Why On-going Arguments Show We’re Not Really Reasonable or Honest

If we have access to the same facts and evidence, we ought to reach the same conclusions about any topic. What does it mean when we don’t?


We’ve all encountered situations where we believe we are right and someone else wrong. Indeed, by our very nature, we hold beliefs that we think are true. However, says economist Steven Landsburg, when it comes to claims that involve others or the world, our access and knowledge of data ought to lead everyone to the same conclusion.

Whether it’s about which sports-team is better or if capital punishment is wrong, our views are not merely our own: what evidence and argument we have, based on rules of logic, ought to lead us all to the same conclusion. As Landsburg puts it in The Big Questions: “When two well-functioning computers run identical programs with identical input, they produce identical output.”

And if you and I, as aspiring truth-seekers both interested in evidence and logical argument, process information in the most reasonable, logical way possible, we both must reach the same conclusions. If we both had the same computer – monitor, hard drive, etc. – and we both used the same web-browser and URL, each of us should basically see the same website.

Similarly, in arguments about the world, most of us have access to the same evidence and information. If we don’t, that only means we shortly will have access to the same information, when our opponents explain themselves. And if both sides do have the same information, but one of us is not relenting, then Landsburg claims dishonesty is at play.

The Death Penalty Debate

Imagine your two friends, Mike and Jen, discuss the death penalty with you, independently of each other. Mike is against the death penalty, because it doesn’t lower crime, it’s not preventative, and too many people are mistakenly charged – which not only means innocent people are killed by the State, but that the actual criminal remains at large.

Jen claims, without knowing Mike’s view, that the death penalty serves the roles of justice as retributivism, lowers crimes and/or is an excellent deterrent, guarantees that a certain violent member of society will never commit a crime again, and removes the burden from tax-payers to keep such a person alive (for example, in life imprisonment).

Now what happens if they introduced these arguments to each other? Landsburg claims that, if they cared about reasoning and were presumably engaging with same evidence, Mike or Jen ought to shift, immediately.

For example, when Mike says capital punishment is no deterrent, Jen ought to adjust her views. If Jen does not adjust her views upon hearing this, she knows something Mike does not. She has some piece of evidence that Mike is unaware of.

Let us imagine Mike pulls out fact after fact, research after research, consistently showing the ineffectiveness of capital punishment in lowering crime or as deterrent (which amounts to the same thing). For Jen to reply, she either has to accede to the data or present another aspect which not only provides evidence for her opposing claim about crime rates, but must overcome the ones Mike produced. The point is, eventually Mike and Jen will have access to the same data and should be interpreting it the same. Let us assume that neither is engaged too much in the methodology of the research, but believe the experts’ conclusions: What both will eventually realise is that there is no deterrent effect according to the data gathered and interpreted over decades.

This, however, might not make capital punishment immoral. It only means we are closer to aligning our views on the evidence. Both Jen and Mike can scratch the “data” argument box and accede it to Mike’s view. This doesn’t make Jen wrong overall – it just makes her wrong with her statement, since the data disagrees. According to Landsburg, this should keep happening until eventually all the boxes are ticked, and both Mike and Jen have the same data and have interpreted it similarly (e.g.: always acceding to the research experts’ conclusions). This should then lead to an obvious conclusion. They could, for example, both acknowledge Jen is right about no longer keeping prisoners alive, that capital punishment is an absolute preventer of further crimes, and so on. They do this across all their empirical premises that both have presented.

What makes argument so important is finding which of one’s premises are mistaken and whether the reverberations of that mistaken premise shatter the web of belief that captured your conclusion.

Simple, Surely?

Of course this simplifies humans to being merely reason machines and assumes claims are only empirical/testable (which I would love all of them to be, myself). What’s left out here, as Landsburg and other economists acknowledge, are humans’ emotions, cognitive biases and blunders; and, furthermore, an agreement on matters moral and not empirical (such as viewing human life as inherently dignified, and so on).

Even so, how often do people really accept new views upon hearing new or contradictory evidence (seen clearly and often in this blog’s comment section)? It is unlikely to occur and arguments are often just a way for people to assert their beliefs, in the teeth of justified contrary views. For Landsburg, if someone does not concede (for example, if Jen still maintained the death penalty was right), then it shows she is more interested in popularity or status than truth. That makes her dishonest.

This is slightly harsh, but Landsburg asks what else should we conclude? If you and I are both given the same evidence, which proves your view completely, and I have no reason to doubt the data and nothing to contradict it, I am being a mule-headed imp if I do not admit your view true. But humans being humans, this is unlikely to happen. And calling people stubborn is no way to try convince them – rather, we can just acknowledge how hard it is, for all of us, to see contrary views. But we can at least all admit: we do not have all the data all the time. And probably never will.

And the Lesson is…

Regardless, there’s no reason we can’t learn from Landsburg’s interpretation. When proposing an argument, we should never think we have all the facts: that is, by definition, almost impossible. And if that is true, it therefore means we should be hesitant about whether our concluding beliefs and moral judgments are the absolute right ones. Furthermore, whatever our empirical justifications, there are also those parts which are unfortunately not empirical: how we view human life, the limits of the State and so on. However, even within these arguments, will be claims about the world which argument should reveal to opponents and defenders some new insight into the world, clarifying for both and gradually narrowing the great divide both may perceive themselves to have.

When engaging in debates, then, it is often best to find those with a combination of clarity, brilliance and, more importantly, an opposing view. They could reveal a fundamental premise about one of our deeply held beliefs to be completely false: for example, that capital punishment is not in fact a deterrent. If that is not true, it seems one must do a great deal of work to then justify the rest of it. If punishment, of whatever method, does nothing to stop that which it is punishing, what is the point of that method?

There are replies – and smart ones – but it at least means that opponents realise that either they must give up the entire argument or find new ways of thinking about their view.

This advantages everyone, since, if you defeat this premise, a new argument arises which takes the debate further since neither of you had considered this new argument before (for example, it’s not about punishment, but payment say opponents who agree that capital punishment is not a deterrent). This to me seems the best we could possibly hope for in on-going arguments.

Image Credit: claus+mutschler/Shutterstock

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