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Fr. 388

September 9, 2013

One could challenge Stout’s position on discussion, both in political environs and in general, by asking: why should one enter into discussion with another individual and respect that individual’s position if this individual does not present him or herself to me as a subject, that is to say, as a being to whom one owes respect on a normative level? In other words, if one does not perceive this other individual as a being with a normative core which merits and calls for respect, then one might wonder whether one need enter into discussion at all with this individual.

Stout might first respond by asking how this knowledge is to be secured in advance, independently of engagement with the individual in question. More simply, how is one to know that this individual does not merit respect without having spoken to him or her? Indeed, the objection here seems to turn on the notion of subject as a being who recognizes (the possibility of) universally binding norms and the need for open, honest discussion of beliefs and values. Were one, however, to contend that one should engage in discussion with only those individuals holding the status of “subject”, this status of subject thus being a logical and practical prerequisite for discussion, it does not follow that one knows in advance the subjects from non-subjects, for lack of a better term.

This challenge could propose two solutions to this dilemma. In the first, the status of “subject” could be granted to all individuals simply in virtue of their humanity and without prior discussion. Yet this leaves unresolved the issues of knowing whether one should enter into serious discussion with the individual insofar as the content of the individual’s beliefs might prove contrary to a position meriting respect from the interlocutor and all other individuals. In the end, automatically granting subjecthood to all individuals runs counter to its own purpose.

Alternatively, the status of “subject” would only be granted following the individual’s presentation of him or herself as a being operating within a universalistic framework, appealing to commonly held norms or, at the very least, holding a minimum respect for the integrity of persons and humanity. Indeed, this alternative proves much stronger than the prior. Yet it seems to beg the question by including (at least to some extent) as one of its premises precisely that which Stout sets out to refute in the third chapter of Democracy and Tradition: the need to subscribe to a common basis or principle or, on weaker versions, the need to believe in the possibility of a common basis or principle. Accordingly, this second alternative could be held up as an instance of circular reasoning that fails to respond to the challenge that Stout earlier issued.

Nevertheless, the issue of “subject” and respect does pose something of a problem for Stout, albeit one that he takes into account. Specifically, he recognizes that not all individuals merit our respect as subjects in that they do not hold a position that demonstrates consideration for persons and humanity or could be generalized as a mode of conduct, e.g. violence, persecution, hate, etc. His solution to the problem does not, however, draw on this status of “subject” that is to be granted or not granted. Rather, after engaging the individual in discussion, one can determine whether the position in question is responsibly held. Furthermore, in the manner of a “scorekeeper”, one is obligated to recognize, keep track of and tally those “points” that the interlocutor manages to score against one’s own position. Of course, this talk of “responsibility” and “scorekeeping” brings with it its own difficulties, for one might wonder what is to keep one from not recognizing the interlocutor’s moral core (thus granting one’s interlocutor the status of “subject” and the attendant respect) simply in virtue of his or her disagreement with one’s own position. To combat the possibility of bias, Stout can only appeal to the interlocutors’ patience and empathy as remedies against this natural tendency of thought and discussion.

Naturally, this call for patience and empathy does not dissipate or solve the difficulty, for such is the natural bent of discussion. It thus requires that one double down and begin an earnest process of self-work in order to minimize this tendency.

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