, Volume 13, Issue 2, pp 183-201

Argument Quality and Cultural Difference

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Abstract

Central to argumentation theory is a concern with normativity. Argumentation theorists are concerned, among other things, with explaining why some arguments are good (or at least better than others) in the sense that a given argument provides reasons for embracing its conclusion which are such that a fair- minded appraisal of the argument yields the judgment that the conclusion ought to be accepted -- is worthy of acceptance -- by all who so appraise it.

This conception of argument quality presupposes that the goodness of arguments is characterizable in terms of features of ‘the argument itself.’ It makes no reference either to the attributes of the persons appraising the argument and judging its normative force, or to the context in which that appraisal is carried out. But recent work by a wide range of philosophers, argumentation theorists, and social theorists rejects such an abstract, impersonal notion of argument goodness. Instead, these theorists insist upon taking seriously, in the evaluation of arguments, the features of the evaluators themselves. In particular, such theorists emphasize the importance of cultural difference in argument appraisal. Often locating themselves under the banner of multiculturalism, they argue that the quality of an argument depends upon culturally-specific beliefs, values, and presuppositions; that an argument may be of high quality in one cultural context but of low quality in another. Consequently, they contend, no abstract, impersonal characterization of argument quality can succeed.

In this paper I consider this multiculturalist approach to argument quality. I argue that while there is much merit in the general multiculturalist perspective, the multiculturalist argument against impersonal conceptions of argument quality fails. It fails for several reasons detailed below; most fundamentally, it fails because it itself presupposes just the kind of impersonal account of argument quality it seeks to reject. I call this presupposition that of transcultural normative reach. I identify this presupposition in the multiculturalist argument, and show how it undercuts the multiculturalist challenge to abstract, impersonal, transcultural conceptions of argument quality. I conclude with an evaluation of the strengths, and weaknesses, of the multiculturalist challenge to such conceptions of argument quality.