Friday, February 1, 2013

Contemporary moral debate

I'm developing an allergy to the word 'rhetoric', but reading Don Levi's "In Defense of Rhetoric" got me thinking. He takes an interest in the actual arguments people present regarding such issues as abortion. Arguments like this, the kind you find in real life, can be simply bad in one way or another (they may be based on ignorance, fallacious, expressions of prejudice, etc.) but they can also be revealing. Sometimes people misunderstand their own beliefs, their own values, and can come to see them more clearly when pressed to be consistent and to express more accurately exactly what they mean. (I don't mean to suggest that pressing for consistency can never go too far.) This is an example, I think, of how studying philosophy can be useful. It can help us to understand both ourselves and some of the issues that shape and divide our society.

Studying only sophisticated arguments about, say, abortion might not be especially likely to have this effect, though, because philosophers (and legal theorists, et al.) tend to respond to other philosophers more than to ordinary people. There are exceptions. Ronald Dworkin has studied popular opinions about abortion and euthanasia, trying to make the most sense possible of the various things people say they believe about them. Jonathan Haidt does something like this, too, and somebody or other (Greg Pence?) has gone through public statements by politicians and political groups about cloning and tried to make sense of the moral arguments contained in them. But a lot of philosophy is not like this. Often people will start with far-from-ordinary concerns with personhood and rationality, and go from there. I think we ought to assign wise work to our students, expose them to serious attempts to get at the truth as well as the rubbish we read and hear every day on tv, for instance, but I wonder whether we should also have them study the rhetoric of more ordinary arguments too, to make more explicit the connection between careful philosophical argument and the chatter and journalism that surrounds, and sometimes fills, our heads. After all, often the bad arguments are just corrupted versions of good ones, and perhaps we should point out the corruption explicitly rather than leaving students to see it for themselves.

One source of such arguments would be the students themselves, and in discussing issues like abortion in class we might hope to identify and then work on various kinds of confusion and ignorance. But this limits the class to the opinions its members happen to have. What if none of them is confused in some particular common way that you would like them to understand? For instance, they are all on the same side of the abortion debate but you want them to understand both sides (or more), not only the best version of their own opinions. If part of the point is to help them understand society, maybe opinions and arguments from outside the classroom should be studied. They might even poll other people and then (try to) do a Dworkin on the results. I can see students enjoying this, and college administrators lapping it up (how innovative!, x-phi!, inquiry-based learning!, interdisciplinary!), but perhaps that is precisely what makes me suspicious.

First let me spell out what I have in mind a bit more. It would have at least two parts. One would be looking at specific arguments, such as the ones you hear about making sure that only good people and not bad people have guns (do good people exist as an ontological category?). Another would be looking at a range of opinions to see how consistent they are with each other. This is where conducting surveys might come in. But would there actually be anything to be gained from something like this that students would not get from a normal course in contemporary moral issues? Is there anything obviously bad about the idea? Has anyone tried it and found that it did or did not go well? Or have I failed to describe the idea well enough for anyone to answer these questions? I'm curious to know.  

I can easily imagine people I know thinking that this was a great idea. But I also know and respect people who would hate it. If nothing else, I think I could use a reminder about why this kind of thing seems so bad to some people. My own opinion is not so much torn as just in the middle. I want to take my students' minds and acquaint them with those of great philosophers, so I want the attention in my courses to be on both the students and the great philosophers. Is that impossible? Or too indulgent of the students? There is a danger that the course would turn into an exercise in amateur sociology, but if we applied the principle of charity, wouldn't it be philosophy too? That is, even in the parts of the course that focused on the beliefs of ordinary people, we wouldn't only be trying to figure out what they believe or how they think, but what they ought to believe and how they ought to think, given what they say and do, on the one hand, and truth and logic, on the other. I sort of like the idea, but I also suspect I am being, or have already been, corrupted by administrative pressures.      


  1. Well, you can always pick video clips out of the media deluge (Daily Show or Colbert if you also want a little comic relief).

    Something I ran with for a few semesters when Rand Paul was running for US Senate here in KY were some comments he made about the privacy of his own religious beliefs, their none-of-your-business-ness. I used this to help motivate W.K. Clifford's practical argument for evidentialism. What others belief affects how they act, and that affects us. (I want to know what my future Senator thinks about the world, etc. It IS my business if he wants my vote, etc.)

    What you're looking for goes a little further than that, but it seems like a good idea, especially in gen ed courses. I care more that they see how concerns in everyday life often have philosophical dimensions, and to see how to start carving that up, and investigating with more care and depth, than that they can define "a priori" and "a posteriori" (and forget about "synthetic a priori"!).

  2. Yes, helping students to "see how concerns in everyday life often have philosophical dimensions" is a big part of what I want to do. Video clips might be an especially good way to do that, since they probably don't read newspapers but might watch tv news. If they can learn to watch more discerningly and read real philosophy carefully, then they can probably handle the stuff in between on their own.

    I don't know about my opinion poll idea. It sounds like fun, by which I mean it sounds as though it might engage students and get them thinking (but I also mean that it sounds like fun). Designing the questions might be worthwhile, but actually conducting the poll would perhaps have very little value. Still, I can't imagine having them design questions carefully and then never ask them. I should probably ask my colleagues in psychology what they think of the idea.


  3. i've considered using andrew sullivan's same-sex marriage reader for this purpose.

    perhaps looking at arguments which are not philosophically sophisticated can serve as a good project - it needn't be yet another bit of material or a 'unit' or a counterpart accorded the same kind of attention as your philosophical readings. instead, something on which their independent understanding can be tested. it's a sign of educational achievement to be able to (a) recognize that the arguments of philosophers are different in various ways from other arguments that are made, and (b) try to engage with those arguments, not just to fault them in various ways, but to better understand how philosophers can respond to non-philosophers, what issues arise when trying to bring philosophical argumentation to bear on contemporary or public questions involving ethics, etc.

    if you choose the material properly, then maybe in principle you can assume that students can deal with it through reliance on skills they've picked up elsewhere, without your having to do a lot of supplementary teaching about e.g. rhetoric, politics, religion, feminism, history. i.e., act as if they are capable of reading magazine articles and essays and having a go at it.

    (oops, i see you are saying something like that already.)

    1. And what I keep forgetting to mention is that it was you who told me about Levi's paper. Thanks for that.

  4. But I didn't have exactly that, so thanks. And if you're right then it would make sense to address the arguments of philosophers first, which I hadn't really thought of, but which does make sense. Actually both the readings and the order would have to be chosen more carefully than I might have thought.

  5. Besides Levi, let me put in a good word for this book. It discusses 100 argumentative moves "that present themselves daily in the world in forms that command respect"[*] while either formally fallacious or informally seriously faulty. Each is illustrated by at least one recent verbatim quote from the media (mostly British) and discussed in a mini-essay of around 700 words. As an academic philosopher's treatment of the real arguments of real 21st-century Westerners, I know nothing like it in terms of either breadth or depth.

    [*] "He was constantly depressed, I think, by the impossibility of arriving at understanding in philosophy. But he was worried perhaps even more deeply by the stupidity and heartlessness that present themselves daily in the world in forms that command respect." (Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir, p. 29.)

  6. Thanks, Tommi! I like the look of that book. I'll see if I can get hold of a copy.