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Why the Left and Right Can't Agree
By Edward Phillips   

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Analysis of a recent political debate involving Left and Right, and repeated reliance on the "Is/Ought" contradiction.

Why the Left and Right Can't Agree

I just listened to one of the best political discussions I've heard in a very long time.  On the Right were George Will and Paul Ryan, while on the Left were Barney Frank and Robert Reich.  It was a debate about what is right or wrong with America, who or what is responsible for our problems, and what can/should be done to correct  many issues.  The debate was moderated by Christiane  Amanpour.  One refreshing element was the absence of shouting.  Each of the participants was civil and respectful of the others, and each made and defended many points well.  As usual, however, they agreed on virtually nothing and nothing was resolved.  The highlight of the proceedings occurred right after George Will blamed "Big Government" for most of America's ills, whereupon Robert Reich stood up (he's about 4'10") and said "I've been in government most of my life, and I don't think  'Big' government is the problem."  The audience roared with laughter.  Barney Frank also scored a good laugh when he argued that he could not understand why the Right believes that if he were to marry a man, that his action would somehow cause other married men to want to leave their wives. "Why? he asked.  "Would they suddenly be attracted to me?"

The reason why there was not a meeting of minds on issues was because the two sides were arguing from two perspectives that did not allow for a resolution, or even for finding common grounds.  Think about that:  Four intelligent people of good will, were discussing issues honestly and with good intentions,  nevertheless, they could not find common grounds, and each believed he had the high ground.  In reality, they all fell victim to this very common flaw of logic:   One side was making a "normative" argument, while the other was making a "positive "argument. 

A normative argument is one in which the presenter argues from values.  He/she wants to discuss "what ought to be" by arguing from a set of values or principles.  He tries to keep the debate focused on the ideal society, and if we can only get back to those ideals, everything will be fine.  And the big intruder to his ideal society is government--big government.  It is an easy argument to make or defend because we all tend to support the same basic set of values.  It's the way those on the Right tend to argue.

In contrast, a positive argument is one in which the participant argues from facts.  He/she wants to discuss "what is" or the conditions that actually prevail.  He is concerned with fixing things that are wrong.  He sees the injustices that arise when crooks, thieves, and other dishonest people are in charge, or make bad policies.  This is the way those on the Left tend to argue.

In the "give and take" of the debate the arguments quickly fall into predictable categories.  The Left argues "spend more or less to fix a problem," or "fire this person" to fix another problem.  The Right counters with "that would mean more government, and we don't need more government, but less."   Or, "we need less spending, not more."

 And so we have a format of "facts" vs. "principles," which produces neither solutions nor even common ground for finding solutions.  A wise philosopher (David Hume) alerted us to this fallacious way of reasoning about 250 years ago:

    Put simply, nothing about the way the world is can tell us anything about the way it should be. The view of far too many scientists and philosophers is that even given a perfect understanding of human nature and the universe, we would lack sufficient information to say how humanity ought to be. The is-ought “fallacy” has poisoned intellectual discussion for centuries.

 In my opinion Hume's words are among the wisest ever spoken in the past 300 years on this subject.  We need to stop confusing "what is" with "what ought to be."  This is the "secret" to making progress in any kind of discussion on any subject.  Put another way, we all need to first agree on the facts.  Once done, we at least then have a chance of agreeing on how we "ought" to apply those facts to the solution of a problem or to a common purpose.








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