“Simply invoking ‘realism’ or ‘common sense’ doesn’t add up to anything resembling an argument.”
We are both proud leftists dedicated to the pursuit of what we would regard as a more free and just society. In recent years, we have noted a tendency on the part of many conservative pundits to portray the Left as fundamentally antagonistic toward reason and good faith argumentation. This includes figures as diverse as Ben Shapiro andJordan Peterson, and outlets such as PragerU. While we think many of these claims are wildly overstated, both of us have acknowledged that some on the political left are prone to simply dismissing conservative arguments, or refusing to engage with right-leaning media. As pointed out in a preview of Ben [Burgis’] book Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left:
“Too many people on my side only know how to respond to right-wing ideas with mockery or moral condemnation. One danger of this approach is that if we never get around to showing what’s wrong with the other side’s arguments, we’ll end up losing a lot of people who could have been won over.”
This is part of why we have respectively attempted to engage extensively with conservative positions, both in writing and in other media like YouTube, to demonstrate why we believe progressive solutions are more cogent than their competitors. In this article we wanted to continue this project by deconstructing two common tropes one commonly sees in various forms of right-wing argumentation. The first is the tendency to claim that conservative positions are simply more “realistic” than their left-wing counterparts. One sees that in claims such as conservatives care about “facts” while progressives care about feelings, or claims by figures like Greg Gutfeld about why the right is simply “right.” The second trope is claiming that conservatives value “common sense” over the arid abstractions of leftism. Frequent claims include that Republicans favor “common sense government” or talk about “common sense conservatism.”
We are, of course, not trying to decry the worth of being realistic or having good common sense, which even political radicals like Thomas Paine valued highly. Our point is that simply invoking “realism” or “common sense” doesn’t add up to anything resembling an argument. Instead, this rhetorical trope discourages further examination of descriptive or normative claims by suggesting they are self-evidently true.
The Problem With Realism
The history of philosophy is, to a great extent, a history of disagreements about what is and is not “real.” For Plato, as for many Christian thinkers like St. Augustine following in his wake, the empirical world of time and change was not the real one. For these thinkers, the world of time we inhabited was closer to the “moving image of eternity,” a reflection of the changeless eternity which only God could fully apprehend. Therefore, to understand the “real world” we must philosophically or spiritually transcend our focus on mundane “facts” about spectral images and contemplate instead the divine real of eternity.
By contrast, philosophers like Hobbes and Francis Bacon dismissed this vague eternal realm as unreal and abstract. This materialist view of reality was, in turn, challenged in the name of common sense by Berkeley, who argued in his Three Dialogues Between Hylas and Philonous that real objects like tables and chairs are simply bundles of perceptions. A table, for example, just is the way it feels when you touch it, the way it looks from different angles, and so on. Berkeley thought that “matter” was an incoherent philosophical abstraction. And, as a well-known contemporary Slovenian philosopher would put it, “so on and so on and so on.”
The conservative movement hasn’t been immune from these deep metaphysical disagreements. Even confining ourselves to the mid-century American right, we find figures as disparate as William F. Buckley and Ayn Rand. (Indeed, both of these individuals are enthusiastically claimed as influences by many contemporary conservatives.) Rand was an adamant atheist and materialist who believed that all objective truths about reality could be logically deduced from empirical observations. Buckley was a lot closer to the worldview of St. Augustine.
Worse yet, even if everyone on the political right did arrive at consensus and certainty about all of the facts about how the world is, none of their preferred moral or political conclusions about how it should be would be logically entailed by this discovery. In a famous passage at the end of Section I, Part I of his 1738 Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume complains about reading books where, “the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am supriz’d to find” that the author has switched from speaking of “is and is not” to speaking of “ought and ought not” even though it seems “altogether impossible” that claims about what ought to be can be “a deduction from” claims about what is, “which are of an entirely different kind.”
Some logicians have referred to this point about the folly of trying to infer values from facts as Hume’s Law. Put succinctly, the idea is that no normative conclusion—i.e. any about right and wrong, good or bad, or what people ought to do—can be logically derived from purely factual premises. In order for an argument for such a conclusion to be logically valid, there must be at least one normative premise somewhere in the mix.
To see the importance of Hume’s point, consider a recent piece by Ben Shapiro in The Daily Wire in which Shapiro derides Joe Biden’s decision to renounce much of his own record on criminal justice issues.
“In January, Biden apologized for having supported criminal sentencing laws that helped drive down crime in the United States. He did so because those laws are now considered both passé and un-woke—they’ve been maligned as inherently racist.”
Shapiro’s implied argument for the conclusion that Biden got it right the first time goes something like this:
Premise One: Strict criminal sentencing laws had positive social consequences.
Conclusion: Strict criminal sentencing laws were justified.
In order for the conclusion to follow, there has to be a Premise Two such as, “Any laws that had positive social consequences were justified.” Shapiro seems to take this claim to be too obvious to need to be spelled out; but here too some of the greatest minds in the history of philosophy have come to sharply different conclusions. Bentham believed that morality was about maximizing “the greatest good for the greatest number,” while Kant thought we could never be justified in sacrificing some individuals for the sake of others.
To see how difficult it is to navigate these issues, consider a thought experiment devised by twentieth century philosopher Philippa Foot and then refined by Judith Jarvis Thomson. In the first version of the scenario, five maintenance workers on a track are about to be run over by an out of control trolley car. You can’t save them, but you can pull a lever that will divert the trolley to another track where it will only run over one worker. Should you do it? In the second version, there’s no lever and no alternate track. Instead, there’s a footbridge going over the trolley track. A large man is leaning over the bridge, gawking at the accident about to happen. If you push him onto the path of the oncoming trolley, he will die but the five workers will be saved. Should you do that? Any instructor who has presented the Trolley Problem to college classes knows that nearly every student will react to the first scenario by saying that the right thing to do is to pull the lever and that a similarly overwhelming majority will say that it would be wrong to push the man. “Common sense” pulls them in a Benthamite direction in the first scenario and a Kantian one in the second.
The point of this little tour of intellectual history isn’t to suggest we should embrace any kind of skepticism or relativism. It is to showcase the way that some of the most intelligent people in the history of philosophy have put forward very different notions of both what is real and what is good. Any serious attempt to decide who was right and who was wrong about all of this requires rigorous argumentation. This is precisely the task being abdicated by conservatives who attempt to present their position as an obvious entailment of “common sense.”
Consider Stephen Harper’s observations about conservatism being about seeing the world as it “is” in his book Right Here, Right Now—Politics and Leadership in an Age of Disruption:
“Conservatism is about seeing the world as it is and applying the lessons of experience to new challenges. It is inherently populist in the sense that it is necessarily concerned with people rather than theories. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer once wrote that ‘if we don’t get politics right, everything else risks extinction.’ It seems a tad hyperbolic, but bad human relations do have a way of wrecking everything else. Stable and responsive politics is an essential ingredient to a strong, dynamic society. Places where politics fail invariably experience broader economic and social challenges.”
Typically, nowhere in this book is there an extensive argument for why conservatism happens to simply see the world as it is while other political ideologies simply scuttle about in the dark cave of ignorant confusion. It is simply asserted as a brute claim, which makes one wonder if Western philosophy was simply a long exercise in avoiding the honest truths now revealed to us by politicians like Stephen Harper and Donald Trump.
When Stephen Harper was the Prime Minister of Canada, he claimed that marijuana was “infinitely worse” than tobacco. This statement might reflect a certain kind of “common sense,” but it contradicts a long line of empirical studies that have shown that cigarette consumption is a leading cause of preventable death, while marijuana use has nowhere near the same verified health risks. Pretty clearly, that wasn’t a matter of “seeing the world as it is.”
He also rolled back environmental regulations, silenced scientists, and championed draconian anti-terror legislation that created two-tiered citizenship. Could a good case could be made for any of these policies? Perhaps so. But if that conclusion is to be established, the Harper’s of the world owe us something a little more rigorous than a raw appeal to “common sense.”
Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at email@example.com or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf
Ben Burgis is the author of Give Them An Argument: Logic for the Left, which is available for pre-order from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. He’s also a regular on The Michael Brooks Show on Tuesday nights and he releases videos every Monday for the Zero Books YouTube channel. You can follow him on Twitter @benburgis