Improvising Rhetoric

February 18, 2008

Call me arrogant (go ahead, do it), but I want to convince other people that my beliefs are correct. Furthermore, I’m convinced that for many of my beliefs, there is a reasonable argument that will persuade people that I am correct. Not for everything, of course; values are difficult to argue. If a person really doesn’t believe that individual rights are as important as, say, societal unity, there are going to be a lot of disagreements. Still, I believe that most of the arguments against, for example, certain aspects of globalization, are incoherent and don’t stand up to scrutiny, even in promoting the values they purport to defend.

The problem for me is finding arguments that are both convincing and quick. It’s not enough to be able to convince a person eventually; my window of opportunity to talk and be listened to is almost always quite short. Just the other day, I was arguing with someone that it wouldn’t necessarily be a good thing to enact a policy that will end or even sharply reduce smoking. My position boiled down to the claim that smokers might not be worse off smoking than not smoking, that banning smoking might not help smokers. It’s a pretty standard economic assumption: if a person chooses to do something, that person is probably better off doing it than not doing it [see my previous post for much more on this].

My interlocuter didn’t agree that smoking could ever be a reasonable choice, and presented me with the following thought. In an unrelated prior conversation, I had expressed a sympathy for Kant in ethical decisions. Maybe I was taught a lesson, because this came back to haunt me when I was asked, in the context of this debate, “Well, what would Kant say about the idea that smoking is okay? What would society be like if everyone make that decision all the time, to just enjoy all they can in the moment and totally neglect the future?”

That argument is just so wildly wrong that I didn’t know where to begin. He just fundamentally misunderstands my position, and also the nature of things that can be “universal laws.” But saying that does little good when one is trying to persuade. There had to be a way to respond to this, but I couldn’t think of it before the subject was basically dropped.

I seem to get in situations like this all too often. I get to a point where I feel like no adequate response can be given in one simple sentence or analogy, but that’s all the attention I can really hope for. I suppose I could be a pedantic jerk and say, “OK, stop all your pointless blather and listen to my explanation,” but that’s rather socially inappropriate.

It’s a tough problem. I can try to persuade someone, or at least try to engage with someone, when they are really interested in engaging with me. I don’t know how to be persuasive to someone who seems to have strong beliefs but isn’t really that interested in hearing long explanations. Pith is a problem for me. Even this post managed to generate an entirely separate post because I just felt compelled to flesh out my claim that smokers are rational. Sadly, in real life, I can’t direct people to my blog. So, what is to be done?

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