The Impoverishment of our Discourse (Part II: Cures)

In my last post I analysed some of the phenomena associated with, and reasons for, a current crisis in our discourse. Increasingly, dialogue and healthy debate is being replaced with invective and polemics. People not only disagree about fundamental matters, they no longer understand how any reasonable person could hold positions radically opposed to their own. In this situation disagreement cannot be intelligently addressed. The one who disagrees is not just in error but wilfully obstinate, unamenable to persuasion. The only solution to such disputes is recourse to law or violence: in short, to force. Accordingly, in this post I would like to suggest three priorities that can help inoculate us against the increasing polarization of our discourse. Each of these has to do with elementary critical thinking, but each is easy to forget in the heat of a passionate dispute.
1. Seek truth before usefulness
The most notable characteristic of the polemicist is his or her disregard for truth. Here I don’t have in mind any technical philosophical notion of truth, but merely that of common sense. Neither am I particularly concerned to show how we know we have found the truth. That is something to be determined by the subject matter and the methods of the appropriate discipline’s inquiry. Rather, I am concerned with the intention of the inquirer. When we enter a discussion on something important we may have two very different attitudes. The person whose priority is truth is concerned to figure out what the hell is going on in the matter under discussion. The person who is only concerned with how he or she might use information or aspects of the discussion to further his or her own interests is not concerned to find the truth, but to use whatever appears to be the case to further a cause. To such a person, every fact, every turn of logic is assessed and brought to bear to further one’s own interests or those of one’s ‘team’.
If we are to get beyond the polarization that plagues us today the first task is to purify our intentions in order to seek what is true before what is useful. As the great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain liked to point out, “We do not need a truth to serve us, we need a truth that we can serve.”

This is not to take on an idealistic altruism that ignores one’s own best interests. It is just to say questions of interest and benefit need to arise only after we have determined what is relevant, what the significance of various factors is, and what we take to be true. If each interlocutor begins from what is in his or her interest, and evaluates the truth of what is under discussion only in light of those pragmatic concerns, we can scarcely be surprised if intractable conflict results. The very fact that our interests are not aligned will inevitably lead to unmanageable disagreement, an all too familiar phenomenon.
2. Criticize oneself before others
Whenever we engage a contentious topic it is prudent to begin with a deep and critical examination of our own presuppositions, biases, and convictions. The medieval method of disputation is a model of this. This approach is exemplified in a work like Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, in which the treatment of every question begins with a list of objections that argue against the position that Aquinas prefers.


Every position adopted by reasonable people has its strengths and weaknesses and we do well to try to carry out an honest appraisal of them. Likewise we need to extend this critique to the positions of others who agree with the positions that we reach. All too often people assume that a person’s argument makes sense because the conclusion agrees with their own prejudices. Likewise, it is easy to take for granted than an opponent’s reasoning is faulty just because they have a view we find untenable. Yet, it is obvious that one can find fault with the cogency of someone’s reasons for believing a claim that one actually agrees with. I once had an unfortunate student who on a philosophy exam wrote that St. Thomas Aquinas was an atheist since he rejected St. Anselm’s argument for God’s existence. This would be an odd saint indeed! Of course, the reality was that Aquinas rejected the coherence of Anselm’s reasons, not the truth of his conclusion. To this student, it was simply inconceivable to agree with a person’s conclusion without lining up behind the reasons presented for it.

Science has taught us the existence of confirmation bias. If we expect to find a certain result, we tend to unconsciously interpret the evidence in a manner that supports our expectation. We can guard against this by attempting to apply the same rigor to the reasoning of our friends as we do to those who disagree with us. Until we know the weaknesses of our own position we have no business lecturing others on the limitations of theirs.


Here the motto of the University of Alberta Quaecumque Vera “Whatsoever things are true”, itself a reference to Philipians 4:8 is instructive of the attitude that we ought to have. Our concern should be whether what is said is true, not who happened to say it. This entails that even those we disagree with most passionately may also take on the role of teachers from whom we would do well to learn from time to time. The Church Father Justin Martyr famously made this point surveying conflicting schools of ancient philosophy he found that each had some aspect of the truth. In view of this he argued that Christians should accept everything that is true, regardless of the source. This is undoubtedly a good practice, for anyone who sincerely inquires will be right at least some of the time, and those who differ from us the most are likely to discover things to which our own presumptions often blind us.

3. Evaluate reasons before conclusions
The greatest cause of polemics is the tendency to stop thinking once we have established that our interlocutor agrees or disagrees with our conclusions. If I am pro-life it would seem all I need to know is that the one I am engaging is pro-choice to know that we are going to disagree and vice versa. However, as any credible professor who has graded argumentative essays knows, a person’s reasons are usually far more important than his or her conclusions. As we have seen one can certainly hold a true conclusion for illegitimate and irresponsible reasons. Likewise, one may be led to hold a false position for perfectly understandable reasons. Accordingly, it is critical to avoid rejecting a person simply because they disagree, or worse yet because they are on another ‘team’. We have to look at why he or she disagrees. Perhaps if we had the information or experiences that he or she does we would feel the same way?

As philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre has eloquently shown, the underlying obstacle in this effort is the deeply ingrained emotivism prevalent in our culture. Emotivism is a moral theory that holds that moral judgments and reasons for acting are really just expressions of feelings. On this view, to say that a kind of action is right or wrong is not a statement of fact that can be good or bad, but a statement of one’s preference. To say ‘stealing is wrong’ is not to make some statement of fact, but simply to express your moral sentiments about stealing. It is the logical equivalent of howling “Down with stealing!” If true, this theory would explain why moral arguments are intractable, for there would simply be competing sentiments. In a similar way, I might say “Chocolate ice cream is the best”, and it sounds as if I am making a factual statement that should be true or false.
However, if someone inexplicably replies “You’re crazy clearly strawberry is the best,” we obviously have no way to resolve the dispute. This is because when I call chocolate the best, all I mean is that I like it the most. Those who have different preferences will clearly disagree and there is nothing that can be done about that.


For Emotivism arguing whether a theft was justified or not is merely expressing an emotional feeling about the matter. However, if this is true, one’s reasons for acting in this or that way become irrelevant and it becomes impossible to subject them to criticism. We can only point out that we don’t like them or that they are inconvenient. This theory presents a serious problem when it comes to moral and social discourse, for if my moral and political positions are merely sentimental preferences, there is no way of arbitrating between them. The only mode of resolution left to us is force, whether that of law or of violence.

Furthermore emotivism twists the meaning of ordinary moral discourse beyond recognition. Quite clearly the person who says “rape is wrong” does not merely intend to convey a personal distaste for rape, the way one might turn one’s nose up at the thought of wearing an unfashionable outfit. Surely, he or she intends to signify that the action is always wrong irrespective of the circumstances or the feelings of anyone in particular.  Likewise, if I say “The holocaust was a horrific injustice”, I’m not just expressing my emotions about this, I expect others to recognize this as a fact, and would find someone who did not either blameworthy or inexcusably ignorant.  Moreover, as MacIntyre has argued at length the mere fact that I have a desire to do something is never a sufficient reason to think that the action should be done or that it is morally praiseworthy, for the fact that I have this desire calls for an explanation. Clearly, there are reasons why I find this course of action desirable, and those reasons may be good ones or poor ones. To simply say I am doing it because I want to is to cut short the inquiry and obscure the real reasons motivating my actions.

The polemics of our contemporary discourse shows no signs of abating any time soon. I am not so naïve as to think it can be subverted easily. In all likelihood the person who practices these priorities will merely provide new occasions for ridicule to those they dispute. However, the human person seems designed to inquire and seek after the truth. A broad view of history shows that while demagogues arise, they do not tend to last. Other cultures have opted for ridicule and Machiavellianism for a time, but sooner or later they tend to wither and die.  In itself this is reason to hope that saner minds will eventually prevail.


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