Ethics and the art of Argument: A Response to Maurice Charland and Political Correctness

Margaret Somerville
Originally published as:
"Ethics and the art of argument: Reason is secondary
to intuition and emotion in decision-making",
The [Montreal] Gazette, August 15, 2004, IN8
© Margaret Somerville
Reproduced with Permission

There is a major difference between using emotion to influence how other people view the arguments in a debate and using emotion to shut down the debate and prevent the arguments from being examined. The former is an ethically valid strategy, the latter, in my opinion, is not - although, as I was pointing out in my Insightful article ("Stifling debate on gay marriage", The [Montreal] Gazette, August 1, 2004, IN8), it is a very effective tactic in winning a debate.

In short, Maurice Charland ("Emotion is part of political debate: Public judges advocates, not arguments", The [Montreal] Gazette Insightful, Aug. 8, in response to my article) is mistaken in assuming that I was arguing that emotion should not play a role in public and political debate and the decision-making that ensues. Rather, the thrust of my article and basis of my criticism of the debates on issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion, was the use of emotion - in particular, fear and shame - to shut down debate.

It is somewhat ironic that Professor Charland identifies me as a rationalist philosopher and, as such, someone who believes reason is the only valid way of human knowing and that, if possible, emotion should be eliminated from the decision-making process if one is to make ethically wise decisions.

I have spent a considerable portion of my professional life attending meetings around the world where I debated rationalist philosophers and scientists who despised and demeaned any way of human knowing other than "pure" reason. Because I disagree with their stance, in that I believe that while reason is extremely important there are also other very important ways of human knowing, these people have criticized me as being "fashy-washy" (fashionable wishy-washy); relying on mystical nonsense (James Watson of DNA fame); quasi-religious (it's debatable whether in the eyes of rationalist philosophers that's a more or less derogatory label than religious); "touchy-feely"; and my arguments as unacceptable in going beyond the rational (Richard Dawkins at a conference in Oxford this year).

My impression at the Oxford conference was that I was a quorum of one. But, interestingly, on returning to Montreal I received several e-mails from other participants saying they agreed with me, but hadn't wanted to say so at the meeting. So it is an unusual experience for me to be seen, as Professor Charland sees me, as saying, "Don't trust them, they are not rational." Rather, I would say, "Don't trust them if they are only rational."

Indeed, I believe that intuition and emotion are our primary decision-making mechanisms and that reason is a secondary - although essential - verification mechanism of the acceptability of those decisions. As with all ways of human knowing, intuition and emotion can go wrong. So our intuition, including our moral intuition, needs checking, as do our emotional responses - they must be "examined emotions," not simply knee-jerk emotionality.

Reason is the main mechanism through which we do that checking. Other means, according to John Ralston Saul in his book, The Unconscious Civilization, include human memory (history); imagination and creativity; common sense; and ethics.

Consequently, a long-term, widely-shared, deep moral intuition that something is wrong should not be cavalierly dismissed as being of no validity. At the very least, it merits close examination, a process that can provide important ethical insights that would not otherwise be accessible. And emotional is not the same as biased or unbiased the same as unemotional, as Professor Charland argues.

Moreover, I believe even judges rely, in part, on intuition and emotion in reaching their decisions. Every law student, in the common-law world, studies the legal reasoning of Lord Denning of the English House of Lords. One has to read only the first sentence in his judgments - for instance, "Poor Mrs. Brown" - to know that 50 pages of tight legal analysis and reasoning later, Mrs. Brown will win her case. It is important, however, for all of us, including judges, to understand how our emotions and intuitions can be affected by the way a case is presented or a debate conducted, if we are to make good decisions - advocating such understanding is precisely the point I was making in my article.

One difference between ethics as a sub-discipline of moral philosophy (classical philosophical ethics) and applied or practical ethics (post-modern ethics in practice) is that the knowledge gained from practical experience - experiential knowledge - is very important in informing the latter.

Interestingly, Aristotle, unlike many theoretical philosophers in the interim, valued such knowledge. But it is dangerous to treat experiential knowledge as the only kind of ethical knowledge that matters, to the exclusion of ethical principles. It tends to result in utilitarian or consequentialist ethics: These schools of ethics are based on the view that nothing is right or wrong, in itself; rather, what is right or wrong depends on all the circumstances and whether the goods outweigh the risks and harms - a completely relativistic approach.

I believe that we also need principles to guide us as to right and wrong. The difficulty is finding such principles, on which we can all agree, in pluralistic, multi-cultural, secular, democratic societies such as Canada.

Matters on which Professor Charland and I would agree include that we must appreciate complexity if we are to make wise ethical decisions. Recognizing complexity means we must accept uncertainty which can make us nervous. Many ethical mistakes are made by trying to eliminate uncertainty when that is not possible, rather than learning to live with it as comfortably - and thereby ethically - as possible.

Professor Charland is also correct in pointing out that individual decisions have impact far beyond the individuals involved. It is through its positive, neutral or negative reaction to these decisions - that is its approval or rejection of them - that society establishes its values, that is, the shared values base that provides the glue that binds us together as a society.

I also agree that the character of the person making the argument is relevant and important in judging the argument. Indeed, one school of ethics is founded on this principle. Virtues ethics is a school that reflects a belief that decision-making by virtuous people acting in good faith, without conflict of interest, is the best way to discern what is ethical and what is not. But other schools of ethics look for guidance by telling stories (narrative ethics) or focusing on an ethic of care and protecting relationships (feminist ethics), to name just two. When all schools agree on what is ethical and what is not, we do not have a problem in deciding on ethics. We have what I call "the white light of ethical insight", which of course is always open to ongoing scrutiny. It is when there is disagreement that we must choose. The essence of "doing ethics" is being able to justify our choices when only some values can be honoured and, in doing so, others will be breached.

It might be true, as Professor Charland says, that the public judges advocates not arguments, but they do so at their ethical peril. They need to judge both. And that requires that they understand the strategies being used to make them see both the advocates and the arguments in one way as compared with another. Explaining that was the goal of my article, not, as Professor Charland claims, "convincing us she has the right values and her opponents don't." Although I must admit I wouldn't mind having achieved that, if, indeed, it proved to be a side-effect.