Right and wrongs

September 8, 2010

Norm writing – Blair hatred – a hypothesis – about how the argument against Tony Blair and the Iraq war turned into an unwillingness to accept any part of the opposing argument:

People supporting a course of action will cite (say) A, B and C as reasons in its favour, which they take to outweigh whatever combination of considerations there may be telling against the course of action in question. Those opposing the same course of action will, for their part, cite (say) P, Q and R – arguments which, taken together, they see as decisive against A, B and C. Of course, in real disputes the reasons for and against don’t have to be so symmetrically balanced in number. Maybe there are only two big reasons in favour, A and B, while the list of opposing factors is longer – P, Q, R, S, T and maybe more. But the general structure of controversy is the same for all that: some reasons on one side, some reasons on the other, with the parties to the disagreement assessing them differently. Notice, however, two different ways of being opposed to a case in support of which some reasons can nonetheless be cited.

(a) One may oppose the case in an all-things-considered spirit, allowing that, yes, there are reasons that can be cited in its favour, but those reasons do not go through once the arguments on the other side have been fully taken into account. So, it may be conceded, A and B are not without force; but when we look at them in light of P, Q, R, S and possibly etcetera, we are more impressed by the force of these. Call this the rational mode of defending a case and rejecting its opposite.

(b) There is, however, another method and a worse one. This is to take an issue in which there are,ex hypothesi, reasons of force on both sides, and to speak as if the considerations on the side of the case you favour don’t merely outweigh those on the side you oppose; they altogether swallow or obliterate them – as if those other reasons didn’t exist. Call this, in turn, the Gopal mode of defending one case and rejecting its opposite (after Priyamvada Gopal, who has lately given us an especially egregious example of the procedure). Here the reasons on the side of the case you oppose aren’t allowed genuine weight while being said by you to be less forceful, less persuasive, than the countervailing reasons; no, they are belittled and sneered at; or, in some mouths, they are altogether denied, that is, claimed not to be authentic reasons at all for the people on the other side of the division of opinion from you.

It always struck that me people had become so certain their view was ‘correct’ any kind of reasoned debate became impossible (perhaps the likes of Hitchens and Nick Cohen were also cupable in this respect). This kind of discussion will always preclude the idea of a course of action having to be chosen from amongst a pretty unappealing spectrum of solutions. No, things are either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Unfortunately, this should have been a mode of argument left behind aged about 15.

It makes me think the need for philosophy in schools – something that should help people think in slightly less fundamentalist ways – is very important. Otherwise we will end up with a public open to the arguments of maniacs like the Tea Party and the Sarah Palins of this world.

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