Consider the following argument.
(1) If the form of morality requires never treating another agent as a mere means, then this form of morality explains the normative force of morality possesses.
(2) The form of morality requires never treating another agent as a mere means.
(3) The form of morality explains the normative force of morality possesses
Now, this is an argument that puts together the what of morality with its form. I find it simple, concise, and wonderfully elegant. Yet, I do not find the argument convincing about what the form of morality requires. We could introduce a distinction between the aesthetics of an argument from its convincingness (though some intuition in me thinks they are somewhat related). I also feel the same way about Leibniz’s rationalism and the pre-established harmony it advances. Neither position convinces me.
Many philosophers think that the love of wisdom consists merely in the assessment of arguments. Yet, this methodological commitment presupposes many things about arguments that one could call into question. An argument, for instance, is only as convincing as the person viewing it presupposes elements to it. Let’s discuss this first option.
If an argument is only as convincing as the person’s presuppositions allow, then there is nothing about the argument itself that inspires. Moreover, this option would delimit the experience of an argument’s novelty to stun us about a particular issue. Believe it or not, I have experienced some arguments in philosophy that threw me for a loop. They were rather convincing and they invited me to think about accepting them even if I later rejected the conclusion they offered. Don Marquis’s argument against abortion is particularly clever, and for several days I had to think about exactly how to understand what he meant by the term “future-like-ours.” In that argument, I struggled with two observations about abortion. Autonomy considerations for the permissibility of abortion always transform the practice of an abortion into something morally neutral like receiving a haircut, and anti-abortionists always regard the fetus as a person. Both the person and moral neutrality are excessively interested presuppositions in that debate that both sides require. Don Marquis’s argument seemed to sneak around the excessive posturing of both positions and capable of extreme epistemic humility.
So, it would seem that arguments can be pedagogical and incite reflection in us about our own beliefs. I do not think this to be simply a feature of moral arguments. Yet, if arguments incite reflection, then there must be something about arguments that produce that function in me. However, as a profession, philosophers endorse a variety of positions and present arguments over a spectrum of issues. The massive disagreement between philosophers, then, causes suspicion about argumentation as a practice given that the content of them is “all over the place.” Worse yet, when teaching the history of philosophy, students often walk away with the impression that an argument can be made for any conclusion despite the pedagogical goal of philosophy to seek out the best arguments. In fact, in my own teaching, I always try to make my students feel that just because you can argue any conclusion does not mean that we should. Instead, we should be concerned about the truth in a particular discourse. Moreover, the rhetorical trick of many philosophers is to say that the conclusion is the “inference-to-best-explanation”. The claim is implicit. “This is the best argument of all of the different arguments in this debate.”
Hence, I want to ask if there is a middle way between what arguments do from the convincingness proponents of an argument say we should observe in them. In addition, the answers of formal validity and soundness are not the issue here. Repeating the formal elements of argumentation only restates the problem of argumentative practice. I am wondering about what we might call the practice of argumentation in the profession. We all advance particular conclusions. In my own philosophy, I argue that an ontology of value should be rooted in phenomenological experience. I even wrote my dissertation on this issue. However, the argument I advanced presupposes many things. For example, values are experienced in intentional feeling, and we participate in these feelings to such an extent that values are felt. From their issuance in feeling, values acquire a sense of the real unlike analytic versions of moral realism. Schafer-Landau, however, argues for a different version of moral realism, which among many things thinks of moral judgments as true. They are true in the sense that they correspond to a mind-independent moral reality independent of feeling. As you can see, every argument takes place in the background of a larger debate with a particular trajectory and history.
Let me try to put this together.
1. Arguments incite reflection only when we approach a discourse with epistemic humility.
Perhaps, an argument is only potentially convincing proportionate to the amount of epistemic humility we have for an issue. For instance, I am rather open in areas where I know less than I want to know. For the last year and a half, I have been reading William James vigorously. At the beginning of that exploration, I approached Richard Gale and Wesley Cooper as potentially convincing about interpreting James’s ethical thought. Now, I see that imposing analytic ethics and metaethics onto James without historically contextualizing his texts is a reason not to be convinced by them. Both Cooper and Gale are not interested in reading James to get to know what he is thinking,but they are more interested in passing off their 20th century vocabulary without penetrating the debates that animated James at the time he was writing. These efforts cause a tension between the spirit of James’s texts and how they understand and render James’s thought. I did not have this presupposition at the beginning, but I soon became aware of this “interpretive pull” in my reading of James over the year.
2. Arguments take place in a hermeneutic horizon.
As I became closed to the various analytic engagement with James, I found Bruce Wilshire’s book linking phenomenology to his Principles of Psychology a refreshing engagement. Moreover, Wilshire dealt with texts in a very hermeneutically-friendly way that I found convincing. Now, I should be transparent. I am trained historically and hermeneutically. Engaging in James in such a radically counter way to my norm elicited my “pre-judgments” (to put it in a very Gadamerian way). Yet, now the question facing us is rather stark. Was I epistemically open as I claimed? Are any of us (philosophers or those aspiring to be) ever really capable of epistemic humility? If we are not, then there may be one final way to decide about the convincingness of arguments.
Philosophical arguments may explain the best reasons for a position if we were to take up that position and convincingness follows from this observation. In such a reading, the argument doesn’t offer convincing reasons to adopt it from a general point of view, but only the argument stipulate reasons if we were to take it up. Let me make an analogy to chess. A particular argument has an appeal that pulls people to play chess. Another argument has the appeal for others to play monopoly. Yet, there is no appeal general appeal of game playing. Some people just find monopoly better to play than chess and vice versa.
I think this last position falls short. Certainly, we can admit the hypothetical element in self-reflection about an argument without thinking that the sole function of an argument is to convince other like-minded people. If arguments only worked on other like-minded people, then their function could only be gauged by like-minded people. Philosophical arguments always attempt to reach others beyond those that find them convincing–even if it is not likely to ever do so. The attempt is still made.