Debating etiquette, part 4: Presuppositions

Several months ago, I published three posts on debating etiquette. The most recent one was published on July 4, so I think a recap is in order:

  • Introduction — Debating etiquette serves two purposes: it minimizes unnecessary offence and it improves the quality of a debate. Skilled debaters can tackle complex and emotionally-loaded issues constructively, and make incremental progress toward Truth.

    The series is not primarily about improving your debating technique. I refer instead to etiquette:  I aim to encourage people to be respectful and considerate in debate.

  • Part 1:  Assertions — There can be no debate without an assertion (more formally known as a proposition). If you want to improve your debating skills, begin here:  be precise in wording your assertions and reduce them to their essence before setting out to defend them.
  • Part 2:  Diversionary tactics — If your goal is to win the debate, diversionary tactics are your friend. But if your goal is to discover Truth — which I hope is your goal! — diversionary tactics are an obstruction to be avoided.

    The post provided a very basic introduction to logical fallacies. Whether they are introduced deliberately or they arise in ignorance, logical fallacies divert the course of an argument in a direction which hinders our pursuit of Truth.

  • Part 3:  Arguments — Assertions are important, but a series of assertions and counter-assertions is not sufficient in itself to constitute a debate. Assertions (opinions) have to be supported by the evidence. This is where arguments come into play. An argument appeals to objective facts, then proceeds to make rational deductions from the facts, in a methodical attempt to substantiate an assertion.

    The post focused specifically on the use of analogies to support an assertion. Analogies can be very illuminating, but only if they actually speak to the point at issue. What seems like a perfect analogy to me may be rejected as spurious by someone else.

From the beginning of the series, I envisioned four parts. I haven’t posted part 4 until now because I was waiting for the right illustrative material to come along.

I’m glad I waited, because the perfect material is now available. Here is the final installment in the series — Debating etiquette, part 4:  Presuppositions.


The USA has just suffered through two very destructive hurricanes, Katrina and Rita. Inevitably, people are asking why it happened.

It is my firm conviction that Why? is an unanswerable question. But many people think they know the answer, and they have not hesitated to share their answers with us.

What interests (and amuses) me is this:  their answers are entirely determined by the presuppositions they bring to bear on the issue. One explanation contradicts another, because they are derived from incompatible worldviews.

The point can be illustrated from today’s Ottawa Citizen. As Joel Kom reports, many Americans believe the two hurricanes were sent by God to punish the nation for its sins:

As a city known for gambling, drinking, drugs, sex, parties and other things sinful, New Orleans’ fate is similar to Sodom and Gomorrha, two biblical cities of sin that were destroyed by God. It’s no coincidence, some argue, that Katrina hit just a few days before the launch of the Southern Decadence festival, one of the biggest gay gatherings in the world.

The festival “has been cleansed,” says Pastor Bill Shanks of the New Covenant Fellowship in New Orleans.

“There’s no murder in our city now, that’s been cleansed. Drugs, murders, we don’t have that stuff anymore.”

Pastor Shanks says the city was due for what he termed “God’s judgment.”

But how could Rita’s targeting of Texas, a state known for a devout Christian population, be explained?

Steve Lefemine, director of Columbia Christians for Life, an anti-abortion ministry based in Columbia, South Carolina, points out that Texas has the fourth-highest abortion rate among U.S. states. New Orleans, he adds, had six abortion clinics in the area.

To emphasize his belief that abortions led to the hurricanes’ landings, Mr. Lefemine posted a message on his ministry’s website comparing an image of Katrina on weather radar to a picture of a fetus.

No matter what the facts may be, they will always be interpreted in accordance with our presuppositions. Why would God destroy New Orleans? That’s easy! — the residents of the city were depraved. But why, then, would God smite Texas, which is heavily populated by evangelical Christians? Because of its many abortion clinics, of course!

It is impossible to falsify a cherished presupposition.

Let’s move on to another illustration. A second contentious issue was debated in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when New Orleans descended into anarchy. Again, people asked Why? And again, their answers were determined by their presuppositions.

In this case, your answer may hinge on what you think of the “welfare state”. Suppose you are left-leaning. You think the welfare state is good, and the American every-man-for-himself ideal is bad. If those are your thoughts, you will agree with Doug Saunders‘ analysis. Mr. Saunders observes that Americans have

a shared belief that individual hard work, good luck and God’s grace will bring a person out of poverty and into prosperity. But those very qualities can destroy the safety net of mutual support that might otherwise help people in an emergency.

“Fear itself motivates people in the U.S. — the fear that you could lose everything,” said organizational psychologist Cary Cooper in an interview from his office at the University of Lancaster. “That creates the best in American society, the inventiveness, but the moment the net is pulled out, it becomes a terrible jungle.” …

Historians point to a constant threat of self-destructive breakdowns that seem to dot U.S. history, belying the thin veneer of civility that sits between entrepreneurial prosperity and mass chaos. The individualistic, egalitarian, anti-authoritarian values that have made the United States succeed have always been accompanied by an every-man-for-himself ethos that can destroy the system itself.

Well, that’s one perspective. But perhaps you are right-leaning in your views, and you think the welfare state is a disastrous idea. In that case, you would agree with Robert Tracinski. He noticed that the problems occurred in a community of public housing projects:

When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. … So what explains the chaos in New Orleans? …

75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of those who remained, a large number were from the city’s public housing projects. …

There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit — but they were trapped alongside … wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep …

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider “normal” behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don’t sit around and complain that the government hasn’t taken care of them. And they don’t use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.

Like the fundamentalists whose point of view we considered earlier, Mr. Tracinski blames the victims. Why did the city of New Orleans descend into anarchy? Not because the people had lost everything — loved ones, homes, jobs, etc. And not because the infrastructure that sustains all of us in a modern civilization was utterly destroyed. And not because the various levels of government had apparently abandoned them to their fate.

No, the city descended into anarchy because people who live in public housing have no values; because people like them are “selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness.”

Yeah, right.

It fascinates me that Mr. Saunders and Mr. Tracinski are both so sure of themselves — and yet their views are utterly contradictory! Each writer knows that his analysis is sound. And it is — but only if his presuppositions are taken for granted and we reason from that starting point.

Briefly, one more related issue:  the inexcusably slow relief effort in New Orleans. Again, people asked Why?; and again, their answers were determined by their prior commitments. The Economist observed:

Pundits explained the government’s failure in every way they pleased. Anti-war types blamed Iraq, particularly the fact that thousands of National Guard troops had been sent there. Environmental types blamed Mr Bush’s lackadaisical attitude to wetlands. Many Democrats saw it as proof that Mr Bush and the Republicans cared nothing for America’s poor and black.

For every set of presuppositions, there is a corresponding theory:  fundamentalist, left wing, right wing, anti-Iraq-war, environmentalist, partisan Democrat, etc., etc., ad infinitum. Political convictions, like religious convictions, can engender certainty where a little agnosticism would serve us better.

What shall we conclude from the above data?:

  1. It is easy to align the facts with your presuppositions and spin an elaborate theory. People think they’re clever when they do it, but it’s no more impressive than water flowing downhill. If you want to prove that you’re clever, demonstrate that you can view the world sympathetically from someone else’s vantage point.
  2. We need to be aware of our own presuppositions, and how they prejudice our conclusions. Too often, we think we have put forward a solid argument, but the foundation on which the argument rests is terribly shaky.
  3. We need to be patient with those who analyze the same data and reach wildly different conclusions. Too often, we think people are just being pig-headed when they fail to worship at the altar of our arguments. But the other person’s position may be entirely valid, given his presuppositions. Since he is sincerely trying to be reasonable, we should not assume he is a jerk.
  4. We obviously need to take the debate back one giant step — back to the arena of presuppositions, where our conclusions were already determined before we began to reason.

If we are honest with ourselves, we will soon discover that our presuppositions are very difficult to prove. The other person will fare no better, and the agenda may have to shift.

Instead of beating one another over the head with our respective arguments, we may set out on a voyage of mutual discovery. Ultimately we may even experience the thrill of a paradigm shift — a very great and unsettling experience indeed!

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9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. 49erDweet
    Sep 26, 2005 @ 11:19:00

    Well said.

    Reply

  2. The Misanthrope
    Sep 26, 2005 @ 11:35:00

    I find debating with people who will acknowledge facts to be an enjoyable and enlightening experience. Unfortunately, people view disagreement as an attack on their intelligence.

    As a non sequitur, I find that people don’t like to play chess for the same reason, that they think losses shows a lack of intelligence.

    Reply

  3. Mrs.Aginoth
    Sep 26, 2005 @ 14:17:00

    nicely explained, but even knowing this, presuppositions are difficult to ignore. The most tolerant & experienced debater will still bring their own beliefs with them, and will be predisposed to agree with the agument that supports their beliefs.

    Generally, I think its been a good debate if people leave acknowledging that there are arguents for the other view, and even better if they acknowledge that some of those aguments may have some factual/truthful basis.

    Reply

  4. Q
    Sep 26, 2005 @ 14:44:00

    • 49er:
    Thanks.

    • Misanthrope:
    You said something profound there — people view disagreement as an attack on their intelligence.

    Hence the defensiveness some people show when you disagree with them. Thanks for offering that insight.

    • Mrs. Aginoth:
    When you write, presuppositions are difficult to ignore, I think you mean it is difficult to ignore our own presuppositions. I certainly am not suggesting that we ignore the other person’s presuppositions; on the contrary, we need to be aware of them and perhaps shift the center of the debate to those presuppositions.

    You’re right, it is difficult to set our own presuppositions aside. Many academics do not believe it is possible to do so. They believe objectivity is an unattainable ideal: scientists don’t attain it, nor journalists, nor two mates talking politics over a pint. You’re right, we always bring our own beliefs to bear on a subject.

    I agree with your description of what constitutes a good debate. And, for me, that’s also an apt description of a fun debate. I get a thrill out of being exposed to an unfamiliar way of looking at an issue. If it’s very different than my own, I may have difficulty understanding it or viewing it sympathetically.

    But if I can get there, it’s so much fun! It’s delightful to see a familiar issue in a fresh light.
    Q

    Reply

  5. Aginoth
    Sep 27, 2005 @ 03:11:00

    I’ve always enjoyed a Good debate, sometimes even a bad arguement.

    Have to agree with My better half there. Well we’re married it’s compulsary ;o) just kidding dear.

    The problem I find with a lot of people is their inabilty to sympathise with anothers opposing view tends to stifle their ability to perform in a reasoned debate and support their own position.

    Reply

  6. snaars
    Sep 27, 2005 @ 10:07:00

    In science, experiments are often expressly designed as attempts to disconfirm, rather than confirm, some theory. This is because, used as tools in the search for truth, disconfirming evidence is usually more powerful than confirming evidence.

    We tend to seek out the evidence that confirms our presuppositions, while we explain away evidence that contradicts our presuppositions. Logically, this approach makes no sense, but it seems to be part of our human nature, and conscious effort is required to overcome it.

    Reply

  7. Q
    Sep 27, 2005 @ 11:14:00

    Lots of wisdom emerging here —

    • Aginoth:
    You raise an important point. Until we have an adequate understanding of the other person’s point of view, we aren’t really responding to it, but to some straw man of our own creation. Therefore, whatever we say misses the mark, and doesn’t really further our joint progress toward Truth.

    • Snaars:
    I was hoping you’d weigh in, since you were already part of the dialogue ‘way back on the first debating etiquette installment.

    Your comment is so helpful I wish I had thought of it myself, and included it in the post! We naturally seek out (consciously or unconsciously) evidence that confirms our point of view. Scientists, however, propose a hypothesis then set out to falsify — not prove — it.

    It sounds like mere semantics, but it isn’t. The change in orientation has huge consequences.

    I first came across the Tracinski article on a blog where it was commended as a sound interpretation. What Tracinski says is so offensive to me, I’m afraid I left an uncharacteristically heated comment on the blog. But the blogger didn’t recognize how appalling the article was, undoubtedly because it confirmed his thumbs down on the welfare state presupposition.
    Q

    Reply

  8. Candace
    Oct 01, 2005 @ 16:31:00

    What a fascinating post. I’ll have to hunt down the other 3.

    Reply

  9. Q
    Oct 03, 2005 @ 08:54:00

    Thanks, Candace, I didn’t know you were still reading me! I’m glad you found the post informative.
    Q

    Reply

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