January 5th, 1PM ET
Does One Really Need Common Ground? The Value of Political and Philosophical Debates Across Worldview Chasms
David Lewis once declined to contribute to a volume of essays debating the Law of Non-Contradiction on the grounds that “to conduct a debate one needs common ground” and in this case the “principles not in dispute” were “so very less certain” than the LNC itself. The same assumption that “to conduct a debate one needs common ground” is often expressed by those who doubt the value of political debates between, for example, Marxists and hardcore defenders of libertarian property rights. It might be one thing for people whose worldviews heavily overlap to debate tactics and strategy or even disagreements on secondary goals or principles that could adjudicated on the basis of a shared commitment to more basic goals or principles—but what’s the point of debates across worldview chasms? As someone who wrote a dissertation defending the LNC (and the Law of the Excluded Middle) against logically revisionary approaches to the Liar Paradox and who now often debates libertarians and conservatives from a socialist perspective, this is a question that’s come up for me in both contexts! In my talk, I’ll explore several concrete cases and try to draw some general conclusions about the intellectual and political value of debates across worldview chasms, drawing out ways in which they can both strengthen one’s own views and persuade others—although, crucially, not necessarily the specific “others” who are directly participating in the debates.
February 2nd, 1PM ET
Destructive or Deliberative? An Investigation of the Quality of Political Debates
In recent years, concerns have been raised repeatedly about the poor quality of the political debate. Particularly the uncivil and ill-justified ways in which politicians regularly seem to communicate raise scholarly and public concern. Yet despite severe concerns, systematically driven research on the evolution, the determinants, and the effects of politicians’ use of uncivil (i.e. disrespectful) and ill-justified (i.e. poorly reasoned) arguments remains fairly limited, particularly outside the context of the United States. Accordingly, three main research questions guided my PhD research, which will take center stage during this talk: (1) Did politicians’ use of incivility and ill-justified arguments increase over time (1985-2019)?; (2) Which determinants influence politicians’ use of incivility and ill-justified arguments?; (3) How are citizens’ attitudes, specifically their trust in politics and in the news media, affected by incivility and ill-justified arguments? Theoretically, these questions are addressed by connecting the fields of political communication and deliberative democracy. Methodologically, this research was conducted with quantitative content analyses and survey experiments and focused mainly on the Western European context. I will present and discuss the main theoretical and conceptual angles during this talk, as well as the main findings and their implications.
March 1st, 1PM ET
A Trilemma About Standing
To bring a legal claim to the courts or to get access to certain kinds of legal interventions, one must have the legal standing to do so. Standing in the law is not about whether your case has merit. It is about – you – the person bringing the claim or seeking the intervention. Morality seems to employ a similar concept of standing. We think we need moral standing to criticize and blame each other. However, this paper argues that we simply cannot have a moral concept of standing that works like the legal one and that we should revise these ordinary ideas about moral standing. It begins with a thorough examination of the question what is moral standing and looks to Herstein’s (2017) account of standing, which relies on ‘directive reasons’. However, it argues against such an account by demonstrating that when we make normative claims through criticism and advice and so on, we communicate in at least three different ways – not all of which involve directive reasons. Ultimately, the argument against Herstein motivates a trilemma: either moral standing is nothing (our concept of moral standing is empty); or it is too many things; or it is something too specific to apply to the full range of cases where we want it to apply. And no matter which of the paths we take, what we will see in the end is that we will have to greatly revise how we use standing in the everyday if we keep it at all.
April 5th, 1PM ET
Sharon Bailin and Mark Battersby
Collaborative Oppositionality, Judgment Revision, and Critical Thinking Education
A primary goal of critical thinking education is teaching students to make reasoned judgments. Although the role of sound argumentation in achieving this goal is widely recognized, insufficient attention has been paid to the role of modifying one's judgments when warranted by the evidence and arguments. Such a willingness to revise one's judgments when justified by the weight of evidence and arguments is central to epistemic improvement. Yet considerable evidence suggests that such willingness is difficult to achieve. In this presentation, we discuss the role of judgment revision in epistemic improvement, describe the obstacles to warranted judgment revision, and suggest the conditions which dispose people to be willing to revise their judgments in the face of compelling evidence. Finally, we demonstrate how an inquiry approach to critical thinking education involving collaborative oppositionality can help to overcome the resistance to warranted judgment revision and can foster the virtue of willingness to revise one's judgments when warranted by the weight of evidence and arguments.
May 3rd, 1PM ET
Jan Albert van Laar
Rules for Persuasive Language in Argumentative Discussion
In a good argumentative discussion, the participants strike a balance between cooperation and competition. Within dialectics, this feature has been specified by collections of dialogue rules that regulate and manage the parties’ communicative moves. Does such a dialectical rule-based approach also work for the unruly phenomenon of persuasive language?
With persuasive language a proponent conveys evaluative messages that favour their own position and disfavour that of an interlocutor, as illustrated by Russell’s conjugation: “I am firm, you are obstinate, he is a pig-headed fool.” Persuasive language can put undue pressure on interlocutors. First, terms that appeal to heartfelt values and beliefs can manipulate interlocutors into uncritically following the proponent’s line of reasoning. Second, terms that ridicule or infuriate an interlocutor may pressure interlocutors to yield to the proponent’s position, or influence an audience present. But, persuasive language is unruly, both because we often lack a neutral and unbiased terminology and because we cannot pursue our argumentative agendas without framing and phrasing our positions in opportune ways. Is there a place for dialectical rules?
I will argue that dialectical rules are useful in argumentative discussions, but not as a crowbar to force others to yield to reason. Instead, they are best seen as tools that should be owned and controlled by the participants. Argumentative games require participants to address issues of word choice now and then, and to strike a balance between cooperation and competition themselves. A normative theory of argumentation, animated by the ideal of free dialectical inquiry, must therefore provide discussants with the means to shape and reshape the rules that govern their own dialogues.
June 7th, 1PM ET
Argumentative Agency in the Age of AI
Social media reconstructed our argumentative infrastructure by creating more avenues to information, disinformation, anonymity, and more generally increasing our exposure to different ideas and interlocutors. Simultaneously, AI algorithms driving social media have been shaping users’ ideas by curating their exposure to content, other people, and bots. While social media has begun to reshape arguers through technologically-mediated content exposure, our current movement appears to be towards web 3.0, which is delineated by wearable technologies that will further integrate both AI tools and virtual content into our lives. Social media gave us more connections, different ways of engaging, and a new threat of echo chambers, but as AI tools such as Large Language Models become embedded in our word processors, web tools, and other aspects of our communication, they become more like cocreators than merely new platforms for engagement. The purpose of this talk is to investigate the extent to which the movement towards automation of various communicative tasks through AI technology infringes on our agency as arguers. I will further suggest that virtue has a role to play in maintaining argumentative agency.
July 5th, 1PM ET
AI. The Sham of Alignment Ethics
The Age of AI and Our Human Future by Henry Kissinger, Eric Schmidt, and Daniel Huttelocher claims that AI is creating a post-Enlightenment era. Like the novel discovery of atomic power, AI must be "managed" for good or ill. Ethical argumentation must be as robust as are AI's dazzling digital operations. The Age points out that the judgment of WHAT kind of AI is instituted generates known and unknown consequences. Computational schemes will go forward. Ethical thinkers need to get busy. Are the full range of ethical responses available? Communication ethics is in great jeopardy, I argue. AI discourses do not make reasons nor the best available explanation available. They may not even be capable of explication. Grammar and syntax do not shape meaning. There is no mutual understanding between server and user. Programmers themselves claim to be mystified. Unseen prejudice floats in data bases. That's a human problem that needs fixing. From a disinformation standpoint, there are only failing deterrents to robot propaganda, advertising and nonsense. Attention hacks drain us. Shall the cost of the AI age become the premature burial of communication ethics? What are the emancipatory challenges for reclaiming the freedoms of communicative ethics?
August 2nd, 1PM ET
A Normative Pragmatic Reading of Plato’s Gorgias
A central task for any ethics of argumentation must be to give an account of the norms regulating the quality of the moves in an argumentative interaction--an account of what Fred Kauffeld has called the interaction's "local normative terrain." In this presentation, I illustrate the normative pragmatic program's approach to this task through an analysis of the interactions represented in Plato's Gorgias. This text exemplifies key principles of normative pragmatics, including the initial indeterminacy of the situation, the necessity for the participants themselves to create interactional norms, and the autonomy of both arguers and auditors in doing so. Two approaches to making the situation determinate are on display: one proceeds through openly undertaking commitments, the other through cooperation in a pre-given type of interaction (viz, the Socratic Dialogue). In line with normative pragmatic theorizing, the former approach supports an extended interaction between Socrates and Gorgias. Also in line with normative pragmatics, the latter leads to breakdowns in the interactions between Socrates and Polus/Callicles, breakdowns which participants are unable remediate by recourse to either internal metadialogue or external enforcement.
September 6th, 1PM ET
Disagreement, Belief Polarization and Civic Education - Should We Teach Students to be Tolerant?
The success of democratic, pluralistic societies crucially depends on their members‘ ability to responsibly deal with conflicting beliefs. Therefore, civic education should enable students to appropriately react to disagreement situations. One particularly prominent attitude that is often recommended in this context is tolerance. At the same time, the very notion of tolerance often remains surprisingly vague. In my talk, I would like to propose a specific definition of tolerance that is rather abstract and purely descriptive. I will argue that in virtue of these characteristics, this definition allows (i) to illuminate the specific conditions under which a tolerant attitude towards conflicting beliefs is appropriate and (ii) to assess the significance of this attitude for democratic discourse.
October 4th, 1PM ET
Humor Theory is a Branch of Argumentation Studies
The importance of humor for practical argumentation and effective persuasion is well documented and has been discussed since antiquity. The role of humor theory for the understanding of argumentation may seem less evident at first glance. The classical humor models – Relief Theory, Superiority Theory, Incongruity Theory, and up to a point also Benign Violation Theory – have mainly focused on the “What” of humor: What makes things funny? The resulting findings are fascinating and useful for the argumentation practitioner but have little to offer to argumentation theorists. The situation has changed drastically with recent humor models that focus on the “Why” of humor: Why do humans experience mirth? Or: what is the evolutionary pressure that created our ability to experience mirth and desire to produce humor? Hurley, Dennett, and Adams postulate in their 2011 book “Inside Jokes” that humor serves as a debugging mechanism for fast reasoning heuristics. When people overcommit to these heuristics (mapped as associative networks or JITSA spaces) and are shown to be wrong, this proofreading of reasoning mechanisms is rewarded with mirth. Individuals and societies with effective debugging structures are more likely to succeed, and humor has its place in evolutionary theory. If this hypothesis is correct – and Hurley et all make an excellent case for it – then it has severe and fascinating consequences for ethics and for argumentation theory. On the ethical side is calls for the reevaluation of our (legal, moral, and social) structures and customs of appreciation and protection of (attempts at) humor. On the argumentation side, this means that argumentation theory gains a new sub-discipline or at least a new neighbor – asking not just “Is this reasonable?” (positive models), and “Is it fallacious?” (negative models), but also “Is it funny?”. So far so easy (and exciting), but there is a twist. The above is only true if Hurley et al. are correct about the evolutionary origins of humor (which I think they are) and if the original purpose of humor still matches contemporary manifestations of humor. The second condition is not trivial. Humans are experts in taking an evolutionarily useful pleasure (rewarding procreation, highly nutritious food, or successful problem solving) and turning it into something fun, but useless (porn, candy, and detective shows). This talk explores both sides of the fascinating cross-over between humor and argumentation theory: What if they are right? And: what does it take to show that they are right?
November 1st, 1 PM ET
When Should We Argue?
It’s been said you can’t reason someone out of a position they haven’t reasoned themselves into. If that’s true, then it might be pointless to argue with them. I suggest the principle is not true, and arguments can move people no matter the basis for their belief. However, there are other constraints on the usefulness of argument. Argument is effective when the sides already share not only stating points, but guardrails on what counts as a good argument. Moreover, many people – on our side as much as ‘theirs’ – can’t be argued out of our views, because we don’t genuinely believe them. I suggest we need different strategies for changing minds, alongside argument.
December 6th, 1PM ET
Rationality as Virtue
For much of the modern period, theologians and philosophers of religion have struggled with the problem of proving that it is rational to believe in God. This problem however arguably arises from the understandings of rationality that has prevailed in the modern period. To counteract these, and thus to overturn the problem of proving faith’s rationality, I will argue that rationality is not a matter of achieving infallible knowledge as is often supposed. Rather, it is a question of intellectual virtue, or pursuing the best possible explanation for the data available to us at a given time, while remaining open to adapting our understanding in light of newly acquired data. So construed, rationality can ultimately be described as an ethical question whether knowledge is used in ways that promote an individual's own flourishing and that of others. That is to say, rationality in its paradigmatic form is a matter of moral virtue, which should nonetheless entail intellectual virtue. This conclusion sets the stage for a further argument I develop elsewhere, according to which religious faith provides an exceptionally robust rationale for rationality, and is intrinsically rational in that sense.