Is Democracy a Sport?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

In a democracy, political decisions are typically made by way of elections. In winner-take-all systems, elections produce winners and losers. It seems natural, then, that in the United States our talk about democracy tends to focus on the competitive aspects of politics. For example, processes for filling political offices are called “contests” and “races”; candidates for such offices are called “contenders” and “hopefuls”; and electoral wins are called “victories,” while losses are called “defeats.” When a candidate loses especially decisively, we reach for stronger language; we sometimes say the candidate was “trounced” or side was “clobbered.” Our popular political vocabulary closely resembles the way we talk about sports. So, in addition to wins, losses, and races, there are cases of running up the score, playing out of bounds, and even spiking the political football.

Seizing on this, candidates and commentators tend to proceed as if political wins are deeply like sports victories. Winners present themselves not only as having prevailed against the other candidates, but also as having defeated everything the opposing side stands for. The team that wins the World Series is thereby the champion, and there’s nothing for the other teams to do other than begin training for next season; similarly, winning candidates tend to proceed as if those they prevailed against are relegated to a similar status: they must reconcile themselves to their losses, step aside, and look towards the next election.

Of course, part of the reason why the sporting vernacular is so prominent in our politics is that it indeed captures fundamental features of how democracy in the United States works. As we noted at the beginning, our winner-take-all elections really do produce winners and losers. So, that similarity is not an illusion. However, the similarity with sports goes only so far, and it is shallower along other lines than its prominence may suggest. Read more »

On War and Sports Metaphors for Argument

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

The vocabularies of sports and war feel natural for describing arguments and their performances. From battle, we describe arguments as swords, as they may have a thrust, may cut both ways, and may be parried. A case, further, can be a full-frontal assault, and we may rush once more unto the breach. There are defensive positions and rear-guard actions. One’s best arguments are one’s heavy artillery, and one may lay siege to viewpoints. And one may, on the sports model, score points or score own goals with successful or unsuccessful arguments, respectively. One may play soft- or hardball. Powerful arguments are slam dunks or home runs, and good rebuttals are counterattacks. Or one may change the subject with a punt. There’s no doubt that our vocabulary for describing what happens when we argue is thick with this metaphorical idiom. The question is whether it is a good thing or not – does the vocabulary of adversarial contest distort our relationship with argument? We hold it need not, but there are some concerns that must be addressed.

The first concern is that sport and war metaphors are misplaced because they presuppose (and seem to endorse) hostility between arguers, and this hostility has objectionable consequences. One’s objective in a game and in a war is to win, to defeat the adversary. As the saying goes, all is fair in love and war, so (leaving love aside) when we turn to the context of argumentation, the metaphors make it difficult to see what would be wrong with using all available means to win in argument. However, unlike in a war, successful argument depends upon arguers following the rules. Further, when one loses an argument, one nevertheless learns something about one’s views. And one may change one’s mind for the better. Losing an argument can be beneficial to the loser. The war and sport metaphors, so the objection goes, fail to recognize this complex of features of argument; for that reason, they are inapt. Read more »

Must Argument Be Adversarial?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

One way to think about argument is to think of it as a fight. In fact, it’s the default interpretation of how things went if someone reports that they’d had an argument with a neighbor or a colleague. If it’s an argument, that means things got sideways.

In logic, though, arguments are distinguished from fights and quarrels. Arguments, as collections of claims, have a functional feature of being divisible into premises and conclusions (with the former supporting the latter), and they have consequent functional features of being exchanges of reasons for the sake of identifying outcomes acceptable to all. So arguments play both pragmatic and epistemic roles – they aim to resolve disagreements and identify what’s true. The hope is that with good argument, we get both.

If argument has that resolution-aspiring and truth-seeking core, is there any room for adversariality in it? There are two reasons to think it has to. One has to do with the pragmatic background for argument – if it’s going to be in the service of establishing a resolution, then the resolved sides must have had fair and complete representation in the process. Otherwise, it’s resolution in name only. That seems clear.

The second reason has to do with how reasons work in general. Read more »