young man in sleepwear suffering from headache in morning

Don’t get comfortable with making people uncomfortable

Some interesting research (from Ditte Marie Munch-Jurisic, Philosophy and Science Studies at Roskilde University, Denmark) questions the effectiveness of discomfort in moral argumentation. It might not, so the author argues, be so effectiveness to make people feel bad about their various moral failings:

My primary aim is to caution against the current wave of discomfort advocacy. Advocates risk overrating the moral potential of discomfort if they underestimates the extent to which context shapes the interpretation of affect and simple, raw feelings. Context in this sense entails two dimensions: (i) the concrete situation of individual agents and (ii) the internal tools and concepts they use to interpret their discomfort. Rudimentary affect like discomfort does not necessarily have a transparent, straightforward intentionality.

Put simply, agents may not know precisely why they feel uncomfortable. Their specific situations and the interpretative tools they use to discern their discomfort are central to how they will understand their discomfort and the motivations they will draw from the experience. Affect—and especially negative affect like discomfort—has an paramount and often unpredictable influence on our judgments, behavior and understanding of the world. From the perspective of the contextual approach, a critical problem for discomfort advocates is that they risk ignoring the multiple kinds of discomfort that may arise in discussions of implicit bias.

This has interesting implications for the ad baculum business we’ve been discussing here the past couple of days. The thought seems to be that discomfort doesn’t really function like a reason (or doesn’t function in the absence of clear reasons–i.e., do you know why I’m punishing you. I wonder (not having read the work–plan to!) whether question is covered.

This also has implications for some other stuff both Scott and I have been working on: the concept of adversarial argumentation. In a nutshell, this is treating argument like a contest or a conflict. One of the concerns is that such an approach seems to incentivize the kinds of moves discussed here. I am co-editing (with Kat Stevens of the University of Lethbridge) a special issue of the journal Topoi on this. The deadline has passed, but these are special times in case anyone has anything nearly ready to go.

My own view, FWIW, on the adversarial business is that such discomfort is unavoidable and perhaps uncontrollable because of the way beliefs work. More on that another time (or you can read it here).

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