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Growing pains of a student philosopher

Having already blogged about what I think philosophers should aim at, I’d now like to say something about the part of the process that, for whatever reason, doesn’t get enough attention.

Like so many others, I often get it wrong. I accept that and expect I’ll be wrong innumerably many more times over the course of my career. That’s alright.

What’s important, however, is that we learn from it to the extent that we can. So, here’s an example to help illustrate what I mean.

Meme by Clifford Sosis; used with permission; originally read: "my outlandish beliefs, my philosopher professor"; captions modified and adapted for this blogpost

During my professor’s office hours this term, I shared an argument (against capital punishment), perhaps way too matter-of-factly, that goes as follows:

  1. People have the right to life.
  2. Murderers are people.
  3. Therefore, murderers have the right to life.

My professor was quick to object that that argument might only succeed to convince those who already accept the existence of “rights”.

At first, I wondered whether my professor’s criticism was even fair. He denied the first premise but because every argument must start somewhere, I thought, surely, I cannot be expected to prove every premise. How does one even prove the existence of rights?

However, he wasn’t criticizing the argument itself. After all, the premises don’t merely provide good reasons to accept the conclusion: the truth of the premises absolutely guarantee the truth of the conclusion! Instead, by denying the first premise, he was engaging me in philosophical dialogue and giving me some instruction on how to better approach philosophical argumentation.

My professor’s main point was further reinforced in an assigned reading for his course:

Good argument proceeds, whenever possible, by appeal to shared premises ~ Richard Feldman (1)


However important that is, upon reflection, I was embarrassed to have noticed that such an appeal didn’t figure in the argument I gave above.

So, for anyone interested in argumentation, I learned that in order to argue more effectively, instead of preaching to the choir, like I did, one should try to speak to as broad an audience as possible.

So here’s a revised argument:

  1. If people have the right to life.
  2. Murderers are people.
  3. So, murderers have the right to life.

References

  1. Feldman, R (2006). Reasonable religious disagreements. Chapter 16 in Louise Antony (ed.), Philosophers Without Gods: Meditations on Atheism and the Secular Life. OUP.

Aside: The Feldman paper has probably been my favourite reading thus far in the course, so I highly recommend it. My favourite and most memorable line from it is this: "As will become apparent, open and honest discussion seems to have the puzzling effect of making reasonable disagreement impossible"

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