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Towards an Ethics of Argument

editorial by Graham D. Wall

Listen with me to our arguments. Listen to the way that we reason about what is true. In this editorial, I want to critically examine a common method of argument.

I am concerned with the fact that the concept of truth is often misunderstood and thus misused in argument. In these cases, an unjustifiable belief is placed on a pedestal above the reach of argument, beyond human experience, and couched in unfair terms. However, a more ethical argument is a level surface on which two parties rationally communicate their differing opinions, not by means of fisticuffs, but primarily as a means to understanding.

We do not always argue only to understand, but also to win. In this sense an argument is like a game. There are conventions to be observed, and rules to be followed. However, what scores as a win depends on the area of discourse (eg. comedy, physics, fine art) which each player is coming from. What is considered knowledge and what counts as true varies from discourse to discourse. Often, what is true is quite different for a comedian than a physicist. I want to elucidate what distinguishes arguments from boxing matches; and from the results of that investigation, conjecture what the rules of argument ought to be if we want to avoid harming each other in the course of an argument, without relinquishing our quest for understanding.

The philosopher wins when argument advances their knowledge; so for the questioner in all of us, to argue is human. But what makes an argument humane? What justifies the content and its presentation? Argument is justified only if arguing is a moral act. We must harm each other as little as possible, by using only necessary force to make a point. Why? Because we are more valuable to each other alive than dead or in chains.

Most arguments get started when egos conflict. It is relatively rare that two people sit down only to further their understanding of a particular matter. I don't think that people usually care very much about advancing the state of human knowledge when they get into a dispute about abortion. Rather than thinking critically about their own ideas, they are simply defending their worth as moral agents. Their motivation is more political than philosophical. There is, however, some middle ground between these two motivations.

Both the desire to further one's own knowledge and the desire to advance one's ego are valid. The trouble arises when one rules the other. When the ego rules, argument is apt to degenerate into a fist fight where the punches are ad hominems and demolitions of straw men. The egoist says, "if you don't have the means to attack their ideas, attack their person." But is your reputation that important that you are ready to count them out as a friend? True friends are hard to come by, and no one has too many of them.

On the other hand, the world loses its warmth if the sole aim or norm of argument is to advance the state of human knowledge. Not only is it significant to argue about what is aesthetically pleasing or funny, but also that argumentation itself can be aesthetically pleasing or funny. When we have a disposition to argue peacefully, the opposition of the egoist to the philosopher is somewhat mediated. Argument then proceeds logically and ethically, and argumentation becomes more pleasing because there are fewer chains, and less death. But I haven't yet properly said how we can concretely improve our method of argument, or how to be more peaceful in argument. I will give two suggestions.

The first concerns the fact that the focus of argument is often blurred. Whether or not our beliefs are true is a matter that may be unresolveable without appealing to something beyond human experience. Therefore, we should refocus our arguments on something other than truth. Modern thinkers have pointed out the dubiousness of blindly appealing to metaphysical (outside of experience) truth as the ultimate justification of our beliefs. Truths are actually relative to our area of discourse, are fallible, and are therefore beliefs in need of justification themselves. Bertrand Russell once remarked that a given doctrine has to have more than just its logical possibility in its favour to persuade him to believe it. Although "anything is possible," almost nothing is certain.

Because the property of being true for beliefs varies from discourse to discourse, when arguing with someone outside of your area of discourse it is better to ask if a given belief is justified, while assuming that it is true. To argue in this way is to topple the pedestal that we tend to place truth on when arguing.

But what does it mean to justify a belief? Some say that a belief is "grounded" or justified when there is a path of inferences stopping at a set of beliefs so primitive that they are taken to be "intuitively obvious" or "foundational." Typically these basic beliefs are about what we can gather directly from our senses with certainty, for example, the assertion that you are presently perceiving a mess of black ink. However, the belief that this ink is made of carbon is not foundational, but inferred indirectly from more basic beliefs.

For the scientist, what is foundational are hypothetical constructs, not sense-data. Many particle physicists might find it difficult to get up in the morning if they gave up their belief in the existence of electrons and photons, that they are really out there, that fundamental particles are the "furniture of the world," as one famous physicist puts it. But this type of belief in what is clearly unjustifiable (at present) is dogmatic and causes problems.

Does an electron have a beard? If so, how many whiskers? For a physicist, both these questions are answerable. Although our technology has just not enabled us to provide these answers yet, it is only a matter of time. But for those whose stomach for science is not so tough, this level of scientism is sickening. These people say that we actually argue about nothing when we expect a true/false answer to this sort of question.

The nausea induced by this type of argument is neutralized by examining our morals, or habits, of argument. The root of the miscommunication between the physicist and the skeptic is that they are talking on different levels. They are asking for different criteria to warrant the same belief assertible. The physicist asks if the belief is true, but the skeptic doubts that there is any truth to be found. The physicist has a working assumption that there is a truth of the matter, whereas the skeptic is not even addressing the same question, but rather the question of whether there is such a truth. Both positions are extreme polarities, and I recommend that they meet midway. Ask if a given belief is justifiable.

Demanding that a belief be justifiable by some sort of tangible evidence does not favour either the physicist or the skeptic. The physicist is justified in assuming that electrons exist because it facilitates the study of electricity, but even Einstein would have to concede that it is unfair to assert anything at all about the facial hair of elementary particles. Likewise, the skeptic is justified in asking if any belief is certain since we need to constantly test the integrity of our theories. However, the skeptic must concede that some beliefs are justified on pragmatic grounds. Physicists use the term "electron" to represent a theoretical construct, and so although asking if an electron has a beard is an interesting question, it may not be a question that is based on a common interpretation of the term.

Asking if the belief that an electron has a beard is justified should make everyone shrug their shoulders, since no one has seen one (except, perhaps, William of Ockham who continues to shave Plato's beard with his razor to this very day). If no one has seen an electron, then an argument about its beard should evaporate since there is no justified belief for or against an electron having a beard; there is simply no attainable fact or truth of the matter. We ought not to push issues that are resolvable only by experiencing that which is beyond experience. To insist on doing so is to fuel violent arguments and to misunderstand that some terms are used pragmatically, not to refer to a metaphysical object.

Another way that truth is misused in argument is whenever it is claimed that a belief is true as a rhetorical device for forcefully expressing the belief, but not as a property of the belief. Like the property "is red" which may hold for material objects, "is true" is often thought of as a property of sentences. The phrase "It is true that" can prefix any assertion whatsoever, since the main reason that A asserts a given belief is that A presupposes this belief to be true, and is not really trying to convince himself of its truth. To preface a belief with "It is true that" adds no further justification to a belief. "It is true that Eve was framed" merely emphasizes the assertion "Eve was framed." As in the situation of explaining an abstract concept to someone, when arguing for a given belief, show don't tell. The prefix "It is true that" has no justificational power if it is merely another way to pound the table.

We have seen two good reasons for demanding first justification then truth, and not the other way around, as a way to limit what can be justly or peacefully said. And I have argued that a just or fair argument is one that is both justificational rather than truth-centred, and ethical. We should avoid the degeneration of rational argument into a contest of who can be most intimidating when asserting their beliefs, because such a contest of egos often leads to harm, not to understanding.

If we don't demand that our premises are justified, then A can assert that X is true to suit A's political agenda, and B can assert that X is false to suit B's purposes. This circular argument will remain unbroken unless A and B agree that more information about the world needs to be obtained before either are warranted in asserting or denying X. It is exciting and controversial to assert all sorts of indeterminate things, but this game is not an argument. This game is won only coercively. Neither A nor B can justify their fist pounding.

Both human understanding and peace are furthered when we have a moral commitment to not assert what is justifiable only by a good table thump. We also ought to abandon insisting on finding the truth of the matter, when we are actually talking across the boundaries of two disjoint areas of discourse, because this is a game that cannot be won using only necessary force.

Many wise people argue this way. A wise person knows what they do not know. And of these wise people, some know what they cannot justifiably assert, and do not assert it. Unjustifiable assertions can lead to violence if we choose to further our political agenda by acting on inferences from an unjustified starting point.

And if we deny that peace ought to be a social norm, even the most antisocial person who values wisdom values a rapport with those who are wiser than he, and therefore harms his opponents in argument as little as possible.

But if we do value peace as a norm for the way that we argue, then although justice is the advantage of the stronger, peace is the advantage of both strong and weak. Rather than using unnecessary coercive force, the stronger knows that some wisdom is attained only using justified arguments with the wise and weak.

Graham D. Wall holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics from the University of Waterloo, and is currently there working on his Bachelor of Arts degree in Philosophy. Graham enjoys painting with acrylics, reading philosophy, listening to 20th-century classical music, engaging others in speculative philosophical conversation, cooking with curry, and walking.

Last modified: October 20, 2008

Copyright © 1998 Graham D. Wall

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