Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Justification v Persuasion

by Joe Miller

At his site, The Ethics of War, Keith Burgess-Jackson criticizes Brian Leiter's failure to defend his position that the Iraq war is immoral. A couple of Burgess-Jackson's points stand out as particularly noteworthy:

Leiter has said in his blog that he has no interest in trying to persuade people. That’s fine. But doesn’t he have an obligation, qua philosopher, to display the grounds of his moral judgments?


One of the most common mistakes made by philosophers is to conflate persuasion, which is necessarily interpersonal and public, with defense of one’s judgments, which can be intrapersonal and private. To defend a judgment is to state its grounds, even if nobody else shares them. It’s a matter of displaying the structure of one’s beliefs or values. Whether anyone else has the same structure is irrelevant. You’re showing that your belief-set is coherent, and therefore rationally defensible. To persuade, by contrast, is to show one’s interlocutor that judgments he or she already makes commit him or her to some further judgment.

I'm not going to weigh in on whether or not Burgess-Jackson's critique of Leiter is fair. For those of you not familiar with either name, Leiter, a philosopher at Texas, is the architect of the Page 6 of the philosophy world, the Philosophical Gourmet Report, which purports to be a ranking of Anglo-American philosophy departments, but which is, at bottom, a gossip column and popularity contest. That it's also the best (read: only) set of rankings out there is beside the point. Leiter also has a blog on which he gives new meaning to the phrase "shrill liberal". Burgess-Jackson is also a philosopher (at U. Texas-Arlington) and a pretty active blogger. His main blogging is done at Tech Central Station, which is a fairly right-wing group blog. So there is little love lost between the two Texans.

Whatever the merits of Burgess-Jackson's critique of Leiter (and I suspect, having read some of Leiter's blog, that it's a decent critique), his more general point is a good one, and one worth keeping in mind as you write your own papers. Persuasion is good. A defense of your own position is absolutely mandatory. Indeed, at some point, the two become one. A really good defense is itself persuasive, provided that we all start with roughly the same set of premises.

Oh, and as an aside, The Ethics of War has a very nice running bibliography of important work in just war theory. It's an excellent place to begin a search for sources when you start writing your papers. That he includes one of my article has absolutely nothing to do with my recommendation of Burgess-Jackson's bibliography. Nothing whatsoever.


Anonymous Darleen Brook said...

LOL, oh Dr. Miller, I just love your sense of humor!

4:45 PM  

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