A Better Way to Debate and Argue

One thing I am not that great at is having meaningful discussions where I explain my thinking within a given area without bombarding my interlocutor with reasons why my point of view or conclusion is the best. I would like to be better at explaining the values that I consider important in a given area and what decisions I have made that lead me to adopt the world view that I have. What I usually end up doing, is arguing about a set of “facts” and debating at a high level something that can only be understood by examining the small details that build up to the final decision.

 

What I would like to develop is a skill that seems to be missing more and more in today’s discourse, especially around politics. While I don’t think it is anything new for people to respond to their counterparts in a debate with witty and sharp criticisms, there is a big difference between saying something snide in a face to face debate or critiquing an idea or person in a news paper and sending out tweets and posts that straw-man another person’s argument for your own audience while receiving instant feedback and applause for comments made in bad faith. This puts us in a place where we really don’t so much debate ideas, people, or politics, but we try to win arguments by putting down other people. We really don’t make any deep considerations about our thoughts, feelings, or ideas but instead grab onto what intuitively feels right (or what is counter the point of our adversary) and develop a narrative and set of facts around the thing that is convenient for us to believe.

 

Author Colin Wright is someone who also thinks this is a problem. In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be he writes, “We need to be capable of comparing the information and perspective that we have with that of other people. In order to combine the information we’ve collected in this way, we need to be capable of having valuable, productive discussions, rather than simply propagandizing at each other all the time.” It is valuable to work to cultivate a space where you can start at the bottom with your core values and beliefs and work your way up to the larger decisions that you have made. By better examining your values, you can better explain the way you think, and it is OK to express doubt or uncertainty about the exact nature of what is happening and the facts surrounding the situation while you are building your argument in this way. Being able to better share information and explain our ideas will help discourse be more meaningful and it will reduce the threat levels in our arguments and debates. There may be times for propagandizing each other, but in most of our conversations we would probably be better off if we could be more explanatory than inflammatory. A recommendation I would have when starting this process is to focus on what is in your own self-interest, and be aware of the times when the thing you believe just happens to align with what is in your own self-interest. If you find that your beliefs all match exactly with your self-interest, it may be worth being more critical of your views and asking if you are just developing beliefs to defend your self-interest, or if you truly do believe those things on merits beyond your own personal gain.

Recognition is Empty

At some point in human history, we were living in small tribes of maybe 50 to 250 people and we were evolving ever more complex brains because our small political groups put pressure on our ancestors to be socially skilled in order to pass on their genes. In a small social tribe, actions and motivations mattered. There was a pressure to do good and impressive things and to appear to be doing those things for noble rather than vain reasons, but it was also not enough to just do good, you had to be noticed by your tribe. You had to make sure your status improved, that people saw you doing positive and noteworthy things so that you could progress up the social hierarchy of the tribe and be permitted to pass your genes along. The traits that flowed from these evolutionary social group pressures are still with us, but the need to seen doing physically and socially impressive things in order to pass our genes to the next generation (and potentially even just to survive on a daily basis with the help of some friends/allies) is mostly gone. This leaves us in an awkward place where our brains still want to impress people and climb up a social ladder (remember that our ancestors social ladder was only about 50 to 250 people tall) in a world where we can connect with millions of people and where competition for security, shelter, food, and a partner just isn’t as life threateningly dramatic as it was one hundred thousands years ago.

 

Pushing back against some of these natural feeling and evolutionary favored behaviors can actually lead to a more fulfilling and meaningful life. This is at the center of the idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, The Ego is the Enemy. Holiday encourages us to avoid acting in the interest of our ego, which is to say he encourages us not to act out of our own self-interest with the intent to be seen and with the intent to deliberately rise up the social hierarchy. We can certainly do that and we will have lots of opportunities in our live to chose that path, but Holiday argues that to live a more fulfilling and complete life today, we should look to do great work as opposed to simply being impressive to other people. Regarding a fulfilling life Holiday writes, “It’s about the doing, not the recognition.”

 

This quote has stayed with me and helped me think about why I do some of the things I do and how I chose to do those things. I could go work out in the gym and make sure I take up as much space as possible and exercise as extravagantly as possible so that everyone sees how physically impressive I am. Or, I could find a spot that doesn’t interfere with other people and doesn’t necessarily put me in the center of attention and I could focus on making sure I really do the exercises that matter to keep me fit, healthy, and injury free. I might get stronger with both strategies, but the first strategy is really about my ego and about being seen, where the second approach is actually about health and physical development. I believe much of life is like this.

 

We can make excuses for doing the flashy things that help us rise through the social ladder and we can lie to ourselves and others about our motives for doing those things (our brains literally evolved in small groups to do this). However, with several billion people on the planet, we hit a point where this strategy is counter productive if we actually want to be fulfilled and content with our lives and actions. We no longer live in the small tribes we evolved for, and we have more options to make an impact for the people in our lives and societies in which we live. We no longer need to set out to make sure we are seen and recognized for doing great work to build allies for survival. We will likely receive all the recognition we need from the people who matter most in our lives if we set out to do good without setting out to build a reputation. Part of us may still want that recognition and be happy when we receive it obliquely (maybe even more happy to receive it this way) which is fine. The point is that we can be more content and fulfilled when we take this oblique path to success and recognition and build habits and work that are about doing and not about being applauded.

Slavery in the American Constitution

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis examines the debates leading up to the adoption of the current United States Constitution and the actions of four men in particular to drive the nation toward true nationhood and the adoption of the Constitution. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay all played crucial roles in advocating for a constitution that gave strong power to a centralized national government that could bring unity and cohesion among the former British Colonies. A central tension and challenge in uniting the colonies existed around slavery and today, as we look back at the founding of our nation and at our Constitution, we cannot help but think about the role that slavery played in the founding of our nation and about the meaning of its inclusion in our Constitution. Regarding slavery, Ellis writes, “Whether this was a failure of moral leadership or a realistic recognition of the politically possible can be debated until the end of time.” Our views of our nations founding and the role that slavery played is hard to think through and is something worth evaluating on a deeper level. Precisely why it was included in the Constitution and the role it played at the nation’s birth is challenging and the meaning attached to it changes as you shift the perspective through which you understand the Revolutionary War and America at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

 

The quartet in Ellis’ book wanted to bring together the North and the South in a single nation, but the economies of both were moving in different directions, with the South becoming increasingly reliant on slaves for economic production (as a side note: a recent comment to my blog suggested that the North enabled slavery by purchasing slave produced products from the South – something I don’t know about but certainly seems likely). To have truly put an end to slavery in the newly independent America would have required a monarch (or tyrant) who could have stamped out the practice by force (something the colonies had just revolted against). Manumission, the process for freeing slaves was also expensive, often requiring that freed slaves be provisioned with enough resources to sustain themselves once free. It is no wonder that the forces of economic self-interest and a fear of tyranny forced an impasse between abolitionists and those whose future and society relied on slavery. A compromise on the issue appears to be absolutely necessary in order to bring the former Colonies together under a single government.

 

At the time our constitution was written, many delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized the abhorrent evils of slavery. Ellis includes a notebook entry from John Dickinson, a delegate from Delaware who wrote about the compromise written into the new Constitution, “Acting before the World, what will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves. … The omitting of the WORD will be regarded as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” The fact that slavery cut against Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence was not lost on all of our founding fathers. Dickinson and others were aware of the contradiction between the words and principles of our revolution and the structure we built into the Constitution. The political dynamic that united our nation allowed for such evil to continue, but at the same time also provided a way for it to be dismantled. The unending debate in the United States will continue to grow as we debate the best way to interpret the inclusion of slavery in our constitution.

The Whole

The United States is an interesting place. We have become an incredibly wealthy nation and have done things to advance things like technology, living standards, and scientific knowledge in ways that have improved the entire globe. The achievements of the United States have come while we have simultaneously adopted a narrative of individuality and individual success. It is our freedom, our pursuit of capitalism and greatness, and our individual desires to achieve and become great that have pushed our country to what it is today.

 

At least, that is the story we tell ourselves. While this narrative has taken hold, we have also had countless people who have advocated not for just individual freedom and success, but for national unity and for a cohesive vision of our society. Individuals who have been willing to sacrifice their own self-interest for the welfare of others has also been part of our American story, but it is often forgotten or at least not celebrated in the way that ruthless capitalism is (think about all the books written about Steve Jobs). Forgetting the connections between us all, the degree to which some people do everything they can for others, and the importance of becoming one people across the country is not new.

 

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis takes a critical look at the actions of four of our founding fathers to bring about the adoption of our current constitution following the Articles of Confederation. In my last post, I wrote about John Jay, a relatively unknown founding father, and someone who made decisions across his political career to drive forward the national interest rather than a personal or state interest. An example of his nation-first mindset is given in The Quartet surrounding the question of Vermont Statehood. The state of New York at one point included what is now Vermont, and most New Yorkers did not want to allow Vermont to become its own state. Jay, however, recognized that Vermont statehood would be good for the United States as a whole, even if it was not in the immediate interest of New York. “Despite pressure from the New York legislature,” Ellis writes, “he would not budge from his conviction that the whole needed to take precedence over the parts, the first clear expression of his national orientation.”

 

I don’t have a prescription for the perfect balance between individualism and group centered thought, but I think the United States would do well to better recognize our interdependence and to encourage more actions that made personal sacrifices for the good of national unity. There have been studies recently that demonstrate that greater income inequality, particularly between an extremely wealthy few and the masses can lead to political instability, which could be damaging for the country as a whole. At the same time, encouraging individual success and achievement is of crucial importance. As Tyler Cowen describes in his book The Complacent Class, achieving economic growth should be a top priority, as increased GDP will lead to increased living standards and compounding returns on development and advancement. Encouraging wealth building potential can help with GDP growth, but on its own and without recognition of the value of social cohesion, instability can erupt and dismantle economic progress and development. The policy implications and solutions are difficult to think through, but on an individual level I think we can all do more to better respect the whole and discount our own personal interests.

Realists

In 2015, Jonathan Rauch from the Brookings Institute wrote a book about how politics should to operate in order to actually get anything done. His book, Political Realism: How Hacks, Machines, Big Money, and Back-Room Deals Can Strengthen American Democracy, cuts against our traditional thoughts about the ways in which we can improve our society and country. Rauch looks at movements that have great moral purposes, but that seem to make general duties within government more difficult and challenging. Particularly in legislative bodies today, government seems to be operating poorly and in a way that stokes the flames of partisan anger and opposition. Very few people have a positive view of any governmental agency, and if there is one thing all American’s seem to have in common today, it is a distrust of political parties and a sense of disgust toward national political bodies.

However, our government did not always have such a negative public view and did not always struggle to act on even basic legislation. Rauch begins his book by discussing some of the tools that government has used to clear a path for basic legislation and functioning. Of generations past in the United States he writes, “not being fools or crooks, they understood that much of what politicians do to bring order from chaos, like buying support with post offices and bridges, looks unappealing in isolation and up close, but they saw that the alternatives were worse. In other words, they were realists.” Previous generations understood the negative perception of the shady things that seemed to take place in government. They recognized the danger of fraud and corruption, and they acknowledged the need to hide under the table business. Nevertheless, these were tools that helped the country move forward. Rauch argues that today, operating with a government that cannot move anything forward, what we need is a little more of this old-school politics, and a little less of today’s sunshine disinfectant.

Where this all stems from is the most basic flaw of human societies. We can only be rational about  the ways in which we get to our ends, we cannot be rational about the ends themselves. This is to say that the goals and the desired outcomes we want to see in society are inevitably and unavoidably political. How we choose what society wants, what society should do, who we should help, who gets to be part of our group, and what will be excluded from society is not a scientific question but rather a question of identity and self-interest. These questions are simply political with no possible answer satisfying everyone.

Human rationality can only be applied once an end has been selected. Once we have agreed on an outcome, or once a majority voice has selected the desired end state, we can rationally work out the best way to get there. It is like a group of 10 couples who all must decide when and where they want to take a vacation as a big group. There is no perfect destination to satisfy everyone’s desires of seeing family, visiting big tourist items, and finding off the grid treasures. But once a decision has been made, the group can identify the most efficient route to take that maximizes the time spent viewing what most everyone wants. If the group primarily wants to spend time at a beach in southern Spain, then the most efficient travel option is a flight directly to Southern Spain, and the travel rout that flies into Bilbao in northern Spain then uses public transportation southward across the country is not considered. However, if visiting art museums and seeing a wide swath of Spanish culture is the main goal of the trip, flying to and staying in coastal southern towns is not a rational option to meet the goals, but flying into Bilbao and traveling across the country by bus is an ideal plan. The end goals must be selected before a rational decision can be made to meet that decision, but seeing art and culture is not inherently better than relaxing on a Mediterranean beach.

Government will always be hampered by this question, no matter how rational or how similar we become and no matter how good our artificial intelligence one day becomes. Government therefore, needs a way to move things forward that deescalates the tension of identity and self-interest. This is the argument that Rauch puts forward. He does not argue for the backrooms filled with cigar smoke and fat cats driving the show. After all, generations before did give us painfully slow desegregation and a political period rife with presidential assassinations and violent racial protests. What we can plausibly see however, is a system where discussions and deliberations can be secret, because what may be good for the nation could be toxic for an individual based on their constituency’s identity and self-interest.

What ultimately needs to be remembered is that government cannot rationally chose and advance a goal. Government can do its best to reach its desired end state, but selecting an end that hurts some and leaves representatives vulnerable creates a system where some members must oppose all action by that government as a signal to their compassion, concern, and identification with their constituents. A government with hidden deliberations and gear greasing allows for compromise and realistic legislation. Some discussions must be allowed to take place in ways that shield legislative members from direct criticism so that they cannot later be attacked and vilified for decisions that hurt some but move the majority in the right direction. Government needs a way to be a little bit wasteful and a way to put up with a little bit of abuse in order to move society forward. Constantly patrolling for abuse and waste is expensive and ultimately makes people less likely to take action and try to make things better.

Proud of Pride

“For the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.” Marcus Aurelius wrote near the end of his common place book published as Meditations. He wrote this after encouraging a simple lifestyle, free from desires for material possessions or fame, and instead ruled by reason and virtue.  What Aurelius throughout his book encourages us to do is live a life where we are not striving to reach the goals of others or to seek success for the purpose of impressing others. He encourages us to abandon that pride, think deeply about others, and to live a humble life, recognizing that our time on Earth is finite. For Aurelius the most important thing we can develop is our relationships, and things like pride get in the way of becoming a truly connected and compassionate person in the lives of those around us.

 

Before the quote above Aurelius writes, “Think of the eager pursuit of anything conjoined with pride; and how worthless everything is after which men violently strain.” By encouraging us to avoid pride and to seek relationships, he is encouraging us to live well with those around us and to recognize the needs of our society. Striving to be great is not a negative thing on its own, but when it is combined with a desire to obtain great wealth and material possessions, or to impress to others, the goal of greatness becomes a trap that we cannot escape.

 

Aurelius would not have argued that we should never feel pride, but that we should redirect that pride away from selfish desires. By focusing on others and helping others we can develop a sense of pride that results from becoming a more connected and well rounded human being, and we can enjoy the self-confidence that flows with that pride. Ultimately however, we must make sure that we are not feeding that pride for our own self-interests and we must ensure that our pride is generated from actions that are benevolent toward all.