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As just one example of public debate where emotions run high: The abortion debate in the USA seems to be hopelessly polarised.

My rational approach would include:

  1. Consider the safety health of the mother
  2. Consider the age of the foetus
  3. Take into account the age of the mother
  4. Take into account rape
  5. Take into account differing religious views
  6. Take into account predicted birth defects
  7. Take into account being born with drug addiction

etc.

However, when I hear arguments on the media, all that seems to be in evidence is emotion, prejudice and personal interest. In particular, every type of philosophical fallacy occurs as a matter of course.

Question: Can philosophy make a difference in a popular war of opinion (about any subject, not just abortion) or must it inevitably be submerged in dogma, platitudes and rote parroting?


Important

Please note the tag of meta-philosophy as defined by the Philosophy Stack

Metaphilosophy is the philosophical study of philosophy itself — its goals, methods, scope, and relationship to other intellectual disciplines or human projects. [My emphasis]

I believe that my question fits well within this category.

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    What you are describing is close to "moral arithmetic" for utilitarianism, but many people are not utilitarians. To some, killing a baby (which they consider the foetus to be) is absolutely unacceptable under any circumstances, and so your "moral arithmetic" is not just irrelevant, but immoral. This approach is no less rational than yours, the difference is not in the facts or reasoning, but in the moral values. We could take out emotions and fallacies, but do not expect "philosophical discipline" to do much when fundamentals diverge.
    – Conifold
    Mar 6, 2023 at 23:58
  • @Conifold - I'm not suggesting feeding all the factors into an expert-system or a neural network and getting a 'best' answer. I'm saying that if - for my family or friends - this was an issue, the factors to take into account would very enormously with personal circumstances. My concern (with abortion as just one example) is that public debate seems in general to have learned nothing from millennia of ponderings by philosophers. Polarisation leading to ad baculum, straw man and multiple other fallacies seems to rule. Mar 7, 2023 at 0:09
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    Again, your family and friends may accept utilitarianism, many people do. And then many people don't. It is pointless to reason with people who reject your moral premises, what you need is change their premises. Reason is of little use for that, it rather gets you from premises to conclusions. That is done exactly through things you want thrown out by "philosophical discipline", emotions, biases, personal interests. That is what we learned from millennia of ponderings, reason can't perform miracles expected of it. And informal "fallacies" are not always invalid where logic can't help.
    – Conifold
    Mar 7, 2023 at 0:14
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    As @Conifold notes, this is not an issue that can be resolved with rational argumentation; you have to change minds, and both sides have decided that the best way to change minds is to react with horror and outrage at anyone whose opinion is opposite to yours. Side A calls Side B baby killers and Side B says that Side A wants to enslave women. Now, there are some in B who are fine with baby killing and some in A who want to enslave women, but they are tiny minorities on both sides. Yet neither side is willing to give up the hostile rhetoric because they feel it benefits them. Mar 7, 2023 at 0:52
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    We must learn but from whom? I'm certain that both parties involved are reasonable. Arabia is a beautiful country and so is The Netherlands.
    – Hudjefa
    Mar 7, 2023 at 6:58

4 Answers 4

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You are right in saying that most public discourse is characterised by an abundance of red herrings, non-sequiturs, unconscious bias and so on.

There are times when I want to throw my television out of the nearest window owing to the utter nonsense spoken by politicians, pundits, etc. Yet even if you were able to wave a magic wand to make everyone think and speak logically, that would not in itself resolve all the disagreements, since they stem from conflicting beliefs about what is right and wrong.

What you might achieve, however, is a dramatic increase in the signal-to-noise ratio to the point that people actually hear and appreciate the views of others and are able to apply unbiased critical thinking to their own beliefs. We might then find opinion gradually converging, rather than remaining in stoutly defended silos.

Incidentally, I have sometimes seen questions on this site asking whether philosophy still has any relevance. Your question underlines the potential offered by philosophy. Suppose all school kids were given training in clear thinking- wouldn't that be nice.

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  • Gosh, when I was a school kid we were told about skeptical thinking and how to be suspicious of claims. What happened to that?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 7, 2023 at 11:27
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This actually does happen through advisory boards/committees.

For example, Germany does have the Deutscher Ethikrat (German Ethics Council), which is a permanent advisory council with philosophers, theologians, and law professors (who all studied practical philosophy at one point). They are named for the council because of their expertise and work in ethical evaluation.

This council is asked to work out guidelines and expert reports on matters which are in political discussion at that moment. For example, the Ethikrat wrote expert reports on matters like

  • Under which circumstances should abortion be allowed
  • Under which circumstances should it be allowed to inform about abortions
  • Who should get Covid-vaccines first

and many others.

There are similar institutions in the US and the UK as well, and I suspect pretty much in every developed country.

The arguments brought forward by these boards usually do not change public discourse much, though, even though their arguments tend to be discussed in more serious media outlets. On the other hand, they do strongly inform political decisions in many cases.

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  • The issue isn't the ability to make a decision, the problem is finding someONE that everyone will accept the answer of. And it must be one person, not a committee. Humans are wired to follow a leader. It is a survival strategy, so you aren't going to be able to reason around it.
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 7, 2023 at 11:26
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    @ScottRowe Leaders that do not listen to advisors will not be leaders for long. The whole sense of such advisory boards is to give a leader some ground to build a decision upon. Ultimately, it remains their decision.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Mar 7, 2023 at 11:48
  • So if it is "rule by the people", then the leader / executive must be someone the people will abide by. Leaders can be deposed, of course. Then what? Back to square 1: whom will the people (all) follow?
    – Scott Rowe
    Mar 7, 2023 at 15:55
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Some commentators have emitted the objection that people's premises can't be shifted through reason, and therefore reason will be of no help in debating them. I think this requires a bit of pushback.

I think this reasoning is based on two assumptions:

  1. People understand their own premises, i.e. they are explicitly posited and non contradictory.
  2. Their conclusions derive from those premises.

Any amount of non-academic debate (including non academic debate with academics) will show that it is not at all the case. People usually haven't identified the premises their position implies.

Sometimes it's because they haven't taken the time to think it through, sometimes it's because they know this premise is unpopular and would loose them the favor of the public (for example some opposants to abortion hold the premise that women are inferior in right to men and weasely, hem, wisely keep it quiet).

Philosophy being at it's heart the endeavour of analysing and ordering ideas and the way they are expressed through language, is paramount to this kind of discussion. By showing people their premises are contradictory, or by exhibiting their unpopular premise, it is possible, using reason, to produce the emotion of shame that will lead them to reconsider their view, or at least reveal their lack of credibility. (Of course it supposes people feel shame at the idea of being proven wrong, the emotional anchor needed to articulate reason and emotion. Alas, some people have no shame...)

The discussion then does not take the form of "you have to agree with me or, you're a bad person", but shifts to "if you agree with me on A and B, then you have to agree on C (or display your lack of good faith)". Often the target is not the debating party, whose emotional investment will prevent them from admiting to be wrong, but the undecided people who get to hear or read the debate.

One example of blatant self contradiction is the people who claim women have no right to bodily autonomy when it comes to pregnancy (i.e. 9 months of suffering and health endangerment) but claim to have full bodily autonomy when it comes to vaccination or wearing a simple paper mask in public.

The debate about free speech is also riddled with people who just want to say whatever they want while silencing others. Very few can give a consistent explanation for why free speech is important and what limitations should exist (on both sides of the aisle).

So yes, definitely familiarity with the identification and analysis of ideas, while not a super weapon due to the strength of emotions, is of great help when engaging with public discourse.

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Can philosophy make a difference in a popular war of opinion (about any subject, not just abortion) or must it inevitably be submerged in dogma, platitudes and rote parroting?

  1. Do not mistake academic philosophy (that which is taught in universities) with personal philosophy, which is a personal synthesis of ideas and experiences.

  2. Since your question seems assuming philosophy is not present in the debate, then, you are possibly referring to academic philosophy. It is acceptable to say that academic philosophy is not dominant in such debate.

  3. But philosophy is present. Philosophy is essentially "way of thinking", and there are many forms of philosophy present in the debate, since each group sustains its position based on a set of ideals, and the dominant form of philosophy can be called popular, or common philosophy, a mix of personal philosophies that most people agree with. From an academic perspective, it would surely have multiple fallacies.

  4. Academic philosophy might improve the quality of the debate. But few people are aware of it, or at least, agree with it.

  5. In democracy, majorities rule. If the majority prefers following philosophies that benefit themselves instead of benefiting the group, their sons, or their country, they will apply them, with the negative consequences such philosophies imply on themselves, the group and their descendants*.

* Take the case of communist countries like Venezuela: the immediate benefits some obtain from this government have a direct negative impact on their children (poverty, hunger, bad education, etc.) and on their future (inflation, no infrastructure, retirement, public debt, etc.). Seems incredible, but such people profit of something their sons are going to pay for.

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