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What is Debate?

Logical rudeness may be considered a complex form of ad hominem argument. It tells critics and dissenters that they are defective human beings whose ignorance or error is well explained as frailty, fault, foible, or the absence of a boon. Moreover, this form of ad hominem is justified by the theory under attack. When our questions are answered by ad hominem assaults, we are angered. Our anger cannot be reduced to hurt feelings because we were not merely wounded in our dignity; we were put off in our inquiries for truth by a refusal to cooperate. A rude response can therefore trigger three levels of indignation: personal affront, thwarted cooperation, and crippled inquiry. The first is personal, the second social and political, and the third epistemic.

Rudeness thwarts cooperation, which in turn thwarts inquiry, at least under some concepts of inquiry. Rudeness prevents inquiry from being optimally fruitful. But logic does not tell us to make inquiry optimally fruitful; human interests do. Rudeness therefore is not so much a fallacy as a violation of human community. The rub is that we want to permit all possible truths to be propounded and debated: some of the candidate-truths will deny any role to cooperation in inquiry and others will license rude defenses. Opening the realm of debate this much will therefore permit logical rudeness to enter, which in turn will make inquiry sub-optimal, at least under some concepts of inquiry.

The tensions within the concepts of debate and inquiry between openness and fruitfulness can be seen from a wider perspective. The epistemic principle violated by rudeness is not merely that inquiry must go on. If we are told, in effect, that we do not deserve to be answered on the merits, or are disqualified from knowing truth, on account of a foible or fault in ourselves, then we are being excluded from the universe of possible knowers in which we thought we had enlisted by inquiring and debating. If the truth is not (yet) known, but is subject to inquiry and debate, then we cannot (yet) exclude any person from the universe of possible knowers. That is, we cannot do soa priori, although once we know truth we may be able to do so a posteriori —when we learn, for example about color-blindness and the diversity of mental illness.

Logical rudeness violates what might be called the principle of epistemic democracy: the principle that all persons have an equal entitlement to know the truth. This might well be reclassified as a norm of logical etiquette, and denied the name of an epistemic principle, for it is a mere presumption. If we stated it more completely, it would say: all persons should be presumed to have an equal entitlement to know the truth, until and unless we discover some truth to the contrary. As long as we are confessedly ignorant, it is a methodological assumption which results in fair and courteous treatment to our co-workers.

The problem is that the rude proponent believes he does possess some true knowledge which justifies the cancellation of the presumption. His rudeness from this angle derives equally from (1) the content of his belief, that it disqualifies some people from knowledge, people who turn out to be his critics, and (2) his unshakeable faith that he is right to believe it. The latter dimension will be explored more fully toward the end of this section. First I would like to examine the former dimension.



The principle of epistemic democracy is normative, not descriptive. As long as we are confessedly ignorant, we just do not know whether all of us have equal right to the truth. We think we ought to act as if our entitlements were equal, because that is a demand of fairness or courtesy. The rude proponent who denies this principle by his ad hominem methods, therefore, seems to us to deny an important normative rule; he is not just rude, then, but also unfair.

The principle of epistemic democracy conflicts with another principle which we hold dear: it might be called the "no holds barred" principle of debate. It states that philosophers may (should be permitted to) ask any question, propose any answer as true, challenge any theory as false or unproved, make any argument, and generally debate any theory on the merits. The conflict between the no-holds-barred principle and the principle of epistemic democracy is simply that, under the former, the latter (like any other principle) may be challenged and denied. The no-holds-barred principle conflicts with itself in the same way that it conflicts with the principle of epistemic democracy: under its terms, it may itself be challenged and denied.

In this the no-holds-barred principle is like the First Amendment to the U.S. constitution. The principle of freedom or toleration embodied in the First Amendment may be challenged in public speech. The Amendment has been interpreted to protect even those who oppose its values. But what is our rationale for this super-toleration? It could be that only in this way can we preserve the First Amendment (or no-holds-barred principle), since to prohibit opposition to it in any degree would compromise the principle itself. In this it would resemble the Humean custom theorist or the Academic skeptic: the principle could be made an exception to itself. But we might well feel that that would destroy the value we cherish in the principle itself. The alternative is to allow challenges and denials (and advocacy of repeal) and to accept the outcomes of fair procedures, even if they sky should fall. That is, we might use the First Amendment to protect a movement to repeal the First Amendment, and trust the amendment process and public intelligence to do the best thing. We might use the no-holds-barred principle to protect a philosophical school which denied its value or truth, and trust to the realm of debate (or the "marketplace of ideas") to deal with the proposal justly. Note that both the latter scenarios presuppose independent norms of just procedure. These would have to be something like norms of logical courtesy. In this sense, the principles of logical etiquette cannot be debated properly or fairly except in a realm of debate already constituted by them or their cognates.

Both the principle of epistemic democracy and the no-holds-barred principle seem to be principles of logical courtesy. In fact, violating them creates paradigmatic types of rudeness. Violating the principle of epistemic democracy allows the proponent to believe her critics are disqualified from knowing truth or deserving answers, and violating the no-holds-barred principle allows the proponent to deny that the critic's criticism is a permissible move in the game she is playing. Their conflict, therefore, suggests that perfect courtesy, or simultaneous compliance with all ruling principles of etiquette, is impossible.

We may consider the conflict between the two principles a reflection of a broader conflict between equality and freedom. The conflict may be avoided by ranking the principles so that one always takes priority in cases of conflict. But no such strategem can eliminate the conflict of the freedom principle with itself. Moreover, ranking either above the other would allow just those infringements of the "inferior" principle that the "superior" principle authorized. These would be rude infringements. For example, to rank the equality principle higher would justify limiting the freedom of inquirers to challenge the equality principle. To rank the freedom principle higher would justify an a priori dismissal of theorists who proceeded in denial of the freedom principle.

Some form of rudeness seems inevitable. Either the equality principle will be violated by the rude theory that critics are unequally entitled to know the truth, or the freedom principle will be violated by the rude theory that critics are making impermissible moves in a game. These two fundamental types of rudeness can be barred only by one another. To secure some courtesies, then, we must impose other rude principles. There is something Gödelian about this result. No system of logical etiquette can be both complete and consistent. For every such system there will be a permissible but rude theory.

There are other ways in which rudeness may be inevitable, as seen in Section 4. Some theories must be defended rudely to preserve their own consistency and their proponent's good faith. Some are caught in the dilemma of systematic self-defense. Under the no-holds-barred principle we want proponents to be free to propound and defend these and all other theories. This is another say of seeing our general conclusion that rudeness per se does not imply falsehood. We want to allow inquirers to propose the demon theory of error and the buffet theory of belief. The alternative is rudely to impose a code of debate on debaters, compromising the no-holds-barred principle, and presumptuously presupposing an exclusive vision of truth prior to debate. We may keep the hope alive that this may be done later, when we know more, i.e., that toleration is just a makeshift until truth is known to be known. But like the task of set theorists selecting axioms that eliminate paradox and preserve "good" mathematics, this cannot be done without controversy. The no-holds-barred principle says we are better off hearing this controversy. Toleration should not disappear with the advent of knowledge unless inquiry is also to disappear.

The automatic inference of falsehood from rudeness or undebatability may be called the fallacy of petulance —in which we peevishly allow our hurt feelings to supersede our better judgement. The fallacy of petulance is to use the criteria of courtesy as criteria (or as a subset of the criteria) of truth. Sociability in debate may be important for many reasons, even for the fundamental epistemic reason of keeping debate a fruitful avenue of inquiry and for basic ethical duties to other inquirers; but its norms do not thereby become criteria of truth.

We may now consider the second element of a rude defense, the firmness of the proponent's faith that the first element, the content of the belief, authorizes a rude defense.

Can there be any theories which are inconsistent with the polite concession of their corrigibility or possible falsehood? If some theories have "exclusivity clauses" and if no theory with such a clause is consistent with the concession of its corrigibility, then the demands of consistency would subvert the demands of courtesy. Then the system of logical etiquette would be as reactionary as foot-kissing for demanding courtesy at the expense of consistency. This is especially embarrassing if most or all theories contain tacit exclusivity clauses, or if corrigibility per se contradicts the claim of truth.

Rather than introduce the modal complexities of possible falsehood, I will ask the question from a slightly different angle: not whether a theory can be consistent with its possible falsehood, but whether a theorist can retain her good faith while sincerely conceding the corrigibility of her theory and herself.

Shifting the question this way is legitimate because, for the purposes of logical etiquette, good faith is equivalent to truth. To the proponent of a theory, the truth of the theory alone justifies rude treatment of critics; but all inquirers outside the warmth of the proponent's faith can see that it is his good faith that the theory is true, and not its truth, which grounds this justification. The obligation to be rude is not conditional upon the truth of the theory; it arises as much from faith, and could not arise even in a true theory without good faith.

As we have seen, rudeness insulates believers, not beliefs, or theorists, not theories. In Section 2 we saw that a kind of tenacious good faith can require that a theorist apply her theory to all the explananda within its scope, which frequently includes the context of its own debate. I will call the kind of tenacious good faith which cannot bend to concede the corrigibility of its object "fixed belief", after Charles Peirce. A less tenacious kind of good faith —one in which sincerity coexists with the concession of corrigibility— may be called "critical belief". Clearly it is attainable. What is not clear is whether it is attainable for all our beliefs, or ought to be attained.

Insofar as fixed belief justifies rudeness to the believer, a canon of logical courtesy prefers critical belief to fixed belief. This is consonant with the "civilized" demand that no inquirer be a fanatic, or that all should hold their beliefs with detachment, and be prepared to defend them with evidence and reason and to give them up in the face of superior evidence and reason. The epistemology implicit in this "civilized" demand is not merely that some faith is blind, but that fixed belief blinds. Once critical detachment is lost in fixation, ignorance is invincible. Those who will not concede the corrigibility of their beliefs must directly equate disagreement and error, and fit their explanation of error on the heads of all critics and dissenters. Fixed belief per se authorizes rudeness to its possessors. This rude dimension of immovable complacency or confidence explains the pejorative overtones of the (originally neutral) term "dogmatism".

While this is the demand of courtesy we recognize from the western tradition, particularly from the Enlightenment, it by no means follows that it conforms to the ethics or epistemology of the late twentieth century. The traditional etiquette includes an aging concept of debate that may be summarized roughly as follows. Debate serves inquiry; its values are epistemic; it is neutral in that the truth (whatever it may turn out to be) may be approached by debate; debate is joint inquiry; debate is the marketplace of ideas in which the epistemic worth of ideas is tested and evaluated and reevaluated; success in debate may occasionally go to the unworthy, and true ideas may lay unpersuasive for generations, but in the long run debate will reward all good ideas and punish all bad ones; it is a self-correcting method; it is a method without presupposition or principle; it works best when proponents of theories state their position publicly for all to examine, offer all evidence and reasoning for public examination, answer all questions, reply to all criticisms on the merits, and interact with those of differing opinions by propounding their own questions and criticisms; it works best when the participants and spectators allow their assent to follow the evidence and reasons exchanged in debate, and do not enter with prejudice or simply for sport.

It is according to such a concept of debate that the examples at the top of Section 1 were said to betray "something wrong". Note that the activity outlined by these principles in ineliminably that of a cooperative enterprise.

Do these norms of logical etiquette reflect a pattern of social interaction, or even of reason and inquiry, which died in the Enlightenment, and which is impossible and reactionary to wish back to life? Doubts of this order have forced me to put "civilized" and "well-mannered" in quotation marks throughout the essay. Our distaste for rudeness is certainly not the same as the aristocratic distaste for commerce and trade. Nor is our distaste for rudeness reducible to bad sportsmanship. But is it similar to the wistful sighs of aristocracy in that, its epistemological merit notwithstanding, it is inseparable from a certain nostalgic longing for the days when the logic of self-insulation was not freely practiced by every ignoramus and heretic, the days when the elegant tools of logic were not made to serve the boorishness of every comer? Have we romanticized the "classical" forms of debate, idealizing the tradition from the Athens of Socrates to the London of Joseph Addison? In our code of logical etiquette have we legislated a form of argumentative geniality that never existed? Or one that ought to exist no longer? Or one that distorts our enterprise to pretend that we practice?

The danger of legislating a style of thinking in order to secure a form of cooperation is real. So I take these questions seriously, whether I am in a mood to favor good epistemology and hope that good ethics will follow, or vice versa. But answering these questions is beyond the present topic. Here it is enough to point out the debate has norms other than the norms and rules of any shared logic, and that these norms may be leftovers of bygone social structures. If they have merit, it is not that of logics, but of manners.

My authority in saying just what logical courtesy demands is simply that of a native of the realm whose customs and ideals are being described. It is that of mere acquaintance, and may be corrected by others of wider acquaintance or more acute perception. It is not like saying what a formal logic demands. Hence, we should be careful that we do not allow descriptive inquiries into the normative domain of logical etiquette to be swayed by normative disagreements among debaters as to correct style, cooperative harmony, and civilized behavior. We should not legislate in the name of description. My purposes here have not been wholly descriptive, of course. In our descriptive inquiries we should try to resist the temptation to describe as rude (and therefore to stigmatize) practices whose only vice is their endorsement by the beliefs and theories of our opponents. That would be rude. But in dealing with the challenges of the descriptive inquiry, we should not overlook the normative. For the canons of logical etiquette we use without reflection, those we urge falsely in the name of logic itself, and those that we tolerate in our comrades and resent in our critics, create the ethics of argument which governs discussion.

Peter Suber, Department of Philosophy, Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, 47374, U.S.A.
peters@earlham.edu. Copyright © 1987, Peter Suber.


Date: 2015-02-16; view: 292


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