Friday, July 10, 2009

The Trouble With Logical Arguments In A Public Arena

As a civic volunteer on a local planning board, I often run into public debate (primarily regarding the provision of housing and density along with the changing nature of cities.)  One side will get up and state its case, then the other side, and the logical arguments rage on and on seemingly without end.  After a couple of years of this I started noticing that there was dissonance in the meaning of applied terms in this setting.  For example, “density” didn’t mean the same thing to each person.  It carried different images, connotations and results within each person’s head, and that was not resolvable through logic.

Taken further, let’s assume two people are arguing different sides of the issue.  One person feels density should be allowed on a site.  They argue their point and make an airtight logical argument that is unassailable.  When the person on the other side doesn’t capitulate, our density proponent writes them off as being unreasonable or arbitrary.  Trouble is, for that other person, the logic of the argument is flawed.  How can this be, after all, logic is logic, right?  There must be one right answer.

The issue arises from the a priori assumptions of the two debaters.  The argument is being poised to satisfy the value judgments inherent in the person, which are what the debate arises from, and against which the logical flow is judged.  Take an extreme (and very basic) example.  Let’s debate whether a chunk of sandstone is hard.  Should be simple.  However, the meaning of the word “hard” has not be defined, and frankly can’t be defined without other debates which will further introduce undefined and not agreed-to terms.  The result of this is the ability for someone to take a different comparative definition of hard as the base assumption, and argue that the sandstone is not hard compared to, say, quartz.  Obvious, but this is an example of the presupposed value systems we all have that most of the time never enter the argument.

In the public arena these example are never obvious.  We never take the time to try to come to a common ground on these meanings, let alone agree on a common value system.  Without that discussion, we have arguments on things like density, with one group “pro” and one group “against”, without the acknowledgment or understanding that the two groups are talking about completely different things.

Additionally, the importance placed on value judgments in these discussions never considers that people have different core beliefs.  What is “good” to one person is not necessarily “good” to another.  As a democracy, we do not have a nationalized directive of values, and we are left to muddle through these discussions to see who can convince the decision makers, be it a judging body or a populous.

I have come to the belief that the meat of these public debates should reside less in logic.  The immediate response to this is always that the only other path is rhetoric, which is used to essentially mean emotional arguments which aim only to convince, not to enlighten.  This side is equally dubious, for reasons that are more apparent to our logically trained minds.

The truth is in the middle.  Both logic and rhetoric are tools used to help us find the truth, excellence, some sort of absolute.  All the interpretations of rules and laws to sway our minds, all the stories of woe and promise that are aimed at swaying our hearts, all of this is paper thin.  Somewhere, at the end of the path, is something virtuous. 

I have found this to be much less arbitrary.  When aimed at virtue, logic and emotion hold far more power, are far more valuable, and make far more sense.  There are many logical constructs that are “correct” based on the assumptions that fuel them.  There are far fewer conclusions that can be called virtuous. 

Marcus Aurelius: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be.  Be one.”





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