follow a norm of public reason-giving.

There’s another, more common-sense, motivation for adopting a strategy of neutral reason-giving when having a discussion. If I want to convince you to change your view on same-sex marriage, I need to appeal to reasons you might accept.

So, if I’m a Christian and you’re an atheist, there’s little point bringing out my Bible. In contrast, if I appeal to the potential costs to the well-being of children, I stand more chance of getting you on board.

But the main reason cited by philosophers supporting neutral discussion appeals to respect. Larmore says that by appealing to reasons that your opponent shares, you are “engaging directly their distinctive capacity as persons”. This is the respectful way to conduct a discussion, because it acknowledges your interlocutor’s rational nature. As such, respectful public discussions are those that adopt a norm of neutral reason-giving.

I’m not convinced. I think the trend to avoid partisan content in the public sphere is dangerous—especially if this comes at the expense of us communicating our deeper motivations and beliefs when we have a discussion.

For a start, asking people to leave out what they think are the most salient arguments blunts the tools at our disposal for reaching the best answers. Discussion is surely going to be more productive if we honestly communicate with each other why we think what we think.

A poor way to debate

Imagine Violet, an evangelical Christian whose deep opposition to same-sex marriage is primarily motivated by her belief in the divine truth of Leviticus 18:22. To be respectful of the differing beliefs of her opponents, Violet defends her opposition to same-sex marriage with the public reason that it will negatively impact children.

Even if the impact on children is a concern for Violet, any subsequent discussion over whether this is a legitimate concern seems somewhat pointless. How Violet assesses any counter-evidence presented to her will be affected by her deeper beliefs, because how we weigh reasons is affected by our ‘ultimate’ reasons.

Violet will only be persuaded to change her mind on same-sex marriage by either being shown that her deeply held belief is wrong or by being shown that she should depart from that belief on this occasion. Both of these options require engaging in discussion of controversial, partisan issues—such as questions surrounding biblical interpretation and the existence of God.

Even though it is unlikely that Violet will change her mind, it seems more conducive to resolving the issue to broach these questions than it is to engage in an obfuscatory discussion that fails to get to the heart of the matter.

Understanding, not convincing

We should also remember that discussion can have other aims beyond changing a person’s mind. Sure, sometimes we do want to ‘win’ an argument and convince our opponent. But too much focus on this may lead to something of value being lost, such as the deep understanding of the other that can come through conversation. This is why simply sharing our experiences can be such a rich form of conversation, for it helps our interlocutor see the world as we do.

This sharing of experiences need not always be done with the aim of getting someone to switch sides. When I ask my nephew why it is that he likes playing Grand Theft Auto so much, I hold no hope that he will convince me of the value of this video game. Rather, I just want to understand him better.

There seems to be worth in people just being curious and interested in each other in this way. Even where there is little prospect of discussion changing minds or leading to consensus, there is value in understanding and engaging with those with whom you disagree. If nothing else, such conversations can simply help us get used to one another.

One might plausibly say that engagement across boundaries is intrinsically valuable—that is, there is value in discussion regardless of any positive outcomes. But if you find that too unpalatable, focus on the instrumental benefits of this engagement: the value of forming relationships and being united in the pursuit of social harmony and good answers.

In any case, it’s not clear that being respectful does require that you provide neutral reasons. Larmore and Rawls base their idea on Kant’s notion of ‘respect for persons.’ But beyond this impressive lineage, the idea has little else to recommend it.

Paying attention

Think about what sorts of behaviour would disrespect someone’s rational nature. One way might be to fail to provide reasons at all. Children sometimes get cut short with the retort “because I told you so,” which means something like “I am no longer willing to give you reasons and you should accept this on the basis of my authority.” If this is ever appropriate, it is because children are not yet fully rational beings. To give this retort to an adult would disrespect their nature as a rational being, because it fails to engage with them as a being operating on the basis of reasons.

Indeed, we might think that it’s more respectful to actively engage with the views of your opponent. One possible translation of ‘Achtung’, which was Kant’s term for the “motive of morality,” is “attention.” So, perhaps what Kantian respect requires is really attending to your opponent—which implies attending to, and engaging with, their deepest reasons. Acknowledging that this person who disagrees with you is a rational being should induce a kind of curiosity. Given that, like you, they seek the best answers to the very same questions, how is it that they have reached this viewpoint to which you object? What reasons are there for why they stand where they stand?

Lastly, there’s a worry that a norm of neutral discussion pulls against other values we hope to see in fellow citizens, such as tolerance and sincerity.

Neutral discussions provide little opportunity to demonstrate the virtue of tolerance, because one can only be tolerant in response to something that one truly, deeply cares about. This is why Bernard Williams described tolerance as “at once necessary and impossible.” If we are allowed to bring into discussion the values we care most about, there is the opportunity to show the deep respect that allows someone to hold their view even though you vigorously disagree with them.

An expectation that we provide neutral reasons in our discussions also seems to pull against a culture of sincere speech, where we can trust that the speaker’s words faithfully express their thoughts. Neutral speech is an established norm amongst politicians, and perhaps that’s part of the reason that the public has lost trust in them.

The public realises that the link has been lost between what politicians say and what they think. We now crave after politicians who come across as ‘authentic’ speakers, such as Donald Trump and Jeremy Corbyn.

None of this is to say that there is no place for neutral discussions. Members of Parliament are the elected representatives of citizens with a diverse range of beliefs, and so when acting as legislators, we might expect them to refrain from bringing in partisan beliefs.

But public discussion is different. The art of reasoning in public does not require that we have mastered the art of public reason-giving. Rather, it requires honesty, tolerance, and attentiveness. Most importantly, it requires listening.