January 7th 2022, 1PM ET
Argument and Explanation: Pragmatics and Ethics
In arguments, we offer in premises reasons purporting to justify a conclusion, seeking a shift from premises to conclusion. The shift requires that the premises be more acceptable than the conclusion. In explanations, we offer accounts of how or why a phenomenon came to be. The explanandum is presumed to be real. If not, there is no call for an explanation. The claims put forward as explanans need not be, and often are not, better known than the explanans.
This standard pragmatic distinction is in accordance with my own other writings and most textbook accounts. Interesting complexities exist, however. These include arguments in contexts where there is no doubt or disagreement; explanations that are not causal; cases where a sequence of claims offers both argument and explanation; cases where argument and explanation serve complementary functions; and transcendental arguments.
I argue that it would be undesirable to systematically favour explanation over argument, as Robert Nozick once urged in the context of meta-philosophy. Presuming deductivism and prioritizing freedom, Nozick maintained argument was coercive whereas explanation was not. I question his account. I also consider the recent work of John Casey, emphasizing the involuntariness of belief as the ground for adversariality in argument.
There are ethical pitfalls both in arguing and in explaining. Distinguishing argument and explanation can help us avoid them.
February 4th 2022 1PM ET
How to Star-Man - Arguing from Compassion
Anyone who has spent time arguing on social media has heard of the straw man fallacy. It’s a rhetorical flaw in which a caricature of a point is substituted for the real thing, making it easier to refute. To avoid straw-manning we’re encouraged instead to steel-man, or intentionally engage with the strongest possible version of your interlocutor’s argument—which both ensures our own understanding and signals that we’re acting in good faith. Unfortunately, we’re far more likely to not only straw-man, but also to vilify and mischaracterize our opponents themselves, fomenting enmity and rendering dialogue impossible. To correct this, I propose a rhetorical approach called star-manning, whereby we not only engage with the most charitable version of our opponent’s argument, but also the most charitable version of our opponent, by exercising humility and compassion as methods for building a fundamental sense of common purpose. I will discuss the moral and logical frameworks undergirding star-manning, deconstruct popular objections to it, and give examples of how this approach can—and does—help us break through our deadlocked discourse on the most contentious topics of the day.
March 4th 2022 1PM ET
Digital Blackface and the Argumentative Implications
Keyboardstickers, memes, and reactionary GIFs have become an integral part of everyday
internet and text message communication. As a society, we have now reached a point where the same sort of images are being used to convey not only affective states, but also argumentative assertions. For example, the eyeroll of NeNeLeakes (Real Housewives’ star) is used to not only convey a sentiment of ‘Gurl bye,’ but also can be, depending upon the context, a non-illocutionary objection to another’s argument. While the usage of ‘Digital Blackface’ by white and non-Black users has been critiqued on the grounds of racial stereotyping, exploitation, and the commodification of Black bodies, what I aim to show within this project is that white and non-Black individuals should also not utilize these GIFs, memes, or reactionary stickers as argumentative replies due to a lack of understanding of the norms of African American Argumentation (AAA). Not only is ‘Digital Blackface’ a repackaged form of19th and20th century minstrel blackface, but when these memes and GIFs are used within arguments, they are fully intelligible within a specific argumentative modality (African American Argumentation),which within the Western world is typically seen as defective. I find the popular usage of ‘Digital Blackface’ by white and non-Black users within arguments problematic on two fronts: 1. due to racial privilege and anti-Blackness ‘Digital Blackface’ by white and non-Black users is seen as an acceptable practice; how-ever, for many Black individuals engaging in AAA is commonly unacceptable. So, the practice perpetuates anti-Black oppression. This also violates the pragma-dialectical ‘starting point’ rule. 2. Individuals who are ignorant of the norms of AAA who utilize these memes and GIFs are, under a pragma-dialectical model, violating the ‘usage rule.’
April 1st 2022 1PM ET
Giving Arguments a Good Name
If there is one thing on which educators, logicians both formal and informal, and argumentation theorists of all stripes can enthusiastically agree, it is that the exclamation, “Now that was a good argument!” is music to our ears but much too rarely heard. Paradoxically, this agreement comes despite the absence of consensus on what makes an argument good or, for that matter, even what constitutes an argument. Let’s take that as a cue to put the analytic urge to the side for a moment: instead of first deciding what an argument is and then determining what makes something a good one of that kind, let’s focus on the demonstrative pronoun “that”. Some of the things that deserve and elicit such a comment will have identifiable premises atop inferential structures, but not all. Some, but again, not all, have identifiable winners and losers. And some, but only some, of those exemplary, satisfying arguments conclude with a proposition that is established and agreed upon by all parties.
The line of thought I will explore is whether, and to what extent, arguer satisfaction can be taken as constitutive rather than simply indicative of good arguments. There are, to be sure, problems posed by logically inept arguers who are improperly satisfied, mercurial arguers whose satisfaction may be random and unstable, and vicious arguers who simply refuse to be satisfied, but these provide fodder for developing the theory and testing its boundaries.
May 6th 2022 1PM ET
Strategies of Justice
This talk examines how we might proceed in situations in which there are tragic conflicts of justice – where one cannot address one set of justified claims at all seriously without doing what would amount to another injustice – where, it may seem, the set of fully just solutions is empty. It deals especially with situations where one people has established a society on land from which another people has been dispossessed, so that two peoples have significant but potentially incompatible attachments to the same territory. It sets out some strategies for how one might address such conflicts, and to do so as matters of justice, not merely as the pursuit of a normless compromise. The argument connects with the ethics of argumentation in that, because there is no easily accessible conception of justice that can be justified in relation to all parties, the focus shifts to how one addresses the pursuit of justice in such circumstances. Hence “strategies”. But because I take the position that arguments of justice remain fundamental and therefore inescapable, it also links the procedural to the substantive question of how we should conceive of justice in such circumstances.
One motive underlying this talk (but only one) is to remedy a potential structural disingenuousness in arguments by non-Indigenous scholars in favour of Indigenous land rights. Here, to be very clear, I am speaking only of my own practice, not any other’s. Such arguments might be pitched as though they simply sought the reversal of the dispossession, without the author – without me – coming clean about my attachment to my own society – my sense of that society's value and legitimacy. There is a danger that I may rely upon the fact that a complete reversal of dispossession will never occur as a cover for my more far-reaching arguments. "Strategies" asks how we might keep both sets of legitimacy claims in play, and work out their interrelations.
June 3rd 2022 1PM ET
The Transmissibility of Commitments in Public Political Arguments
In this talk, I explore the question of commitment transmissibility in public political arguments. In particular, I focus on the idea that under certain conditions, political arguers may become accountable for the commitments of their “argumentative associates” (Mohammed, 2019). Arguers become associates, and may be presumed to share general argumentative positions, in virtue of membership in a certain institution (government, party, committee, ... etc) or as a result of some collective action (manifestos, protests … etc). I present cases where the arguer aware of such a possibility makes the discursive effort of distancing herself from a certain argumentative associate in an attempt to avoid that she acquires the associate’s commitments. I discuss the concept of commitment in argumentation (e.g. Hamblin 1970, Oswald 2015, Walton & Krabbe 1995), as well as the attribution of commitments in political arguments in view of the collective nature of political organisation and action (e.g. Bauman 1999, Garner 2009, Gilbert 2000). The discussion is meant to elaborate a normative view of the transmissibility of commitments between argumentative associates. Eventually, I propose a nuanced normative view: On the one hand, the transmissibility is necessary in order to hold political arguers accountable for the argumentative potential of their discourse, and yet, aware of the risks of argument by association, the attribution of commitments needs to remain defeasible.
July 1st 2022 1PM ET
Is Rational Manipulation Permissible?
Rational manipulation is constituted by the following conditions: i) A aims to persuade B of thesis X; ii) A holds X to be true and rationally justifiable; iii) A knows of the existence of argument or information Y; iv) while Y is not itself misinformation, A suspects B might take Y as evidence for not-X; and finally, v) A elects not to mention Y to B, out of a concern that it could mislead B into believing not-X. A’s behaviour is rational insofar as A aims to rationally persuade B to believe a thesis that A holds as true and justified. Yet it is manipulation because A deliberately avoids furnishing B with information that B might regard as relevant, to ensure he arrives at the correct belief. While I discuss contexts where rational manipulation is morally acceptable, I argue that in general A’s action will be wrongly manipulative because it involves disrespecting B’s autonomy. A’s belief that her thesis is true and justified does not excuse her subverting B’s rational agency and his capability of making up his own mind. If he uncovers her strategy, B is entitled to feel resentful, and not to trust A’s arguments in in future.
August 5th 2022 1PM ET
The Epistemic Commons
Recent work in cognitive science and social epistemology has stressed the interconnectedness of our knowledge. Our patterns of thinking, as well as what we are disposed to take for granted, are deeply influenced by the epistemic communities we inhabit. While this was emphasized by philosophers like John Stuart Mill and W.K. Clifford, a range of experimental data in psychology and cognate fields over the past few decades further corroborate this picture.
Here, I explore the ethical and epistemic upshots of this idea. I suggest that just as we can think about “commons” with respect to the atmosphere or oceans, we can also fruitfully think about the epistemic commons. Moreover, just as pollution can threaten the atmospheric commons, certain kinds of incentives to avoid revealing evidence can threaten the epistemic commons. This is easily seen in a case with the following structure: there is a group deliberating about acting on P; the evidence for P is outweighed by the evidence for not-P; but the evidence for P is shared knowledge, whereas the evidence for not-P is distributed across the group. If there is social/professional pressure to avoid giving evidence for not-P, then even a group consisting of individually rational agents can deliberate irrationally relative to the evidence the group as a whole possesses.
Using the above model, I argue that where such social pressures exist, they generate an imperfect (ethical) duty to “speak your mind,” i.e. reveal evidence despite social incentives not to do so.
September 2nd 2022 1PM ET
Responsibility and Undesirable Beliefs
Most people believe that we are responsible for our actions, but very rarely do we think about whether we are responsible for our beliefs. On first glance, the responsibility we have for our beliefs seems quite different from the responsibility we have for our actions. After all, I may be able to choose whether I tell you the truth, but I hardly seem able to choose to believe it’s raining. Many of our beliefs seem forced upon us in a way that actions are not. This is unproblematic when the belief has to do with the weather, but what about more objectionable beliefs? For example, racist or sexist ones? These beliefs are usually not freely chosen, at least not in the same way that we choose our actions. If the social structures we live in are inherently racist or sexist and if we inherit the vast majority of our beliefs from the social structures around us, it would seem that we are not responsible for some of our more objectionable beliefs. How is it, then, that we can hold people responsible for widely held undesirable beliefs? And how are we to argue with those who hold such beliefs, especially given that they may have never consciously formulated those beliefs? Arguing with someone about deeply held belief that are not of their choosing is a difficult proposition, and argument may not be the most successful means of changing someone’s beliefs.
October 7th 2022 1PM ET
Bubble, Bubble, Argue and Trouble
Social media [SM] serves many purposes. It keeps us in touch with friends and family who are not nearby; it permits us to wish a happy birthday to a multitude of friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Speaking personally, it allows me to keep loose track of colleagues who I like but only see at conferences. These and other benign activities are what make SM valuable and worthwhile. There is, however, a dark side. This primarily results from a number of factors including anonymity, misogyny, right wing ideology, conspiracy theories, and a preponderance of the Dark Triad (Furnham, Richards, and Paulhus 2013). It is notoriously difficult, if not impossible, to conduct reasonable argumentation on many sites. Indeed, it can become downright dangerous to become involved in such discussions (Nagle 2017). Epistemological hegemony rules these groups. Most importantly, and what has lacked attention, is the idea of audience. I have discussed, in several places (Gilbert 2014a, b, 2016) the idea of “familiars.” These are people in your familial, social, or routine contacts, and range from you siblings to your auto mechanic, but there is no suggestion that familiars share political or social views or values. This is different from what has lately been labelled “bubbles” and “echo chambers,” which imply, in the former case, a tendency to agree, and in the latter a strong sense of commitment and hegemony (Kelly 2008, Kitchens, Johnson, and Gray 2020, Nguyen 2020). It is in such groups, and especially the latter, where argument and disagreement become problematic and, some claim, impossible. In this talk I am going to investigate this situation, examine the phenomenon and suggest ways of moving forward.
November 4th 2022 1PM ET
And then a Miracle - Questions of Responsibility in Stasis
Arguing with the enemy demands some mutual interest to interact in the midst of committed conflict and requires some shared normative assumptions as to what counts as coherent expression, meaningful interpretation, and productive clash between those who doubt that their counterparts are capable of speaking-acting in good faith—it presupposes, however thinly, a fragile, likely damaged, and nevertheless common experience of response-ability.
Arguing with the enemy may also amount to so much treason, an interaction that betrays a sanctified cause dedicated to the elimination of evil and an engagement that begins (and ends) by not simply bending but breaking rule of law. By perception, oath, and tradition, argumentation between declared combatants may then negate articulated ethical demands of responsibility, not least if it conceals the power (or force) responsible for opening a process of argumentation and underwriting its terms, work, and outcome.
Among others, and now thirty years on, the South African transition demonstrates that the compound problem of responsibility is neither an abstraction—Mandela and de Klerk both faced serious accusations of treachery as they began talk-about-talks and worked toward the negotiated settlement that many now condemn as being both a wholly unresponsive and demonstrably irresponsible “end” of apartheid—nor a matter than can be resolved by theories of “deep division” in which various and variable appeals to “bridge work” enable arguments through plausibly deniable instrumentalisms and backstop argumentation with near metaphysical accounts of (mutual) recognition. Indeed, with the arrival of such happy miracles, there remain open questions of an increasingly normal exception: In stasis—What response? What response-ability? What responsibility?
December 2nd 2022 1PM ET
The Old Aggression and the New Kindness: Two Threats to Intellectual Enquiry
In the recent past, philosophical debate was all too often characterized by an aggressive style that aimed primarily to expose an opponent as intellectually incompetent (and perhaps less often, epistemically vicious) and was only secondarily intended to pursue truth. The charge hurts and can stick, because there is indeed a loose correlation between producing sound theses and being good in one’s field. Although, thankfully, there is reason to believe that things have changed for the better, we should explore the possibility that a new danger has emerged: that of misplaced ‘kindness’, involving a failure to mount clearly worded challenges to questionable assumptions and bad reasoning. This is well-intentioned, in so far as it tries to preserve the confidence of people involved in these debates, especially if they are junior or from a minority background. But it brings at least three dangers: that truth is not pursued with enough vigour; that it encourages conformity, which itself has a stultifying effect on enquiry by allowing false and even absurd assumptions to persist, and that it provides new opportunities for a subtle kind of aggression which consists of implicitly accusing people of not being kind, regardless of the quality of their contributions. The long-term solution I propose is admittedly difficult to enact, since it involves encouraging intellectual, epistemic and personal virtues that require much effort to achieve. But when possessed, these virtues allow people to see that their personal worth is summed up neither in their ability to engage in complex, high-level theorizing, nor in others’ good opinion of them.