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Good Arguments

Learning a great deal by disagreeing with an excellent interlocutor—and thinking hard "out loud."

June 04, 2018Filed under Blog#ethics#philosophy#writingMarkdown source

I’m working my way slowly and carefully through Shannon Vallor’s Technology and the Virtues and as I put it to my friend and partner-in-Winning Slowly Stephen Carradini: I find that I very often agree with Vallor on her conclusions while equally often disagreeing with her on how she gets there. It makes for very interesting reading, certainly; and so far, at least, I can pretty heartily commend the book despite my disagreements.

And the reason why I can so heartily recommend it is what I’m more interested in at the moment. Vallor is a really excellent conversation partner. Not all writers are. But Technology and the Virtues is the kind of book that is sufficiently well-written and well-argued1 that the very act of disagreeing with it—if you take the time, anyway—produces light rather than merely heat.

A good conversation partner prompts you to think hard about the differences between her position and your own. She pushes you to articulate why you disagree, and whether your disagreements are well-founded, and if not to see if you can provide a good foundation for them. Vallor has this and in spades. I have pages of notes both agreeing with many of her points and also articulating why—as a Christian interested in virtue ethics—I differ sharply with her in certain areas.

What makes all of this valuable is that these are illuminating differences. I have a better sense of some of the gaps at least in my own education in Christian ethical systems.2 I have a better sense of the space in which Stephen and I are playing with Winning Slowly Season 6. I have clarified my own view of the relationship of virtue and wisdom and law in meaningful ways in just the short time I’ve been working through this book—and I can feel the gears turning still in the background; there is a lot more sharpening to come from this.3

When people talk about the benefits of reading those you disagree with, this is what they mean. The best interlocutors are those who push you like this—whether you agree or disagree, they make you work harder and think more sharply. Good arguments are invaluable for clear thinking and the pursuit of truth.

One other thing this points at is that good thinking often begets good thinking. I actively want to think well about these things, but I also am unable to do as well in a vacuum as I can with the help of others who are thinking hard and well about them—even, and sometimes especially, when we disagree.

One of the reasons I blog is as an attempt to think well out loud. I cannot make others think well no matter how well I think; and I certainly do not presume that my own thinking is always thinking well. But the act of writing, and writing publicly, is an attempt to do the kind of work (on however small a scale) that I see people like Vallor and Alan Jacobs and Ben Thompson doing in their own spaces. If I can do even a fraction so well as they are in my own space, perhaps I too can help others think well. At the least, I know I am learning to think better along the way, and that is no small thing.

  1. These are different! Complementary, but different.

  2. See footnote 2 on an earlier blog post for a comment on why I assume the problem is likely with me. It’s probable that there is quite a bit of specifically Christian reflection on many of these ideas; I simply haven’t encountered it. This may also say some things about the specifics of my theological education; I think it does and may return to that in a later post, but that’s neither here nor there.

  3. A preview:

    • Vallor sees virtue ethics as incommensurable with deontological accounts of ethics; I think the two are meant to complement one another. The structure of Biblical ethics is both deontological and virtuous. In particular, my read of the Wisdom literature (as well as the New Testament account of righteous life which builds upon it) is that the Biblical account sees virtue (or righteousness) and wisdom as the fruit—and I choose that word intentionally—of life lived under God’s enduring law. The moral precepts do not change; their specific applications are plurifold, and the shape of Biblical ethical reflection itself is likewise wide-ranging. Put more simply: life lived under God’s law in his power yields wisdom. This is not so different from Vallor’s picture of the virtue ethics of Aristotle, Confucius, or Buddha—save that wisdom in the Biblical account does not supercede God’s law; it comes to rightly apprehend how God’s ways are rightly applied in every circumstance.

    • Vallor rejects the notion of any singular account of a human telos or specific nature (other than what we have been given by evolution) that is capable of grounding the pursuit of virtue across all cultures. She aims for a kind of ethical pluralism that can account for the various cultural notions of human nature and telos without falling into ethical relativism or absolutism. I don’t think her account can actually support this weight, though. By contrast, I think Christianity does have the resources to support the kind of pluralism she rightly recognizes as necessary because its account of human naature and telos are rich enough to embrace the goods of many cultures and contexts and wisdom traditions. (That Christianity has not perfectly or even very much at all lived up to this potential is, as Vallor herself notes of her own account of virtue ethics, by no means a defeater for the claim.)

    There is much, much more to say here, and I will—later!