Monday, May 26, 2008

Civility and Truth

Posted by Jeff Lipshaw

The recent debate between Brian Leiter and Rick Hills about the honorary degree granted to Phyllis Schlafly at Washington University raised some interesting issues about the relationship between truth and civility.  Given that when we take off our scholar hats and put on our teacher hats, we are training lawyers for whom civility in the profession is a long-standing issue (merely look at some of the You Tube deposition disasters for empirical evidence of this), I don't think it's merely an academic issue.  (By the way, I thought Dan Markel's contribution was the best on the issue of civility; as to Schlafly, her views make my skin crawl, but I don't get the whole "honorary degree" thing anyway.  UPDATE:  Paul Horwitz has a post on this subject, and it is so sensible I wish I had written it.)

Brian Leiter made two statements that are troubling to me.  First, he said, "[t]here is nothing wrong with dealing harshly with really bad arguments; that's precisely what one does if one is serious about ideas and about truth."  Second, he observed that his opponent "made terrible arguments, and I demonstrated that they were, indeed, terrible. There was nothing impolite about it, unless you consider the truth impolite."  Assuming "truth" resides not just in academic debate, but in courtrooms, board rooms, representative assemblies, neighborhoods, and families, presumably the pursuit of truth there would entitle one to deal with really bad arguments harshly and impolitely.  My intuition says that's a recipe for disaster (having just had the annual meeting of our homeowners' association in which we discussed whether to remove the "speed bumps" from our little road).  (Coincidentally, see, via Larry Solum, Joseph Singer's article "Normative Methods for Lawyers," which discusses the pragmatics of making normative argument that nevertheless respects both winners and losers.)

It's the invocation of "truth" that needs unpacking.  One cannot really do justice to the issue in a blog post, but Leiter has written extensively on objectivity in morality, and I think it's fair to say he views moral or value issues to be capable of truth determination, i.e. that moral facts exist objectively (i.e. they are "mind-independent" and make a difference causally in the empirical world).  According to Leiter, "what suffices for objectivity in evaluative matters is that we be able to subject our evaluative stances to reasoned discussion."  ("Objectivity, Morality, and Adjudication" in Objectivity in Law and Morals.) [UPDATE:  I take the correction in the comments - a better way to summarize the view is that if moral facts exist, they will only exist as part of the natural empirical world, and the closest analog to objective scientific inquiry is reasoned discussion.]

The source of my puzzlement about civility lies in the way I would evaluate the truth issue.  At one end of the spectrum, some matters really are a matter of objective truth or falsity.  Did Schlafly take or not take a particular position, or make a particular statement?  At the other end, we are not talking about facts at all, but about values.  "Should Washington University grant an honorary degree?" is not a question about facts or objects, but about the "ought."  I believe there are values that are capable of reasoned determination, and they may well be universal, but they differ categorically from facts.  Somewhere in the middle is what I would call categorization, which is neither a matter of objective fact, nor of values, but of the very difficult field of cognitive theory, namely how we process categories, models, metaphors, and judgment.  The issue of rule-following (both inductive reasoning to determine the rule, and then what Kant called the determinant judgment to apply the rule to the next case) is neither a matter of empirical objectivity nor a question of the ought, but something else again.  "Is Schlafly a bigot?" falls into that area.  First we have to determine inductively (i.e. establish a rule) what a bigot is ("shew the children a game. . ."), not an easy task in itself (cf., "is Schlafly a Republican?"), and then make a judgment whether what Schlafly did qualifies her with the tag of bigot.  We might even ask whether "is Schlafly a bigot?" is a very good question, or one we ought to ask.  (If I'm what Leiter calls a "Non-Naturalist," I'm a very limited one, by the way. It's just that dealing with what I don't know and seems impossible to nail down is so humbling.)

I have a hard time seeing how any of these matters ought to be dealt with "harshly."  Only the first kind of issue is really true or false, and dealing with it harshly has to do more with venting the venter's irritation than either teaching or correcting or debating.  If one draws a line, and says that "really bad arguments" deserve incivility or impoliteness or harshness, then we are back to the objective/subjective judgment issue as to what constitutes a "really bad argument," as to which in most of these cases, reasonable people can disagree.  As to values, I think civility is right up there, maybe even higher than honesty (when my daughter was three, she identified one of our friends, who was within earshot, as "that fat lady" which was totally honest, and understandable from a three year old, but uncivil if uttered by an adult).  But if we blur the fact/value distinction, and make the determination of incivility a matter of truth, and incivility can be dealt with harshly (if one is serious about truth), then either harshness is civil, which seems intuitively wrong (as a matter of linguistic categorization) or I am permitted to violate my own values in order to promote precisely the value I am violating!

As I said, Dan Markel nailed this with the untranslatable reference to being menschy.

Law & Society | Permalink

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Civility and Truth:



I share your concern with the aforementioned statements made by Leiter, although I think they're symptomatic of a conception of philosophy that has often been central to the Western philosophical tradition's pedagogical methods and which, alas, are not unique to philosophy, indeed, they need not be seen as intrinsic to philosophy qua philosophy, as an examination of philosophical traditions in Asia clearly demonstrate.

In The Republic of Letters: A Cultural History of the French Enlightenment (1994), Dena Goodman draws from Walter J. Ong's book, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (1981) to make an important point: "Formal education in the West has always been fundamentally agonistic. [....] 'What was taught in the formal educational operation,' writes Ong, 'was to take a stand in favor of a thesis or to attack a thesis someone else defended.' Students 'learned subjects largely by fighting over them.' The primary form the *agon* took in the education of boys and young men from the Middle Ages on was disputation, a form of ceremonial combat. Ong contends that male insecurity, although it many not have been the 'cause' of the agonistic structure of pedagogical and scholarly practice, was certainly fundamentally related to it. [....] The university and old colleges that replaced the medieval schools had eliminated [the] institutionalized rivalry [of French schools 'steeped in the language of battle'], preferring, like Thomistic philosophy itself, to reconcile competing visions rather than to pit them against one another. The Jesuits renewed competition, recognizing how productive its underlying passions could be, and they succeeded so well that their own competitors found themselves forced to imitate them." [....]

"In Walter Ong's view, the *agonia* central to education for two hundred years [that is, in France from the 18th century] has structured consciousness itself, at least as it has developed through masculine intellectual history. 'There is a structure in academia deeper than the Balinese cockfights reported on by Clifford Geertz,' he writes. '*Ludus*, the Latin word for school,...means also war games.'"

Goodman shows us how radical and revolutionary the philosophical dialogue and conversations of the French salons as governed by salonnnieres like Geoffrin, Lepinasse, and Necker were in comparison to the dominant pedagogical models of debate and discussion that grew out of the French version of agonistic tradition. There are other models, of both Eastern and Western provenance, that we might draw upon by way of contrast to the agonistic model.

Finally, I think Paul Horowitz concedes too much to Leiter when writing "I agree that civility can come at the cost of sincere and forceful argument about things that matter." While theoretically possible, and although this may be true in "polite society" and diplomatic circles, I doubt it has been or is a serious problem in political and philosophical argumentation, where a Gita-like norm of "non-attachment" is often found wanting. In short, I think it is rather rare that civility stands in the way of truth (and when it does, I suspect it is because civility has here degenerated into 'mere manners,' a species of civility which is purely formal, ignoring the predominant ethical purposes or reasons for civility in the first instance), indeed, I think it is or can be truth-conducive insofar as it instills the virtues of intellectual modesty, attentiveness, listening, perspectivalism, relativism (of a kind and to a degree), and so on.

It is revealing that Leiter himself often gets involved in rather nasty if not vituperative ad hominem debates which are vicariously enjoyed by those with identical or like-minded philosophical and political views (I happen to share many of Leiter's avowed political perspectives), something on the order of a philosophical analogue to Schadenfreude: taking delight or pleasure in destroying the arguments of another or in intellectually humiliating one's opponents, the presumption being that there is little or nothing of value to be learned from them, as truth is found only on the side of the victor. Philosophical charity is another victim in this kind of philosophical argument.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | May 26, 2008 7:52:40 PM

I'm afraid I have read this only quickly, but three short points:

1. I am a skeptic about the objectivity of morality, and argue for skepticism in "Objectivity, Morality, and Adjudication" and "Moral Facts and Best Explanations, both reprinted in my Naturalizing Jurisprudence collection.

2. Contra Patrick, "philosophical charity is not sacrificed when one is not having a philosophical debate, which I was not. Hills made silly claims and disingenous arguments. No one, not even Hills, has defended them on the merits. None of it had anything to do with philosophy or serious thought. When I'm discussing intellectually serious work, I adopt the tone and approach appropriate for the occasion. Visit my Nietzsche blog for lots of examples:

and see, e.g., the discussion of Katsafanas on cosnciousness, and Hussain on fictionalism.

By the way, there was nothing remotely uncivil about my response to Rick Hills. I'm amazed at how timorous people are!

Posted by: Brian | May 27, 2008 11:24:11 AM

Post a comment