Against discursive utilitarianism

In discussions of all kinds, one frequently hears someone declare that there is no point in continuing the conversation, because their interlocutor will never be convinced. This sentiment can sometimes be a kind of short-hand for various understandable reasons to cut off a conversation — your interlocutor doesn’t seem to be taking you seriously, they are trying to catch you in a contradiction or otherwise make you look stupid, they are just trying to waste your time, they just want to repeat the well-worn formulas that for them count as “opinions” or “views,” etc. — but insofar as we take it literally, it is a terrible reason to stop conversing.

The point of a conversation is not to convince as many people as possible to adopt your viewpoint, nor indeed is it to find good replacements for one’s own views. We are, at least sometimes, rational beings, and as such, we have a duty to give reasons for what we say.

There are circumstances that supply a good excuse to shirk that duty, and we are of course free to shirk it arbitrarily if we so choose — no one has infinite time or patience, and sometimes the interlocutors who are genuinely asking in good faith and with an open mind are the most exhausting of all.

Yet it is never acceptable to cut off a conversation because you have determined that your interlocutor will never abandon their views and adopt yours. It is perfectly acceptable, again, to conclude that they’re not taking you seriously, that they are just waiting their turn to say the same things they would say no matter who they were talking to — or indeed that you’re simply getting bored. But if the only thing that keeps you from becoming bored with a conversation is the prospect of getting someone to abandon their own view and adopt yours, then you have failed as a human being in a fundamental way.

4 thoughts on “Against discursive utilitarianism

  1. Interesting. I was just in a conversation with an analytic philosopher who is under the impression that one of the primary goals of teaching philosophy at the college level is to show how nonsensical relativism is, because it’s a real threat to the world, relativism. Now it is true that most of us go through some relativistic stage at some point in our lives–usually when we’re in college–I believe that we learn to suppress that relativism at some point and conveniently morph it into some other kind of discourse which becomes a convenient tool for dialogue and debate.

    We can disagree about this, but I think what happens with ethical or political debates, we are so keen on assuming the other side goes to some slipperly slope of relativism, or some nihilistic appropriation of relativism, or our own argument is contingent upon some sort of relativistic straw man, that even having a dialogue at all requires a relativistic openness that I don’t even want to come close to. We see these kinds of discources going on with our “guilt by association” critiques of the president and Jeremiah Wright, which Hannity and others just won’t let go of. The reputation smells like relativism, so it doens’t matter at all what information is to be shared or acknowledged.

  2. Adam, I have been reading Dolgopolski’s What is Talmud?, and for obvious reasons this post struck a chord. I dug for a bit and found a post in which you make a similar point before, in the wake of reading Dolgopolski yourself. When I was studying Talmud with a very long-suffering and generous teacher, this was one of the things that struck me most — the way no claim is ever relegated to outer darkness, but is always preserved (at least as a position it is theoretically possible to hold), so long as it arises in the context of the mores of the conversation. Perhaps it is appropriate that I am not completely convinced by Dolgoplski’s too-stark (i.m.o.) contrast between philosophy and Talmud, but I certainly think that agreement has been over-prized. As Hayek put it, “The typical conservative is indeed usually a man of very strong moral convictions…[but] he has no political principles which enable him to work with people whose moral values differ from his own, for a political order in which both can obey their convictions.” I realize Hayek is someone with whom we are both likely to disagree, but then, there’s something fitting about that.

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