Fights that Bind: Argument and the Common Good, Part I


Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.

–Thomas Gilbey O.P., Between Community and Society, 1953.

A couple of mornings ago, I heard a debate about the controversial Congressional vacations that went something like this:

Debator #1: Since we are in a recession, it’s not fair that Congress gets so much time off.
Debator #2: But some congressmen and women work awful hard during their time away from Washington, visiting constituents, etc.
Debator #3: Yeah, so there.
Debator #1: It’s still not fair. In France everyone is guaranteed 4 weeks of vacation.
Debators #2 and #3: Ohhh. That sounds more fair.
Debator #1: Good. It’s settled. More vacation for everyone.

Nothing like a good argument to bring us all together.

I hate being chicken little, but there’s a problem in this country when that qualifies as a debate. And no, these weren’t high school freshmen presenting before their bored classmates. These were highly educated, award-winning journalists on a morning news program called The Takeaway. Engaged in this “argument” were the hosts, John Hockenberry and Amy Holmes, and a columnist from the New York times, Randy Cohen (Aka, The Ethicist).

Every morning, The Takeaway, new morning radio news program on public radio, invites listeners to “be a part of the American conversation.” A joint venture of the BBC, the New York Times and WGBH (Boston), it features live discussion and debate between the two hosts and their guests rather than the pre-recorded news packages favored by radio news programs such as Morning Edition. I admire the goal, but in this particular instance the “American conversation” was incoherent and pointless.

When John Courtney Murray, S.J., investigated the uniqueness of the American proposition, that’s not the sort of conversation he intended when he quoted Gilbey (above). As strange as it sounds, when Murray cited Gilbey, who was paraphrasing Aquinas, he was highlighting the essential role played by argument in the maintenance of this free society of ours. The takeaway: a society that argues together stays together. That’s the beauty of the American conversation.

For Murray, the only things holding together our “civil multitude is reason” and the proper “exercise of reason which is argument.” The sham argument cited above cannot quite find it’s ground in reason. They start by arguing the pros and cons of congressional vacation and finish, with consensus, by concluding that we should all have more vacation time. (Please note, I’m in favor of legislating mandatory vacation time; I just hope it’s founded on sounder reason than that of The Takeaway.) Not only does the topic of the debate shift, but also they unanimously presuppose that “fairness” is the best measuring stick to use in this case.

Fairness, while sometimes a useful standard, doesn’t always work. For example, if I starve all of my children but one, that really wouldn’t be fair now would it? Perhaps another standard could be suggested that might actually keep us from having to use France as an example of how to run a country. Perhaps we can look to the standard of the common good. Rather than acting like three year olds locked in a tussle over a Tickle Me Elmo, let’s move this debate to solid ground and ask if lengthy congressional vacations will serve the common good.

(to be continued)

© Jeffrey C. Johnson and Whosoever Desires, 2009.


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