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 listenby Christina Easton / May 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
“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…