The virtues of political discussion
Politics is quite unique in contrast to other sciences. When scientists debate each other, they conduct thorough studies and, based on empirical data, attempt to disprove each other’s hypothesis and prove that their own hypothesis is unfalsifiable. Similarly, when philosophers debate each other, they present arguments with clearly outlined, analytical, and logical axioms, premises, and conclusion, whereby each of those can be clearly and logically addressed. And so, it often happens, that when scientists or philosophers debate each other, as a result of a well-conducted study or an analytical argument, one of the scientists or philosophers changes their mind and adopts the position that has been proven to be true over the opposing one. So why do politicians never do?
Why do politicians never agree on anything? Why do debates rarely change people’s minds? When we watch Question Time, the questions and responses are not based on logical arguments but are rather thrown into the air, hoping that someone would somehow find them persuasive. “So helpful for the economy”, “so benefitting for the environment”, “so good for income equality”, so what?
Prior to the late 19th century, science had a different definition to what it is today. While today we identify it with disciplines of natural philosophy using the empirical method to come to conclusions, for Hobbes or Hume science would mean certainty. Anything that could be proven with certainty was a science; this included mathematics, physics, philosophy, theology, biology, and many others. What mattered was not the empirical method (which is but one way of proving truths), but the outline of our argument for a certain truth; whether it inductively or deductively followed that we were correct.
This included political philosophy. Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes all had ideas which clearly followed. They did not assert any values or conclusions, nor were they trying to be persuasive; rather, they were trying to be true. With clear premises, if one accepted the axioms and premises of one of their arguments, one would be compelled to accept their conclusion, and should one disagree with one of the premises, it was clear at what stage do the two debaters come to a disagreement. The arguments were developed and built upon and responded to each other – they were not merely individual points without any foundations thrown out into the air.
Today, we too have a discipline called ‘political science’, but it is a ‘science’ of the modern meaning, not the old. It attempts to gather statistics and data relevant in the world of policy-making through the use of the empirical method – it is not about discerning truth about politics using clear and analytical arguments.
At some point, everything went wrong. Politics stopped being about clear ideas, but rather, seemingly, about mere preferences. Nowadays, it often seems to me that the eternal slogan of a Facebook commentator, ‘that’s just your opinion’, is a universal political principle – it seems to me that people have no expectation of opinions being based upon logical premises, but rather mere preferences, substance-less, unbacked fancies.
Why is it that those arguments are so poor? Why is it that politicians can never convince each other, that political debates never arrive at ‘truths’?
It is, firstly, as aforementioned, because the arguments are thrown into the air. When one commentator makes an argument, the next comment is rarely a logical response to it, separating out and critiquing one of its premises, and then the response to it is not a defence of this premise. No, instead it is a completely unrelated point adding to the pile of poor persuasion, a cabinet full of arguments which we can take throw and throw at the enemy without any hope of persuading them; merely to make it seem like our side has substance, when actually it has none, since each of those arguments is shallow, without foundation, and often fallacious (as long as the voter does not realise that).
Secondly, it is because people no longer work on clear ideological foundations. Do political debaters begin their debates, like philosophers, with trying to establish the aims and definitions of each side? No – they assume their own presumptions. Of course, if two politicians have completely separate aims at heart they will disagree! It is completely pointless to debate policy when the very basic axiomatic principles upon which a given policy was founded are different on two sides of the argument. Should one politician be a follower of the social contract theory, and another a utilitarian, one will try to through their policy, ensure that it is compatible with the unspoken contract signed by the ‘original society’ which created the government, while the latter will try to maximise the utility resulting from the policy. It is completely irrelevant what effect on the balance of payments it will have! As long as a policy violates the social contract, a social contract theorist will reject it, no matter its effect on the balance of payments or unemployment, therefore it is pointless to debate those topics. Addressing them at no point addresses any of the premises or axioms upon which the policy of the social contract theorist was founded, and as such, they will not change their mind, and the truth will not be arrived upon.
This is the modern exchange of political ideas. Ideas of no relevance thrown into people that do not care about them, ideas which do not address the truth underlying the policy in question. There is no attempt being made at analytically deconstructing political viewpoints, at arriving at the truth. It is, therefore, of no surprise that politicians do not change their mind – it is because nobody addresses their mind! Their premises and axioms remain completely unchallenged, arguments being made are completely irrelevant; the particular detailed effects of policies are miles from being the appropriate topic to debate, while the debaters have not yet even agreed on the general purpose of politics or the aim of the policy in question.
Sadly, it also appears to me that most politicians are aware of the emptiness of their arguments. It is not that they debate without having agreed to the foundations of their arguments – their arguments have no foundations. No longer do political ideologies have to be clear and coherent; they are, indeed, a mere fancy, a personal preference.
Pragmatism and postmodernism
Of course, the points made in debates often go together. A utilitarian and a Christian existentialist may agree about the importance of reducing poverty; a deontologist and a natural moral lawyer may agree that abortion is intrinsically evil. That, however, is more often not the case (especially when there is disagreement), and even if the argument is persuasive, it leads only to small changes and adjustments in one’s beliefs – the debate is then not about discerning truth, but minor ideological adjustments. It is much more important to debate the very roots of one’s disagreement, rather than merely throwing punches at the tips of the branches.
The frequent response to a logical, analytical approach to politics is pragmatism. However, pragmatism itself is an ideology which should be debated, and per se, it is a meaningless term. What does it mean to be pragmatic? People often say that it is putting the greater good before ideology, but if one’s ideology is consistent, then ‘good’ is defined in ideological terms. People who appeal to pragmatism often tend to actually appeal to utilitarianism, which is an ideology definitely worthy of debate, and with many flaws to it. Another common response is the post-modernist one of there being no objective truth in politics, but of course, much like pragmatism, that too is an ideology which needs debating – and one, I think, not worthy of much merit, given the great abundance of political philosophy which is quite conclusive about discerning objective truth.
Political debates need to become logical. They need to become about clear arguments with clear axioms, clear premises, and clear conclusions, with clear ideologies underlying them, and debaters need to start addressing those very premises and axioms and ideologies – not beating around the bush about irrelevant effects of individual policies. This way, politics, once again, can become about truth and politicians, like scientists and philosophers, can actually prove and disprove each other wrong.
Sadly, I doubt that will happen. The average voter has a poor understanding of logic, not to mention ethics or political philosophy, much like the sailors who do not know how to navigate yet want to be the Captain. Arguments in political debates need to be ones to attract votes, not to discern truth, and as such, they must be ones that the voter can understand. As irrelevant as it may be, the effect of a policy on income disparity may convince a voter, unlike the fact that a given policy goes against the categorical imperative. The voter may have no good reason to care about income disparity, no ideological foundations underpinning their concern of income disparity, but as long as it is the voter, not the truth, that rules politics – politics will remain to be about substance-less, unbacked fancies.