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Arguing Things Out


If you want to see what a critical-thinking approach to a controversial issue looks like, one much more fraught than any educational topic discussed on this blog, check out this piece reflecting on the perennial hot topic of abortion.


Notice the author’s use of techniques that are part of the critical-thinker’s toolkit, such as translating statements and positions with high emotional impact – summed up in phrases like “Pro-Life” and “Pro-Choice” – into unambitious language that can serve as the premises and conclusion of a logical argument. This helps to clarify where arguments that form the central beliefs of key participants in discussion of an important issue may be faulty due to flawed reasoning or incorrect premises upon which those beliefs are built.


Just as importantly, the writer takes direct aim at the commonly held misconception that those who choose to think about important issues, by weighing evidence or coming up with compromise solutions, are weak-willed or wishy-washy compared to true believers who equate being resolute with being thoughtful.


If the goal is to win a victory or persuade others to your cause (or scare them away from your opponents), I suppose strong will and readiness to forcefully act on beliefs could be considered virtues. But if the goal is to actually solve a problem, then it is the true believers who are the cop outs.


This is because their absolutist positions do not allow them to engage in the kind of pragmatic decision making that must take place within a democratic society, including issues involving life and death. Holding life to be of infinite worth, for example (the Pro-Life position) ignores the fact that we make choices all the time, as individuals and as a society, that trade human life for some other good. The example he chooses is driving cars, which kills tens of thousands of people a year, lives that could be spared if we limited the speed limit to ten miles an hour.


The fact that we have not done so (or not banned cars altogether, regardless of their human cost) is that we have decided the benefits of automobile travel is worth the death toll, which means that we as a society have made difficult calculations that must include the worth of an individual life being something less than infinity.


Similarly, the unknowability of when life begins means that we cannot rely on “science” (which implies factual certainty) to draw lines for us. Claiming we know when something is a lump of cells vs. a human being represents not knowledge, but belief and in a functioning society those beliefs must be balanced and weighed against other factors (including consequences – direct or indirect – of our decisions). How many other life-and-death decisions we face – from immigration to war and peace – remain unresolvable because we treat conviction as superior to thoughtful reflection?


Finally, while I didn’t end up agreeing with the author’s conclusion, I respected that he was willing to both describe how he came to it and stood ready to be convinced otherwise, as long as those trying to convince him were ready to engage with his argument, rather than explain that there was only one possible answer to a political question with intense moral implications.

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