One of my stock arguments is about genuine moral dilemmas and their expression in virtue ethics: the idea that two morally excellent people could disagree on a particular subject without it being ‘merely a matter of opinion’ or with the interlocutors having to ‘agree to disagree’. It’s about trying to find something like ‘co-correctness’, where more than one moral position on an issue is valid or where the parties can identify the cause for their differing position.
I’ve said that dialogue format is conducive to this kind of writing. You try to imagine two morally excellent people having a discussion where the parties disagree. I happened to open up Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason to find the following quote:
It has been remarked, my HERMIPPUS, that though the ancient philosophers conveyed most of their instruction in the form of dialogue, this method of composition has been little practised in later ages, and has seldom succeeded in the hands of those who have attempted it. Accurate and regular argument, indeed, such as is now expected of philosophical inquirers, naturally throws a man into the methodical and didactic manner; where he can immediately, without preparation, explain the point at which he aims; and thence proceed, without interruption, to deduce the proofs on which it is established. To deliver a SYSTEM in conversation, scarcely appears natural; and while the dialogue-writer desires, by departing from the direct style of composition, to give a freer air to his performance, and avoid the appearance of Author and Reader, he is apt to run into a worse inconvenience, and convey the image of Pedagogue and Pupil. Or, if he carries on the dispute in the natural spirit of good company, by throwing in a variety of topics, and preserving a proper balance among the speakers, he often loses so much time in preparations and transitions, that the reader will scarcely think himself compensated, by all the graces of dialogue, for the order, brevity, and precision, which are sacrificed to them.
There are some subjects, however, to which dialogue-writing is peculiarly adapted, and where it is still preferable to the direct and simple method of composition.
Any point of doctrine, which is so obvious that it scarcely admits of dispute, but at the same time so important that it cannot be too often inculcated, seems to require some such method of handling it; where the novelty of the manner may compensate the triteness of the subject; where the vivacity of conversation may enforce the precept; and where the variety of lights, presented by various personages and characters, may appear neither tedious nor redundant. [Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Reason]
It’s good to know that I wasn’t going out on a limb…
- Pluto and Eris – a dialogue (January 2011) (onlyagame.typepad.com)
- The consensus of philosophers (whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com)
- The scarlet crayon of atheism (freethoughtblogs.com)