Arguments Are Overrated

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People who are good at making arguments overrate the value of arguments. The verbally adroit among us often demand that disputes of many sorts should be decided on the basis of debate. This demand is particularly acute for public policy disputes. The idea is that policy choices should be subject to rigorous public scrutiny and that this should result in the the adoption of the policy for which the best arguments can be marshalled.

This is an odd claim. No society has ever really attempted to govern itself in this way, although a few have at time imagined that they were governed according to this system. In reality, governments of all sorts are controlled by interests and prejudices not arguments. Intellectuals react to this in horror but it is far from the calamity they imagine. Indeed, much of the horror over the non-deliberative nature of politics and society is attributable to their over-estimation of the value of arguments. And some of it is simply self-serving—they favour a kind of government that would empower them.

There are really seven reasons we should be sceptical about the value of arguments. I know it’s strange to make an argument against arguments. My point here, however, is not really to convince anyone. It’s simply to make a few of the more open minded people aware of the limitations of arguments. (Also, I’m only going to give you six of the reasons here. See if you can come up with the 7th on your own.)

Nearly everyone is close minded.
People who are open to participating in a debate or listening closely to others debate a subject typically have already arrived at a position. So why do they listen to a debate? Often enough, it is simply for the pleasure of having their prejudice confirmed. The tournament aspect of debates is also attractive: people want to root for their side.

Many people also derive an anticipatory utility from debates. They plan to resuse the arguments they hear during a debate in subsequent debates in which they are engaged in. Debates are training in which people learn about the best arguments for the position they already hold.

Of course, not everyone has already made up his or her mind on every issue. Most people, in fact, don’t have strong opinions about most public issues. Unfortunately, this does not open up space for the value of argument. The uncommitted tend to be uninterested. They just are not going to listen closely to someone making arguments or giving reasons about things they don’t care about. This means they are as shut off from being persuaded by arguments as the highly committed.

Arguments don’t persuade the committed.
It’s often thought that committed intellectuals hold positions because they find the arguments for them persuasive. This is the opposite of the truth. People find arguments persuasive because they support the positions they hold.

Commitments confer social status. Since people aren’t generally persuaded by arguments for positions, there’s a bit of a mystery about how they arrive at their positions in the first place. The answer is that people adopt positions to gain advantage, typically advantageous social status. Among any group composed of reasonably articulate, intellectual types, a set of positions will be rewarded and defections punished.

This is one of the reasons intelligent people stubbornly cling to  positions regardless of arguments or evidence. Allowing themselves to be persuaded would have a social cost. Because this social cost is almost always greater than the cost to an individual of holding an incorrect view, holding fast against being persuaded is the rational choice.

Committed intellectuals stigmatised heterodox arguments to maintain purity.
Of course, intellectuals do not like to hold views that they know are wrong. In order to avoid being put in this position, they tend to stigmatised heterodox arguments as morally wrong and beyond the pale. In this way, they pre-empt attempts to persuade them.

Stigmatization narrows the range of available arguments.
This has the perhaps surprising result that many of the most persuasive arguments are publicly unavailable because rational people will not make them and other rational people will not listen to them. This means that the intrinsic value of publicly made arguments is lower than it would otherwise be. It further means that if somehow we managed to decide issues based on public deliberation, the results would likely be far worse than expected because the best arguments would be ruled out of bounds a head of time.

Sometimes the truth is quiet.
Perhaps most importantly, the idea that positions should be supported by arguments assumes that articulated reasons are better than unarticulated knowledge. This may sometimes be true about some things but it is not generally true. Habits and social norms often exist as a way of conveying knowledge that cannot easily be articulated.

In my experience, this last point really bothers the verbally adroit. They think their powers of description and argument are capable of dealing with the whole of reality. But this arrogance is unwarranted.  Let’s take a very simple example: try explaining how to tie shoelaces using only words. It is very difficult to do in a way that would make sense to anyone who does not already know how to tie shoes. But this is not an indicator that tying shoe laces does not happen. And it does not indicate that there is anything wrong with the normal way of tying shoes.  Rather, it indicates the limits of language to convey knowledge.

Keep arguing.
Does this mean we should give up arguments? Of course not. Debates are fun, crafting arguments is entertaining and articulate consideration of public matters may even be one of the best ways to spend your time. Just reign in your imperious demands that the world conform to the outcomes of your deliberations.

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