On the Merits of Inconclusive Debates

On social media, criticism too often takes the form of aggressively ironic derision performed for those who are already prone to agree. It can also be challenging, although not impossible, to find sustained discussions that are both civil and well-reasoned. Relatedly, one of the complaints I frequently hear about online debates, one that I’ve made myself, is that no one ever changes their mind as a result of their online exchanges, no matter how prolonged or passionate those exchanges might be.

Of course, there are many reasons for this. For instance, we are, it seems to me, much less likely to surrender our positions, particularly our cherished convictions, in a public forum. Most of us are not so humble. Moreover, shifts in perspective or intellectual reversals tend to happen gradually. So much so, that one may not even be able to pinpoint the moment of conversion. In any case, they rarely happen in the heat of intellectual battle. And that last metaphor is also part of the problem. There’s a tendency to characterize our intellectual life as a quest to vanquish all foes rather than as a mutual, dialectical pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. A change of mind, then, is experienced as a defeat rather than a step toward better understanding.

All of this is really just a way of introducing the following passage from Oliver O’Donovan’s Self, World, and Time. O’Donovan reminds us, reminds me, that there is value even in an inconclusive debate or conversation, because, again, the point is not to be proven right.

“Let us suppose that I disapprove of the death penalty, and take up the cudgels against someone who defends it. As our discussion proceeds, certain things will become clear. One is that there are various reasons for disapproving of the death penalty, some of which may plausibly claim a perennial moral truth, while others are more circumstantial. If my opponent forces me to think hard, I shall understand better what social and historical conditions have made the death penalty appear reasonable to past generations, and I shall have to ask if those conditions could ever recur. I shall come to see that my view of the matter is part and parcel of a wider philosophy of penal justice and governmental responsibility, and I shall be forced to elucidate that philosophy more fully and to test its capacity to shed illumination on other questions, too. None of this could I have gained from talking to those who agreed with me. What it amounts to is that if at the end of the argument I still say, ‘I disapprove of the death penalty!’ I know much better than before what I mean by it.”

Thanks to Alastair Roberts for drawing my attention to it. 

4 thoughts on “On the Merits of Inconclusive Debates

  1. “It can also be challenging, although not impossible, to find sustained discussions that are both civil and well-reasoned”

    Really?? Are you sure?! Where? I’m just teasing you :)

    I actually have changed my opinion on things because of internet debates. I don’t change my mind easily, I don’t take anybody’s word for anything, and it doesn’t happen fast, but I have actually changed course on several issues because I came to understand things from another perspective.

  2. “There’s a tendency to characterize our intellectual life as a quest to vanquish all foes rather than as a mutual, dialectical pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. A change of mind, then, is experienced as a defeat rather than a step toward better understanding.”

    I particularly enjoyed this paragraph, I think it’s the perfect summary to what you’re trying to say. We need to change our perception of what debate and discussion are. Although I often strive to prove myself right (in an egotistical sense), I do genuinely engage in debate to learn more, and often take a ‘devil’s advocate’ stance purely to expand my scope of the subject I’m debating about. How do we change how people debate, then? I think that, when it comes to opinions, people will always come from a personal place to one degree or another. Thanks for the post!

    With sincerity,
    Whitemowgli

  3. I think the word debate connotes an adversarial exchange in which the participants defend their philosophical and policy commitments. The purposes usually include the rhetorical development of the participants, and an attempt to persuade not the other debaters, but the audience.

    So in a debate environment, it’s inappropriate to use the Principle of Charity in one’s responses to one’s opponent. In a discussion, the PoC is pretty much indispensable.

    Sarcasm and snark are valid debating tools, (they can be devastatingly effective if one’s facts and logic are in order) although they are counterproductive and unpleasant in discussion.

    I think it’s worthwhile to make the distinction between debate and discussion/conversation because it helps us to have expectations that fit the situation.

    Debate does dominate public forums because the participants frequently have the goal of persuasion (of nonparticipants) rather that learning.

    Michael, TFT clearly is a discussion style blog. It’s one of its features I value.

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