Reverence for one's opponents in debate

Doug McManaman
Copyright  2012 by Douglas P. McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Publisher Frank Sheed wrote: "Bigotry does not mean believing that people who differ from you are wrong, it means assuming that they are either knaves or fools. To think them so is an immediate convenience, since it saves us the trouble of analyzing either their views or our own."

Today, for some reason, we are inclined to see ourselves as more open minded and tolerant of opposing viewpoints than those of any other era; but on closer inspection, we really are a terribly bigoted people. We are blind to it, probably because, as Sheed implies, we're lazy - if we admit it to ourselves, we'd have to allow our opposition to have his word, and then we'd have to engage in the hard and uncomfortable work of thinking about what it is we really hold to be true and why, and that begets uncertainty, and uncertainty is, for many of us, uncomfortable. I'm willing to argue that we inculcate our own bigotries in the context of the classroom - and I am not referring to racism, anti-Semitism, or homophobia, etc. I mean the bigotry that Sheed defines above; for we are no longer a culture of debate - and that's only because political correctness mitigates against a spirit of openness and debate.

On more than a few occasions I've been accused of being "stuck in the Middle Ages" for teaching students to think on the basis of principles, rather than through the lenses of an ideology. The label "Middle Ages" is used primarily to destroy the credibility of those whose views we regard as old and traditional, and it succeeds in doing what it was intended to do, only because most people are ignorant of history; for anyone who has studied intellectual history in particular will know that some of the most brilliant thinkers - who in many ways are still ahead of our time - lived in the medieval period.

What is interesting about the International Baccalaureate Theory of Knowledge course that I now teach is that the rubric for the final essay includes a requirement to give careful consideration to different perspectives, that is, to carefully explore and evaluate the counterclaims of one's opposition. I am not entirely sure of their reasons for this requirement - whether it is simply the result of an aversion to any kind of absolutism and thus a subtle embrace of relativism, or whether it stems from an appreciation of the limits of the human perspective and a genuine love of truth. Regardless, the requirement is an important one. But there is nothing new in this, at least not for a Catholic. The formal structure of the medieval method of writing, at least in the high Middle Ages, is that of a debate, always on a particular question, and the elucidation of the question always begins with a careful consideration of the current and most difficult objections.

For example, consider St. Thomas Aquinas' question in The Summa Theologica "Whether God exists?" Before doing anything else, Aquinas argues that God does not exist. He writes: "It seems that God does not exist; because if one of two contraries be infinite, the other would be altogether destroyed. But the word "God" means that He is infinite goodness. If, therefore, God existed, there would be no evil discoverable; but there is evil in the world. Therefore God does not exist."

That's a very interesting argument. I don't know of anyone clever enough to imagine such a difficulty with the very idea of God - certainly no one among the "new atheists" (i.e., Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etc.). Moreover, I know very few theists who could adequately respond to it. But that is not the only objection he raises. Consider the second objection: "Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God's existence."

This is not an instance of the fallacy of the straw man, and this is a far cry from ridiculing the opposition; for most serious Catholics could not answer this second objection.

Consider an easier question: "Whether happiness consists in pleasure". Before arguing that happiness does not consist in pleasure, Aquinas articulates three counterarguments: "It would seem that man's happiness consists in pleasure. For since happiness is the last end, it is not desired for something else, but other things for it. But this answers to pleasure more than to anything else: "for it is absurd to ask anyone what is his motive in wishing to be pleased". Therefore happiness consists principally in pleasure and delight."

With that argument, I could walk into any philosophy class of mine and convince every student that happiness is nothing other than pleasure, and if anyone dares to argue against me, I can raise the second objection in that same article: "Furthermore, 'the first cause goes more deeply into the effect than the second cause'. Now the causality of the end consists in its attracting the appetite. Therefore, seemingly that which moves most the appetite, answers to the notion of the last end. Now this is pleasure: and a sign of this is that delight so far absorbs man's will and reason, that it causes him to despise other goods. Therefore it seems that man's last end, which is happiness, consists principally in pleasure." Aquinas offers a final objection: "…since desire is for good, it seems that what all desire is best. But everyone desires delight; both the wise and the foolish, and even irrational creatures. Therefore delight is the best of all. Therefore happiness, which is the supreme good, consists in pleasure."

No one can accuse Aquinas, a 13th century theologian, philosopher, and Doctor of the Church, of having a closed mind or of failing to revere his opposition. But such reverence is a thing of the past. Recently I was browsing through a local newspaper and found all sorts of articles attacking the Conservative government. And that's fine, but none of those articles, not one, gave serious consideration to a different and more conservative perspective, nor did one article carefully consider counter arguments before setting out to attack government policy. And so we inevitably get the feeling that the country is being governed by a bunch of fools, which gives rise to fear, which in turn gives rise to anger that the majority government could possibly consist of a group of rich and cold hearted knaves. But have I been persuaded of that? Or, have I been manipulated? I am left with nothing that allows me to assess the opposition with any kind of objectivity, so all I can do is trust the newspaper.

The fact of the matter is that our opponents in debate do us a tremendous service. Only those, however, who love and pursue truth can acknowledge that. One way I was able to gain clarity for myself on a number of issues over the years was through the clever and thoughtful objections of my students. Their ability to imagine difficulties - not to mention the courage they showed in voicing them - helped me and future students in ways they hadn't imagined. Nonetheless, it takes a long time for students to begin to trust that I will not deduct marks for argument, for opposing me in class, for questioning, expressing doubt, raising objections, and forcing me to explain myself more thoroughly; for they were brought up in an educational environment that confuses an argument with a quarrel (that does not distinguish between an attack on an argument and a personal attack) and in a culture that believes education is about power, not truth; which is why questioning, opposing, doubting, imagining difficulties and debate were stifled. The result is that students readily believe everything their teachers tell them. They certainly believe me; they trust me and will not challenge me - initially, and unless of course I push them to challenge me. This is a problem, because soon these students will enter an institution of higher learning, and a professor with more letters after his/her name will stand before them, and it will more likely than not be a professor who will ridicule the faith and moral convictions of believers. What will these students do then? Many will do the same as they have always been encouraged to do, namely, put their faith in the one standing before them, not the one who supposedly died and rose again from the dead.