Criticism and Debate

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

01152016_GOP_DebateWhen it comes to political questions, reasonable people disagree. Reasonable disagreement persists also in philosophy, religion, and a broad array of interpersonal matters. That's life. And, indeed, we must live; we must make decisions, set plans, and adopt policies that affect, interest, and impact others. Our decisions have drawbacks, actions have consequences, and plans impose costs on others. We cannot always just go our own way; we have to consult others in trying to figure out how to go on. Hence disagreements arise.

Any view important enough to stimulate disagreement is a view that will look to some reasonable others as prohibitively costly, suboptimal, incorrect, or foolhardy. Thus assessing the drawbacks of one's view is where the argument concerning its overall merit begins, not where it ends. Thoughtful people are aware that their views will strike some reasonable others as manifestly rejectable, and consequently, thoughtful people take reasonable criticism not always as an attack on their proposals, but rather as an occasion for thinking and saying more about them. In some instances, the case can be made that the drawbacks of one's view must be borne (because, perhaps, the viable alternatives are yet even worse); in other cases, it might be arguable that the costs of adopting one's view are merely apparent or on the whole insignificant. The point is that it's plainly insipid to proceed as if the fact that an opponent's view is imperfect were a decisive reason to reject it. Showing that an interlocutor's proposal is thoroughly criticizable is never the end of the matter. What must also be shown is that the interlocutor's criticizable proposal is inferior to the other (criticizable) proposals worth considering. And that comparative task requires us to allow our interlocutors to respond to our criticisms.

The trouble is that so much popular political debate seems to presuppose that the only political view worth accepting would be one that could not be reasonably criticized.

Accordingly, in popular political argument, a view is proposed, an objection is lodged, and then that's it – everyone moves on. Sure, the initial proponent may try salvage his view in response to the criticism, but the more serious the criticism looks at first glance, the less likely it is that the rebuttal will be heard. Political arguers – including especially political candidates – are thus driven to a kind of public dogmatism. They are incentivized to act as though their views are immune to criticism, and that any apparent objection is a diversion motivated by an opposing and unthinking political agenda.

A great irony arises. These insipid public exchanges of political pronouncements are billed as debates. But they are nothing of the kind. Debate is the appropriate format for political thinking; when we are collectively deciding as a political body, our views should be informed by the give and take of ideas and the exchange of reasons and criticisms. What are presented to the citizenry as political debates are in fact spectacular and galling failures. Consider the current contest for the Republican Presidential nomination; there, it is regarded as an absolutely devastating objection to a proposal for immigration reform that it involves anything that can be labeled “amnesty.” No contrast of the costs and benefits of such a view with those of any viable alternative policy is ever considered. In philosophy, the fact that relativism seems on its face self-refuting, is all too regularly used as a closing argument against the view. Or, in religion, the atheist's question “who made God?” is given way too much credit for being a final refutation of theism.

Perhaps, in the end, these objections really are decisive refutations of the views against which they are raised. We are not denying that; in fact, we hold that self-refutation does undermine relativism, and the atheist's question does defeat many of the thesis's claims. But the force of these critical maneuvers can be revealed only in the course of further discussion among disputants. No doubt, thoughtful Republicans who favor amnesty have a defense of their proposals. And no sophisticated relativist or self-reflective theologian would lack replies to the self-refutation and explanatory regress problems, either. Every view brings with it philosophical problems all its own – with some views, the problems are unbearable, with others, they are manageable. What it is to be a mature proponent of a view is to be able to recognize this fact and have intelligent things to say when others raise their criticisms. And maturity also demands that one be willing to hear the longer story from those one has criticized.

Our suspicion is that, especially with regard to televised political debates, there are structural reasons why things do not proceed in the way they should. Perhaps it's true that nuanced argument makes for awful television. But, further, it's also likely to be true that nuanced argument makes for insufficiently compelling national politics – in what is billed as political debate, the candidates' objective isn't finding the defensible version of an opponent's view, but of winning, scoring points, and making the other person look bad. Responding properly to objections is simply a failing strategy. And perhaps the same goes for the more academic discussions, too. We all have our favorite guilty-pleasure writers who defend an idea with flair and defeat their opponents with overwhelming, thunderous criticism. Opponents are presented as being left speechless, reduced to silence. In fact, this image of the silenced interlocutor is presented in an exaggerated and comedic form in Robert Nozick's famous aspiration to formulate a philosophical argument so compelling that, upon hearing it, were one to oppose the conclusion, one's head would explode.

Nozick's image of the philosophical aspiration is admittedly attractive. But this aspiration is only that. Nobody has ever formulated an argument that would kill those who deny its conclusion. And nobody has ever formulated an objection that does the same. Such are the immature, though perhaps understandable, conceptions of what good argument should be. Maturity means realizing that, when arguing about important matters seriously, your opponents probably have heard your objections before, and they have plenty to say back. When it comes to important matters worth disagreeing over, there are no winning one-liners. A longer conversation, with some distinctions and perhaps some concessions, will have to take place. And in the end, everything will turn on the messy and imprecise processes by which evidence, reasons, arguments, and considerations of disparate kinds and categories are weighed against each other to produce a conclusion that will inevitably be one among many plausible options. If only it made better television.