Bryan Caplan  

David on Debate

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Thank you, David, for your thoughts on debate.  My reply:

1. David adds a principle to my list:
Admit when you're wrong. Or, even if the person on the other side hasn't convinced you that you're wrong, but has made you have doubts, admit that you have doubts.
I fully agree.

2. David's other main observation: "Appeals to emotion can be sleazy, but they're not necessarily sleazy."

My initial reaction was to disagree, but David's presentation gave me some doubts.  On third thought, though, I stand by my original claim. 

Key point: What counts as an "appeal to emotion"?  It can't merely be any claim expected to produce a favorable emotion in the audience.  By that standard, after all, virtually every statement a debater bothers to make constitutes an appeal to emotion.  The standard meaning is much narrower.  As Wikipedia puts it:
Appeal to emotion or argumentum ad passiones is a logical fallacy characterized by the manipulation of the recipient's emotions in order to win an argument, especially in the absence of factual evidence.
The "especially in the absence of factual evidence" clause is fundamental. 

Doesn't my Haitian example still qualify?  As a moral realist who believes in moral facts, I say no.  The flip side, incidentally, is that if you're a moral anti-realist, debating morality requires logical fallacy.  But that's your problem!




COMMENTS (6 to date)
Grant Gould writes:

I think you're wrong about moral realism there. While some or all moral statements may be emotive, it is not an appeal to emotion to argue that someone ought to feel a particular way.

It is not an appeal to emotion to say "you ought to be appalled by the First World War, because many people died for unimportant purposes." Even though apalledness is an emotion, the appeal is _for_, not _to_, that emotion. Similarly even a non-moral realist can argue "you ought to morally condemn the First World War, because..." Emotive views are not some sort of cognitive _primum mobile_; they can (and typically do) still have causes. It's not any sort of fallacy to say so.

(I say this as someone who holds the weak-realist view that some but not all moral statements are falsifiable, but that the ones that are not are largely emotive declarations.)

Perhaps a good analogy is to literature. I may think that a particular book is crap (emotive, non-realist statement). A good teacher may show me aspects of the book I have not previously appreciated (factual, non-fallacious argument). I may then think that the book is actually quite good (emotive, non-realist statement). Nothing in that process required logical fallacy.

Martin writes:

Bryan,

With regards to the appeal to emotion. It is only unfair when the debate is a public one where the appeal to emotion is an appeal to the audience's emotions.

Conversely, it is completely fair to appeal to emotion when the debate is a private matter between two parties. Note that you only reach many people by first appealing to their emotional side (if it isn't clicking now, go back and check out Russ's podcast with Jonathan Haidt on the Righteous Mind). After all, not everyone is an INTP or INTJ.

Daniel Kendrick writes:

Bryan,

Michael Huemer's arguments to the contrary, I don't see how moral intuitionism is supposed to be compatible with moral realism.

If your "argument" that murder is wrong basically boils down to "yep, seems wrong to me," how do you argue that you are objectively right when confronted with someone who doesn't share the "intuition"?

Huemer's arguments in the piece you linked are very bad. In response to the argument from error theory, which says that all statements about objective moral truth are false, he essentially says, "nah, that's obviously wrong." But it isn't obviously wrong to everyone: that's the part where you're supposed to produce an argument.

Greg G writes:

I have to agree with Daniel here. Huemer ends a long logical argument with an appeal to intuition as establishing an objective truth.

This compensates with irony for what it lacks in logical rigor.

Peter Gerdes writes:

Consider any purely moral claim, e.g., it would be wrong to lie under any circumstances to save a life. Or it is possible for an action to increase utility but be morally wrong.

Unlike the Haitian example a pure moral claim can't be supported by any facts. After all (at least for the realist) pure moral claims are necessary truths (or falsehoods) independent of any contingent facts about this word.

So as long as you think we can make progress in moral discussions there must be non-sleazy appeals to emotion. After all moral sentiments are emotions and facts can't play a role.

(Yes I understand that there is some ambiguity about the use of the word fact. If fact just means something that is true then the definition from Wikipedia is pointless as being aware you experience a certain emotion is itself a fact).

Peter Gerdes writes:

@Daniel Kendrick, (and others)

Yes, there is a substantial issue for (some?) moral realists of how we have access to moral facts. Conceivably, one could say that there are objective moral facts but we have absolutely no idea what they are (maybe murder is good maybe bad). However, no one is likely to take this position since the primary motivation for believing in moral facts is the conviction that one's particular moral beliefs are (mostly) true.

However, if one accepts that we have some grip on moral truth then, since our moral judgements seem to all result from some type of intuition, it's hard not to grant that our intuitions have some relation to moral truth (in the moral case these basic intuitions also seem to be sentiments).

This is why I think moral anti-realism gets a bad wrap. It doesn't mean you don't believe in morals...just that morals aren't some invisible structure floating in Plato's heaven. Personally I simply understand the phrase `morally preferable' to mean `results in more hedonic utility.' So despite being a kind of anti-realist I very much think some things are good and others bad (well better and worse at least) and I will oppose people who act in ways that reduce utility. I will try and bring others around to my way of using moral talk. The only thing I won't do is claim that anyone who uses something in the neighborhood of moral language must all be talking about the same thing.

In other words I would say that moral realism/anti-realism is less a debate about the nature of good and evil and more a debate about the nature of language. If you think that the universe somehow intervenes and informs us that we shouldn't interpret that other culture as making true statements about shmorals (meaning moral or the outcome of trial by combat) rather than false statements about morals you are a realist. If you think that all coherent notions have equal metaphysical footing you are an anti-realist.

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