Arguments in Evaluative Language—Essentially Contestable

Is it cruel to kill cattle in slaughterhouses where live cattle can smell the blood of the dead? Or to spank children in order to teach them how to behave? The point is not that we couldn’t argue our way to one position or the other on these questions; it’s only to say that when we disagree, it won’t always be because one of us just doesn’t understand the value that’s at stake. It’s because applying value terms to new cases requires judgment and discretion. Indeed, it’s often part of our understanding of these terms that their applications are meant to be argued about. They are, to use another piece of philosopher’s jargon, essentially contestable. For many concepts, as W.B. Gallie wrote in introducing the term, “proper use inevitably involves endless disputes about their proper use on the part of users.” Evaluative language, I’ve been insisting, aims to shape not just our acts but our thoughts and our feelings. When we describe past acts with words like “courageous” and “cowardly,” “cruel” and “kind,” we are shaping what people think and feel about what was done—and shaping our understanding of our moral language as well. Because that language is open-textured and essentially contestable, even people who share a moral vocabulary have plenty to fight about.

From Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah, page 59

In this quote, Appiah illustrates the essential bottom-up structure of language. Taleb touches on this when he gives the example of Esperanto. We all aren’t speaking Esperanto because it wasn’t created organically, from the bottom up. Instead, it was created in a top-down manner, trying to account for every possible linguistic situation. The failing of Esperanto is that it is impossible to account for every situation, especially when created in this top-down manner. How would Esperanto have incorporated Twitter? Or Flickr? Or Google? The fact of the situation is that language is a ever-evolving cultural tool for describing our world and communicating it with others. English is the current world language precisely because it is a hodgepodge of many other languages: it has Germanic roots and yet nearly 60% of English words come from French, and thousands of words from Español.

Language is an intimate part of culture—as if within a feedback loop, they change together. Morality works in a similar way, in a cyclic manner, intimately connected to our culture. Appiah talks of the malum prohibitum nature of morality, meaning some things are considered good because they are described in good terms. Appiah uses the term evaluative language for this, but the concept of malum prohibitum in law and morality essentially says the same thing, that our idea of whether something is good or bad sometimes rests on whether or not it is legal. And this evaluative language, then, gives rise to the essentially contestable concepts, because the language can be interpreted in different ways.

Usually when I find myself in an argument with someone concerning an essentially contestable topic, I try not to argue with them. Instead, I simply ask questions, Socrates-style, prodding my way through their tangled logic until I arrive at a contradiction, an unconfirmed assumption, or some other marker of invalid logic. If I can’t find anything, that’s when I file the conversation in the back of my mind and really mull it over. Sometimes I find something I’ve missed and been mistaken about, other times I simply clarify the logic of the other person’s argument and find something they’ve missed. This is the only way I’ve found to politely handle other people’s illogical conclusions concerning touchy topics.

Cosmopolitanism by Kwame Anthony Appiah

The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb

In What Language Do Deaf People Think?

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