Action: How We Engage & Initiate Change Via Writing

18 The Ethics and Importance of Arguments Across Moral Tribes

By Brandon Alva

Renee and Ema are competing in an egg drop contest. They must drop an egg from a height of 15 feet and prevent it from breaking using only the following supplies: 60 inches of twine, a dozen plastic drinking straws, 4 sheets of paper towel, 6 popsicle sticks, a half cup of downy feathers, 24 inches of Scotch tape and a cotton handkerchief.

Renee and Ema decide to brainstorm separately and then come back together to discuss their ideas. Renee decides she needs to soften the fall by creating a parachute using the twine and handkerchief and then padding the egg using scotch tape to secure it to a mattress made of popsicle sticks topped with drinking straws and feathers.

Ema envisions a different plan to blunt the impact of the fall. She decides to suspend the egg in a flexible framework of drinking straws. A few straws will be wrapped around the egg itself. Another set of straws will extend outward from the egg to create a set of braces which will flex on impact and absorb the force of the fall (hopefully without breaking the egg).

The two come back together and share their plans. After sharing their ideas both Ema and Renee still believe their own plans to be best.

“I don’t think your popsicle stick and drinking straw mattress will do much to blunt the force of impact,” Ema argues.

“Well, that’s what my parachute is for—the egg will be dropping slowly,” Renee responds.

“Yes, the parachute is a great idea,” Ema concedes, then counter-argues, “But you are using resources in a less effective design. My design makes better use of the drinking straws.”

“What if we use your drinking straw idea and combine it with my parachute…” Renee suggests.

“That’s a great idea. We should do that.”

Ema and Renee’s new plan is a success. Their egg lands un-cracked.

This is a small example of a healthy debate resulting in successful collaboration. And this pattern of healthy debate among interested parties leading to new knowledge is something we can observe on a grand scale throughout human history. This is why debate is important for any society—because a healthy debate resolves conflict. Consider for a moment that almost all of our current scientific and technological knowledge was at some point the subject of debate. That’s right, even scientific basics such as genetics and the earth revolving around the sun were once hotly contested ideas.

Over the course of American history, humanity has also made tremendous advancements in our understanding of human rights. If we walk backward through history we will see the civil rights movement, women’ suffrage, the end of slavery, the legal protection of religious rights, the freedom of the press, and the granting of trial by a jury of your peers. All of these rights, which we often take for granted, were once the subject of fierce debate. In our current hyper-partisan climate it can be easy to become cynical and feel as if the current debates will never end, but that is not what history tells us.

Debates in the public sphere rarely play out as smoothly as our egg-drop example. Many debates take decades and sometimes centuries. They can become contentious, sometimes even violent. However, though the progress is slow and sometimes comes at a great price, it can happen.

In the last few years, it seems that the ability to debate in U.S. politics and public policy has broken down. It appears to many that we no longer hear one another. Increasingly the other party is seen not just as the loyal opposition or competition, but as the enemy. Fear and resentment are growing rapidly among partisans, as shown in the following chart.

 

One of the most alarming things about this chart is the dramatic acceleration of negative feelings toward one’s political opponents. We also see these sentiments reflected in the political rhetoric of our time and the inability of our government to reach compromise on important issues. How can we restore healthy debate?

 

Avoid Manichaean Thinking

Mani was a self-professed prophet who taught that those who disagreed with his teaching were servants of the devil. Today he has the dubious honor of being the namesake of Manichaean thinking. Today Manichaean thinking refers to when we, without due warrant, suspect our opponents of bad faith; when we believe that those we disagree with are not sincerely mistaken—they are in some way actually aware that what they are doing is wrong. Thus, they are not sincere in their beliefs—they have ulterior motives for their political, religious, or ethical positions. Some subtle examples of Manichaean thinking might include the following statements:

  1. Those Christians—they know there is no god and that they are just talking to a wall when they pray. They can’t publicly admit it but they know that it’s all nonsense.
  2. There are no atheists in foxholes. In their hearts they know there is a God, they just want to continue a life of sin.
  3. Liberals want to bankrupt the government so they can put a socialist government in place.
  4. NRA members know that assault rifles are the cause of mass shootings, but they also know that after mass shootings both gun sales and donations to the NRA go up.

Notice how each of these statements/claims states or implies that the opposition is not sincerely misinformed but that they have ulterior motives for their positions. Manichaean thinking is common because it is seductively self-flattering: you and those who agree with you are the truly righteous and your opponents are morally inferior. Manichaean thinking is also seductive because it dramatically simplifies the complexity of the world we live in. If we give into Manichaean thinking, many complex problems are reduced to a simple need for the righteous to crush the wicked beneath their heels.

The golden rule is a very old truism in ethics: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Consider for a moment the important ethical principles we might learn by applying the golden rule to debate across ideological divides. How would we want those we disagree with to treat us as we attempt to persuade them? I suggest that we would want our opponents to do the following:

Assume good faith. When we engage in debate with others it is important to debate the subject at hand rather than engaging in Manichaean thinking and ad hominem attacks. (Ad hominem is Latin for “to the man.” It is an attack on speakers themselves rather than on the argument.) Ad hominem attacks often close off meaningful debate and cloud our ability to think critically about the issue at hand. If you say to someone, “I disagree with you about principle x,” then you both have the option to proceed to debate principle x. But if you say to them “you are a fascist” or “a liar” or a “racist” or “a libtard” then debate is likely foreclosed. They are going to (perhaps correctly) perceive that you are not interested in meaningful exchange but simply want to fight.

Take our earlier example at the egg drop contest. Suppose instead of arguing about which design was superior, the women involved had instead accused each other of being selfish and egocentric, essentially saying “You only want to do that idea because it was yours and not mine.” They would have reached no compromise and their designs might have failed. It is important to note that the point about egocentrism might not be entirely untrue—perhaps Ema and Renee preferred their own designs because in part they created them. Just as it might be true that those who support gun rights do so in part because of their enjoyment of using guns and just as those who support gun control might do so in part because of a lack of experience with guns. It is also true that there will be exceptions to those stereotypes as well. There are indeed experienced gun owners who favor increased gun control and there are also people who have never touched a gun who favor gun rights. In other words, we must evaluate positions and arguments on their own merits and not on the perceived motivations of the speaker. This is why ad hominem attacks are logical fallacies.

Listen. When we debate important issues we all want to be heard. When we discuss these issues with others we need to listen as well as advocate. Not only does listening allow you to discover the merit of other points of view, if there are any, it is also an important rhetorical strategy. If you listen to them, they might listen to you.

Be patient. We believe that our conclusions are simply a matter of logic, that getting others to agree with us is a process similar to having them correct an error they made in solving a math problem. Once you point out to them the error in their logic then they will see their mistake and correct course. But if we look at the lives of those we are seeking to persuade, we will see it is not so simple. Our moral positions often determine both our tribe and lifestyle (or is it the other way around?). When we attempt to persuade someone that they should change their position on abortion, religious belief, veganism, etc. we are not just asking them to change their ideas abstractly—we are asking them to change their core beliefs and often their daily lives as well. For obvious reasons, people do not make such conversions casually or often as the result of a single conversation but rather as the outcome of a process that takes time and repeated exposure to a new set of ideas.

 

In Conclusion

Because we so rarely see people publicly changing their positions on important issues (“You are right Aunt Janice, the flat tax is the way to go. Thanks for SCREAMING some sense into me using the caps lock.”) we can become cynical about engaging in conversations about these issues. We may begin to think that no one ever changes their mind about important issues and that we should simply avoid such discussions all together. But again experience shows that many people’s beliefs do change over time.

In fact, history is filled with important people whose thinking on important issues evolved over time due to the influence of others. But to briefly give you some more recent examples: Megan Phelps-Roper was an outspoken member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She began a series of Twitter debates with David Abitbol, founder of the blog, Jewlicious, in hopes of getting him to repent for being Jewish. But their exchanges, which some believed to be a waste of Abitbol’s time, lead to Phelps-Roper questioning Westboro’s teachings and eventually to her leaving the group.

In another example, Dereck Black was a white supremacist, so much so that at one point he hosted a white supremacist radio show. But when he went off to college he found himself questioning a lot of what he’d been taught and decided not to tell his classmates about his affiliation. When his fellow college student found out about his white supremacist activities, they debated if they should ever speak to him again. Some of his classmates decided they would continue to talk to him in an effort to persuade him to change his mind. In part due to their efforts, he has now renounced white supremacy.

In each of these cases many would have felt tempted to write the mistaken individual off as a lost cause, but patience, respect for the person (but not their ideas), and a willingness to engage in difficult dialogue led to something amazing and wonderful: a person willing to listen and change. You can find more detailed accounts of each of these stories in the references.

Also remember some people cannot be persuaded. But sometimes we engage those who cannot be persuaded (but can remain civil) in public debate because in so doing we have a larger audience in mind or maybe even a future audience. Paul A. Samuelson once wrote, “Science advances funeral by funeral.” Samuelson got this idea from Max Planck who said in his own words “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Sometimes we can persuade our most ardent opponents, other times we are publically promoting ideas that the next generation will take up. And, in fact, you do not need to persuade everyone. The civil rights movement did not have so many legislative and legal victories because it persuaded everyone but because it persuaded a majority of voters and lawmakers.

There are many who will see this call for respectful public debate as a call to respect all ideas, even those ideas which are harmful, hurtful, or objectively mistaken, but I endorse no such nonsense. The view that the earth is the center of the solar system is false, unlike the view that the sun is the center of our solar system. But resolving that difference of opinion is often best done with a respectful debate because multiple lines of evidence and reason support a heliocentric view and all earth-centered arguments are flawed in some way. The greater your confidence in the superiority of your positions the more you should desire a meaningful and respectful debate. Public debate can lead to meaningful progress, but it takes patience, effective rhetoric, and time.

 

Works Cited

Chen, Adrian. “Conversion via Twitter.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 10 Mar. 2018, www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/11/23/conversion-via-twitter-westboro-baptist-church-megan-phelps-roper.

Saslow, Eli. “The White Flight of Derek Black.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 15 Oct. 2016, www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html?utm_term=.7287ed3ac585.

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