Arguments Always Involve Relationships

argumentAlastair Roberts has written very interesting post, well worth your time, in defence of the Christian practice of argument or polemical discourse about the truth. In the middle of it, partially in order to help overcome the silly split we often place between reason and emotion, he makes the claim that all of our conversations have various relational dimensions to them. And then he proves it:

Discourse is always relational in character. When engaged in discourse, we are engaging in relationship with:

  1. Our selves
  2. Other persons on our ‘side’
  3. Our own positions
  4. The conversation itself
  5. Our interlocutors
  6. Our interlocutors’ positions
  7. The truth
  8. Spectators and other third parties

In order to think and reason carefully, we must ensure that every one of these relationships is healthy. Where one or more of these relationships is unhealthy—and one of these relationships is seldom unhealthy without infecting the others—our entire discourse can be damaged. The following are a few examples of ways in which each one of these relationships can be unhealthy:

  1. Pride can give rise to an unhealthy relationship with our selves, making it difficult for us to acknowledge ourselves to have been wrong, especially in public.
  2. Fear of losing the friendship of other persons on our own ‘side’ can cause us to step back from making unpopular but necessary criticisms of unhealthy beliefs that have traction in our own camp.
  3. We can over-identify with our own positions, presuming that an attack upon them is an attack upon ourselves.
  4. We can react in fear, impatience, or hostility to the way that the testing and openness of the conversation can place our certainties in question.
  5. An instinctive reaction against our interlocutors can make it difficult to hear them out carefully and charitably.
  6. Negative associations that we have established with aspects of our interlocutors’ positions (dimensions of its rhetoric, terminology, labels, etc.) can cause us to react rather than thoughtfully respond.
  7. We can react in fear to the prospect of the truth as something that can unsettle the status quo, demand our loyalty, or undermine our claims upon reality.
  8. We can allow the tensions that we have with third parties to prevent us from giving people that they recommend a careful and charitable hearing. Alternatively, we could also allow ourselves to get caught up in the stampede of the crowd on social media and fail to think about the matter that they are reacting to clearly for ourselves.

Anyone who’s been on facebook for more than about 20 minutes can recognize these dynamics. Roberts continues:

This list is very far from comprehensive. However, it should give some sense of the many fronts upon which we need to manage our relational dynamics and the affective states associated with these. The thinking process is not just a matter of machine-like logic-crunching and brainpower: it is an interpersonal and relational process and a matter of various virtues, of patience, of charity, of love, of courage, of nerve, of self-control, of trust, of hope, etc. The sharpest minds can be worse than useless when their owners lack virtue or self-control in handling their affective states.

The lack of self-control in handling affective states usually owes more to lack of training than to vice. I have commented on various occasions upon the ways in which much of our education fails to prepare us for the real world situations where the relational character of healthy and clear thinking proves most challenging. In consequence, many people—even those with advanced education—lack the capacity to think well under pressure or to manage the relational dynamics that shape their thinking (dynamics of which many are entirely unaware).

In the rest of the post, he goes on to analyze more dimensions to the reality of argument and to defend it as a practice and our need to develop the emotional and intellectual resources to deal with it.

Again, I cannot recommend it enough. Indeed, this whole post is designed simply to tempt you to read it. Right here. Or again, I’m going to link it here.  Or, if you missed that, you can go ahead and read the whole article here.

Soli Deo Gloria

The Value of Arguing Even When You Don’t Change Your Mind

self, world timeOften-times in our social discussions we despair that we’re actually accomplishing anything. We see people with entrenched positions arguing with each other and we might be tempted to think, “What’s the point? Nobody’s going to change their minds here. There’s no purpose in arguing about it.” While that’s doubtless true in specific circumstances, especially with particularly stubborn and intractable conversation partners, there still is some benefit to be gained in discussing complex issues with those who disagree with us.

Oliver O’Donovan sheds some light on this for us:

Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, “ I disapprove of the death penalty!” I know much better than before what I mean by it.

–Oliver O’Donovan, Self, World, and Time: Ethics as Theology Volume 1, pg. 46

As we discuss difficult issues with good-faith interlocutors, we find that while we might not end up changing our positions, we will hold those positions more intelligently and with greater mutual understanding that before. Instead of simply thinking them blind ignoramuses, I might be persuaded to understand which of the various philosophical underpinnings of my thought, could be rejected by a sane, moral person. Ironically enough, in the very same process I may just come away with a greater conviction of the truth of my position now that it’s been tested in the fires.

I found this to be true of my time in my undergraduate in philosophy. As the only Evangelical kid who would say something out loud, I managed to get into a lot of “robust dialogues” with my friends in and out of class. We’d talk about God, heaven, hell, and morality with great frequency. While my bedrock views remained essentially the same, in that atmosphere of conflict, examination, and friendship, they gained a weight and a nuance they didn’t have before, and so I cherish those arguments dearly, even if they “didn’t go anywhere.”

Of course, this shouldn’t be read as an invitation to argue with everyone constantly. That would be silly. No, instead, take it as an encouragement to hope for good even in the midst of some of the most “pointless” conversations.

Soli Deo Gloria