Consensual arguments

Lots of people dislike arguments, and arguments about religion in particular.  It’s often asked, “Why do you even bother telling people that their personal beliefs are wrong?”  The common counterargument is that beliefs inform our decisions, and as citizens of a democratic society we are subject to other people’s decisions.

But here, I hope to get at the root issue. I believe people complain about arguments because they’ve had negative experiences with arguments.  Indeed, everyone and their mother seems to have an anecdote about an argument about religion, where the other person was totally obnoxious.  One theory about these anecdotes is that they were obnoxious because they were arguing about religion, and no one should ever argue about religion.  Another theory is that they were obnoxious because the arguments were non-consensual.

A few initial caveats: I am not necessarily advocating a consent model of arguments.  It’s more that I’m testing out this framework by trying to see what we’d get.  Right away, we can see problems with this framework, since consent models are more typically applied to sex, which isn’t very analogous.  For instance, non-consensual sex is always unacceptable, but non-consensual arguments may be justified in many cases.  But let’s see what positive value we might derive from applying consent to arguments.

From a blogger’s point of view, consent is trivial.  I consent to write what I write, and you consent to read it.  If you leave a comment, I do not need to respond, but if I do then I consent to responding.  Even if you deeply disagree with me, our argument is mutually consensual.  Why bother arguing?  Maybe we just wanted to, and we both consented to it.  I don’t need to justify mutually consensual interactions by referencing their supposed positive social value.  I also like to write about math, and the social value of that is approximately zero.  Writing about math is acceptable because if you don’t like it then you don’t need to read it.

When it comes to offline arguments, consent is less assured.  Even if someone is walking away from you and refusing to speak, you can still yell arguments at them.  You can argue with someone who can’t escape because they’re trapped in an elevator or an airplane.  Or maybe they’re “trapped” by a family dinner, thus the common injunction against political and religious arguments at dinnertime.

Non-consensual arguments are often necessary, such as when several people need to come to an agreement, or when interpersonal problems need to be addressed.  But when it comes to politics and religion, those address society-wide issues, and any individual argument is a drop in the bucket.  I might complain that society as a whole is trying to avoid an issue that needs to be addressed, and I might complain that an individual person’s refusal to argue represents that greater problem, but I can definitely afford to halt any particular argument where the participants are unwilling.

It is also the case that consensual arguments are not necessarily good, even on the internet.  First, people can suffer from SIWOTI syndrome, and willingly participate in arguments that hurt them.  I can’t do much about that, but I encourage people to leave internet arguments that they don’t like.  Second, you might consider an argument wrong because of its substance.  If a person argued that Hitler is a role model, we might think that was terrible not because we didn’t want to argue, but because it’s terrible that anyone thinks that.  To some extent, I imagine people don’t like arguments about religion because they just think it’s terrible that anyone is critical of religion.  The dislike of arguments must be disentangled from the dislike of particular viewpoints.

All of the above discussion assumes a situation where only a few people are arguing.  But arguments about religion also occur in the public forum.  Concretely speaking, popular opinions columnists often write about religion.  In this case, you still have a choice whether to participate, but there are a few situations where it can feel forced.  For example, you could be publicly singled out for criticism.  You might call this a “call-out”.

As I said before, non-consensual arguments are often necessary.  And what better way to address a society-wide issue than in the public forum?  And we need to call out individuals because we can’t keep everything in the abstract forever.  Still, consent is preferred to the extent that it can be obtained.  This could be used to justify several intuitions about the best way to criticize people in the public forum.  First, it’s better to criticize people with influence, who actually represent the society-wide issue, rather than being random object lessons.  Second, it’s better to criticize people who are already part of the public conversation, to avoid forcing people into sudden fame.  Third, harassing people is wrong.

So what do you think of the consent model of arguments?  It sounds decent to me, although maybe it needs another word to replace “consent”.


3 thoughts on “Consensual arguments

  1. The Barefoot Bum December 9, 2015 / 3:07 am

    I also like to write about math, and the social value of that is approximately zero.

    Au contraire, mon frere! For some of us, who are part of society, reading about math is very valuable.

    As to consent in arguments, I dunno. I think politeness is a more important consideration: what is and isn’t polite and when impoliteness is justified. It is, for example, often impolite to even ask for consent, because people dislike saying “no.” For example, I remember when some guy bent my ear for 45 minutes on a plane to Pakistan, talking about religion. I could have shut it down, but I felt that would have been impolite, so I endured his monologue until he ran out of steam.


  2. Siggy December 9, 2015 / 7:22 am

    The problem with politeness as a principle is that there are multiple variations on it. For instance, ask vs guess culture is well-known, and relevant to your example. Consent is basically a model of what politeness is or should be.

    The consent model would tend to lean towards ask culture. It is fair to criticize it by saying that guess culture also has value.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. luvtheheaven January 27, 2016 / 1:43 pm

    I think people don’t like arguments they didn’t consent to, for sure — this applies to someone blogging about an unrelated topic and casually mentioning that they are an atheist and then being evangelized to in the comments (or vice versa, casually mentioning as a side note being a Christian and then being surprised by a comment on their post about why their religious beliefs are wrong). This applies to the dinner table if someone else starts the conversation and you don’t really want to be a part of it, etc.

    But I also think certain personality types really don’t like the same types of philosophical discourse that those who start the arguments do. Some people believe in religion without ever engaging with it critically, or kind of “don’t really believe in God” without feeling strongly about it, and either way, they don’t want to feel pressured to start having strong justifications for what they believe, to consider whether they might be wrong, any of it, because they seem to have a very different way of thinking about these things than you or I do. I don’t know.


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