How To Lose An Argument (or Arrogance for Dummies)

Posted in: Other Commentary

I recently saw an ad on my Facebook feed that condemns those resisting calls for vaccination and who simultaneously wish to deny women the right to terminate a pregnancy. As Michael Dorf described here, one can identify important distinctions between the two “liberties”—refusing to vaccinate and abortion—so that a libertarian position on one issue does not necessarily entail a libertarian position on the other.

In this column, I will discuss the nature of the consistency argument here and suggest that it is less effective than it might at first appear to be.

The Claim in the Ad

People who support both the right to abortion and the obligation, both moral and legal, to get the COVID-19 vaccine say the following: The right to abortion and the claimed right not to vaccinate stem from an interest in bodily integrity. Those who oppose a woman’s right to abortion are willing to compel women to carry a pregnancy to term against their will even as many (most?) of those opponents believe they have the right not to vaccinate. Carrying a pregnancy to term and then giving birth seems more taxing on a person’s body than submitting to a vaccine. And while remaining pregnant preserves or saves at most one life (or a handful of lives in the rare case of multiples), vaccination in the aggregate can save countless lives, as we know from the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have already died of COVID. If someone is pro-life, then they ought necessarily to be pro-vaccination.

I find the above argument compelling. Indeed, I find the people who oppose vaccination as irritating and infuriating as the people who insist that plants have feelings and therefore that slaughtering animals as food is no different from picking apples and peaches and eating them. (Interestingly, people who ascribe feelings to plants never seem to dedicate themselves to starvation as the only moral path). They have something they either do or do not want to do (avoiding vaccination, eating slaughtered living beings), and they assemble the righteous foundation for their preference in the words of high moral theory. When one hears the sorts of arguments that come from such quarters, it is very tempting to just slap them down, as the ad did. If you care so much about bodily integrity, then why are you willing to violate that of a pregnant person? It seems to many reasonable people that only an idiot would simultaneously support the right to avoid a vaccine and oppose the right to terminate a pregnancy.

Yet a person who holds the two positions that I find so idiotic would have an account of their thinking that would sound good to them. If I am both pro-life and anti-vaccine (instead of being neither), I probably view an embryo or fetus as a fully entitled human being who happens to live inside another human being’s body. Though no one would deny that pregnancy can be very burdensome, the real reason that people decide to terminate a pregnancy usually centers on the desire not to have a child or not to have this child. In other words, though the justification for abortion is the physical burden of pregnancy, the motivation for abortion generally has more to do with anticipating a born child that one does not want for any of a variety of reasons. Since not wanting children does not justify killing born children, it should also not justify killing unborn ones.

As for vaccines, the people who brought you the “9/11 was an inside job” theory of the airplanes flying into the towers that we all saw on TV as it took place have conspiracy theories for how vaccines don’t work as well. If one accepts the factual and moral premises for such thinking, then the unlikely conclusions seem to follow ineluctably. You don’t get to kill your unwanted children, and the government should not be injecting toxins into its citizens.

A Better Approach

As someone who is trained in the law and who finds patent inconsistencies almost impossible to ignore, I have learned over time that people rarely change their minds in response to a “that’s inconsistent” takedown. There is generally some way to recharacterize the allegedly inconsistent positions as, in fact, consistent. And more importantly, as Upton Sinclair said so many years ago, “It is difficult to get a man [sic] to understand something, when his [sic] salary depends on his [sic] not understanding it.” Substitute for “salary” any of the myriad motivations that drive human behavior, and you’ll understand why logical proofs rarely persuade people to alter their strongly-held positions. Indeed, we have evidence that this sort of logical and factual attack can actually strengthen contrary strongly held beliefs in a phenomenon known as the backfire effect. It does so perhaps by reminding people of what team they are on and solidifying their identification with that group. Though humans are capable of rational thought sometimes, our default setting is far more rooted in wordless emotion, especially when we feel attacked.

A better way to persuade people, in my experience, is to listen to what they have to say. Manifest curiosity and interest rather than judgment. Take in what they are telling you and resist the temptation to plan your rebuttal as they talk. Even people who believe in what you (and what I) regard as nonsense are bright enough to know when you fail to give them and their ideas your respectful, undivided attention. I can usually spot the moment when someone to whom I am speaking has begun to craft a reply and is no longer present. Though he or she may be able to repeat back the words that I said, that is a far cry from truly listening.

Why, though, would your listening to someone who expresses wrongheaded views help persuade that someone that their views are wrong? Doesn’t listening to another person talk about their nonsense simply reinforce their belief in the nonsense? It can, but the thing that happens when you truly listen to another person is that the other person connects to you and feels closer to you than they did before talking to you. Dale Carnegie insightfully observed in this regard that one can more readily build connections with others by being interested than by being interesting. This observation is true not only because everyone enjoys being heard and understood but also because people who listen are better able to say things to which others want to listen. I think we can all think of someone who cannot help but interrupt us when we speak. Our focus, at the point of interruption, will tend to go to what we were stopped from saying rather than to the interrupter’s words.

How Listening Can Help

Listening is generally a good way to make friends and influence people, ala Carnegie, but why would it help us persuade people that we are right and that they are wrong? To answer this question, it is useful first to remember that the choice is between listening and making arguments. Therefore, if making arguments convinces no one to change their mind, and listening helps one out of a hundred people to change their mind, then listening wins, despite the fact that almost no one is changing their mind in either condition.

Having pointed out the importance of baselines, we can imagine that we are vaccine hesitant. Someone approaches us and says “Oh yeah? Are you pro-life or pro-choice?” Imagine that we say pro-life. “Well,” the person says, “you do realize that pregnancy is a far greater imposition on bodily integrity than a vaccine, right?” Even though I am neither vaccine hesitant nor pro-life, I feel like digging in my heels on my position when I imagine someone speaking to me in this way. I would want to come up with a distinction between the two issues that favors my side: pregnancy is a natural process by which a tiny person becomes a bigger person, and killing a person is wrong; vaccines are unnatural pharmaceuticals that companies produce for a profit, and the law does not even allow people injured by vaccines to bring a lawsuit, so the law is in the pockets of vaccine manufacturers.

Even I, in the presence of an imaginary argumentative person stating that my hypothetical positions are inconsistent, feel a strong desire to smack down my interrogator. No argument by analogy is so airtight that the listener will be unable to disagree with you. Now think about the listening approach.

You approach me and ask how I feel about vaccines. You don’t bother asking about abortion because the only reason to mention that topic is to show how inconsistent I am, which is rude and counterproductive. I tell you that I worry about vaccines because people injured by them cannot sue. You nod your head and ask for more: do I worry that without the possibility of a lawsuit, a company will have every reason to produce dangerous and toxic vaccines that don’t even prevent illness? Yes, I say, exactly. You tell me that you too dislike the immunity from liability that vaccine producers enjoy. Why shouldn’t they be just as responsible to injured people as the producer of an antibiotic would be?

So you aren’t getting vaccinated either? I might ask. Well, you would say, I actually got vaccinated because I figure that in today’s world, companies would try to produce a safe product even without lawsuits since even a few people with bad reactions to the vaccine would become instant news, and then no one would want the vaccine, and profits would tank. So publicity might be an even more effective motivator than a possible lawsuit. I would give this argument some thought because I might not have heard it before and because you were actually responding to what I said rather than scoring logic points by showing that I’m an idiot.

I might next ask whether you experienced any side effects, and you could tell me yes or no and what they were, if there were any. Aren’t you afraid of future illness?, I could add. You might say that sure you are worried, but given the number of people who have already died from COVID and who have suffered cognitive deficits from the illness, it seems like a vaccine with unknown downsides is better than an illness with known and catastrophic downsides.

I might not decide on the spot that I am going to get a vaccine. No strategy will be 100% effective. But showing a genuine interest in another person and what they have to say will allow them to lower their self-protective barriers a bit. They will like you because you are listening to them, and they will tell you what worries them so you can tailor what you say to their concerns rather than giving them your potentially-patronizing but in any event generic stump speech peppered with questions designed to trip up your interlocutor.

We can all tell the difference between being interrogated (which makes us want to run the other way) and having a friendly person ask open-ended questions designed to bring out our ideas. One way to determine whether another person is opinionated and bent on showing that you are wrong is that it is immediately obvious where they come out on the question at issue, thus showing that your efforts to persuade them are pointless and that they view the conversation simply as a means of manipulating you into changing your mind. Consider, for example, if I titled this column “The Anti-Abortion Hypocrites and Their Incoherent Refusal to Vaccinate.” I might get lots of readers, but virtually all would have already agreed with me when clicking on the link to read the column. It is the very definition of preaching to the choir.

If you want to convince someone of something rather than flaunt your intellectual agility, let go of your certainty, remember that you are wrong sometimes, that you are not immune from irrationality, even about important things, and then shut up and listen to what your audience has to say.

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