Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Why bother Arguing?

Be honest – how many times over the course of an argument have you heard one of the following (or some variant of them)?:
“You know what, you’re absolutely right, you’ve convinced me”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but now I have, I’ve changed my mind”

“What I said just now was completely wrong”

People do change their minds in the middle of a debate, but not very often. Think how many arguments you have had in your life, and think how few of them have reached this sort of satisfying resolution. It’s so unusual and unexpected that I can’t even read the phrases above without imagining them said either sarcastically or in a wearied if-I-agree-with-you-will-you-just-shut-up-and-leave-me-alone tone of voice.
Most of the time, people are too stubborn or invested in their position to even consider changing their minds. In The Art of Always Being Right, Arthur Schopenhauer observes just this fact:

“If human nature were not base, but thoroughly honourable, we should in every debate have no other aim that the discovery of truth We should not in the least care whether the truth proves to be in favour of the opinion we had begun by expressing, or of the opinion of our adversary. That we should regard as a matter of no importance, or, at any rate, of very secondary consequence.
But, as things are, it is the main concern. Our innate vanity, which is particularly sensitive in reference to our intellectual powers, will not allow that our first position was wrong and our adversary’s right.”

This is a problem. The whole point of an argument, the rules of the game, are that you have to convince the other person. That’s how arguments are set up. It’s as if we’ve been playing football for ages without noticing that there aren’t any goals.
As a would-be philosopher, this is particularly distressing. You’ve just been told that you’ve wasted a one day to argue, for a living and so I’m having to confront the possibility that my life’s calling is futile.

It’s not just me that’s invested in the presumption that rational persuasion is possible. It’s one of the very foundations of our civilisation. One of the central principles of the scientific ideal is that if I am wrong and you are right, you should be able to convince me that is the case. Richard Dawkins has an anecdote about one of his university professors who witnessed the theory he had committed his life to expounding being disproved by a fellow biologist. Far from being angry, or resisting the new theory, he shook the man’s hand and thanked him for showing him his error. Dawkins takes this to exemplify all that is great about science and rationalism.
There’s a debate to be had about how representative this tale is. I’m not sure that all scientists are always so magnanimous and that evidence and methodology are so incontrovertible. However, given the fact that scientists generally share objective criteria according to which they can be proved wrong, scientific argumentation is likely to be different to general disputes.

Philosophers, especially political philosophers, cannot place such faith in objective evidence. We argue about matters that cannot often be reduced to the observation of external facts. Political commitments are among our strongest, the ones we will most stubbornly cling to. So what is the point of trying to sell a tax to the libertarian, or a free market to the socialist? It is often said that political commitments are like supporting a football team. Why do we bother trying to divest the Conservative of their Conservatism when we would never hope to persuade the Manchester United fan to support Liverpool?
The first point to note is that people do change their minds, and do so far often than you would think from watching debates. It is very difficult in the heat of an argument to back down and reject the view you were defending, and so lose face. This pride means that we never want to acknowledge when we have been refuse too concede lodges a seed of doubt in our minds. In the course of the argument, we pretend to be unpersuaded, but the objection or criticism nags away until, far from the public glare we relent and give in to it.

The adversarial nature of arguing means that it’s unusual to give your opponent the pleasure of seeing you change your mind. The fact that a person is willing to argue their case means that they must have some sort of pre-existing allegiance to their position. So long as a person is tied to their position, for example because of family loyalty or ideological conviction, they will not be ready to change their mind.
People will change their mind when they are ready and not before. However, this doesn’t mean that they will necessarily change their minds because they are ready to do so. How common is it for a person to say, ‘I’m not sure what I think about the situation in Palestine/global warming/spending cuts anymore, I’m going to look into changing my mind’? More often than not, such a state, if it occurs will be prompted or catalysed by some challenge to their pre-existing opinions. Thus we argue with our opponents so that when they are ready to change their minds they will remember our words. We may know that our arguments are of no use to them now, but we hope that they will carry them with them and that they will later be ready to confront them.

However, even if we could never hope to win round our adversary, I still think there is a point to arguing. The world is full of people who haven’t considered an issue or don’t know what they think about it. For the most part, they avoid getting tangled in debates because if you don’t have a position it’s harder to participate in a dispute. Yet these people are often the audience for arguments.
Many sorts of arguments presuppose such an audience, many of whom will be malleable for persuasion one way or another. Formal debates are usually public, academic disputes occur for the benefit of peers and students, and court cases take place in front of juries.
In fact, the legal analogy seems apt as an example of antagonistic argument as a means for getting to the truth. Nobody expects the opposing lawyers to convince one another, but they do address one another’s arguments and try to defend their positions as best they can. Presumably it is believed that this is a more effective way of establishing fact than if everyone sat in a cooperative Socratic circle and tried to reason it out together.

None of this, however, challenges the essential assumption that we should be open-minded, and willing to change our position. Reflecting on our innate stubbornness, Schopenhauer suggests it may not be so bad after all:

“Nonetheless, this very dishonesty, this persistence in a proposition which seems false even to ourselves, has something to be said for it.
It often happens that we begin with the firm conviction of the truth of our statement. Then our opponent appears to refute it. Should we abandon our position at once, we may discover later on that we were right after all. The proof we offered was false, but nevertheless there was a proof of our statement which was true…
Thus it is that the weakness of our intellect and the perversity of our will lend each other mutual support.”

Even if it looks like we should be persuaded, we may still be in the right, so it is better not to be persuaded. Does that mean that there is no point to arguing?


  1. The question at the end comes as a bit of surprise given the rest of the content of your post. "Even if it looks we should be persuaded, we still may be in the right" - obviously, yes. There's always the risk that our reasoning may be flawed, or we might be misguided by the flawed reasoning or rhetoric of the other side. Even if a perfectly rational train of thought appears to lead to a particular conclusion, the premise may be wrong...

    But questioning the "point of arguing", because of such possibilities is like questioning the point of studying science, or logic, since we aren't perfectly rational and logical beings... (an unnecessarily nihilistic perspective IMO)

    I guess the key is to accept the fact that we might sometimes be wrong in our beliefs and opinions and judgment, including the judgment that we have been proven wrong in a debate...

  2. p.s. - this post has been featured on http://www.facebook.com/thecolloquium

  3. Thanks for your comment and repost, Anubhav. It's good to know that people are reading my stuff, and better still that they find it interesting enough to share with others.

    As I see it, there are two big reasons why we may think arguing is undesirable:

    (1) Most of the time people just talk past each other, and never change their mind.
    (2) Those who win arguments are just better at arguing, and no more likely to be correct than those they defeat.

    This essay tries to allay concern (1). Having done that, though, I just wanted to raise concern (2) as another issue.

    You are totally correct that the fact that reasoned argument is imperfect is no reason to reject it altogether. The relevant question is whether it is better than the alternative i.e. just going with our gut reactions. That was the question I wanted to leave open...