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Confidence in Argument
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Confidence in Argument1

I Ad Hominems: Conflicting Reactions

When someone presents an argument on a charged topic and it is (credibly) alleged that the arguer has a strong personal interest and investment in the conclusion, the allegation, directed to the reception or evaluation of the argument, typically gives rise to two seemingly conflicting reactions:

  1. 1. The allegation is an unwarranted diversion (a species of argumentum ad hominem or genetic fallacy).2 The prejudices or biases of the arguer are irrelevant to the cogency of the argument. ('Cogency' is used broadly to refer both to correct support relations, validity, in the case of deductive arguments, and to the soundness, warrant, and relevance of the premises.) In particular, it is a distraction from the crucial judgment of whether the argument is cogent to press the question of whether the arguer truly holds his conclusion on the grounds that he offers, or whether he believes it on [End Page 225] some illicit or suspect basis (prejudice, ideology, self-interest, wishful thinking, bias).

  2. 2. Since the arguer has a forceful stake or interest in the conclusion, which gives rise to strong biases that are likely to have distorted his reasoning, and this stake or interest is not apparent from the argument presented, the (credible) allegation disinclines us to take it seriously. The disinclination seems rational since these biases operate in a forceful, but non-conscious way, and if so, the arguer can be sincere in presenting his argument as cogent, when it isn't.

In this paper, I want to develop and reconcile the underlying insights in both reactions, which are, in many cases, (epistemically) legitimate. The grounds of the reconciliation help to explain and justify our confidence in argumentation as a source of intellectual progress. (I use 'argumentation' to refer to the practice of producing and challenging reasons for conclusions, and 'argument' for those products, sometimes extending it to include that an argument is asserted by someone and that it can develop over time.3 I restrict my attention to arguments whose main purpose is epistemic — to establish the truth of their conclusions.)4

The reconciliation starts with a sketch of the main features of argumentation. By rendering these features salient, I attempt to undermine the challenge of the argument-skeptic, whose position has affinities with claims to dominance of reaction II. The argument-skeptic charges that the arguments we construct are merely the cover of rationalization (and confabulation). The kind of common observation that animates the argument-skeptic is of, say, a community where an important environment vs. development issue is at stake, and, despite shared data, reports, and long time study, opinions correlate closely with (narrow) self-interest: wealthy homeowners, blue-collar workers, local business people. Individuals of each group offer credible and neutral (or objective) sounding arguments for their conclusions. The reasoning is nevertheless suspicious since converging on each group's antecedent (and opposed) [End Page 226] interests and beliefs. The skeptic holds that the disparity is quite typical and realistically ineliminable by means of further argument.5

Eventually, I will claim that the skeptic's challenge only has force under conditions that are highly constrained practically. But the challenge loses force under conditions less constrained, even if infrequent and contrived. Correlatively, reactions (I) and (II) can be reconciled as appropriate to different (epistemic) questions or judgments, though reaction (II) loses force as conditions for argumentation are more ideal. Reconciliation of (I) and (II) parallels a reconciliation of the ancient quarrel between philosophy and rhetoric over the value of devices of (rational) persuasion.

In the final section I address the phenomena of persistent disagreement, which casts doubt on my reconciliation, as well as animating the argument-skeptic's worries. However, the usual ways of conceiving disagreement, as evidence against the force of argument, overlook a source for the persistence that is dissonant with the argument-skeptic's understanding.

II Argumentation and its Background

1. Argumentation: Analytical, directed, social, explicit

Argumentation is purposeful in a number of ways: it aims at truth, knowledge, or rational persuasion. In these sections, however, I emphasize aims (and workings) less lofty, almost banalities. Argumentation calls on analytical thinking and it is...