How (not) to argue

‘This is an exercise in Big Anecdote rather than big data, but it seems we rarely win an argument’

I once asked Emanuel Cleaver, the Democratic congressman from Missouri’s fifth district, whether he had ever changed the mind of a Republican colleague. “Once,” he said, brushing his impressive moustache. When we met in 2012, Cleaver, a paragon of civility, had been a member of the House of Representatives for seven years.

I have since asked the Cleaver question of politicians and normal people from other countries. How often have you changed the mind of an opponent on a big issue? The typical response is “once or twice”. This is an exercise in Big Anecdote rather than big data, but it seems that we rarely win an argument; we are too busy avoiding defeat.

Near-violent assault is the usual result of my efforts at moral persuasion. I have failed many times to convince one friend of the merits of the late philosopher John Rawls’s famous thought experiment, the veil of ignorance. The veil’s only attraction to her lies in the dubious claim that behind it, she could strangle her interlocutor without reproach.

Why is it so difficult to argue persuasively? One of the best books written on the subject is The Rhetoric of Reaction by Albert Hirschman, the peripatetic public intellectual who died two years ago, aged 97.

The Rhetoric of Reaction identifies the three forms of argument commonly deployed to oppose reform. The futility thesis says that the proposed change simply will not work. The jeopardy thesis says that the costs of change are too high and will endanger earlier reforms. The perversity thesis takes the jeopardy thesis one step further by adding that all attempts to solve a problem will exacerbate the underlying condition.

Futility, jeopardy and perversity are everywhere. Consider arguments about raising the minimum wage, an idea mooted by reformists on both sides of the Atlantic. Opponents of a rise often insist that it cannot be enforced (the futility thesis), that it would undermine business support for other policies such as parental leave (jeopardy) and that it would increase unemployment and therefore poverty (futility).

The schema also applies to nonpolitical arguments. Let’s say I would like to convince a sceptical friend that she should ask out a mutual acquaintance. (Seriously, they’d be great together.) She might, however, argue that it would be futile as he would never say yes, or that it would jeopardise our friendship group, or that it would – perversely – ruin their relationship, an outcome she refuses to countenance.

Many reviewers interpreted The Rhetoric of Reaction as an effort to muffle the crowing of neoliberals; it was published in 1991, within a few months of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. It is a political book. But it is chiefly concerned with the practical world of language, not the abstract planets of left and right. (Hirschman tried to change the title to the less politically loaded The Rhetoric of Intransigence.)

The economist thought that by showing how rhetoric operated, he could help people relate to one another. In the words of Jeremy Adelman, Hirschman’s biographer, “The point [of The Rhetoric of Reaction] was to imagine a different way to argue.”

This was a noble goal from a noble man. But his book does not tell us why people often say that change is futile, perverse or that it jeopardises something important.

In some cases, change would result in one or all of those three things. Doubling the minimum wage might not be widely enforced, employers would balk and there would be job losses. Despite my claims to be an unerring Cupid, perhaps my friend would be rejected. Perhaps it would be wonderful for a few months before the relationship ended in acrimony, shattering our circle of friends. Perhaps she would never talk to me again, signing off with a pithy text: it’s all your fault. die.

And yet sometimes, our arguments are well evidenced but they are still rejected. In the two decades since The Rhetoric of Reaction was published, psychologists have complemented Hirschman with an understanding of why persuasion can be difficult.

For example, research by Tom Gilovich suggests that there are two typical responses to new factual information. When it supports our existing beliefs, we ask: “Can I believe this?” When it challenges what we believe, we ask: “Must I believe this?” Gilovich says that the answer is usually yes to the first question and no to the second.

In The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt, another psychologist, argues that “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second”. Reasoning can persuade others, Haidt says, but it is more important that we understand the nature and origin of people’s moral intuitions. More facts are not always the best way to erode intransigence, he says.

Indeed, Dan Kahan of Yale University suggests that in partisan environments, more information will only serve to reinforce stubbornness. In other words, a polarised political culture is a product of Emanuel Cleaver, rather than the other way around.

These conclusions are troubling. But the implication is not that facts are irrelevant but that we must first consider who we are arguing with, not the subject of the argument.

Opposition to the minimum wage might stem from a different moral conception of fairness. My friend’s dating reluctance might derive from her different values about friendship. We should not give up on Hirschman’s quest. That would be perverse.

John McDermott is an FT commentator.; Twitter @johnpmcdermott.

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