From the Virtues of Argumentation to the Happiness of Dispute

Bruno Mastroianni, University of Florence

Happiness and virtue can contribute to educational activities related to argumentation, supporting the basic idea that genuinely practical training in the regulated debate activities should carry out «happy disputes» in real discussions (Mastroianni 2017). The pursuit of happiness is the most suitable perspective, from the pedagogical point of view, to draw the maximum effect from regulated debate models for schools, universities, and other training institutions. Such a perspective is capable of bringing a twofold advantage. The first is to act as a corrective to the risk of reductionism that can always afflict regulated debate activities.

For a complete preparation to the discussion, all the ontological constituents of argumentation (Godden 2016, 345) must be valued: actors (arguers and audiences), arguments (what is exchanged between arguers and their audiences), and arguing (understood as the activity through which arguments are exchanged). An approach based on happiness, that is, on achieving the maximum possible satisfaction in obtaining the good from a discussion, can reconcile the interdependence of these three elements best, enhancing each in its importance. The second advantage is that the perspective of the pursuit of happiness forces us to anchor every regulated and ‘laboratory’ activity to criteria of good discussion applicable to the reality of the real debates that take place in everyday life. Otherwise, the risk is a production of a ‘kind of gym’ in which they train the muscles for artificial debates, which are then hardly applicable to real situations. It is a perspective that goes beyond the pure theoretical interest in the study of argumentation and instead considers the reality of imperfect argumentation in which one is involved continuously in real interactions.

This essay will follow a reverse methodology by examining a typical unhappy and non-virtuous online discussion in section 2. The intent is to consider how a quarrel produces some satisfaction for the actors and the public, however negatively influencing the arguments and arguing. Starting from these real and imperfect characteristics, we will try in section 3 to imagine an alternative model of a dispute capable of competing with the immediate but ephemeral satisfaction that produces the quarrel.

It will be the perspective of virtues, understood as the pursuit of excellence in discussing even in adverse conditions, and meant to compete with the temptation to produce non-constructive discussions. In section 4, we will exploit some promising ideas from the so-called Virtue Argumentation Theory (VAT) which some authors have proposed in recent years (Cohen 2008; 2013; Aberdein 2010; 2014; Paglieri 2015; Gascón 2016), and we will trace the difference between skills and virtues.

Section 5 provides a possible articulation between the dimension of competition and cooperation in argumentation, searching for criteria that can inspire the evaluation of the regulated debate. The approach of the virtues of argumentation is the one that can best motivate to conduct disputes with a competitive and cooperative attitude at the same time. Instead, in the perspective based only on argumentation skills, the opposite is achieved. The conclusion is that ‘being right’ is not everything.

Our idea is that a dispute is made up on one side of authentic dissent — the competition of the arguments — but at the same time it is always bound by the priority of searching for the real and possible good for arguers — the cooperation between agents. It will be this ability to stand in dissent without quarreling that will allow debates to be deliberative in a renewed sense: not so much in reaching an agreement as a point of balance between adverse positions, but in recognizing the other’s difference as an essential element for the contemplation of a truth investigated together. It can be defined as the contemplation of difference, borrowing it from the Aristotelian conception of contemplation as a path to happiness (Nicomachean Ethics, 1177b, 20–25). It provides the motivation that can lead to conduct debates that arrive at something (that can be deliberative), instead of quarrels which, despite their ephemeral satisfaction, lead nowhere.

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