It is a fraught topic of broad and not merely academic interest. Strong and hurt feelings abound. You have a view you work to hone and carefully articulate. Good and earnest people resist your view and argue against it. They may even suggest that it is a view unworthy of you. You remain unconvinced and argue back but manage to persuade few who did not start out on your side. You feel the polite condemnation of good and thoughtful people, yet you continue to think you are right. Perhaps you are even surprised people disagree with you on this topic. You try to be mindful of whose interests are primarily at stake and whose first-personal experience lends their views more authority in such contexts. You try to avoid defensively feeling like just because you have taken a public stand you cannot change your mind. You remind yourself you are not making a one-sided lawyerly case for a position but trying to reach a balanced overall assessment. You try to not let the mere professional status of those who argue with or against you unduly influence your thinking.  Others are joining your side but, or so it seems to you, less cautiously. The rhetoric and tone escalate around you. It seems the distinctions you were at pains to clarify are sometimes lost in some of the complaints about your view. You become agitated and start thinking “I can’t let this take over my day and this is getting unpleasant.”

Where do you go from there?

Many, I suspect, shut down in such contexts. That seems a not unreasonable response—one could think of it as a cooling off period to reflect on the debate in a less agitated and defensive state. But you notice that that leaves the field disproportionately to those who revel in, rather than shrink from, such contexts, those who are the true-believers in their position rather than those who appreciate the difficulties for their position, and those who have little respect for those they are arguing against. That can’t be good, you think to yourself. And that too seems right.

15 Replies to “The Unfortunate End-Game of Some Fraught Debates

  1. If I may:

    Then you wonder whether that final thought is about your decision, or merely about a state of affairs you had hoped, but increasingly doubt, you can prevent. For you’ve noticed that those like you on the other side seem to be following the same line of thought, and more and more of them are disengaging, until you suspect that your contributions are falling almost exclusively on the deaf ears of the true-believers on the other side. And so you find yourself worrying that your only reasons to remain engaged are ones of principle and that these really are outweighed by your need to get on with your day. Perhaps cautious dialogue is doomed in much the same way as the environment, you think. And that can’t be good, but maybe there’s nothing you can do about it.

    And then you remember that some of your opponents, including ones you took to be arguing in good faith, and not just voicing their true-believership, claim not merely that your view is unworthy of you, but that it is damaging for you to argue for it at all, no matter how cautiously, given your lack of relevant first-personal experiences (or other features of yourself). Perhaps this is a mistake on their part. But the more cautious and open you are, the more likely you are to take this possibility seriously, in which case you cannot even rest assured that you do nothing wrong if you do choose to sacrifice your day to engage. And that may seem just one more reason to disengage and leave the field of play to be torn up by the true-believers.

  2. The interaction of personal, political, professional, and philosophical reasons is sometimes extremely hard to negotiate. We (philosophers) like to believe in the myth that philosophical reasons trump all, that if we can just get out our reasons for some conclusion in a clear and careful way, then our job is done, and those who cannot abide the conclusion simply need to take issue with some premises or other. This is merely a clash of reasons, not persons, goes the thinking. But reasons don’t persuade people; *people* persuade people (Haidt got this right). It’s all personal. Further, when the philosophical reasons are *moral* reasons, perhaps implicating criticism of a moral stance many have, it is hard for it not to become *really* personal, as our moral stance is typically the most fundamental aspect of our practical identities. And ditto, these days, for political reasons.

    Nevertheless, these issues can occasionally successfully be negotiated, at least where the rules are made explicit: “Here is a view, one you may not agree with, but one I think I have good reasons for. You will, I hope, know me to be of good will, to be aiming at the truth, but I need your help to get there. But we can only get there to the extent that we are co-reasoning in good faith with one another, not undercutting the process by reaching for slogans or cheap shots, and, most importantly, when we are *giving one another the benefit of the doubt.* We don’t assume the worst of each other, and we do not fly off into cheap and trumped-up outrage or shouting-down. It’s the only way we will have a chance.”

    There is a lot of talk of people living in bubbles and echo chambers. Echo chambers are no good, if they are merely echoes of a single set of beliefs, i.e., the party line. But bubbles may be fine, as long as they are made up of people of good will who aim to engage in co-reasoning constrained by these rules, which are there to enable honest truth-seeking. The bubble contains those committed to a method, not an ideological belief system.

    But if people violate the terms of this bubble, unfriend them and move on.

  3. I suspect the difficulties here are exacerbated by the fact that we carry on these debates these days both with Facebook “friends” we hardly know and in real time. This has us speaking up when our indignant reaction is at its peak and our faith in our interlocutor is relatively low. But that problem does not seem to me to have a good solution. It does not seem a good solution to not talk to interested parties one does not know well about such topics nor to wait until the matter is not of strong common interest before we discuss it.

  4. One thing that you are doing is talking to parties you do not know well about such topics. It seems to me that if what that conversation reveals is that they are not capable (or are unwilling) to discuss the topics in the manner necessary to accomplish successful co-reasoning, then now you know something more about them, namely, they are incapable/unwilling of engaging appropriately. Why is it not a good solution at that point to not talk to them further, if the entire aim of talking further is successful co-reasoning and they will not/cannot contribute to that success?

  5. Shoe: Good this is helpful. Much hinges on what kind of forum the discussion is in. If the discussion is on a post I put on Facebook, disengagement may be a fine solution. If it is a public debate, perhaps on Daily Nous or whatnot, individual disengagement, which might be quite individually rational, has upshot at the collective level that I am worrying about.

  6. I have been thinking about exactly this issue as well. It is basically what I took from Amy Olberding’s deeply moving piece posted a short while ago:

    As you suggest, this is a collective action problem, one that can (as is usual with such problems) only be solved by those with the power and influence to move everyone towards a better place. Prominent and powerful philosophers have to speak out in favor of a more humane, respectful and inclusive kind of dialogue about social issues… where “inclusive” means that the recklessly angry or dogmatic don’t emotionally blackmail the rest of us into silence. So thank you for this post, David, it is a truly a step in the right direction.

  7. I should add to my cynical comment above: Leaving the field to the shriekers and true believers doesn’t mean that they win, or at least that their view wins the day. Sometimes when views like that are left to stand un-responded-to, they are self-revealing reductios, at least to most careful-thinking *readers* (who may not themselves participate, but who can well tell when things go off the rails). So another reason to leave it alone at that point is simply the “give ’em enough rope” strategy.

  8. I think there is some inclination to think, at least from a distance, that the last person standing and arguing in a philosophical debate is the person whose views have not been refuted. To the extent that I am right about a tendency in some fraught debates, more consciousness of the type of mechanism I have been describing might help us understand that tendency better and second-guess the initial inclination I outlined above.

  9. The elephant’s in the room on this one, and its going unmentioned. The primary exemplar and (to a considerable extent) architect of our present condition is one Brian Leiter. Until the example he has long set is overturned, I have little hope for the profession vis-a-vis these issues.

  10. Just a reminder of our PEA Policy: No anonymous/pseudonymous comments, please. They will typically be deleted. Indeed, that’s the main reason we believe our forum remains an oasis of the kind Sobel is longing for.

  11. Paul, I have a very hard time believing what you say. You honestly think people lacked the disposition to “argue” in this way if they could get away with it prior to Leiter? The elephant architect in the room is the internet. That’s what unleashed this always-lurking beast.

  12. Good point David. I guess it would be better to put my point this way: The problem is the internet, and the all-too-human dispositions it facilitates. Leiter is simply the foremost person in our profession to capitalize on its destructive potential.

  13. I myself would point the finger at 1) the difficulty in being comfortable in having one’s deep beliefs challenged and this forcing one to stare in the face the unnerving fact that others really disagree with one and one sometimes lacks convincing thing to say to justify your opinion over theirs, 2) the increase in the guises of the Ring of Gyges that the modern age has brought us, and 3) and more philosophy specifically, the relishing of contentiousness that disproportionately seems to find a home in philosophy.

  14. Hi Dave – I would certainly agree with all three points. I would only add that Leiter has long set a very public example of very bad behavior which some (too many) have followed, or taken as permission to act in kind.

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