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The duelling myth postulate: summary and extension

So for the past couple of days you’ve all been very indulgent as I have worked by way through a rhetorical device that I have been pondering for a couple of weeks now. The idea can be summarized as follows:

Many disputes can be expressed as being grounded in two opposing myths: that the world (relative to the topic under discussion) is fundamentally fair, and that the world is fundamentally unfair. Based on those beliefs, moral arguments are developed that either require the preservation of the status quo (f-myth) or its abolition/modification (u-myth). From within each mythical perspective, the opposing argument becomes immoral as a necessary consequence.

What I think this framework (which is really more of a rhetorical device than anything else) allows us to do takes two principal forms. First, it may allow us to gain insight into the positions of people we find in opposition to whatever we are trying to do, connecting the dots between beginning and end rather than just focusing on the end’s immorality. Second, by making explicit all (or at least many) of the steps along the way to the conclusion, it provides us with opportunities to either re-evaluate our own position or attack those of others by injecting different types of evidence into their logical process.

It is important, I think, to jump back to the beginning for a moment and recognize that because these are myth-based beliefs, neither can be said to be more true than the other. Since “fair” is subjectively defined (an assertion that is certainly open to critique), my belief that X is ‘fair’ can be, at its most basic level, no more objectively true than someone’s belief that X is ‘unfair’. This remains the case up until the moment that we can both establish a common definition of ‘fair’. It is then and I think only then that any attempt to counter-argue can have any kind of usefulness.

While I have my own doubts about this, I also imagine that it might be possible to show inconsistencies in people’s arguments by tying one f-myth (or u-myth) based argument to another that the person might not agree with. For example, I would imagine that someone who thinks that affirmative action programs are ‘fair’ would have a hard time arguing that harassment policies are ‘unfair’, since many of the antecedent justifications are identical. Exposing to this type of cognitive dissonance may be a powerful motivator for either change or at least modification.

We also have the potential to use this framework to explore exactly how far back in the line of logic our disagreements go. Our most persuasive arguments, it would seem, would be those that focus on the exact place where our beliefs diverge. Spending a lot of time fighting about the conclusions of a process would, I would think, result in a more productive conversation than expending that energy trying to work backwards from the end. Once again, this is entirely conjecture on my part, but it seems to stand to reason.

Extension questions

I am going to have to test this framework ‘in the field’, so to speak. Not only as a way of interpreting arguments made by others, but over the course of disagreements to see how useful it is in real time. As profoundly uninterested as I am in wasting my breath on the herd of jackals that spew faux outrage at the very idea that women are discriminated against, I am unlikely to insert myself into those particular conversations (especially since I believe the ‘other side’ just doesn’t know it’s already lost). If I am feeling particularly masochistic, I might find myself using this in conversations about whether or not people in social justice conversations have an obligation to adjust their “tone” – a conversation about which there is profoundly deep disagreement even among people who I otherwise like.

In terms of how to test the factual basis for my assumptions (namely, that my ‘fair myths’ idea describes reality in any way, rather than me simply forcing the facts to fit my theory), that’s a much tricker task to tackle. If it is the case that these myths are correlated with (or indeed, the same construct as) system justification, then psychological studies dealing with how fairness is manipulated might shed some insight into how to test this model experimentally. In my mind’s eye, I imagine asking people to evaluate the extent to which they endorse a given course of action (e.g., adopting an affirmative action program), and manipulating their levels of system justification (i.e., prompt them to think of it as ‘fair’ or ‘unfair’ experimentally). If my framework is correct, we should see modifications in endorsement as a result of making system justification more or less salient.

In terms of how to test the efficacy of this framework as an argument, I am less familiar with what would be an appropriate research design. What I can imagine, though, is that if two parties who have a fundamental disagreement both agree to adopt this style, it would make it far easier to walk your way through an argument without as much acrimony. That being said, I don’t think acrimony is de facto a bad thing, but depending on what you’re trying to do, it can be problematic. It’s possible that this provides us with a method of having conversations that are more productive.

Concluding thoughts

My chief concern in all of this is that I have done nothing particularly useful by spelling this out. I am not at all convinced that I haven’t just restated a bunch of things that are really obvious. If this series has been helpful for you, then I am glad because then it wasn’t a total waste of time. I am not by any means suggesting this as a ‘best practice’, nor do I claim to have created something revolutionary (or, for that matter, even correct), but it was helpful for me to get it down ‘on paper’, so I appreciate your bearing with me. This bit of writing accomplished, I will return you to our regularly-scheduled programming.

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  1. says

    I’ve found it interesting. I’m not sure if it was your intention, but putting each argument within the umyth and fmyth framework actually allowed me to better empathize and understand both sides of each argument.

  2. Enkidum says

    Like I said a few posts back, I like these posts – sort of like Fincke-lite!

    Anyways, my only real worry at the moment about the myths idea is the fact that it seems to me that any existing ethical opinion can be framed in terms of a u-myth or an f-myth, and in fact you did that with a couple of them. In which case, if these myths can both be adapted to fit just about any situation, what are they tracking?

    This isn’t meant to be a substantive disagreement, just something that’s been bugging me for a while.

  3. Emu Sam says

    Enkidum, I think the two myths are tracking (could be used as part of a sociological survey tracking) opposing parties’ perceptions of issues, particularly controversial issues, and providing a way to talk with an opponent by putting yourself in their shoes.

    So it’s more psychology than ethical philosophy.

  4. flex says

    I submit that this tool may be useful to help someone understand the arguments of others, it is not going to be particularly useful in countering those arguments.

    There are a few tools which can help someone learn why their opponent in a discussion feels the way they do. This seems like a good tool to add to that toolset, and I’m always glad to add another tool to my toolset, but none of these tools seem to very effective in changing minds.

    I don’t know if you have read Douglas Hofstadter’s, Godel, Escher, Bach, but one of the sequences describe a series of postulates as part of a discussion between two principles. These are the form of a syllogism, at least at first. In shorthand it would be if postulate A and postulate B, then conclusion Z is reached. But one of the principles says, “okay, I accept A and B, but I don’t accept Z.” So a new postulate is added, postulate C, “If A and B are true, then Z must be true.” The first principle say, “I accept A, B and C as true, but I still don’t accept Z as true.” And so they go to D, which says that if A, B, and C are true, then Z follows, etc.

    While Hofstadter was talking about recursion, this particular narrative comes to mind when arguing with someone with a particularly strong opinion about something. They might agree with all the evidence and arguments you make, but still refuse to accept the conclusion. They might acknowledge the weakness of their own argument, which appears to be the strongest use of your f-myth/u-myth tool, but still not accept that those weaknesses should be applied to their conclusions.

    However, all that being said, I appreciate the addition of a new tool into my own arsenal of discussion. The tool is too new to be certain of it’s value. Are there other tools which perform similar functions? Certainly, but that doesn’t make this tool worthless. You can remove a nail with a claw-hammer, pliers, a screwdriver, a cold chisel, even a circular saw, and if you are really clever you may even think about how to remove the wood from the nail not the nail from the wood. The choice of tool depends on the desired outcome and the surrounding environment. A nail in a very expensive piece of furniture may be removed by carefully drilling a hole in the nail and using a screw extractor, while a nail stuck in a framing 2X4 might be removed by a wrecking bar. The more tools available in your toolbox, the better.

    I look forward to reading about the results of your test of this tool.

  5. says

    Sometimes I think you sit in my brain and wriggle till the thoughts I have but can’t form come into focus and find all the perfect words for them. I took my time with this one and I believe I will find it useful in at least attempting to parse arguments with new (less loaded) words.

    The think I would find most difficult in using this tool is rarely do people approach an argument from one side of the fairness myth. That of course would only be applicable when discussing a series or group of actions. In the sense that it may be difficult to navigate whether a person agrees to the group of actions as a whole, as individual parts, or not at all. Nonetheless, I can’t imagine framing it would do too much to oversimplify unless someone allows it to let them ignore parts of an argument.

    Overall I think I have framed most choices in my head in a progressive/conservative approach. Since I have little bother with fear of change, I tend to lean pretty close to the progressive in most choices (‘cept when we call birds dinosaurs. We don’t want to get int o the cognitive dissonance I put forth there.) Framing them progressive/conservative works well in my head but is totally problematic in conversations for above stated reasons.

    So yeah, thank you for this. I enjoyed the experience reading. I will reread even if you don’t e-pub it but would love if you do.

  6. says

    It seems that the problem always comes down to determing if the person you are arguing with is engaging in good-faith. Also, can someone engaging an argument in bad faith be unaware that they are doing so, or does ‘bad faith’ imply knowing you are being dishonest?

  7. says

    “Bad faith” technically implies someone being intentionally disingenuous, but I think the term has fuzzy margins. To be honest, I think most people don’t go into arguments in ‘good faith’, and are generally reticent to change their minds “in the room”. I usually focus my attention on creating cognitive dissonance and then letting people work through the issue over time. Or I just insult them because IDGAF, but that’s a different story.

  8. says

    Sometimes I think you sit in my brain and wriggle till the thoughts I have but can’t form come into focus and find all the perfect words for them

    That’s not EXACTLY how my process works, but it’s not completely inaccurate.

  9. mildlymagnificent says

    Even though she doesn’t talk, at all, in the terms of myths, your comments about determining / agreeing on what counts as fair before moving on to conclusions reminded me a little of Janet Radcliffe Richards The Sceptical Feminist.

    It’s rightly subtitled A Philosophical Enquiry because she spends a very, very large portion of the book setting up her arguments about justice and equality and about their interaction. You can’t really read the later ‘feminist’ chapters of the book profitably unless you’ve properly absorbed either or both of the justice and equality arguments.

    I’ve not read it for ages – I “lent” it to someone a very long time ago – and I’ve not yet replaced it. But I’m now fairly interested in re-reading it, It was written in 1980, to see if those “setting up” arguments would or wouldn’t work the same way for marriage equality or LGBT rights generally. Who knows? I might be disappointed reading it now, but it was excellent for the time.

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