Don’t ever say “you always want to be right.” It’s not an argument

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My mother and I did not have the best of relationships. To put it mildly. It took me a long, long time to come to terms with the fact that she abandoned my brother and I to our (very lovely) grandparents after she and my father divorced. Indeed, it was only in the last period before she died that things improved a bit, in no small measure because of my Stoic practice and the acceptance of others that comes with it.

But this essay isn’t about that. It’s about a tactic that my mother invariably deployed near the end of our discussions, and that recently another of my relatives, as well as two of my close friends, have also thrown at me. When my mother ran out of arguments, she would close the conversation with something along the lines of “Massimo, you always want to be right.”

I pointed out to her that, as far as I could see, she wanted to be right at least as many times as I did. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be engaging in discussions in the first place! I learned later — from Socrates — that the point of conversations shouldn’t be to show that one is right, or even to convince one’s interlocutor of something or other. The point should be to learn more about one’s own thoughts — as they are challenged by the other person — and return the favor by nudging whoever we are having a discussion with to perhaps examine her own positions.

But that’s a high standard that I still fail to apply consistently. Still, the point is that ending a conversation with “you always want to be right” does absolutely nothing, other than probably piss off whoever you are talking to. And why on earth would you want to do that? It is also, I think, an implicit admission that you have, in fact, run out of arguments. If so, perhaps a better way to disengage might be something along the lines of “okay, let me think about this and we’ll revisit the issue.”

(Some people use the phrase “let’s agree to disagree.” In my mind that’s not much better than “you always want to be right!” because the implication — usually by way of one’s tone — is that the other guy is hopeless, so the best you can do is to walk away. But I could be too pessimistic here.)

Indeed, one of my above mentioned friends a few days came close to admitting that he was out of arguments when he told me, “you see, you are a professional philosopher, we are not, so of course we can’t counter your arguments.”

Well, thanks for the recognition, I guess. But the same friend wants to eat his cake and have it too, as they say. While he is telling me that I’m a professional philosopher, he is also pushing back about some notions — like moral relativism vs moral naturalism — that I definitely master better than he does, precisely because I am a professional philosopher. The result is a peculiar “you are an expert, but I don’t trust experts” attitude that ironically reminds me of the very people — say antivaxxers, or climate change deniers — whom the same friend often rails against.

(When the two of us talk about his area of expertise, which includes programming and blockchain technology, I simply listen and ask questions. Because he’s the expert.)

Of course, my goal in these conversations — or in any other setting — is absolutely not to impose my views on the simple grounds of expertise. And I don’t believe for a moment that it takes a professional philosopher to engage in meaningful discussions about politics or ethics. However, if you do happen to have a professional philosopher at hand, it may be constructive to ask him to contribute to delicate or difficult aspects of the conversation. Just like if you were at dinner talking about climate change and there happened to be a climate scientist at the table, it would probably help to elicit his informed opinion. You know, treat professionals the way they are meant to be treated: as sources to improve your understanding, not as judges who deliver a verdict from above, and certainly not as a darn inconvenience because they happen to contradict your cherished notions.

So, what was our conversation about anyway? We were considering the — in my opinion — mind numbing notion that over 70 million people in the United States just voted again for Donald J. Trump. I could readily understand how he got elected the first time around. Some segment of the population were justifiably angry at having been exploited and ignored by the Democrats for many years (at least since Bill Clinton). Others didn’t really know much about Trump other than he appeared to be a successful businessman, and Americans for some unfathomable reason tend to think that the government should be run as a business.

But now, four years later? After an impeachment based on solid grounds of corruption, a behavior reliably more appropriate to a schoolyard bully than a president, the withdrawing from the Paris climate accord, the passing of yet another tax break for the uber-rich, the constant undermining of the very democratic process itself, and of course the disastrous handling of a pandemic, you would think more people would know better.

So I made the argument that voting against Trump was the moral thing to do. One of my friends then replied that she knows a few supporters of Trump, and they too think that voting for him was the moral thing to do.

Right. But now we are back to the debate about moral relativism. Either my friend was suggesting that there is no right or wrong about this issue, or she had to admit that some people make the wrong moral call. I think I have solid reasons to support the second option. And so does my friend, though she is recalcitrant to admit it.

She is as passionate about all the above mentioned issues — and more, including the looming overturning of Roe v. Wade, LGBTQ rights, and Obamacare — as I am. And when asked why she cares so much she responds with what I take to be moral arguments. Which I understand her to mean as good arguments, not just as expressions of her personal preferences.

Let’s take a specific example to fix our ideas. Consider the debate about abortion. On the one side you have pro-life people who think that fetuses are persons, and that abortion is, therefore, a kind of murder. On the other side, there are pro-choice advocates who reject the notion that fetuses are persons and who think that a woman should have the right to control her own body.

Both sides think — correctly — that they are taking a moral stand. Both sides think — incorrectly — that they have good arguments to back up their preferred moral stand.

Ah, Massimo, but isn’t this yet another example where you just want to be right? Those other people also think they are right, so what makes you so cocky about your own position?

The fact that my arguments or, rather, the arguments advanced by my side, truly are better, in terms of both facts and logic. That the other side disagrees is irrelevant. They are still wrong.

Here is an analogy articulated by the early second century Stoic philosopher Epictetus:

Let’s break this down a bit. First off, in logic a “conjunctive” is a situation where:

A and B is true only if
A is true
and B is true

So, for instance, let A be “Massimo likes figs” and B be “Massimo likes grapes.”

The proposition “Massimo likes figs and grapes” — the conjunctive — is true if, and only if, both A and B are true. If instead either one is false, then the conjunctive is false.

What Epictetus is saying is that when people criticize you for the wrong reasons, they’re making a mistake in reasoning. It’s analogous to declaring a true conjunctive to be false. So, the problem isn’t with the conjunctive, or with you, but rather with those who make the mistake.

Of course, we should remember also that some conjunctives are indeed false. Analogously, sometimes people will criticize you for the right reasons, in which case you should pay attention and learn rather than get mad.

Ethical arguments — such as those about abortion — work very much in the same fashion as Epictetus’ example. They can be formalized in a similar fashion, with premises and conclusions. For instance:

P1: Fetuses are persons
P2: Killing persons without good reasons is murder
P3: Murder is immoral
P4: A woman’s right to her body is not a good reason for murder
C: Abortion is immoral

Now, there are two ways to impugn the conclusion of this argument, C. We can show that the argument is invalid, meaning that C does not logically follows from the premises (P1, P2, P3, and P4). Or we can reject one or more of the premises, in which case even if the argument is logically valid it will turn out to be what philosophers term unsound, because it is based on one or more false premises. For an argument to go through it has to be both valid and sound.

So far as I can see, the argument above is valid. The conclusion does logically follow from the premises. But is it sound?

I can readily agree with P2: killing persons without good reasons is indeed murder. I further agree with P3: murder is immoral. And I might even agree with P4: a woman’s right to her body is not a sufficient reason to commit murder (though some people actually disagree here).

But I reject P1: fetuses are not persons. How do I know? Well, this premise is in turn based on two assumptions to support it. First, a particular notion of personhood. There are a number of philosophically reasonable options on offer, though none that fit the typical anti-abortion stand. (Notice, of course, that people engaged in these discussions are doing philosophy, whether they realize it or not. Perhaps they could enlist the help of a professional philosopher, if one happens to be handy at their dinner conversations…)

Second, there are empirical facts that hinge on our assessment of whether fetuses are or are not persons — given a certain definition of personhood. Suppose, for instance, that we agree that a person comes into existence once the corresponding biological organism is capable of feeling pain. I don’t think so, but let that position stand for the sake of argument. Then we need to know when, approximately, this happens during the normal course of development of a human fetus. The answer to this kind of question doesn’t come from philosophy, but from science, and specifically from developmental neurobiology. Our best guess is that that threshold is reached after about three months of gestation.

It would therefore follow that — assuming a particular philosophy of personhood and the neuroscience of pain in human beings — that abortion is morally unproblematic until the end of the first trimester. After that, other considerations, philosophical arguments, and empirical facts will come into play.

None of this even remotely resembles the relativist position, which would essentially say that your own opinions about the subject matter are just as valid (in a social, not formally logical sense) as anyone else’s. And nobody, even professed relativists, really believe that to be the case. Certainly not my friends, who are both passionate about the abortion issue and, when challenged, can readily provide reasons for their position, just like I did above.

Yet relativism keeps having a magical power of attraction for so many, especially educated liberal minded folks. Why? Two of my friends told me explicitly the other night: because it’s anti-elitist. It allows one to say that the Trumpist is just as good a person and entitled to his opinions as the arrogant liberal philosopher. And I absolutely agree: a Trumpist is entitled to his opinions, because we live in a (quasi) democracy. He is also, likely, a good person. Most people are. (Indeed, for a Stoic there is no such thing as a bad person, only misguided ones).

But it doesn’t follow (ah, logic, again!) that the Trumpist’s opinion is as valid and/or sound as mine or yours. Or that of my friends. To point that out isn’t a question of “elitism,” but of reason and facts. Indeed, anti-elitism for its own sake is actually a typically American form of anti-intellectualism, as argued long ago by Richard Hofstadter in his classic, Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

It’s just a bit shocking that some of my own friends, who normally go on and on about the marvels of education, reason, critical thinking, and science, turn out to be closet anti-intellectualists.

Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

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