Ranting and Reasoning

Ranting, in the sense of using bombastic language or preaching noisily, is fun. I do it. Brian Leiter does it. Andrew Sullivan does it. Everyone does it. Even intellectuals do it. Blogging, I am afraid, lends itself to ranting. But is there anything more to ranting than fun? Does it have any redeeming intellectual or social value?

I say no. Who cares what Brian Leiter thinks or values? Seriously. I like Brian. He’s intelligent; he’s witty; he’s a good writer; and he has important things to say about legal theory. I learn from him. But when he expresses his opinions about political or moral matters, why should I attend to them? This goes for my opinions as well. Why should he or anyone else give a damn what I think or say?

I hate to break it to you, but I’m not your moral authority.

I’m nobody’s moral authority. I don’t believe in moral authorities. The mere fact that I believe this or value that gives nobody else any reason to believe or value it. I’m no wiser than anyone else, despite my years of study. If anything, I’m less wise because of my years of study. My philosophical training equips me to pay attention to certain things, such as consistency and ambiguity, but it doesn’t inflate or enlarge my values. Brian Leiter and I have similar training—law and philosophy—but we disagree about fundamental evaluative matters. He’s on the political left and I’m on the right. (One difference may be that I used to be on the left. I doubt that Brian was ever on the right, although he probably will be one day, as he matures and gains experience.) Even if training in a field such as philosophy made one wise, how would one choose between people with the same training (such as Brian and me) who have different views and values?

If blogging is to survive as anything more than self-indulgent ranting, it must engage readers. It must seek to persuade them, rationally. But it can do this only if it begins where they are, with the beliefs and values they already have (or are presumed to have). Suppose you think the war in Iraq unjustified, but I think it justified. One thing we might do is fling our opinions at each other. I say the war is justified. You say it’s not. I repeat what I said, only louder. You repeat what you said, louder still. I repeat what I said, this time with an implication that you’re stupid. You repeat what you said, this time with an implication that I’m a shill for the Bush administration.

What does this accomplish?

Precisely nothing. What I must do, if I aim to persuade you, is show you that your belief in the unjustifiedness of the war conflicts with other of your beliefs. I must show you that certain of your other beliefs (or principles) commit you to believing that the war is justified. You, by the same token, must show me that certain of my other beliefs (or principles) commit me to believing that the war is unjustified. This process requires patience, intelligence, understanding, and civility. I must talk with you (or simply listen to you) long enough to understand your belief structure. I must find out which of your beliefs are basic and which derivative. I must elicit your principles, your standards of evidence, and so forth. You, in turn, must elicit these items from me.

There is no guarantee that this process will result in agreement. We may find, after a long discussion (in which, among other things, we resolve factual disputes), that we have divergent basic values. But unless we try to reach agreement, we will never know whether this is so. This is why it is so frustrating, for a philosopher, to observe contemporary political debate (especially contemporary televised political debate, wherein thinking appears to be disallowed). Almost no attempt is made by the person arguing to ascertain the beliefs or values of his or her interlocutors. Each party to the “debate” ends up shouting at the other (or ranting). It is all very sad. Actually, it’s worse than sad; it’s tragic. We can and should do better. Philosophers—progeny of the great Socrates—can and should lead the way.