The case for reasoning in the public sphere (2017-01-26 20:01)

Since everyday live keeps us busy, we do not often think about unusual topics. How many of you have heard of the classic trolley problem in philosophy? Maybe a few, but probably just the minority thought of a solution to this conundrum and are happy with and able to defend their case.

The answer to this conundrum however gives deep insight into other convictions and concepts a person might have. Sam Harris points out that the mind is a connected entity and a strong case can be made that thinking in one area influences reasoning in another one as well.

What I try to advocate in this post is mainly two things: The first is that we should talk more about deep issues and moral questions in the public sphere. Be it your workplace, an evening with friends or even with your partner at home. The second point is to make sure that we have productive conversations with each other.


So, why should you care to engage more in moral questions and deep thinking amongst your peers? Why is it worthwhile to extend one's knowledge and gain a basic understanding on philosophical concepts?

A starting point is given by Michael Tomasello, who said:

"What makes us really different is our ability to put our heads together and to do things that neither one of us could do alone. To create new resources that neither one of us could create alone. It's really all about communicating and collaborating and working together" [source]

and Carl Sagan, who answered when asked about science in the public sphere:

"People are able to look at sports statistics. Look how many people can do that. Understanding science is not more difficult than that. It does not involve greater intellectual activity." [source]

Being a social animal that uses communication and works together and the likelihood that we are more capable to do science than we often think we are, leads to the conclusion that doing public conversations about deep issues could be an opportunity for each and everyone of us who values discourse and the exchange of ideas. And as long as we keep some simple rules we can actually have deep and meaningful conversation which add to our lives.

Another reason is brought forward by Michael Sandel. When discussing issues in everyday life, we often lack the philosophical bedrock to understand which fundamental principle we invoke at the root of our argumentation. Understanding those ideas brought forward over generations by philosophers makes our conversations easier and therefore more productive. [source]

This leads nicely to the second point, productive conversations. The reason for this is probably clear to everyone, at least intuitively. Conversations should be effective and not suffer that we constantly misunderstand each other. A big factor in having effective conversations is experience and one will become better over time. Another one is methodology and how we pay attention to certain patterns in our conversational style.

Imagine a team of architects designing a skyscraper in a city center. Despite their education in different universities or even different countries they share a specific common terminology and knowledge base in order to cooperate with each other. This is an important factor if misunderstandings and failures in communication can lead to costly errors in collapsed buildings and human lives.

However, in everyday life, we do not spend much effort in clarifying our terminology when we start talking about something. We always assume that conversational partners share the same understanding of our terminology. Of course, different understandings can be benign on certain topics and it might not matter much whether we choose the term funny or cute for a vacation picture shown to us by a colleague or friend. In other areas, however, the meaning assigned to certain terms matters a lot.

Since it is impractical to start a conversation by laying out one's full terminology, we need to be aware that it is necessary to embed this into our conversation. Usually one can identify two different points of friction in a conversation. One is caused by misunderstandings and one by a real difference in opinion.

Reflective listening is one of the techniques that can help. It aims to confirm whether an idea was understood correctly and you simply describe in your own terms what you have understood. Your conversation partner can then assess if the meaning came across correctly. This technique however clarifies only potential misunderstandings and does not give a guide on how to keep a conversation productive given that there is a real difference in opinion.

Having effective conversations with real difference of opinion is another important topic, but I do not want to go into detail about this right now.

Recognizing that having conversations, even if we disagree, is the first important step. Without having them it does not matter much whether we agree, as we do not exchange ideas anyway.

One issue that I want to reflect on was brought up by many speakers and public intellectuals like Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins, Maajid Nawaz, or Sam Harris. The difference in concept of a debate in contrast to a conversations. The latter one seems to be more useful, because it focuses more on the exchange of ideas itself then the notion of winning.
And if one stubbornly tries to keep their point in order to win a debate they easily fall victim to not changing your beliefs in the face of new evidence, because you would lose.

Finally I can recommend a great collection of deep questions, tackled by contemporary writer and philosopher Peter Singer in the work “Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter”. It gives a broad overview on a lot of moral topics that are worthwhile discussing.

One question that you could try during a lunch break could be:

"Should overweight people pay more for a plane ticket?"

I tried this question once and it sparked an interesting discussion with lots of aspects that I personally did not took into consideration during my first analysis. And isn't this the essence of every conversation?