About rational argument

kleinbergThe often-mentioned second phase of my research is about understanding whether or not deliberation happens on social news sites, and whether it has anything to do with how the front page of the sites will end up looking like.

So one of the tasks of the moment is to find a way to conceptualize deliberation, and to put it into the context that is provided by Habermas, and his various critics, such as Mouffe, about the role of rational argumentation in democracy.

This lead me to pick up Stanley S. Kleinberg’s book “Politics & Philosophy: The necessity and limitations of rational argument.” It did not turn out to be helpful in the conceptualization of deliberation, or understanding what “good argument” was, but on the other hand, it is a very interesting philosophical account of a line of thought about the role of rational argument in general.

I try to summarize this line of thought here.


Politics is moral in character, in that it is about what constitutes the good life, and how it should be brought about, and in that politicians make claims to convince people that acting against their own interests (paying taxes, going to war etc.) is the right thing to do. It is not necessarily a good/evil distinction, but there is an ideal picture of citizen, and if you fail to live up to it, that is seen a failure of your moral character.

(Note the contrast between this idea, and Mouffe, who accuses the rationalist-individualist-consensus-oriented view of “playing out politics in the moral register” – this being a bad practice, according to her.)

However, politics also relies on rational argument, because it says: this is the good life, it is rational to live the good life, and hence it is rational to act in a particular way.

(Of course, in my view, it can be debated or examined how much a particular politican appeals to moral or rational claims; the ideal scenario that Kleinberg considers is that the claims that politicians make have a moral foundation, but follow a rational logic.)

The question is then, how can the foundation of arguments be justified rationally. (If it can at all.)

The subjectivist answer: rational argument, after all, is pointless, because the foundation cannot be justified rationally, and thus all apparently conflicting political judgements are reducible to expressions of different peoples’ basic (=non-instrumental) wants. Cf. Deleuze.

One sign of subjectivism NOT taken for granted in political practice is the idea of ideological connectedness, i.e. the fact that various political principles tend to be reconciled within a more or less coherent system. If subjectivism was accepted, there would be no need for this kind of reconciliation, and “ideologies” could look just like a dog’s breakfast kind of mixture of various ideas. (So some critique is implied here about “ideologies” that pick-and-mix their ideas, failing to tie them together via certain foundational principles.)

So then, for subjectivism, politics “can never be anything but an unending power struggle,” but Kleinberg proceeds on the assumption that rational argument is relevant (in practice).

He then looks at various ideologies (economic liberalis, welfare liberalism, conservatism, Marxism and constitutional socialism) to briefly describe them and to take a look at arguments about them – how they can be justified etc. The conclusion?

At least it can be shown that some claims are rationally demonstrable to be false. So it can be pointed out that they use false evidence, or don’t consider the full picture, or, for example in the case of Marxism, it can be argued that it rests on unfalsifiable claims (e.g. the statement that socialism will take over capitalism cannot be shown to de wrong, because it offers a choice between “socialism has taken over capitalism already” and “socialism has not yet taken over capitalism, but it will in a future point”).

BUT –

but that doesn’t mean that foundational claims could be argued for rationally. Kleinberg states the point that there is only a limit until you can go with rational, reasoned argument. After a point, rational argument must come to an end. Even if it is true that there are certain basic truths which are beyond debate and evidently true, political claims about what the good life is, are so-called “contingent” claims, meaning their truth depends on some property of the universe as we experience it – in other words, their truth depends on the observer.

(I think this argument runs in parallel with the idea that “ought” cannot be derived from “is” (Hume); so the point is that basic claims which are beyond debate cannot serve as the starting points of reasoned argument in favour of political claims.)

HOWEVER, interestingly, Kleinberg points out that science is no exception either. And that is very good point. Science, as it needs to be established, is always contingent on new findings. That science works, however, is because it relies on “unprovable assumptions.” Here is an example: we know that every time we throw an object to the air, it will fall towards the ground. But more precisely, what we know is only that SO FAR it always happened like that. The connection is so strong there, that we can establish it and put it in a more sophisticated form as the law of gravity. That it will, given certain conditions, ALWAYS work, we cannot prove. But believing in the laws of physics is still rational, because it means believing in assumptions that have been shown to be true on innumerable occasions and never false.

So science demonstrates that just because there are no proven foundational truths, a whole coherent system of argument can be judged rational, and, well, work on the principle of rationality.

“So scientific beliefs can be rationally demonstrated, but that demonstration is always relative to particular unprovable assumptions. Does the same hold for political beliefs? We may have found no independent yardstick against which we can measure the merits of individualist or communitarian assumptions, but we have seen how traditional liberal arguments presuppose individualist assumptions and in different ways traditional conservative and socialist arguments presuppose communitarian or collectivist ones.”

But, of course, there is a big difference to science:

“The difference between the cases of science and politics is that in the latter case the option of declining to make the particular assumptions that are urged on us always seems open. [So if we don’t like a particular set of unprovable assumptions, we can shift to another one.] But if we accept that there are no foundational political principles which must be endorsed by all, the question arises as to the basis of our own political opinions. If we know that our political principles rest on disputable assumptions, are our political beliefs not built on shifting sands?”

And here the argument gets a bit hazy, and probably not so satisfying for those who look for a definite answer. The way I understand it it says that:

political beliefs are important not in making sense of the world, but in finding “a basis that will enable us to share it with others”; and this recognition serves as justification for our political beliefs, it seems.

So for example I might view politics as means to “reach an accommodation with those who may otherwise damage me.” But I also might think of myself not as an individual whose interests needs to be protected, but as possessing an identity which is inextricably bound up with others. This is a matter of individual choice (or socialization; probably there are both conscious and unconscious elements in this decision).

So how I think about myself and the relationship between myself and others might be seen as satisfactory justification for my political beliefs; and THIS, if I understand correctly, is a principle that is applicable universally all across humanity.

To sum it up:

“There are no rationally demonstrable truths except for ones which rest on unprovable assumptions. But relativists in effect hold that what I call unprovable assumptions vary from society to society, whereas I maintain that the circumstances of the human predicament may be such that some of these assumptions transcend cultural differences.”

OK, so how I understand is:

  1. Rational argument is the accepted basis for argumentation for everyone that shares the acceptance of particular foundational truths.
  2. These truths cannot be rationally proven, but they might rest on “unprovable assumptions,” which is good enough to work with; so belief in them is rationally justified.
  3. The problem is that one is in theory free to choose from competing sets of foundational truths. Or in other words, both the choice of set A can be rationally justified, and both the choice of set B, which might emphasize totally different values.
  4. But what I understand seems to be that because of human nature, certain elements of these foundational truths will always be shared among people. Once again, these elements cannot and need not be proven rationally.
  5. => and this seems to give a basis for rational argument; because – once again, if I understand this correctly – in POLITICS, we can always narrow down the list of basic foundational truths that need to be agreed on. If there are NO such foundational truth agreed, then we are dealing with something else, not politics. That is war.

(Well, one might claim that even in war there are particular foundational truths about how the world should be that are shared between enemies.)

Kleinberg, Stanley S. (1991). Politics & Philosophy – The Necessity and Limitations of Rational Argument. Basil Blackwell.

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