The power of arguments?

I talked to a friend of mine today. He was frustrated with a long philosophical discussion he had with some of his friends. The upshot of it all was that after hours of argument, he had made no progress in convincing his friends of the flaws in their arguments, or the strengths of his.

Tomorrow, we start the classes. I will be teaching medical ethics, and I expect the whole semester to be somewhat like this, potentially intractable arguments over questions where the stakes are, literally, life and death.

Of course, I cannot expect, in a one semester undergraduate class, to finally resolve dilemmas which our culture has not been able to resolve for more than a generation. At best, the students will understand the arguments better, learn to think more deeply and critically, and hopefully come to somewhat better grounded beliefs about medical practice.

Still, reflecting on the intractability of ethical debate in the last few decades reminded me of this passage from Robert Nozick’s Philosophical Explanations (p. 4):

Children think an argument involves raised voices, anger, negative emotion. To argue with someone is to attempt to push him around verbally. But a philosophical argument isn’t like that—is it?

The terminology of philosopical art is coercive: arguments are powerful and best when they are knockdown, arguments force you to a conclusion, if you believe the premisses you have to or must believe the conclusion, some arguments do not carry much punch, and so forth. A philosophical argument is an attempt to get someone to believe something, whether he wants to believe it or not. A successful philosophical argument, a strong argument, forces someone to a belief.

Though philosophy is carried on as a coercive activity, the penalty philosophers wield is, after all, rather weak. If the other person is willing to bear the label of “irrational” or “having the worse arguments”, he can skip away happily maintaining his previous belief. He will be trailed, of course, by the philosopher furiously hurling philosophical imprecations: “What do you mean, you’re willing to be irrational? You shouldn’t be irrational because . . .” And although the philosopher is embarrassed by his inability to complete this sentence in a non-circular fashion—he can only produce reasons for accepting reasons—still, he is unwilling to let his adversary go.

Wouldn’t it be better if philosophical arguments left the person no possible answer at all, reducing him to impotent silence? Even then, he might sit there silently, smiling, Buddhalike. Perhaps philosophers need arguments so powerful they set up reverberations in the brain: if the person refuses to accept the conclusion, he dies. How’s that for a powerful argument? Yet, as with other physical threats (“your money or your life”), he can choose defiance. A “perfect” philosophical argument would leave no choice.

If I happen to come up with a perfect philosophical argument this semester, I will be sure to share it here first.


About Ron Belgau

I am completing my PhD in philosophy, and have taught medical ethics, philosophy of the human person, ethics, and philosophy of religion.
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One Response to The power of arguments?

  1. Matthew says:

    I always enjoyed Nozick’s opening to his Philosophical Explanations but found his alternative form quite non-distinct from what would otherwise be deductive, inductive, and abductive reasoning. At best, his aversion here appears to just be to militant metaphors. I’m still left wondering whether anybody actually thinks their arguments are “knockdown” and if so if they’ve ever quite literally been physically knocked down or physically knocked anybody else down before. Let’s not shy away too much from the literalization of the metaphor as what’s putatively been characterized as intellectual cowardice could equally well be seen as a moral failure to assert confidence in the face of likely error while allowing for the provisional alteration of one’s own beliefs in light of new or better evidence. True intellectual courage or righteous confidence isn’t failure to change one’s beliefs pending argument or relativize the conditions or one’s statements so as to be exceptionless, but in the vulnerability of being mistaken having reasoned best with utmost self-honesty.

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