When we say “arguments matter”, what agenda are we assuming? In one way, we are assuming that forcing someone to believe as we do may get some short-term benefits, but in the end, will produce resentment that cannot be eliminated by force. For example, I may be concerned that purchasing contact lenses for my son will not be the right move because his eyes are changing and contacts will both be a daily hassle and not good for his eyes. However, since he is embarrassed to wear his glasses in public, and knows of the inconvenience of wearing them for basketball, forcing him to wear his glasses breeds resentment. Force is, by any means, ineffective for eliminating resistance to an idea and a practice. Hannah Arendt affirms the powerless character of forcing assent when she says, “[violence] is utterly incapable of producing [power],” by which we should understand the nature of power. Power, in this sense, does not require justification; rather it requires legitimacy. So, my son’s empowered action toward corrective eyewear must be grounded in his understanding of what is legitimate. And so, we get that the argument matters because we must balance the needs for fashion and for clear eyesight while he plays sports with my concern for his long-term eye health and for the supposed inconvenience of putting contacts in and out of his eyes on a regular basis. The argument is not so much a justified cognitive belief (although a doctor could inform us in terms of long-term health), but a practical matter grounded in legitimate reasons. I may not think that fashion is much of a concern, but it could very well be for a teenager. And so we come to understand that justifying our beliefs is only a part of the determination of the legitimacy of committed action. If we are to ground moral life and practical decision at all, it isn’t of primary importance that we justify our cognitive beliefs; we also need to feel our action is legitimate. Legitimacy, without any stretch of the imagination, can be strongly informed by an understanding of truth which, rather than being a correspondence to reality (which, along with Plato, we can’t apply substantive content to anyways), is a “truth-as-we-know-it”.     

So arguments matter because we strive for legitimacy informed by (but not entirely grounded on) truth-as-we-know-it.

In the first part of “Arguments Matter” we saw that the academic approach to “argument” has largely been concerned with justification for cognitive beliefs. Anyone who has taken an introductory philosophy course will remember that this analytic philosophical concern with how we actually can justify our cognitive beliefs is rooted and stated by Plato in the Theatetus.  For more than 2500 years, the inconclusiveness Plato demonstrated there still dogs analytic philosophy. The armchair philosopher, on the other hand, understands that being unable justifiably say anything substantial about the content of truth or reality puts us in a thorny existential conundrum if no arbiter for significant arguments can be determined. More simply asked: without definitive answers and methods, how can we judge whether we are making moral and cognitive progress by arguing?

If I have characterized academic philosophy’s concern with argument correctly, that arguments are concerned with having correct beliefs, then we are short-changed in terms of having legitimate grounds for moving forward. In other words, we will have necessary but insufficient motives to advance through argument. Let me explain. If we are only concerned with having a justified belief we particularly deal with arguments only for having cognitive, conscious explanations of debatable issues. Two examples will suffice to demonstrate this.

First, the truth-as-we-know-it about the human impacts on the climate is widespread: human behavior (individually, socially, economically, and politically) is destroying the planet so much that it is jeopardizing ways of life that are valuable. Yet, our action in response to this existential crisis does not meet the crisis, and in many ways, exacerbates the crisis. 

Second, when we are myopically concerned with determining the “truth-as-we-know-it”, we fail to take into account what we aspire for as a moral issue.  Take, for example, marriages of non-standard sexual orientations. As I have outlined here, the example of such marriages is confused as a matter of freedom of choice and religion rather than the substantive commitment that marriage is.  It says everything about an argument of forms of unions rather than the content of them. While both sides in the so-called “gay marriage” debate (in North America, at least) have deep aspirations that they are working for that are predominantly shared in hetero- or homo-sexual marriages, a myopic argument focusing on its present instantiations (what is) says nothing toward the deep aspirations embedded within the practice of marriage itself (what it ought to be). The divorce rate has not gone down, and the devastation it has caused to all those involved with divorce is growing. In the process of arguing about the form of marriage at the expense of the content of the meaning of it, we have eroded the moral commitment that even constitutes it. 

A rational argument to arrive at a widespread justified cognitive belief is not enough motivation to effectively change behavior. It may be needed, but it is not sufficient.  As we see from both of my examples, one on a global scale and one that is more personal, arguments don’t merely matter for us to “get it right”. If that is the only purpose of argument, the collective value on moral issues has to be understood as more of what Heidegger and Habermas have called a lifeworld (Sittlichkeit in Hegel’s term), which is a kind of embedded life in which reality determines moral life, and moral life determines reality. In other words, is it not only true but also legitimate? 

How does this work out in practice? Let’s find out in part 3

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