Ethical Realism

February 12, 2013

Arguments Are Important

Filed under: philosophy — JW Gray @ 1:38 am
Tags: , , , ,

At some point you are likely to hear about how giving arguments is rude and we would all get along better without arguing. Arguing is often thought to be a shouting match or hostile disagreement of some sort. However, argumentation is central to thinking rationally and critical thinking. The success of natural science could not exist without it. Yes, some arguments are disrespectful, but not all of them are.

Arguments are reasons given to believe something. For example—“All men are mortal. Socrates is a man. Therefore, Socrates is mortal.” In this case the first two statements of the argument are a reason to believe that Socrates is mortal (the conclusion). If we know that “all men are mortal” and that “Socrates is a man,” then we can also know that “Socrates is mortal.”

Is it rude to present the above argument about why we should believe that Socrates is mortal? Doesn’t seem like it. Is it part of a shouting match or hostile disagreement? That seems unlikely. In this case the argument could be considered to be “rational persuasion.” Being capable of giving good arguments and seeing flaws in poor arguments is central to thinking rationally and being capable of critical thinking.

Even so, arguments can be disrespectful and manipulative. Imagine that someone argues, “Republicans just want to keep assault weapons legal because they want to use them to murder people.” That is insulting to Republicans and it fails to account for the best arguments given by Republicans to keep assault weapons legal. We could imagine this manipulative argument to be used during a shouting match or hostile disagreement. Manipulative arguments are used during so-called political debates and they are used as propaganda for a television commercials. Manipulative arguments should not be considered to be rational persuasion.

Arguments should generally be intended to be rational persuasion. There’s nothing disrespectful about trying to persuade people to believe something based on good reasoning. In fact, science, logic, and philosophy would all be impossible without rational persuasion. The only reason that science can tell us anything about the world is because scientists can tell us how the evidence available is a good reason to believe something is true about the world (or refutes certain beliefs about the world).

It is true that any argument—including good arguments—can make people feel bad. A lot of people feel like they need to win every debate and that being proven wrong makes them look bad. They hate being proven wrong. They could get angry at anyone who disagrees with them and anyone who gives rational arguments with the “wrong conclusions.” Good arguments can motivate a great deal of anger and hostility, and they can be part of a “shouting match” or “hostile disagreement” when someone doesn’t take kindly to them. Insults are often thrown around by those who don’t like others who try to prove them wrong.

However, we should be ashamed of ourselves to reacting badly to good arguments (or even an attempt to give good arguments). It is perfectly respectful to expect people to want to hear good arguments—to want to know what we should believe and why we should believe it. Human beings are capable of rationality and generally do care about what we should believe. To assume that a person doesn’t want to know what we should is disrespectful. Such a person would be seen as “irrational.”

Moreover, psychologists have proven that people are very biased. Even scientists. Perhaps the worst bias we all suffer from is the “confirmation bias”—we too quickly accept evidence that supports our beliefs and we don’t take counter-evidence as seriously as we should. One reason that science is so successful is because of peer review—scientists who give poor arguments and have biased experiments will likely be refuted by others at some point. Science is self-correcting in this way. But it’s not just scientists that can benefit from peer review. We are all likely to justify our beliefs inadequately and reason poorly now and then. But if we tell other people about our reasoning process by giving arguments for our beliefs, then they are likely to be able to find flaws in our reasoning. We are much better at finding flaws in the reasoning of others than in the reasoning of ourselves.

In conclusion, arguments can be disrespectful and they can result in a hostile disagreement, but we should try to give rationally persuasive arguments anyway. It is perfectly respectful to assume that people in general want to know what we should believe, and giving arguments to others is a good way for them to help find flaws in our reasoning.


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  1. Great post.

    I’ve thought about this problem often; it’s clearly prevalent in contemporary society. I believe ‘argument’ has become a dirty word for four reasons.

    First, non-philosophers use ‘argument’ in a different sense. For them, arguing is what people on Jersey Shore and Fox News do–they shout at each other. And they’re not wrong to believe this. In one sense, arguing does imply borderline hostile communication with others. But more importantly, the primary function of arguing, in this sense, is not to illustrate a point through a rational deliberative process; rather, it is to communicate what seem to be very basic (loud!) emotional reactions that are not predicated on any premeditated rational line of reasoning. I don’t believe either the philosophical sense–the one we both accept–or the non-philosophical sense is more correct, so I’m reluctant to dictate that others not use argue in the non-philosophical sense. But the existence of two seemingly very different uses certainly complicated the matter.

    Second, it just seems that people are very poor reasoners. Plan and simple. Few have even a working grasp of basic logical form (modus ponens, tollens, reductios, and so on). So even if we could get others to clearly understand the distinction between both senses, it wouldn’t be the case that people would reason any better. Ironically enough, there is a similar problem with ‘logic.’ People believe that being logical merely entails making sense, and surely that’s a possible consequence of logic, but it’s not how philosophers relate to the word. It’s no wonder why understanding common fallacies is absolutely imperative for philosophers–fallacies often have strong intuitive pull and ‘make sense.’

    Third, people mostly seem to hate arguing with those they most disagree. This isn’t some new idea, but it is interesting. People don’t like hearing stuff that forces them to revise their tightly-held beliefs. I just read a post today on Mother Jones (I think–I posted about it on my blog) about two studies that were published this week regarding the causal relationship between an individual’s brain being physically one way, and the effect it has on her political tendencies. Conversely, the individual’s political tendencies appear to affect the individual’s brain’s physical composition. So there’s this really interesting two way causation that goes on. But the real takeaway was that some people’s lack of tolerance of different beliefs might (MIGHT) in some cases be a consequence of this. It’s not altogether exculpatory, but it certainly underscores the importance of tolerance being a virtue. Many preach tolerance, but few act on it.

    Finally, people really aren’t encouraged to engage in rational debates. Period. It’s certainly true that philosophers have an increasingly job finding gainful employment as a philosopher. This indicates that people value commercial products more than the humanities. (OK, that’s perhaps overly simplistic, but it’s not altogether false either.) I spend almost everyday reading and writing. I choose to do this. But others rush off to their jobs in offices, restaurants, and construction sites, and when they get home all they just want a damn beer (me too!) and to watch The Office (me too!) in their pajamas (me too!). There isn’t enough time in the day for most people to care about this stuff. And what makes matters worse is the fact that most contentious issues are often complex. They include various layers of nuance that require careful navigation.

    Comment by Chase — February 17, 2013 @ 11:21 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for the thoughtful reply. People do seem to understand when philosophers give arguments, but they also equate it with “hostile disagreement.” Philosophers who try to give arguments to nonphilosophers are often seen as being hostile to others.

      Comment by JW Gray — February 17, 2013 @ 11:26 pm | Reply

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