In the previous post, I suggested that thoughtful and educated adults rarely engage for very long in purely verbal disputes (which, alas, is not the same as saying such disputes are rare). When people don’t disagree substantively, but are only using words differently, a few minutes of argument should usually make this fact apparent to all parties. But smart people do often get mired in disputes that are partly verbal and partly substantive. Because it’s evident to everyone that there is a real disagreement—the dispute clearly is not merely semantic—the parties may overlook semantic components of the disagreement, and as a result fail to make headway or argue productively.
This is, I think, why you’ll sometimes see arguments between libertarians, conservatives, and progressives get stuck on what appear to be semantic points: Who has the “true” conception of “freedom”? Whose understanding of “coercion” is correct? People are reluctant here to simply eliminate the contested term and stipulate more precise ones that reflect their divergent conceptions, in part because these are terms with thick normative connotations and great rhetorical power. Members of our political and linguistic community tend to regard “freedom” as presumptively valuable, and “coercion” as presumptively bad, which makes us wary of abandoning (even for the sake of clarity in argument) a definition of “freedom” that tracks our convictions about what’s valuable, or one of “coercion” that maps onto our views about what practices and institutions are morally objectionable. To concede an opponent’s definition, we may fear, opens the door to sneaky arguments that trade on the normative connotations the term has in ordinary usage.
But this isn’t the only reason we might be reluctant to employ the “method of elimination” and simply stipulate new, purely descriptive terms corresponding to our divergent conceptions. Moral reasoning and moral argument often proceed from shared intuitions about core types of cases. The conviction that torturing innocent people for fun is wrong is, for most of us, more certain and stable than our commitment to any abstract principle or theory that purports to explain why this is the case, and any theory that fails to condemn such conduct will be, for that reason alone, unacceptable. We have many “thick” terms—terms which are partly descriptive and partly normative—precisely because we live in linguistic communities that share strong moral intuitions about types of conduct that are admirable or contemptible. So if the term “coercion” has a negative connotation, and it seems to comport with ordinary, colloquial usage to characterize a particular relationship as “coercive,” that’s a data point providing at least prima facie evidence that it’s in tension with our shared moral intuitions, and has features we would normally regard as objectionable without special justification. That’s hardly dispositive in itself—thick terms like “unchivalrous” can fall out of fashion because we come to see that they’re bound up with mistaken collective value judgments—but it’s not unreasonable to be wary of banishing, by neologism, whatever collective wisdom may be embedded in our ordinary linguistic practice. We can think of ordinary usage as establishing a burden of proof on someone who proposes introducing a distinction our colloquial usage fails to make, or ignoring one that it does typically reflect.
Whether for these reasons or out of pure stubbornness or misguided essentialism, then, we often choose to draw our battle lines around our words, arguing over whose conception of the contested term is “correct,” in the sense of tracking what is morally significant. This debate, though it is in one sense about language, is substantive rather than merely semantic. But in practice, it also means disputants are routinely trying to keep quite a few figurative balls in the air simultaneously. Sticking with the example of the debate over “coercion” in the workplace, the bones of contention may include:
- Which senses of “coercion” track our ordinary linguistic practice
- Which senses of “coercion” track normatively significant features of an action or system, or presumptively require special justification
- Whether our ordinary or colloquial use of “coercion” applies to a particular case or example
- Whether one or more narrower senses apply to that case
- Whether a particular case is morally objectionable or problematic
- Whether that particular case is objectionable (or acceptable) in virtue of fitting (or not fitting) one or more senses of “coercive,” or for some other reason.
Just to dilate briefly on that last point: An action or system may be coercive in a sense that presumptively demands special justification, but also be covered by such a justification. Provided we recognize the category of “justified coercion,” it would be a mistake to infer from a judgment that a case is morally acceptable on the whole that it must not involve (a normatively significant sense of) coercion. Conversely, a case may be morally objectionable without involving coercion, or for reasons distinct from whatever coercion it involves. If I make a fully-informed choice, from an attractive range of offers, to accept a job that involves obtaining supervisory approval each time I use the bathroom—and have sufficient resources that I could quit without serious hardship—it seems like a stretch to describe me as a victim of “coercion” in any ordinary sense. Nevertheless, if this requirement serves no significant business purpose, it seems open to moral criticism as a pointless intrusion on my dignity, autonomy, and privacy. Not every moral criticism can or need be shoehorned into the rubric of coercion.
In any event, when the points of contention are multiplied in this way, even very smart people are susceptible to confusion. Because the overall disagreement is clearly substantive and not merely verbal, and because more specific points of contention within that overall debate may arise for either semantic or substantive reasons, or for both at once, it will not always be obvious to all the parties which are the substantive and semantic components. That means it’s important to bear in mind that even the most manifestly substantive disagreement—a disagreement that is obviously not “purely verbal”—can still be partly verbal, and it often requires close attention to sort out which part is which.