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Fr. 576

October 23, 2014

In light of our recent remarks on the state of public discourse as described by Leiter and Neumann, it seems important to return for a moment to Jeffrey Stout, a philosopher on whom we have previously touched in relation and who has set out a persuasive account of how public discourse might be improved. Stout distinguishes his reason-giving position from that of the Rawlsian common basis, according to which the only acceptable reasons are those which might be accepted by all independently of comprehensive doctrine, to the extent that public discourse can prove more successful when it works on a “piecemeal” basis in targeting different audiences in succession. Specifically, if one argues from one’s own position to an interlocutor’s and one frames this argument in terms common to the interlocutor’s social and conceptual background, that same position is more likely to be heard and, to a greater or lesser extent, understood than it might be otherwise.

In this synopsis, there is nothing new, but we would like to draw attention to another instance of such an argumentative strategy in a discourse held by a philosopher to whom Leiter holds up a light in his own examination of public discourse: Peter Singer. Recall that Singer’s puzzling case owed to the peculiar mix of rhetoric and discursive hygiene accounting for his status as public philosopher. Strikingly, another mixed argumentative strategy is to be observed in a 2012 episode of the podcast¬†Bioethics Bites. Amongst Singer’s other considerations in favor of euthanasia are arguments made from his own perspective to its rivals in their own terms.

The content of the argument is perhaps somewhat less important than the argumentative move itself. Indeed, this move shows that, for all his venom towards religious folk, he does not wholly discount attempts to establish some common ground with them by inferring from their background beliefs to his view that humans have to make their own choices (under the form “God wants us to make our own choices”). As telling as this move may be for the efficacy of Stout’s considerations, it is equally important to recognize the limits in Singer’s case, as well. After all, his inference to the opposed perspective is followed by or even mixed with more forthright negation of the latter (e.g. there is neither god nor signs of god to the contrary).

Regardless, this concession on his part remains a striking testament to the potential good of Stout’s mixed argumentative strategy.

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