Sunday, January 16, 2005

Why We Ought To Argue

I was home in London on Friday night - the younger son of family friends was having a going-away-for-gap-year do - and as can happen when you combine people and alcohol, the time-honoured problem of setting the world to rights came up. Unsurprisingly for a political theorist, the topic of setting the world to rights is quite close to my heart: certain members of my family think that I can become rather too excited about the possibility of a good argument about the legitimacy or desirability of particular acts, decisions or states of affairs. I think this tendency of mine is probably equal parts quite proper intellectual curiousity and probably less defensible competitiveness, but then, if you don't like a good argument, you'll probably think the proportions are somewhat different. What I hope to persuade you here though, is that there is an obligation of kinds to provide reasoned backing for a moral claim, and that because of that, even if I do get a slightly unseemly pleasure from disagreeing with people, and ocassionally raise my voice a little louder than is polite, having a good argument is a quite morally proper activity.

Exactly what constitutes a moral argument was a hottish topic of discussion in the blogosphere around the end of last month, because of this. Now, I think Posner's wrong about a lot of things he says in this post, but the interesting thing he says, which I think is at the root of the wrongness of his other statements, is that "much or even most morality seems based, rather [than on reasons], on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology". Because Posner views all putative moral claims as rationalizations in this sense, for example, there is no substantive difference between my moral claim that, say, 'slavery is wrong and ought to be banned', and my moral claim that, say, 'Big Brother is a blight on modern life and ought to be banned'. Anything I can say in support of either is just a rationalization of a particular emotional, instinctual reaction to a particular feature of the world. This is simply obviously false: slavery is an institution which subjugates and mistreats people on a massive scale, denying them almost every chance to shape their own lives, and only someone who had no moral sense at all could regard it with equanimity, whereas Big Brother, for all that it is voyeuristic and exploitative, is apparently enjoyed by large numbers of people, and is consented to by the participants.

This isn't all that's wrong with what Posner says - relativism is itself incoherent, and relativism being used to support the opening up of issues to the democratic process is even more incoherent - but the fact that reasons can be given for moral claims raises a further question, whether, given that moral claims can have reasons, we are obliged to be able to justify our moral claims with reasons, if we are going to act on them, or commend them to others. I think we do have such an obligation: when we commend a moral claim to someone else, we are saying to them, 'do this, it is right or good', and they are entitled to ask us why it is right or good. Habermas's theory of speech acts claims something like this, that every time we speak to someone else, we attempt to enter into a relationship to them, of promising to be at a certain place at a certain time for example, or of stating that it is true that the world is round, and that for the attempt to enter into such a relationship to succeed, they must accept its basis. In the case of promising, they must accept that there is a social institution of promising, by which one person binds themselves to producing some outcome in the future, and in the case of stating facts about the world, they must accept that there are some valid methods of investigating the empirical world. This will sometimes mean justifying the existence of the basis of the relationship: for example, if someone disputes an empirical claim I make, then I am required to vindicate the methods by which I came to the claim, for otherwise, my aim in making the empirical claim to them, that they accept the empirical claim, has failed.

Habermas's theory has one obvious implication, that if we are making moral claims, we ought to be able to give reasons to justify them, or else we are failing to equip ourselves properly for some of things we might have to do in making moral claims. If we don't have reasons for our statements, then we run the risk of people we make them to not accepting them, which means that the aim of our statement, getting the other person to accept it, has failed. If other people don't accept our statements, if they don't think that our attempts at justification are adequate, then, unless we have agreed to disagree, we surely ought to give up our belief in the statement. After all, it is unjustified, for since we haven't convinced the other person that the considerations we came up with do enough to support it, and they are similarly suitated with regard to their ability to assess the importance of these considerations, meaning that the considerations do not support the statement: it is unjustified and therefore, as far as we know, false. This makes reasoned discussion - and sometimes reasoned argument - a key way of seeing whether our beliefs, moral or otherwise, are justified, because, after all, we can on ocassion rationalize, in Posner's sense, our behaviour to ourselves, whereas such rationalizations will often be exposed when offered as justifications to others. If we think Truth, or at least its proxy, justification, are important, if we think it is important to act on the basis of best evidence we have, then it is important to discuss and argue about things. This means, although I might take too much pleasure in it, arguing about stuff is a morally legitimate activity.

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