A challenge and an opportunity for argumentation studies.

Author:Zarefsky, David

The body of research reported by Mercier and Sperber, taken as a whole, strongly supports what they call the argumentative hypothesis: that people are prompted to produce reasons not by the desire for either truth or better decision-making but by the prospect of prevailing in an argument. Indeed, they note, examination of human reasoning reveals that people generate reasons that are manifestly poor if judged by epistemic or decision-making standards but that facilitate success in argumentation.

On the surface, these findings suggest both that interaction with an adversary will prompt the production of stronger reasons than will solitary thought, and also that the prospect of argumentative success is a stronger motivator than is the search for truth or high-quality decisions. While others may be troubled by these findings, readers of this journal should take heart. Argumentation studies, after all, are oriented to the principle that reasoning with others is the basis of collective decision-making, especially in the absence of knowledge that is certain.

But wait. Mercier and Sperber do not mean by "argumentation" what many of us do. They are not talking about normative concepts such as justification, good reasons, or critical thinking. They rely entirely on an effectiveness standard: good arguments are those that will elicit agreement with one's own point of view. They go so far as to claim that reasons judged to be strong by that standard may very well be weak by normative or critical standards. Their findings provide scant support for the justifications often invoked for teaching argumentation, much less for proclaiming its centrality in a liberal arts education. Beyond that, they offer little reassurance to those who would reject a cynical view of human nature in the belief that altruism and cooperation are among our strong motivations.

Yet I am not convinced that there is cause for great despair. Indeed, in an important sense Mercier and Sperber's findings validate pedagogical and theoretical approaches that many of us embrace. Consider their claim, for example, that arguers are motivated primarily by the prospect of competitive success in an adversarial environment. The question then becomes: How can an environment be structured in order to use this motivation and direct it toward results that meet the tests of soundness and critical thinking? In other words, can it be the case that the motives of the individual arguers are for...

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