Month: January 2014

How Argumentation Has Changed

I touched on this subject a bit in my previous post, but the way that public arguments operate has largely changed in the public sphere. I think that Thomas Goodnight has an excellent explanation of how arguments have changed. He argues that there are three spheres of argumentation– the public sphere, the private sphere, and the technical sphere. The public sphere is the place where argumentation happens in public and people can discuss issues that effect everyone. The private sphere is where people can have deliberation among themselves and people they’re comfortable with, without reasons why their claims are true (for example, when your grandmother says that Obama is the devil, that is acceptable as an argument in the private sphere). The technical sphere is the sphere in which experts talk to other experts about what they are experts on– for example, when a lawyer talks to another lawyer about law, s/he is taking part in the technical sphere.

 

The problem with the way that arguments are developing is that the private and the technical sphere are both encroaching on the public sphere. I don’t think that the technical sphere’s encroachment is necessarily bad, because it results in individuals acquiring more knowledge about a range of fields, but the private sphere’s encroachment means that arguments can be defended by simply saying “well that’s just my opinion”. It has become more accepted, for example, for someone who opposes abortion to simply say “it’s just my opinion that it’s wrong” or “I was raised to believe that abortion should be illegal”. This results in partisanship and largely prevents compromise on issues, because people refuse to back down from their opinions or give warranted explanations to defend their position. For the better of society, we need to take back the public sphere and stop the private sphere from encroaching upon public deliberation.

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What is an argument?

Something that I find incredibly frustrating during a discussion is the lack of an argument that people generally have. The fact of the matter is that the general public sphere either doesn’t know what an argument is, or doesn’t decide to use a complete argument when arguing.

 

An argument is not a shouting match, or attempting to trick somebody into thinking something different, or personal attacks. An argument consists of at least one premise and a conclusion that logically follows from the premise.   A premise is something that the person presenting the argument assumes to be true (“I am a person” or “The United States of America is a country”). A conclusion is the final statement that a person has been attempting to prove (“therefore, same-sex marriage should be legal” or “therefore, the government should stop borrowing money from China”). The conclusion must logically follow from the premise, as that’s the only way to prove that the conclusion is true (“I am a person”, “therefore I am a cat” is NOT a logical argument, for example).

 

This is an important distinction to make– absent underlying premises and logic, it is impossible to argue against an argument because there are no foundations for the claim being made. It is impossible for me to dispute that it is someone’s opinion that abortion be ruled illegal in the United States, because that is in fact that person’s opinion. And just because someone holds that opinion doesn’t make it the correct policy for the United States to follow– there is not a logical reason for the government to follow one person’s opinion.

 

So let’s all try to make actual arguments when we’re deliberating within the public sphere.