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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

There’s Argument, and there’s Disputation

by Iain Brassington
British Medical Journal Blogs
Originally posted June 6, 2016

Here is an excerpt:

Basically, the problem is this: that the model for debating contests is, presumably, based around the idea that debate is an effective way to whittle bad ideas away from good; if each participant is a doughty falsificationist, and equally able in debate as his opponent, then at the end of a process of debate, we’ll be closer to the truth of the matter than we were at the start.  So far, so good.  But there’s a handful of fairly obvious problems with that model.  First, that doesn’t lend itself to the idea that there is a winner and a loser in any particular debate.  Second, a shoddy argument presented by a good speaker might win a competitive debate over a good argument presented by a diffident speaker.  We might hope that a competent judge would account for that, but it’d be better if there wasn’t any need to solve what looks to be a structural problem to begin with.  Third – which is related, but probably more importantly when it comes to ethics – someone with a good understanding of the moral arguments and who is a decent orator might stand a fair chance of winning an argument; but it doesn’t follow that a good orator who’s won an argument has any particular understanding of the moral arguments.  Debating contests reward people for being good at debate; but that’s presumably not the true end of ethics education.  Fourth, this kind of strategy is possibly OK in politics, in which the point of oratory is to persuade people to adopt a certain cause; and so debating competitions might provide training for that.  (I suspect that that’s something like the rationale behind things like the IofI’s competition in schools: it’s directed at developing a certain set of skills, with one eye on a vivacious public debate.  Whatever my private suspicions of the IofI generally, that doesn’t seem like a bad idea.)  But ethical debate is qualitatively different.  It isn’t really about winning converts.  Or, at least: one might hope that a convincing argument would have moral gravity and attract agreement, but the mood of the thing is different.

The article is here.