Saturday, 10 August 2013

Why People Argue

My last post argued for coming clean and admitting that people's foundational beliefs (rather than using the correct logical arguments or respecting other people's existence and experience) are boundaries for moderation in online discourse. In comments, noisms brought up the idea that we're all just ultimately arguing to show off, attract a mate, and spread our genetic material.

What's going on here?
To which I say - "partial credit." The mating idea can't explain, for example, why mostly-men argue in the mostly-male space of gaming forums. But the social goods available from successful argument go beyond scoring direct and immediate hookups (I hope you knew that).

One idea, from Henrich and Gil-White, argues for the importance of prestige as well as dominance in social ranking, resource distribution and mate selection. According to them, successful argument is a clue to good quality of information resources, and attracts a sycophantic clique of deferential individuals - although to me "sycophantic" is overly cynical, as most people in awe of prestige genuinely feel those likes and +1's. Put into internet arguing terms, your arguments may not necessarily impress a mate in themselves, but the entourage of loyal hangers-on you attract will, and they'll also support your survival to reproduce and the good future of your offspring.

But what, you may say, of sweet reason? Another viewpoint says it's overrated. Although the debate-society rules for argument require us to avoid bias and logical fallacies, Mercier and Sperber say that's putting cart before horse. Instead, the way we actually think and reason is set up to help us convince others to act in our interest. The biased and often incorrect nature of reasoning is well known to social and cognitive psychologists, but the adaptive benefit of arguing powerfully - and you argue most powerfully when you yourself are convinced - may outweigh that of being able to think through problems dispassionately like a computer. The theory is not without critics (see responses after the linked target article) but overall the responses acknowledge that argument is an important, if not the only, reason to reason.

So, this analysis paints an even more pessimistic picture of argument. We are all just arguing to advance our cause, or at the very least the cause of our parochial group. We completely exclude points of view from legitimate consideration, and stack the deck in our arguments' favor, and all this is just to score points and climb the monkey ladder. If the truth ended here I should just stop writing, or keep on writing in bad faith.

It doesn't end here, though. Feeling good when you help someone doesn't mean that your helping isn't good, and likewise, getting acknowledged for good arguments doesn't mean their purpose is entirely selfish. Indeed, Mercier and Sperber stress that reasoning is meant to reach a rational solution through a social, not individual, process. The biases of each arguer cancel out, or at least they collectively sort themselves out and come to represent the arguing group's interest as a whole.

As intentional creatures who are aware of higher levels of social organization than our genes, we can choose to support this function. I'm not just doing this posting for the offspring and the sycophants (PLEASE SIR MAY I BEAR YOUR BLOG BABY) but so that the "higher level of social organization" known as "gamers" can stop wasting time and good will arguing in unproductive ways.

In order for this function to work, though, people have to be convinced occasionally; the needs of lower-level groups have to give way to higher-level concerns at some point, or we never get beyond the house of endless war. In this process, too, I am skeptical that deductive reasoning plays much of a role. The whole point of deduction is that if you accept the premises, it is easy and in fact inevitable to accept the conclusion. The whole point of arguing is to convince people of the premises. And most often, I think, coming to accept a premise turns on something as simple as interpretation. But more on this, next post.


  1. I must admit I don't care why people argue, just how they argue. And the problem I have with the latter is those who resort to such things as sarcasm and subtle (or not so subtle) name calling as tools for argument.

    Such disrespect forfeits the right to be taken seriously or even responded to. I'm not talking trolls here, but those who attempt to pass themselves off as intelligent, clever and reasonable, but in actual fact fight dirty, with a lack of respect, an overblown sense of superiority and disregard for social contract. They destroy good forums and kill dead good conversation in blog comments.

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  3. How about defending the truth, or logic or reason for the mere sake of it? Or defending someone (Monte?) who has been a bit slandered by petty people, because, well, it's the right thing to do?

    There's virtue in those things I think. And if you're smart and a good and funny writer, all the better.

    Is Zack right about everything? I assume not, as I have never met anyone who is. Nevertheless, he should get a medal.