"Sorting Things Out"
He who establishes his argument by noise and confusion shows that his reason is weak.
We live in a storm of disagreement. On TV, in the newspapers, at public meetings, in private bull sessions, contrary opinions clash continuously.
What are we to make of all this? Does one side make more sense than the other? Of course, everyone has the "right" to an opinion, so we say. But what about developing informed opinion worthy of an educated person? That is what this book is about.
Analyzing disagreements can seem complex. But there is a way of organizing the analysis that makes things more manageable. Divide your considerations into:
Let's briefly preview each.
Do not assume that because those arguing a controversial issues use the same words, they mean the same things. Opponents might assign different meanings to key terms. Consider people arguing whether the law is soft on criminals. Focusing on language suggests the following questions:
* What do they mean by "the law?" Is one referring to the criminal code while another means the judiciary, the police, or something else?
* What do they mean by "soft?" Does one mean agreeing to provide prisoners with special diets or weight lifting facilities? Is the other thinking that it is "soft" to give convicts early parole for good behavior?
* What do they mean by "criminals"? Is one talking about convicted felons, while the other also includes persons accused but not convicted?
When disputants do not specifically say what they think terms mean, lack of common definitions can be difficult to detect -- even by the disputants themselves. But we sometimes can uncover this kind of disagreement by looking carefully at how each antagonist uses the terms. In any case, though, unless there is mutual agreement on the meaning of key terms, it is unlikely the dispute will be resolved. Why? Because the opponents are not even debating the same things.
Here are some indicators that issues of language are crucial to a dispute:
* Different parties to the dispute offer conflicting ways of identifying the "same" thing. For example, consider a dispute about the term Law. "The Law is too soft; police don't even arrest panhandlers!" "No, the Law is too harsh; there is a mandatory one-year sentence for panhandling!"
* Disputants complain that their opponents don't "really understand" what is at issue.
* Disputants use the term, 'true' or 'really' to characterize what they're proposing. For example, "The true Law is found in the law books." Or, "Law is really enforcement practices."
* The argument remains at the theoretical level; disputants avoid giving practical examples.
* A secondary dispute develops about "the real meaning" of terms.
* Questions of authority of the source of definitions arise. For example, "Do you think the Oxford English Dictionary is appropriate here?"
We can easily imagine one person arguing that the law is too soft on criminals only to have another say, "Your facts are all wrong. If you knew what I know, you wouldn't say that." Disputes often involve disagreements about facts.
It is not necessary to know the facts in order to argue. It is only important to know them in order to argue intelligently. To decide if the law is really "soft" on criminals, for instance, would require knowledge of facts such as: the average length of sentence imposed upon those convicted of various crimes; living conditions in federal, state and local prisons; the rights and privileges guaranteed to inmates in these various prisons, the proportion of sentences actually served; punishment for similar crimes in other societies; and so forth.
Ascertaining fact takes time and effort. That is one reason some prefer to ignore them and others gather what passes for fact from the National Enquirer, or other questionable sources.
Here are some indicators that issues of fact are crucial to the dispute:
Let's briefly return to those persons disputing whether "the law is too soft on criminals." Suppose they agree on what key terms like "soft" mean, and further suppose they also agree regarding: the average length of sentence for felons convicted of violent crimes; what proportion of these sentences are actually served; conditions in federal, state and local prisons; and so on. Despite all of these agreements they may still disagree on whether or not the law is "too soft on criminals" if what they value is different.
Valuing revenge, punishment and an "eye for an eye," for example, some might regard the facts about American crime and punishment as evidence of spineless permissiveness. Others, who value forgiveness, rehabilitation and the...