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Saturday, October 25, 2003

On Similar Points of Reference


Sebastian Holsclaw has a good point:
It can be very disconcerting to engage in a discussion about how to solve a particular problem only to find that the person you are talking to doesn't believe there is a problem at all. In the past month or so, I have spent hours discussing the pros and cons of school vouchers, only to find in the end that I was talking to someone who didn't believe that the state of US schools was particularly bad! Of course you aren't going to want to engage in a fairly dramatic revamping of the system if you don't believe the system is bad. It wouldn't make sense to argue with Princeton professor Peter Singer about the morality of abortion because he believes that infanticide is ok. Before you can get to the issue of abortion, you would need to convince him that killing a born child is immoral. It is important to be aware of the location of your disagreement or you can't really have a meaningful discussion. If you want to discuss means, you ought to be sure that you have similar ends in mind.

His commenters have by now lost me (people who apparently are able to read a statement of "A is true because and only because B" and respond, "what's A? why aren't you responding to my question of why A is true? why do you think there's such a thing as truth?" -- or at least that's what their conversations look like to me). However, his posts are still quite worth a regular read. For me it will be something like LGF, I suppose -- good for a visit, but comments either make your head spin or make you despair for the future of mankind (that latter only on many LGF posts, not SH yet).

Anyhow, his post makes me think of several discussions at Harvard (as of yet, thank goodness, not at UT). It is difficult to debate with someone who denies some of the most basic premises of logic: that both A and not-A cannot be simultaneously true, for example. It can be frustrating to discuss horrors of life in some parts of India with someone who sees nothing wrong with infanticide, with burning women alive for not providing enough dowry, with people who believe that sex with a nine month old girl (heck, at that age she's sure to be a virgin!) is acceptable if you hope it will be a cure for AIDS, someone who says that all those things should be acceptable under the umbrella of tolerance and cultural equivalency. Similarly, I'm sure it was shocking to some acquaintances who were debating two different far- and moderate-left positions on something (I can't quite recall what it was) to ask me which of the two I held -- and find out I actually lean right. It just throws off the whole thread of debate. At some point -- for example, if you come across one of the types who hold that language itself binds people to patriarchy and so forth -- debate becomes entirely impossible.

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