On the role of feelings in argumentative discourse

– Are you neglecting your civic duty to sustain the customary atmosphere of comfortable if meaningless small talk in the Fog Island Tavern, Bog-Hubert? Scribbling notes in your crumpled notebook like a real coffee house intellectual — or have you actually gotten over your writers’ block to get back into some serious writing?

– Sorry, nothing so encouraging. I’m just writing down come complaints of Abbé Boulah’s about people’s lack of comprehension of his and his buddy’s ideas glorious ideas about argumentative planning. We were walking along the beach, and he seemed quite disappointed by some reactions he got from some experiment. So I need to write some things down before I forget them.

– Reactions to what?

– It seems they were trying out some of those ideas about structured planning discourse including the argument assessment approach, in a distance learning project of some kind. And the participants on the other end either didn’t understand what they were trying to do at all, or else hadn’t even studied the background material they had prepared and sent over there. They totally screwed up the exercise, and finally blamed the disaster on his buddy, alleging that he didn’t allow for the role of emotions and feelings in the discourse, didn’t understand emotions at all; something like that.

– That’s a problem with those online and distance projects: you never know whether the folks at the other end really are doing their part of the deal. But I can see where they picked a plausible excuse, at least.

– Plausible, huh? In what way, Vodçek? How is ignorance and laziness ‘plausible’?

– Well, doesn’t the very word ‘argument’ invite a number of misunderstandings that then can be used as excuses? You can’t really blame misunderstanding only on the party that doesn’t understand, can you?

– What kinds of misunderstandings?

– Well, many people understand ‘argument’ as something disagreeable, adversarial, quarrelsome — that can easily end up into a more serious fight — not very nice nor cooperative.

– I can’t argue with that: we’ve had a lot of that kind of reaction.

– Right. And even for those who do understand ‘argument’ as a set of statements that aim to support some claim, that notion is flavored by the association with formal logic, rationality, scientific ‘objectivity’, in short, a kind of discourse in which the ‘truth’ of issues is to be established. Truth that is independent or overriding of how people feel about it. Scientific, ‘objective’ truth. That kind of inquiry that almost by definition excludes feelings. And of course that bothers people who are concerned with issues about which they do have strong feelings. Where the ‘truth’ about what IS the case is less the point of the discussion than what OUGHT to be, and theta patently isn’t true YET. So they understandably resent the impression that those feelings are slighted and ignored.

– But that’s precisely Abbé Boulah’s point — talking about ‘planning arguments’ or ‘design arguments’ — the ones in which one of the key premises, the ‘ought’-claim — is exactly the one that deals with feelings! The kinds of arguments that are not susceptible to formal logic analysis because they have to do with what people want, desire, in short, with how they feel about things.

– Sure, Bog-Hubert: you and I, and some of our friends know that. But for somebody who just hears ‘argument’ and does not examine the planning argument story carefully enough, the impression is still that those ‘feelings’ issues just don’t count in argumentation. So maybe the story needs to be told more clearly and understandably?

– I thought the difference between the ‘formal’ and ‘deductive’ kind of arguments and those planning arguments was clear enough. But you may be on to something there. What do you think are the key points that should be made more clear?

– Let’s see. A first problem might be the frequent impression that people who go on about argumentation appear to take a position of superiority: if they have an argument — one that’s sanctioned by ‘logic’ as ‘valid’ and that therefore has a true conclusion, they are seen as putting down other opinions as ill-informed or stupid. I know what you are going to say: the process we are proposing as ‘argumentative planning’ is explicitly inviting all kinds of concerns, arguments, as ‘legitimate’ and deserving of being given ‘due consideration’ — since all planning arguments after all are ‘inconclusive’ from a formal logic point of view. But I have a hunch that using the word ‘argument’ makes it difficult for people to see that difference. Is there a different way of talking about that?

– Coming to think about it, we did discuss that issue some time go. In such discussions, many issues are raised and expressed as questions, not arguments — whose answers or conclusions could become significant premises of arguments for or against planning proposals. And we saw the problem as one of getting people to put those claims together into complete arguments so that they can be evaluated properly, according the the approach our friend has developed. But maybe the invitation should be to just raise such questions, not stating them as explicit pro or con arguments?

– I can see why you kept going in that direction: how the argument evaluation process might become more difficult with an approach of inviting questions rather than arguments. You’d have to get somebody to put the arguments together in some way in the end. Perhaps you could get a program to do that, using the plausibility assessments of the answers (by the participants) as premises for pro and con arguments. We should look into that. But that very issue brings up a different problem: one that has caused some trouble in the past .

– I think I know what you are referring to; we touched upon that very briefly a moment ago but didn’t go into it? If you focus on raising questions whose answers may become argument premises, many people in the past — mainly technical-oriented folks — have often tended to focus on the factual and factual-instrumental premises of planning arguments. The deontic premises — the ‘ought’ -issues — were either taken for granted, assumed to be given by overriding social policies, even legal precedents or regulations, or simply swept under the rug because they couldn’t be settled by ‘scientific’, logical means. Often, technocrats acted as if, because they had the expertise regarding the technical fact and instrumental questions, they should also have the authority to determine the ‘ought’ questions. Maybe it never occurred to them that there might be people who did not share their vision of the ‘common good’, and that different visions could be legitimate. And such attitudes of course looked to many ordinary folks as arrogant usurpation of powers for which the political process had not provided legitimacy.

– Right. Thereby casting those legitimacy questions both onto the technical-scientific expertocracy and the political process, as well as the role of argument in the ‘planning and political process. But isn’t that inevitably leading to the opposite fallacy, if you will: that planning issues should be decided predominantly or only on the basis of the deontic premises? What ‘the people’ want or desire — blithely assuming that ‘the people’ are indeed of one mind about what they desire. And then the very discrediting of the argumentative process now precluded a meaningful discussion of the plausibility of either kind of premise: what ought to be, and what to do to achieve it.

– A veritable tragedy of argumentation; i agree. Especially for those of us who finally have tried to show a way for both kinds of premises to be discussed and evaluated with equal legitimacy. So how should that question be dealt with?

– I think one main task is to make it more clear that the call for decisions to be made on the basis of arguments does not mean that there is anybody ‘official’ or ‘running the process’ or even a ‘system’ or machine, who determines the ‘truth’ or plausibility and the weight of arguments. No ‘little man behind the curtain’ or on the big screen calling the shots. Make it more clear that the planning arguments are all NOT deductively and objectively ‘valid’ and their conclusions true or false regardless how people feel about them. But precisely that no ‘absolute’ knowledge about the truth of any claims is assumed, and that decisions are made on the basis of the assessments of the people participating in the process.

– If the argument assessment results are to be used in making decisions at all. That has been raised as a possibility, as a much needed alternative to the standard decision-making rule of majority voting which doesn’t really require that any of the concerns expressed in the discussion are given ‘due consideration’. But the details for alternative decision-making methods based more explicitly on argument evaluation results need more discussion and agreement. We may very well all be wrong in the end — but we are trying to pool or knowledge and beliefs about the information we collectively bring into the process to arrive at a decision we can all support, with what is just the best of currently available knowledge.

– So what about the role of feelings, specifically, in this process?

– Thanks for getting us back to that question, Vodçek. You are asking about how to deal with the problem of people insisting that because they have raised valid questions about the legitimacy of the expert, and the predominance of the technical-scientific ‘rationality’, public issues should therefore be decided o the basis of their feelings out the issues?

– I guess that’s one way to put it.

– Okay. Can we agree on the principle that whatever the basis of people’s individual position on issues: so-called scientific rationality and logic, or their feelings, their judgment is to be accepted as their rightful and legitimate stance?

– No argument there. But I sense a ‘but’ coming… and I don’t think it has to do with all the authors of learned books on logic and critical thinking that try to tel all of us how to think properly?

– Right. The ‘but’ arises when people start demanding that the judgment resulting from their ‘feeling’ or emotional assessment should be accepted by others as a legitimate basis for their decision as well — even if they are not able to provide any further support or explanation for their judgments. My ‘gut feeling’ telling me that plan A is a good idea (or a bad one) cannot possibly be a valid reason for me to expect that others should adopt the same judgment, if I can’t explain and get across w h y I feel this way. Just as someone else whose gut feeling tells him the opposite of mine can’t expect to sway me just on the basis of him having that gut feeling.

– You are talking about issues of shared or public interest of course, not issues that are our personal matter only and don’t affect anybody else.

– Right. For any common, cooperative decision, perhaps we can tentatively state two rules:
1) The method or rule for arriving at a final common decision should accept everybody’s individual judgment regardless of how the individual arrives at it. And
2) Whenever, and to the extent that an individual or party tries to persuade others to adopt an individual position on an issue (through argumentation), that party is responsible for supplying reasons, evidence, supporting arguments, for a l l premises of the arguments, the factual-instrumental premises, the factual premises, and the deontic (‘ought’) premises, upon request. No request for further support of a premise can be rejected on the grounds that it is a personal value judgment or feeling; such a rejection will be a valid reason for anyone else to reject the demand that the position be adopted by others. (However, of course the person will still be able to ‘cast his vote’ on the basis of his personal convictions even if he cannot supply reasons to sway others).

– Does that mean that we have to accept such votes even if they are based on obviously false information or flawed — fallacious — reasoning?

– No. But if you think that somebody is making such mistakes, it is your responsibility to offer your reasons to sway that person. Remember that your premises may be less supportable and certain than they appear to you. The fact that somebody’s argument appears to you as a fallacy does not entitle you to use your authority as a connoisseur of fallacies to reject the entire argument with all its premises, and this the right of the person to have a say in the decision.

– Isn’t that a main difference between this approach and, say, the logic rule books? It does not — as an approach — try to tell anybody how to think, but just encourages all participants to examine their reasons — yes, even challenge and test them — but then accepts whatever judgment people bring into the process as legitimate contributions, right or wrong, to the final decision.

– And I would insist on something else: the support for an ‘ought’-premise can take the form of a story laying out the vision a person considers desirable, not just another set of ‘formalized’ arguments. But parts of the story should again be open to questioning.

– Agreed, Vodçek. So how do we make this more clear and understandable? How do we avoid the potential misunderstanding arising out of the term ‘argument’?

– Would it be meaningful to avoid the word ‘argument’ altogether, and to just ask people to refrain from making arguments, but only to raise questions?

– What do you mean?

– Well, take the three types of premises of a planning argument about a proposal A:
“Yes, A should be adopted
because
A will lead to B given conditions C,
and
B ought to be pursued or aimed for,
and
conditions C are given.”

Instead of this whole (‘adversarial’) argument, can we instead just ask the questions
“Does A really lead to B?”
and “Should B be aimed for?”
and
“Are conditions C really present?”

And invite participants to discuss those? Perhaps not even in the same sequence, so as to further avoid the argumentative flavor? And avoid presenting the argument at the outset as a ‘pro’ or con’ argument?

– Why should we avoid that?

– Think about it: If the proposed action really leads to result B, and a person P1 considers B desirable, the resulting argument is a ‘pro’ argument for that person, right? But if another person P2 sees consequence B as undesirable, the same argument becomes a ‘con’ argument for that person, doesn’t it? Or if P2 feels that while the goal B is worthwhile, the proposal A is not an effective way to achieve it — or if P2 grants both of the above two premises, but has information that the conditions C aren’t present to make the proposed action effective: in all these cases the same set of claims become counterarguments for P2. So why should it be labeled as one or the other from the outset, if it really depends on people’s assessment of each of the premises?

– Now I realize why all those debate programs on the market always gave me a weird sense of ‘already taking sides’ in the debates they try to facilitate: By explicitly labeling and mapping any argument as a ‘pro’ or ‘con’ argument — the way it was intended by the person making the argument — it already slightly distorted the judgment process. I agree, the ‘system’ keeping track, displaying and mapping all the contributions in such discussions should refrain from that kind of labeling; just present the claims that make up the argument premises.

– Well, in order to evaluate how all those bits of information support or not support a decision, do they not have to be put together as complete arguments, in the end ?

– Yes, I think you are right — unless we can get people to assess the plausibility of all those claims separately, and have the ‘system’ put them together as arguments and then calculate their arguments weights etc. But then the system must also make such assessments as whether a specific argument pattern really ‘applies’ to the case at hand — which people might want to make themselves. And they can’t do that unless they see the complete argument, can they?

– You devious fellow. You are once again raising more questions than we started out with, my friend. But do you agree that we can see the task and direction more clearly now? I think we need to run some experiments with various ways to treat these issues, and then write a short, concise ‘game manual’ that makes it very clear what the approach is doing, including the legitimate role of feelings and emotions in the process. You’ll tell Abbé Boulah when he comes in, Vodçek?

– You really think he’ll be able to raise the funds for those experiments?

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