Rebecca Coulson is a freelance classical musician and writer, and was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
As the daughter of professional philosophers, it’s unsurprising that arguing is pretty much my favourite thing: growing up, it was the family business. Can I call it that? Maybe it sounds as if we were unhappy, which we weren’t. Or as if I’m suggesting this makes me good at arguing, which I’m not (although perhaps I think I am).
The arguing I like doesn’t aim to demean. It is considered, though it’s certainly not bland or organised along the lines of ‘calm down guys, you know we each get thirty seconds and an official rebuttal’. I also endlessly argue sides I don’t believe in, purely for the sake of it. I do this even when I don’t really want to — particularly with the people I’m closest to. (Are there any left…?) This kind of arguing isn’t necessarily about convincing someone that something is ‘right’, in a deeper sense (we’ll come to that soon). Rather, it’s to persuade them that what you’re saying is consistent and justified, and, therefore, ideally stronger than their response.
Ok, ok, that’s all very nice. But what about the arguments that matter most to us? The arguments we feel we need to win for the sake of something greater than personal satisfaction. On referendum day, one of my best friends said to me, ‘But I’ve never felt so strongly about anything before!’ Yet strength of feeling does not equate to strength of argument: feeling strongly about something doesn’t make it (or you) inherently ‘right’, ‘correct’, or even consistent. And — alongside accepting that people you dislike might support ‘your’ answer to a binary question, for varying unjustifiable reasons you disdain — an essential part of making your own decisions is realising that people you respect and love are fallible. That, as well as having different priorities from you, they can be wrong.
But what is this ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? And what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’? Now, we’re not just talking about having the better argument: we’re implying something could be objectively true, outside our ability to argue for or against it. And that’s problematic.
Sure, certain questions we want to assess are factual, and have ‘correct’ answers. In the past, we could’ve had a nice pub argument about the capital of South Africa (I know, I know), or the highest-scoring test cricketer (I might’ve disappeared to the bar at that point). Yes, most of us agree that there are such things as correct answers to those kinds of question, and, today, a glance at an iPhone helps us conclude what they are.
Addressing whether something is ‘right’, however, seems to pose a deeper, moral, question. Is it ever, say, ‘right’ to kill someone? Well, unlike many people (please convince me that my generalisation is unfair), I do believe in objective moral truths. I think things can be objectively right and wrong in that sense, though I’m aware how hard it is to explain why this is. And it’s vital to add that this isn’t the same as claiming to know what fits into those terms. Rather, it gives you targets to aim for — by contemplating, listening to opposing opinions, and continually justifying your current view.
Finally, what if we were asking ‘what should we do’ in a certain situation, as in, say, the randomly-generated question: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’
Surely, that would call for a mixture of the factual ‘what is correct?’ approach (in terms of basing your answer on evidence about the situation, albeit in a partly speculative way, here), and the approach of considering what might be right or wrong, in a moral sense (‘should’ being the key word). For instance, you could have a strong argument based on principle, but think that implementing it — taking precedence into account — seemed likely to bring about some undesirable economic or social results. Then, you would have to decide whether applying your principle was still justifiable; pragmatism can’t always trump principle, even in practical politics.
Coming to consensus about an argument that’s based on principle is easy, as long as we agree on that principle (not at all a given). Arguments based on a mixture of principles and empirical considerations (and predictions) are much harder to evaluate — as an individual, never mind a group. Therefore, it’s difficult to see how there could be a single collective correct or right answer to this kind of question.
None of this is an argument for not having asked the question, or for not accepting the conclusion reached. (Or, indeed, for either side.) It’s simply to make the point that anyone claiming that this stuff is simple has not thought about it sufficiently.
I was concerned that this column might seem didactic and unnecessary: ‘Isn’t it all a bit obvious, Rebecca?’ Or, that it might seem an irrelevant rant about something unimportant at a volatile moment. Actually, I hope the former fear is warranted, because I worry my favourite pastime is becoming increasingly misunderstood and unpopular.
This can be blamed — in part — on an increase in relativism: it’s hard to argue with people who think that truths are dependent on place or time. It’s also hard, however, to argue with those who only want to talk to you if you already agree with them — maybe even deeming you a bad person for daring to suggest they might be wrong. And it’s harder still to argue with that strange yet increasing (again, please contradict me) set who seem to fit into both of those categories. Consistency is the least of their problems.
I worry about this. I worry about it a lot. But do I? Do I really? Does it matter that much? And am I just over-generalising? Yes, yes it does matter. And no, no I don’t think I am.