Saturday, July 10, 2004

Five Uses of Argument

Even among calm and reasonable people, few are persuaded by argument, even when it satisfies the canons of logic. Changes of view under dialectical pressure are seldom seen. Most just dig in and fortify their defenses. This raises questions about the utility of argument, debate, and discussion. Call me sanguine, call me naive – but I believe in their utility. Herewith, a catalog of the uses of argument. By my count, there are at least five serious uses, and at least one ‘recreational’ use. Argument is useful to change the views of oneself and others; to justify and articulate the existing views of oneself and others; to acquire new views; to appreciate the difficulty of an issue; to appreciate the limits of the discursive intellect; to divert oneself by matching wits with an opponent. I now expand on these points seriatim.

1. Though it is true that few are persuaded by argument, some are about some things. I myself used to be a bit of a liberal on the gun control issue, but I am now staunchly conservative. The change of view came about once I examined the question pro et contra. It quickly became clear to me that liberal media bias had prevented the conservative side from receiving proper exposure, and that once the conservative arguments were fairly presented, they beat the hell out of the liberal arguments. It became clear that the latter either weren’t arguments at all, but appeals to emotion or gratuitous assertions, or else rested on faulty premises. Here then is a case of rational belief change brought about by the consideration of arguments. There are many such cases.

2. Although I have changed my views on gun control, I have not changed my views on a number of other topics. Something else happened instead: I saw just how right I had been all along. For example, I have always been in favor of capital punishment. I was in favor of it before I knew how to argue, and I am in favor of it now. That is because (i) I intuit that justice demands it, and (ii) I have never encountered a good argument against it. (Thus I do not rest my case on moral intuition alone, but on dialectically buttressed moral intuition.)

One argument repeatedly given against capital punishment is that it involves doing to a person what in other circumstances would be deemed morally wrong. The argument is that, since killing people is wrong, then the state’s killing of people is also wrong. The trouble with this argument, however, is that it ‘proves too much.’ If the argument were sound, it would show that every type of punishment is impermissible, since every type of punishment involves doing to a person what otherwise would be deemed morally wrong. For example, if I, an ordinary citizen, demand money from you under threat of dire consequences if you fail to pay, then I am committing extortion; but there are situations in which the state can do this legitimately as when a state agency such as the Internal Revenue Service assesses a fine for late payment of taxes.

Thus a second use of argument is in testing, articulating, and justifying the views one already holds. It is obvious that one can have the right view on an issue, without being able to defend the view. But if you can defend your view by adducing reasons for it, and refuting all countervailing arguments, then you are in a better position, epistemically speaking, than if you cannot. It is always better to have a justified true belief rather than just a true belief. Arguing for a belief is a way of justifying it. It is also a way of articulating a belief. To argue for a belief is to situate it in logical space, the space of reasons. One sees what entails it, and what is entailed by it. Seeing this, one sees what the belief really amounts to, and how it coheres with one’s other beliefs.

3. Argument, then, can be used to change views as well as to reinforce them. A third use of argument is in the acquisition of views. A view cannot be changed or reinforced unless it exists. A question may arise about which one has no opinion. For example, do animals have rights? In order to decide this question, one might try to construct an argument either for or against. One might say to myself, well, rights and duties are correlative notions. Therefore, if animals have rights, then they have duties. But it makes no sense to ascribe duties to animals, whence it follows that it makes no sense to ascribe rights to them. I am not saying that this is a good argument, but only that it is an argument, an argument that can function within a person’s mental economy as a belief-generator. Indeed, the argument is a non sequitur, the exposure of the invalidity of which I leave as an exercise for the reader.

4. We have seen that arguments are useful for changing, reinforcing, and generating beliefs. A fourth use of argument, and a very salutary one it is, is to promote respect for the difficulty of an issue. When there are good arguments on both sides of an issue, one comes to appreciate its difficulty. This tends to induce humility and toleration. When one sees just how difficult an issue is, one is less likely to assert arrogantly one’s own position or just as arrogantly dismiss that of one’s interlocutor. Consider the question of whether torture is ever justified. This is an exceedingly vexatious question. Anyone who thinks it has an easy answer is either morally or intellectually obtuse or both.

I would like to be a good Kantian on the torture question. I would like to be able to say that acts of torture are always and everywhere wrong in virtue of their very nature as acts of torture. The affront to human dignity is just too egregious. Acts of torture are intrinsically wrong, which implies that any such extrinsic consideration as to the possible good consequences of their implementation is simply irrelevant to an assessment of their rightness or wrongness. But when we move from this abstract formulation to a concrete case, the matter appears in a different light. Suppose the police have in their custody a number of terrorists who know the location and detonation times of a dozen ‘dirty bombs’ (conventional explosives ‘wrapped’ with radioactive wastes) scheduled to explode in Manhattan. Does one torture the information out of the terrorists or not? Here the consequentialists have a strong case. Surely, they will argue, the good consequences of the use of torture far outweigh the evil of the torture!

Much more can be said in exposition of the difficulty of this issue. But the main point at the moment is simply that this will come about through a canvassing of the arguments for and against. If nothing else, argument is useful for getting us to see an issue in its difficulty, seriousness, and perhaps ultimate intractability.

5. The first three uses of argument are summed up in the key phrases, change of views, justification of existing views, acquisition of new views. Suppose we group these as positive uses of argument. The fourth use is then classifiable as a negative use in that argument here serves a merely aporetic end, namely, the appreciation of a difficulty or impasse. Closely related to this is the fifth use, according to which argument is useful for appreciating the limits of the discursive intellect as such and in general. To put it another way, the fifth use of argument issues in insight into the limits of argument, and thus the limits of reason in its pure employment, to use a Kantian phrase. I want to stress that it is only by learning how to argue properly that one can see where the limits of argument lie. One needs argument to arrive at the limits of argument. Only under
its tutelage can one rationally demarcate its limits. To reject argument, and the discursive intellect generally, from without, as some proponents of Eastern ‘spirituality’ do, is sophomoric, irrational, and pernicious.

6. So much for the serious uses of argument. But arguing is also entertaining when conducted among civilized individuals as a form of intellectual jousting akin to chess. As a serious man, however, I mention this recreational use of argument only to set it aside.

Finally, let it be noted that my topic has been rational, truth-seeking, uses of argument. Rhetorical, ideological, and sophistical uses require separate treatment.