Debating: Private thoughts on public reason

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Debating: Private thoughts on public reason

Sam Block responds to Daniel Schut’s article.

This note was written in response to Daniel Schut’s interesting claim that we shouldn’t have BP debates about metaphysics, and that debates should be governed by the ‘accepted premises’ of ‘public reason’. It was originally posted as a quick reply on facebook, but my permission was sought to publish it here. I’m pleased there is interest in what I’ve got to say, but have no pretensions beyond that original facebook comment – so please take this note in that spirit: I certainly don’t intend to enter into a discussion about any specific motions, or to offend anyone by disagreement. Specifically, I intend no disrespect to Daniel, who I thank for starting an interesting, productive and civil discussion.

I will use the motion Daniel does – the ESL Final of Euros 2011 – as an occasional illustrative example, for the sake of clarity of engagement. But I’m interested neither in claiming it was the world’s greatest topic nor that it was some sort of abomination (both positions with which I disagree). Rather, my claim will only be that its metaphysical-ness should not debar it from being reasonable, and that we should not approach debates with the assumptions of ‘public reason’.

More broadly, I’m arguing that we should do a wide variety of different topics, and that any general trend towards more politics/economics/IR at the exclusion of broader also-interesting ideas is unfortunate. I also feel strongly that debating should be about the arguments that teams make, not about any preconceptions of the adjudicator. To this end, I’ll briefly sketch Daniel’s position as I understand it.

The claim goes that ‘parliamentary’ debating relies on ‘public rationality’ – that is, a set of permissible, consensus premises from which debate can progress. It is argued that we need this because it is the only source of foundational justification: all lines of explanation themselves require further explanation, catching us in the triple bind of falling back to either infinite regression, circularity or eventual lack of justification. Because Daniel feels we need this ‘public rationality’, he comes to two conclusions: that arguments should be of matter to a ‘political community’ (that is, should have direct public policy consequences), and that their outcomes should be ‘empirically visible’ so that they can be publically justifiable. Note: this rules out not only debates about metaphysics, but many others we may traditionally enjoy: those on individual morality, pure ethically normative debates, those about art, literature and essentially anything except public policy.

Daniel says two things, however, with which I strongly agree: that ‘metaphysical’ debates are ‘very interesting’, and can be debated in ‘championship competitions’. I feel these are the reasons we should have these debates.

I have three principle objections:
i. That the vision of debating in which we assume consensus premises is acceptable
ii. That defining a particular political consensus (however minimal) is necessary to having functional debates with common premises
iii. That the conclusions are valid – that is, that we need policy implications and empirical verifiability for satisfying debates
First, however, a side point: Daniel frames his argument in terms of what we should do in ‘parliamentary’ debating. I contend that we should have no qualms about the word ‘parliamentary’ itself, any more than those who play Rugby Football should hold themselves to be sort of cheating when they in fact predominantly use their hands. I don’t think this is the core of Daniel’s argument.

i. Rejecting Consensus Premises

Broadly, I think we should try to avoid assuming anything when judging debates, including a set of consensus premises. Thus I disagree that debating should involve us assuming the a priori assumptions of our auditors beyond the very barest rules of logic (if them). This is an extreme case, and many of you may intuitively disagree. In tune with the tenor of the argument, I’m going to go ahead and not care about intuitive agreement; but, if you do disagree, my subsequent argument should function as a useful even-if clause.

Daniel uses a number of examples to suggest that we do use such consensus coordinates in debates. I don’t think either quite does the trick.

1+1=2. I don’t think this should be allowed as true in debates because it is a ‘political consensus’. If it should be allowed to count as ‘just true’, it is either because it is a tautology in a set of constitutive rules or part of the basic ruleset of logic. More to the point, though, if someone presents a spiritied defence of 1+1=3, or for the malign constructedness of logical rules per se I’d expect the other side to respond to it. They’d probably have a fairly good shot of doing so, which is probably why this never comes up (apart from the fact that debaters are terrible at anything quantitative…). But if they did, we should judge it, rather than opining that they are incorrect. Moreover, even if you disagree with me about 1+1=2, it is clearly much more compellingly obvious to more people than is, say, the debate about the existence of God that started this discussion; it isn’t analogous.

Genocide/paedophilia/other things held as morally abhorrent. There clearly is a political consensus that these things are bad. I just don’t think this is why we don’t ask debaters to affirm/deny their virtues (except in the final of the Cambridge IV with Durham ahead of you in 1st Gov; still thanks for that one, guys). Rather, I think we debar disputations here because it is grossly upsetting to many people to suggest that these things might be OK. It is simply one of those times at which we say there are more important things than debating and so clip our own discursive wings in the interest of not hurting people. We’re right to do so, but not because it is a matter of political consensus. And again, ‘genocide is wrong’ is probably more compellingly obvious to more people than ‘God doesn’t exist’; these are again disanalogous.

I don’t think, therefore, that any of these examples show that we *do* allow consensus premises to define debates; in fact, we have consensus-busting debates all the time – ‘THW ban private property’, or ‘THW be a pacifist’ are probably just as counterintuitive to as many people as ‘THB that God exists’. And I think we are right to refrain from asserting the presumed rightness of a ‘political community’s premises , particularly at international tournaments, for two reasons:
i. There is no correct political community. Particularly internationally, there are lots of different political stances that count as consensuses, and it is not possible to abstract a set of overriding principles applicable to all of them. Picking one is normative.
ii. Non-consensus things can be true. Legitimising judges in importing their own intuitions is just legitimising bad judging. Even if we *did* have one consensus political community – no, *especially* if we did – picking it would be normative and corrosive.

Not allowing ourselves these ‘given’ premises does mean that we don’t have a good assumed foundation from which to build. But I don’t see a problem here. I’m not sure why debating has to have firm logical foundations to build from (I also don’t believe that – assumed premises or not – it ever does). Rather than building up from some ineffable agreed consensus of rock-solid principle, I think people tend to dig down, finding their claim, justifying it, then justifying their justification and so on. People try to justify what they say, and the other side challenge whatever layer of argumentative sediment they reach, and have to do so more compellingly. I think this represents quite well what actually happens in debates, and is a perfectly functional way of having a competition.

Nor does Daniel’s vision of ‘public rationality’ avert the sorts of metaphysical reasoning problems he believes to exist. He is happy with ‘metaphysical’ things being the matter of debate in other (‘non-metaphysical’) debates, so all the problems to which he alludes of not having a basic, reliable metaphysical fundament to which to have recourse apply equally. We also both agree that these things can be argued competitively; so I simply don’t see a problem, whereas I do see a problem with deciding what counts as consensus ‘truth’.

ii) Contextual Common Premises

It may be that we still have a yearning for the sort of consensus foundation Daniel describes ‘public reason’ as providing. Here, I argue that we do not need ‘public reason’ for this, because debates produce their own common premises through the natural operation of discussion. My argument is that what teams tend to assume as correct varies debate-to-debate, and that no unitary set of consensuses exists; the appropriate set of premises is generated by the debate itself, and judges should not be interventionist in this regard; the existence of this sliding-scale of de facto assumptions also means we can have debates about metaphysics, art, individuals or anything else without any additional problem.

Daniel cites the ‘rule of law’ and ‘democracy’ as examples of the ‘public reason’ premises he claims we presume in parliamentary debate. Transparently, however, these are both values which debates do question. We have all done debates about whether democracy is the best form of government in setting X or Y. Equally, at this year’s EUDC (2011) the motion ‘THB hacking is an acceptable form of protest against large companies’ questioned the value of the rule of law.

In other debates, teams may well choose not to say ‘aha, but why is the rule of law good’ because it is generally quite a difficult challenge to sustain unless you devote your case to it. By contrast, in the hacking debate, where there was a need to challenge the rule of law, and time to develop a whole case in favour of this challenge, these values clearly weren’t taken as presumed. (And nor would it be balanced to presume against them as a judge.) Instead, debaters tend to operate from other coordinates, which may emerge as consensus – perhaps ‘death is bad’ or ‘welfare is good’ (it is very rare that nothing is in common between the teams).

Debates do not rely, then on some abstract notion of ‘the’ political community. Rather, they form their own parameters of assumption based on what the issue is, on a multidimensional sliding scale. We’ll normally assume capitalism’s broadly acceptable, but not in a debate about abolishing it. In this context, it would be misguided to say that our (unitary) idea of the political community rules out metaphysical questions. Rather, a debate like ‘THBT God Exists’ is one in which we simply strip back our coordinates a bit further. Rather than ‘a secular science-oriented understanding of the world is right’, we possibly need to start with that question up for grabs too, and make arguments without that presumption and ask opp to justify this hidden premise if they invoke it.

We don’t need public reason from outside the debate. We create a context out of what genuinely goes uncontested. To rule out anything that *is* contested in the debate is to say, as a judge, that you think something a debater clearly thinks is contestable is *so* obviously wrong that you won’t consider it. At that stage, you just stopped judging. This, combined with my first objection, leads me towards a firm rejection that some notion of a unitary ‘political rationality’ consensus is legitimate, helpful or needed in debating.

iii) Policy Implications and Empirical Verifiability

Unsurprisingly, having differed from aspects of Daniel’s reasoning, I disagree with his two conclusions.
The first is that things ought to be of significance to a ‘political’ community. I’m simply not sure why this should be true. Given that we agree that other questions are also ‘interesting’, it is unclear what it is about ‘political’ questions, as opposed to others, that makes them worthy of discussion. Were I to critique this language, I’d suggest that ‘political’ is a fairly ideologically-loaded term that retrenches the influence of traditional in-groups. (Naturally, I do not suggest Daniel intends this, just that this may be encoded into language-categories we all use.)

I’m unsure why we need things to reach policy outcomes to be worth discussing. Being interesting and fun seems good enough to me. It isn’t like any of our policy outcomes are in any way relevant to the world, so we might as well do whatever is most interesting. Naturally, there are clearly people who didn’t find this interesting – but I’d affirm this should be our criterion, not policy relevance. If we must aim for relevance to action, then whether, for instance, God exists, is highly relevant to how we should act. Actions by individuals are still actions.

The second conclusion reached is that arguments should be verifiable, with overtones of empirics. I am equally unsure why empirical observation is so prioritised, particularly as it is one of the types of reasoning debating is *worst* at – we are great at hypothetical or abstract reasoning, but show us 16 RCTs and a Cochrane Review and we aren’t really sure what to do with them. I also don’t think that only observable things can be accessible to others – why can’t things I reason to exist be accessible in the same way, providing my argument is good. Note also that accepting this claim would mean that we couldn’t do debates about whether something is right or wrong, which I think would also be a loss.

All this means that I think we need to be very careful before declaring categories of debate out-of-play: there’s only so far we get by discussing the rights of group X and the impact on the children of group Y and the reaction of country Z. There’s a lot more out there to talk about, much of which is, there is broad agreement, interesting. Given that there are not intrinsic problems with reasoning here that are not equally present in all other forms of reasoning (particularly as all recourses to this sort of reasoning anyway), it seems reasonable to broaden our horizons a little, even if there are some – to borrow a policy-focussed phrase – transaction costs.

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Bionda Merckens contributor

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James DixonGeplaatst op12:36 pm - aug 29, 2011

I concur, II) especially.

“except in the final of the Cambridge IV with Durham ahead of you in 1st Gov; still thanks for that one, guys” double concur.

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