About those “settled” debates

Abortion is a “settled” debate in Canada, so we are told. Gay marriage is a “settled” debate. Climate change is “settled” science. All of these “settled” debates remind me of when I was young I would hear Christians say, with a presumed piety, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

But what does belief that a debate is “settled” do to the conversation?

The recent election of a social conservative to the head of the Conservative party of Canada has various media and political pundits reminding us, over and incessantly over again, that virtually everything that social conservatives believe in is wrong, and those debates are “settled.” One Liberal MP, flabbergasted that the Conservative Party of Canada would choose somebody to lead the party who is… can you believe this… Conservative, bemoaned, “We’re going back to the debates we thought we’d settled back in the ’80s.”

So let’s think a little about the claim that some issue / debate / subject is “settled.” What does that mean? It seems to me such a claim necessarily means at least three things:

  1. All relevant evidence / data has been compiled; no further evidence / data could possibly be discovered that would impact the debate.
  2. The evidence / data either has one and only one reasonable interpretation, or there may be more than one interpretation, but of the alternatives there is one interpretation that is clearly and unambiguously the “most” reasonable interpretation.
  3. The evidence / data either has one and only one morally acceptable interpretation, or there may be more than one moral spin on the data, but of the alternatives there is one interpretation that is clearly and unambiguously the “most” morally acceptable interpretation.

After all, how could we reasonably consider a debate “settled” if we knew, full well, that the data was sparse and incomplete, and it was fairly likely that additional data would be forthcoming at some point in the future. Who could possibly call such an issue settled?

Or if it were clear that the data is ambiguous enough that there are multiple reasonable ways that a person might look at the data, then we could hardly call the debate “settled” could we? When multiple reasonable interpretations exist then nothing has been settled.

Lastly, if the data strongly or unavoidably led to a single moral conclusion then how could any person justify disagreement?

Some questions

If these features (or some set of features like this) are necessary for a debate or issue to be considered “settled” then that raises certain questions. First of all, how in the world can we possibly be certain that no further evidence will be forthcoming? Especially in the domain of scientific discussions, once the debate is allegedly “settled” then do scientists just pack up and go home? Hardly. The search for truth is never ending and for many discussions it remains a distinct possibility that further evidence might emerge at some point in the future that sheds an entirely new light on the subject.

To declare a debate “settled” one would have to possess some kind of psychic powers to gaze into the future; a set of powers I’m highly skeptical that anybody possesses. It would seem prudent to clarify that a debate might be settled, “in light of the current state of the evidence.”

Furthermore, interpretation of evidence through our rational faculties results from considering the evidence “collectively” rather than in isolation. Which means we often need to bring evidence from other fields or subjects into our frame of reference. Truth is often quite multi-faceted. But nobody know everything, so everybody’s process of interpretation will be a little different. And given the fact that reason is always directly a function of one’s first principles – and it is these first principles which are often the most widely disputed – to say there is only one reasonable interpretation only makes sense if we add the disclaimer “for anybody working from the same first principles I am working from.”

We run into a similar predicament with respect to the moral dynamic in that people’s moral interpretations are often widely varied from each other. This is part of the point of having these discussions, because we disagree with each other; we rarely discuss issues on which we all agree (that gets boring quickly). As with the previous point, we should rightly add the clarification that the debate is settled, “for anybody who holds to the same moral frame of reference that I hold to.”

So, to be somewhat more accurate about “settled” debates, we should actually say something to the effect that, “The debate is settled in light of the current state of the evidence, as interpreted according to the first principles I am working from, and according to the moral frame of reference that I adhere to.”

But nobody makes those clarifications.

Why not?

Well, first because that’s way too wordy. In the age of 140 character communication brevity is sacrosanct.

But secondly, because this introduces uncertainty. This introduces ambiguity. Quite frankly, this completely undermines the entire purpose of pulling the “settled debate” card in the first place. What is the purpose?

To shut down debate. To end discussion. To halt the conversation.

When one person declares “the debate is settled” and somebody else dares to open their mouth to reply, the person making the claim in the first place is supposed to throw their hands in the air in astonishment, roll their eyes in bewilderment and walk out of the room.

The…

debate…

is…

settled!

But if we add uncertainty into the claim that the “debate is settled” then that uncertainty makes the claim of “settled” highly suspect.

No, we cannot allow uncertainty a foot in the door otherwise we will completely fail to shut down the conversation.

What this means

The very fact that a person might make such a debate-is-settled claim actually provides some fascinating insights into their perception of anybody who does not toe the party line; anybody who dares to challenge the “settled” conclusions of the debate.

First, there is the ignorance problem. After all, if all the evidence is in, and a person disagrees with the evidence, then there are (at least) three possible reasons why:

  1. They are not aware of the evidence. Most of these debates are taking place very much in the public eye, so if they are unaware of the evidence then clearly they are either too lazy to learn, or willfully ignorant.
  2. They have had the evidence explained to them, but they do not understand it. Clearly we are dealing with somebody who is pretty stupid, in that case because the evidence is usually pretty straightforward.
  3. They have had the evidence explained to them, and they have understood it. So why do they not accept it? In some cases a person might choose to believe something they know, quite clearly, is false, in which case they are categorically irrational. Alternatively, they might actually know and believe the truth, but are deliberately misrepresenting it to others (plausibly for personal gain) in which case their actions are unambiguously immoral.

Furthermore, if a person operates from a different set of first principles then we might normally be inclined to offer some latitude to other people’s perspectives, and even consider the merits of their point of view. But when we say that a debate is “settled” then we are precluding the possibility that any other rational frame of reference is plausibly relevant to the discussion. As with point three, above, this person is categorically irrational.

Similarly, if a debate is “settled” then there is no alternative moral interpretation that could justifiably be held. As in point three above, this person is unambiguously immoral.

No matter which of these explanations is the case, clearly this is not one of the finest specimens of the human race.

So think about that for a moment.

When a person claims that a debate is “settled” they are implicitly claiming that anybody who disagrees with the “settled” position is:

  • Lazy / willfully ignorant
  • Stupid
  • Irrational
  • Immoral (or some combination)

That’s not exactly a lofty opinion that person holds of their interlocutor. But it would seem such an opinion must be held if they truly believe that any debate is “settled.”

So the next time somebody tells you the debate is “settled” and you disagree with them, just bear in mind what is probably going on in their head.

What happens next

And what is going on in their head has some fairly unavoidable outcomes in their actions. If they truly believe that anybody who disagrees with them is (to pick one example from the above list) immoral, then you cannot trust this person. What nefarious motivation do they have for spreading these falsehoods? What evil lurks behind their fake smile?

Are you likely to attempt a balanced conversation with such a person; somebody you know must be immoral?

Or if you suppose this person is lazy, then there really isn’t much point in wasting your breathe. If they are irrational then, once again, don’t bother wasting your breath because clearly you are operating on a superior intellectual plain and they are stuck down there, somewhere, with the intellectual toddlers.

Stupid? You can see where I’m going with this.

The point is; why bother talking? There is no point in bothering with rational discussion with anybody who does not accept the “settled” position on these debates. Talk is futile.

Which, I dare suggest, is one of the reasons why people are far less likely to even bother trying to discuss these matters. This is why, I posit, more and more people are resorting to tactics such as name-calling. This is why there is a rise in protests, placards and, on some occasions, violence against those who do not accept these “settled” debates. Because anybody who refuses to accept the “settled” conclusion simply is not the kind of person you bother interacting with in a respectful, civilized manner.

They are a lost cause. They are hopeless. They only understand force and manipulation. Don’t bother bringing your evidence, just bring a large stick; it’s the only persuasion that’s likely to sink in.

I suggest that one of the underlying drivers behind the ridiculous behavior more and more people seem to be willing to engage in when trying to stand up for their cause is the fact that we have persuaded ourselves that “the debate is settled.”

What we have gained in self-consoling certainty we have lost in overall civility. For the sake of our personal confidence that “we are right!!!” and to enjoy the benefit of not having to consider anybody else’s perspective, we have erected walls, built barriers, and burned bridges.

We are more divisive now than at any time in recent history, and – so we like to tell ourselves, at any rate – vastly more confident in the veracity of our views.

For the sake of our culture might I humbly suggest we stop considering any debate truly “settled” as long as there exist informed, reasonable, moral people who disagree with the “settled” position. Just a thought.

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One thought on “About those “settled” debates

  1. There you have it folks! The debate over whether the debate is over is over. The debate is not over, and that’s final! Thanks for clearing that up for us, Paul.

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