Why can’t we all just get along? Thoughts on the Effects of Underlying Relative Value Statements in Arguments

The latest argument pitting “Democrats” against “Republicans” is about children being separated from their parents. I put Democrat and Republican in quotes because almost no one who argues about stuff like this is an actual member of either of these parties. And I really dislike the idea that all of a person’s ideas can be summed up by a political party’s ideology, especially when we can see how easy it is for a political party’s agenda to be manipulated and changed based on the whims of the leader.

I bring this up because I spend a lot of time thinking about the arguments that people have, and why they have them. And my current hypothesis is that the vast majority of political arguments can be boiled down to what I will call a ​”relative position statement on a particular value​”​. ​Sometimes the values that people are arguing about might be characterized as being on opposite sides of a spectrum, for example, being for or against capital punishment. However, in a vast majority of cases, I think we are actually having arguments on two different “value spectra”, and can therefore never approach understanding or compromise.

In the case of the issue of children being separated from their parents at the point of arrival in the US, we can characterize one side of the argument as the value statement: “people get what they deserve if they do illegal things”. The other side is the value statement: “children should not be separated from their parents”. There is no way for either side to win an argument based on these parameters because the person who is going on about the consequences of illegal behaviour is not, at that moment, as worried about the children being separated, since they wouldn’t be separated if the parents were not breaking the law, and people get what they deserve if they do illegal things. On the other hand, the person who is going on about children being separated from their parents is not, at that moment, worried about illegal behaviour, because they don’t regard asylum-seeking as illegal. One argument is based on “rule of law” and the other is based on “basic humanity”, but they are pivoting around the question of whether or not a particular action is legal or illegal. When the actual argument plays out, however, that point rarely takes center stage. Rather, one side will eventually shout “criminals like you get what you deserve” and the other will shout “you have no humanity” and all sense of reason and resolution will be lost.

However, in another context, the same person who advocated for “rule of law” might take a completely different value stance on another argument. For example, in the case where a woman gets an abortion in a state where abortions are legal, that person (the arguer, not the woman getting the abortion) might get into an argument based on the value statement: “All life is sacred” and not care about the fact that the woman was following the law. And the “children not being separated” person might take a stance in favour of the woman having an abortion based on the value statement: “Women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies”, and in that case, not sympathize with the plight of the child in question.

​I remember one of my conservative friends pulling up another friend on her stance on guns (“Guns need to be regulated to prevent unnecessary deaths”) because it didn’t match her stance on abortion (which he might think of as “I think it is okay to kill babies”, when she thinks of it more like, “women should be allowed to make decisions about their own bodies”). In his mind, “People should be allowed to protect themselves” and “All life is sacred” demonstrated a more consistent set of values​. In his mind, my friend’s stance that “death is bad and we need to do things to prevent it” should also extend to unborn children.

Him: I need a gun so I can protect myself from death, and abortion also causes death, why shouldn’t abortion also be prevented?
>> Values based on freedom of choice (for protecting self), and avoiding death (of others)

Her: If you get to choose whether or not to have a gun, why can’t I choose what to do with my own body?
>> Values based on freedom of choice (for deciding for oneself) and avoiding death (of self or friends)

In other words, they both actually agree that freedom of choice and preventing death are both important, but they use their relative value statements to support one view and go against another, all the while thinking that the other person, who has just used their exact same value statements in the opposite way, is immoral, unjust, or just plain insane.

When we get into arguments, and especially when we get into arguments on social media, I think it would help if we could do an analysis of the value statements at play in the conversation. I think it would make arguing less frustrating. We can all agree, for example, that “there should be consequences to breaking agreed upon rules”, and that “children should not be forcibly separated from their parents”, and that these value statements are not contradictory. We can then, hopefully, have more civil arguments about whether laws are being broken, and if so, what consequences would be reasonable, without delving into circular arguments that can be boiled down to two “relative (and unresolvable) position statements on a particular value”.

I don’t know how we get there, though. I feel like there should be “referees” to arguments who step in and evaluate the conversation for value statements and get people to at least agree on the premises of their statement. We can all agree that laws are necessary for society to work well, and that separating children from their parents is bad. Good. Now assuming that both parties in this conversation are not heathens who want to wantonly break rules and put children into cages, where can the conversation go from there?

This is what I think about on Sunday afternoons…

(And kudos if you read this far!) :)