Now this is a trigger warning

Damn this is good.  Duke Political Science professor, noted libertarian, and nonetheless all-around good guy, Mike Munger shared this on FB from his latest Capstone in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics syllabus.

Trigger Warning: The explicit purpose of this class is to consider the best arguments for, and against, some highly controversial claims. The debate portion of the class, in particular, exposes students to the risk of being required to argue points of view they may find personally repugnant. Further, a number of the classroom discussions are likely to transgress boundaries of what students find comfortable, especially if your most cherished views are based more on emotion than on reasons and evidence. If there are issues that make you uncomfortable and you find it difficult to encounter arguments you disagree with but cannot refute, you are not temperamentally suited for the PPE enterprise. That certainly doesn’t make you a bad person, but you should NOT take this class.

As J.S. Mill put it, in On Liberty: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. …if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.”
1. So, the warning: All your lives you have been rewarded for twaddle, making arguments that are some version of: “I feel that….”
2. Not here. The course is not about what you feel. PPE requires that you determine what you think, and why. You need reasons, and to express these reasons coherently as arguments in your writing and debate presentations who don’t already think that you are right will be more likely to agree. If all you do is “feel” about the subjects we talk about, you will “feel” unhappy with your grades. What you need to do is to know the best counter-arguments to your own position, and to be able to express them clearly, precisely so that you can refute the best arguments as decisively as possible. You’ll find that understanding the power of counterarguments, but then refuting them, will make actually make you feel better anyway, because you won’t get so upset when someone disagrees with how you feel.
3. On the other hand (and this is another warning), there is no correct answer. If you need final, correct answers, you should probably go to seminary and study sacred texts. Any opinion, no matter how outlandish or offensive, will result in a good grade if you support it well and argue for it persuasively. We care about reasons. It may well be that some arguments are unsupportable, of course. But that is because there are no good reasons for it, not because you feel it is wrong. If your claims are offensive and badly argued, that is the worst possible outcome.

If any of the above is a problem, you should drop this class. It is not for you. That doesn’t make you a bad person; many people have perfectly good lives having memorized a secular ideological catechism and then being offended when anyone disagrees. But if you find disagreement offensive, this class is likely to be uncomfortable for you, and you should probably look elsewhere. Not everyone is interested in knowing the problems with their own positions, especially if some of those problematic counterarguments are unsettlingly close to being persuasive. After all, that would mean you are wrong, and nothing makes you feel more unsafe than realizing that you are wrong.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: