Liberal Argumentation

Discussing political issues with liberals is fascinating, and can bring home the reality of certain historical/theoretical points. For example, let us say that an Orthodox Jewish rabbi wants to explain to a liberal why circumcision is not only justified but important. The liberal is likely to reject everything the rabbi puts forward (the Torah, the Talmud, and his traditions) by claiming that the rabbi is engaged in "sheer assertion."

Or consider an "average Joe," who, when asked why we should not buy and sell children, will probably respond something like, "Well, that's awful!" The liberal will reject his answer as well, calling it an "argument from personal repugnance." The liberal will insist that only by (liberal) argumentation can we arrive at rational moral conclusions. This answer might suffice if only:

1) Aristotle (Nichomachean Ethics) and later Michael Oakeshott (Rationalism in Politics) demonstrated that morality is not a matter of theoria but of phronesis, and thus is rightly guided by practical and not theoretical reason. Argumentation may influence action, but the proper sort of argument for influencing practical action is not a theoretical one, but a practical one, along the lines of "Your mother will be really hurt if you do that."

This would mean that applying the conclusions of liberal argumentation to practical decisions is a category error, and thus not a rational procedure at all. But luckily, that is easily avoidable, since:

2) Alasdair McIntyre (Whose Justice? Which Rationality?) had not shown that, in any case, liberal argumentation pretty much never reaches a conclusion. (Rawls argues that some redistribution is morally justified, Nozick argues back that no it isn't, Cohen responds that not only is it, it is required at a much higher level than Rawls' envisioned, someone else responds to Cohen, etc.) Instead, as MacIntyre demonstrates, engaging in argumentation has itself become the central liberal virtue. If one is a communist, one shows one's virtue by organizing a workers' strike, if a Muslim, by undertaking a pilgrimage to Mecca, and if a liberal, by engaging in endless, inconclusive argumentation. This is illustrated in the fate of philosophy in liberal hands: whereas it originated as the search for wisdom, in philosophy departments today, one is likely to be told that philosophy is all about (clever) arguments.


In fact, if we surveyed all of human action, I guarantee we would find that following one's traditions or heeding one's feeling of disgust about some activity have resulted in far more virtuous action than have liberal arguments. (This in not a claim that either tradition or gut instincts are infallible guides to action: just that they have done better than liberal argumentation.) Again let us picture Average Joe, sitting in a bar next to Liberal John. John chastises Joe for relying on tradition and "personal repugnance" to guide his actions, informing him how much better liberals are than people like him, because they seriously argue moral issues in the liberal fashion.

"But," Joe says, "you got here hours before me, and are really plastered. I'm just getting two beers and going home. How is your behavior more moral than mine?"

John responds by asking for an argument as to why he shouldn't get drunk all afternoon.

Joe answers, "Well, it just ain't right for a smart guy like you to be spending all day drinking, when you could be doing something important."

"Sheer assertion," John replies.

"And it is kind of sad to see you like this," Joe mumbles.

"Argument from personal repugnance," is John's comeback.

Joe is nonplussed, but soldiers on. "And what about your marriage? I've never cheated on my wife, and you've just been telling me about all of your affairs."

Again, John asks for an argument showing why monogamy is good. But Joe is starting to catch on:

"Well, John, it seems to me these 'arguments' you're asking for are really excuses, and what you do up there in the university ethics program is cook up reasons for acting badly."


Confronted with such facts, one item liberals like to bring up is slavery. "What about the liberal arguments against slavery, then? Didn't they end an awful institution"

But if we look at the actual history of the anti-slavery movement, I think we find that the two major factors in slavery's defeat were the repugnance that Christian reformers managed to inspire towards the institution, and military force, on the part of the British navy and the Union army. So this episode doesn't really seem to back the liberal case at all. (And the civil rights movements in the U.S. exhibits much the same reality.)

So, we might wonder, since this ongoing series of liberal arguments is never decisive, what is the point of it? Well, the supposed "rationality" of these arguments, besides turning out to be false, also appears, once we inquire more closely, as the mere tip of the iceberg. (I am about to put forward a functional explanation; such explanations do not require believing that anyone planned the function invoked: selection pressures, class consciousness, and so on can explain the persistence of a functionally important sort of behavior without anyone consciously aiming at fulfilling the function's telos.) Since these arguments are never settled, adopting this approach means that questions of how to behave morally are never settled either. Therefore, whatever stronghold of traditional morality liberals want to assault next has already had its walls undermined.

In other words, these endless arguments do have a point: they promote liberals' efforts to defeat all rival social systems!

14 comments:

  1. Rationalizing the irrational is problematic. The question is whether we are better off from trying. While I feel we have made progress, this is more likely to be from experience than reason, with reason merely rationalization, but rationalization is very human.

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  2. But if we look at the actual history of the anti-slavery movement, I think we find that the two major factors in slavery's defeat were the repugnance that Christian reformers managed to inspire towards the institution, and military force, on the part of the British navy and the Union army. So this episode doesn't really seem to back the liberal case at all.

    How is that relevant to the "liberal case"?

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    1. Well, one can't claim the ending of slavery as a great achievement of liberal argumentation if it wasn't one!

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    2. I've never heard that claim before. This way of talking about liberalism is also kind of weird and I haven't encountered many people who do this, claiming instrumental value in liberal arguments.

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    3. "claiming instrumental value in liberal arguments."

      But no one said this!

      MacIntyre's claim is this is what liberalism has ACTUALLY come to value, not that it is what it says it values.

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    4. No, I mean I have never heard many people put forward arguments like "Well, liberalism did a lot of good with its ideas.". That's what I mean by liberals vesting instrumental value in arguments.

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  3. Gene, you don't think that the ideas of the Founding Fathers, particularly the vision of natural rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, played a major role in ending slavery in the United States?

    Let me put it this way: suppose that in the year 1800 people in the North magically lost all memory of the Founding Fathers and their ideas. What do you think the likelihood would be that in the year 1900, there would still be slavery in America? I think think the likelihood of slavery still being there in 1900 would be dramatically higher.

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    1. Hmmm. This looks good at first Keshav, but the more I think about the actual history the less important it seems. The Civil War was absolutely about slavery, but it was not started over abolition. There was a growing rift in the ante-bellum error in the attitudes and moral judgments about slavery. I do not think changing Northern attitudes derived mostly from an attempt to reconcile the founders' views and principles with reality. I think it came out of revulsion. That is why the Southern reaction was so fierce and hair-trigger. Why Sumner was caned, why the demands for strictly enforcing fugitive slave laws went beyond any economic value. Why the secession acts and speeches so often mentioned, and lauded, slavery even when it was not under threat. That level of hatred doesn't flow from a dispute of logic, but can from perceiving and reciprocating disgust.

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    2. Keshav, I am NOT saying arguments mean nothing. But...
      If they were decisive, why were the very people who *made* them slaveholders until the end of their lives? Why did Britain eliminate slavery decades before the US?

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    3. If they were decisive, why were the very people who *made* them slaveholders until the end of their lives?

      Inner conflict.

      Why did Britain eliminate slavery decades before the US?

      They've always been better than us in certain political respects, minus their monarchy.

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  4. Argumentation may influence action, but the proper sort of argument for influencing practical action is not a theoretical one, but a practical one, along the lines of "Your mother will be really hurt if you do that."

    What would a "theoretical" argument look like?

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    1. E.g., "One should act so as to produce the greatest utility for the greatest number."

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    2. That doesn't sound like an argument at all. That sounds like an argument's conclusion or a command.

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  5. Do you think liberalism might be more legalistic than other philosophies?

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