Cynicism and Argument

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Presidential_Debate-00985In the wake of the first Presidential Debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, two assessments have come to be widely accepted. The first is that Mitt Romney handily won the debate. The second is that Mitt Romney’s key claims in the debate were demonstrably inaccurate. Neither assessment taken on its own looks particularly noteworthy. But when they are affirmed together, they sound dissonant.

Here’s why. Debates are argumentative settings where one’s performance should be assessed on the basis of the relative quality of the arguments one presents. The quality of an argument depends on the truth of the information presented as premises and the relevance of that information to its conclusion. So if we know that an arguer is employing premises containing important inaccuracies, we should not judge his or her arguments as successful. Therefore we should not think he or she did well in the debate. Yet this is precisely what the conjunction of the two prevalent assessments of the Presidential Debate contends: Romney won the debate, but his central arguments were failures. There’s the dissonance.

We can anticipate what our critics will say: What Pollyannas these guys are! They may then continue: Academics are so naïve! Political debates aren’t about arguments, but rather cutting a striking pose, displaying one’s personality, connecting with an audience, and making one’s opponents look dumb. The critics might then raise the example of the Nixon/Kennedy debates in 1960, where Nixon was considered the winner by those listening on the radio, but Kennedy won with those who watched on TV. Nixon looked tired, but Kennedy looked, well, like a Kennedy. This leads our imagined critics to conclude: Winning over an audience, looking “presidential,” taking a commanding tone — that’s what political debate is really about. Everything else is just Ivory Tower chatter. And so goes a popular interpretation of democracy’s deliberative moments. This is a resolutely cynical stance concerning democracy, and in fact it takes its cynicism to be a kind of virtue. Let’s call it “just is” cynicism.

It should be confessed that we academics have our own version of “just is” cynicism. It begins just like the popular version: Politics just is the effective exercise of power. Democracy just is civil war by other means. Argument just is the process of eliciting assent. And so on. But then the academic version adds an additional layer of cynicism: saying non-cynical things — such as that politics is about justice, democracy is about self-government, and argument is about rationality — just is idealistic claptrap at best, and more likely just is one further exercise of power and manipulation. That is, academic “just is” cynicism claims not merely that non-cynics are delusional; it claims that in fact we’re all cynics, with criticism of cynicism being the most cynical posture of all. Any argument against cynicism just is cynicism, because it’s just cynicism all the way down. Non-cynicism is false-consciousness. This is “just is” cynicism gone global.

In recent posts here on 3Quarks [Here and Here], we’ve given reasons why we resist the cynical turn when it comes to democracy, and here we will explain why we resist it when it comes to argument and reason more generally. The short version of our case against global cynicism is simply this: the view that argument and reasoning just is cynical manipulation is itself the product of non-cynical argument and reasoning. The “just is” cynical view about reason and argument is parasitic upon an exercise of non-cynical reasoning and argument; therefore, the cynic must admit that non-cynical argument and reasoning is possible. Therefore “just is” cynicism about argument is self-defeating.

The self-defeat problem for cynical views of argument actually comes in two forms. Recall that argumentative cynics claim that argument just is rhetorical manipulation. One problem concerns the role that argument must play if there is going to be a case for adopting argumentative cynicism; the other has to do with the way one must see the reasons for the cynical view once one has come to adopt it.

First, if one believes that argument just is about getting others to believe one’s conclusions, rather than about showing their truth or providing conditions for knowledge, then one must take it that this cynical view of argument itself is supported by good reasons, reasons that show – or at least suggest – that the cynical view is true. Accordingly, in assessing the reasons in favor of cynicism as strong enough to support the view, argumentative cynics supply killer counter-examples to their view. They are “hoist with their own petard,” as Shakespeare might have put it.

Second, if one believes that argument is just about getting others to believe one’s conclusions, then one must view one’s own arguments, even for that very view, as self-imposed verbal manipulation. But then the cynic must admit in his or her own case that he or she has no better reason to be a cynic than not, as there are no reasons to be had for any view. And, further, the cynic’s critique of non-cynicism falls apart. The cynic’s charge that non-cynicism is false consciousness depends precisely on the idea that there is a correct view about things, one that acknowledges the evidence of the terrible truth of cynicism – namely, that nobody believes for good reasons, or anything like reasons at all. The trouble is that once “just is” cynicism has gone global, it must adopt a cynicism about argument and reason, and this in turn means that it must take a cynical posture on its own reasons. Hence it must admit that “just is” cynicism about argument and reason is also false consciousness. But then that admission would itself be subject to the cynical assessment: the evaluation of something as false consciousness is also false consciousness. Oh, the petards!

It doesn’t make one a naïve professor to uphold the idea that debates are supposed to be about reasons, evidence, and truth. We all know that the election-time events that are called “debates” are actually national campaign-stops, where candidates compete on one stage by means of zingers and other rhetorical tactics for sound-bites, media coverage, and poll numbers. But winning at a debate is nonetheless distinct from winning a debate, and the world of high-stakes professional politics knows it, otherwise they would not invest so much time, effort, and energy into training candidates to achieve the former by appearing to achieve the latter.