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