SORITES, ISSN 1135-1349

Issue #08. June 1997. Pp. 24-32.

«Argumentation, Values, and Ethics»

Copyright © by SORITES and Alfonso Monsalve

Argumentation, values, and ethics

Alfonso Monsalve

§1. Argumentation.

Peaceful conviviality, social cooperation, solidarity, and autonomy could be considered the most important values of public morality and political culture in this era of globalization.

Human rights are the incarnation of these values. They have been historically created, and their real existence in our time is the result of the dialectic between theoretical proposals and the experience accumulated by humanity in solving problems of social interaction in specific conditions of historical evolution in modernity. Under the presently unavoidable conditions of the spread of the market economy, the universalization of these values has permitted mitigation and will permit reduction of the disastrous consequences of the economic model, and will even make possible the creation of a culture whose moral, ethical, and political values have a certain liberating character for individuals and societies.

The acceptance of these values depends only on their proven ability to resolve conflict situations and to guarantee life and quality of life to all human beings. Rather than a theoretical foundation, we focus here on their practical function.

However, it is interesting to venture a possible theoretical interpretation compatible with their historicity and capability to resolve conflicts fairly and equitably. Other explanations are possible and in fact exist; but here we only want to contribute to this important discussion. To do so, first we will try to define what a value is from the point of view of argumentation.

To do so from this perspective is justified because both the choice of the values considered supreme and the specification of their content are questions that must be settled theoretically through the mechanism of providing reasons for and against, criticizing and responding, that is, arguing different conceptions, which evolve in just this way. But also because in real confrontations the different positions, often based on force, are always accompanied by argumentation. In all cases, these are based in turn on values. Consequently, the moral, ethical, and political theories are clearly argumentative in their configuration; and social interactions, at these levels, are accompanied by arguments. Thus it is necessary to pay attention to what argumentation is.

§2. The characteristics of argumentation.

1) Chaïm Perelman conceives it as the theory of persuasive discourse, which seeks the assent or agreement, both intellectual and emotional, of any singular or plural addressee (audience) to a thesis or a set of theses. Hence it concerns rhetoric in the original Greek sense of the word, employed by Aristotle, that is, a theory of persuasion, and which includes as a special case dialectic, understood as the set of techniques for controversy (1958; 1977, p. 177. See also Monsalve 1992, pp. and Gómez).

2) From this perspective, argumentation covers the whole field of non-formal thought: one does not seek assent for nothing. In reality, one who argues tries to influence the addressee through reasons in order to obtain a certain result; in addition, the reasons for or against make it possible to consider courses of action and/or make decisions, even to accept a theory. In this way we use argumentation not only to make reasoned decisions in everyday life, but also in law, philosophy, and the humanities, and even in situations of scientific revolution in the formal and empirical-deductive sciences. It is, in this sense, the theory ofjustificatory reason that works as a theory of practical reason.

With respect to justificatory reason, to defend a thesis is offer to another (who can be oneself in autodeliberation understood as a special case of dialogue) the arguments that justify assent to it. To refute a thesis is to present the arguments that justify rejecting it (dissenting from it) is a theory about what is reasonable to accept or to reject (Monsalve 1995, p. 578). The reasonable, then, is what is accepted or rejected using reasons that can in principle be disputed.

With respect to practical reason, unlike a scientific theory that tries to build a body of true propositions, argumentation tries to obtain agreement. And though one kind of agreement is about that which is considered true, there are others about what is desirable or preferable for a community or an individual, or about what is beautiful, or even about how to dress during this season, etc.

Another basic difference between deductive reason and justificatory reason is that the latter always admits argument to the contrary: a point of view or theory presented for agreement can be completely or partially accepted or completely rejected, which means that persuasion is a matter of degree. But precisely because of this gradual character, assent has to be reinforced if it is to be maintained. It always requires a meeting of the minds. In addition, there is the temporal character of the assent and agreement that argumentation produces: ideas accepted as indisputable in one epoch are rejected later, and vice versa. This is completely contrary to a demonstration in which, once the reference system and the rules of inference are fixed, the theorems follow impersonally, their truth is unquestioned and independent of the flow of events in time, and the system is even objectively reproducible by machines designed to do so.

3) Argumentation, then, requires addressees or, to use the Perelmanian technical term, audience. There are two classes of audience depending on the level of assent that the arguer (orator, as he says) seeks relative to the number of individuals: the orator could try to persuade one or some, as when one tries to sell a product like a car, or try to persuade all human beings who are in a position to evaluate arguments of common interest.

In the first case, there is a particular audience, and in the second, the so-called universal audience. Moral and scientific arguments, and some aesthetic, ethical, and political ones, among others, would have this reach. Perelman defines it as the set of reasonable adult persons of a specific epoch (1983, pp. 41 and ff). He considers this audience to be a theoretical construction, because each orator conceives its universality based on his criteria for what should be universally accepted, so he excludeseverybody who do not share his reasons (ibid, p.41); however, he tries to win them over to his point of view. If we introduce the modifications which we are about to present to the conditions of argumentative agreement presupposed by Perelman, the features of arguments of common interest do not coincide with the ideal community of speech conceived by Apel nor with the ideal conditions of dialogue on which Habermas' discursive ethics is based.

Perelman thinks that any argumentation presupposes a dialogical situation, the existence of a common language, and the renunciation of any use of force different from that of argument. And if one argues for the universal audience, it is necessary to add the condition of sincerity, that is, that one believe what one is proposing. Thus understood, the notion of a universal audience does coincide with the pragmatic conditions of dialogical discourse that Habermas locates at the base of his discursive ethics.

But in reality these conditions are not completely fulfilled, nor is it desirable that they be satisfied. In effect, given the conditions of dialogue in which real-world interests conflict, recourse to positions of force is often necessary to improve the chances of an agreement and even to require one of the parties to seek one. Hence it is possible to dialogue even if one of the parties does not fulfill the condition of sincerity: if there are mechanisms to require dialogue, agreement can be obtained although it is not desired. The use of force is not morally good or bad in itself; its moral value depends on the interests which it serves.

In the same way, we must arrive at an agreement, but this does not have to be legitimated through acceptance by all parties involved, not at the beginning and development of the dialogue nor at the culmination of the agreement, although it would be desirable. Of course, the use of force and the non-universality of the agreement have limits that will be presented below.

Conceived without Perelman's restrictions on argumentation of common interest, the universal audience serves to stress that there are arguments that claim universal validity and that each orator supposes that his argument satisfies this claim and also defines what would be reasonable to admit if its parameters are accepted, which in turn determines the set of persons considered reasonable. As the parameters of reasonableness can differ from one orator to another, and can occasionally be incompatible, it is not possible to define the universal audience as a legal construction other than that we have seen formulated by Perelman: the set of reasonable adult persons of a specific epoch. But this definition is ambiguous because it contains terms like `adult' and `reasonable' which are confused and controversial, which makes `universal audience' a confused notion.

However, confused notions play an important role in argumentation, for they are the framework for the argument and the agreement. First, they serve the function of being a place of agreement precisely because their meaning has not been clearly fixed: everyone would agree that we must act reasonably. But what does acting reasonably mean? Once the different contexts in which it appears are specified, the differences appear. Yet in the ensuing discussion it is possible to reach agreements, generally partial, about its meaning, so there will be shared meanings that coexist with others that are not shared. And from the latter the process can be continued so as to augment the number of shared meanings.

If we apply this to the notion of `universal audience', we can see that its confusion is positive because it permits the free play of proposals and possible agreements, together with their respective ranges of flesh-and-blood addressees who will finally opt for particular assents. In other words, over and above the universal audience as a theoretical construct, there are the real individuals who are the addressees of proposals of common interest and for whom the different versions of the universal audience are configured.

To continue, it is possible to explore a partial delimitation of the conception `reasonable' relative to the universal audience. First of all, the universal audience is temporally relativized. What is justificatively accepted or rejected in a determined epoch is a more less ample, more or less incompatible set of beliefs, values, ways of life, theories, etc., which interact, that is, coexist, compete, or are independent; but they all have in common some kind of social acceptance. Perelman chooses to call this set the `common sense' of a determined society. This then relativizes the reasonable, because if this set is what is accepted or rejected with reasons (justificatively), as above, the acceptability of these reasons varies from epoch to epoch and society to society.

But this fact does not make the reasonable something arbitrary. On the one hand, the efficacy of all argumentative action, that is, the achievement of assent, presupposes that the orator knows the audience. So it must be understood that whoever argues must know what the audience accepts: his beliefs, values, traditions, and customs. This knowledge is the starting point of all persuasive action. If this condition is not satisfied, we make the worst of argumentative mistakes by begging the question, which consists in presupposing that the audience accepts that about which his assent is sought.

In reality, the strategy of all argumentation consists in leading the audience from what he accepts to what it is proposed that he accept. The context in which it is exercised consists of argumentative premises, which Perelman (1958, pp. 50ff.) classifies into facts, truths, suppositions, values and their hierarchies and commonplaces. When arguments are addressed to the universal audience, the context is common sense.

However, common sense is not unquestionable, as one can infer from the foregoing, but in areas and fields (theoretical or practical) where it has not been questioned, it works like a decision rule, that is, as a precedent that comes from a model for the resolution of situations following the solutions which have been successful in similar cases in the past. In fact, precedent plays a key role in argumentation because one tends to treat similar situations (or people or problems, etc.) in similar ways. This constant, which Perelman calls the `rule of justice', produces a very important feature in the mechanism of argumentation: if someone proposes or executes a solution other than the precedent for a situation, the burden of proof falls on him.

Given that beliefs, values, theories, ways of life, etc. at times coexist in conflict, it is necessary to question common sense through science, philosophy, and social practice to overcome prescientific conceptions and unacceptable values and social practices. Then a dialectic is produced between common sense and its reasonableness, on the one hand; and theories and critique, on the other, in which the former incorporate what the clarifying force of the latter produce. But, at the same time, the latter are contrasted with the unreasonable consequences often generated by these conceptions, completely opposed to what any individual could admit.

§3. Argumentation, values, and ethics.

1) When social practice has been distilled and formulated in theories, conceptions, or proposals, it provides decision criteria that are very important for resolving conflicts of social interaction. Through human rights, seen at present as something reasonable to admit for resolving such conflicts, we can achieve peaceful coexistence, social cooperation, and individual autonomy.

This is because what happens in social interaction is the privileging or ordering of a set of values and providing reasons for doing so. That is why it is very important to clarify the notion of «value» from an argumentative point of view. We have already said that values are argumentative premises, in the sense defined by Perelman, that is, implicit or explicit points of departure for all argumentative action. But they are also results if an audience assents to them after having accepted the reasons offered for them.

«Value» could be understood as «a collective or individual belief that determines certain parameters about what can be accepted concerning facts, behaviors, actions, or interactions to which it is applied» (Monsalve 1993, p. 109). In turn, a belief is «an idea admitted according to certain implicit or explicit procedures by an individual or a group» (ibid., p. 109). From this perspective, a theory is a belief system that is accepted according to procedures established by the scientific or knowledge community. But this idea can also be extended to justify moral, ethical, or political proposals that are presented with universal claims.

§4. An ethical proposal from argumentation.

Values like «justice» and «goodness» incarnate at present a set of beliefs and hierarchies that reflect particular conceptions which aspire to generalization in a global world. Besides, they are confused notions in the sense defined above, with all the argumentative characteristics this implies; they are the framework for the argumentation and the agreement because they are values about «the preferable». This is always disputable, but it also permits the construction of important convergences. That is the case of the concept of human rights, which can be justified as reasonable rules of interaction addressed to the present universal audience. If we accept them in this role, it is possible to advance through shared meanings that widen and deepen, leaving the points of disagreement open for discussion.

In consequence, we could establish some criteria of admissibility for these values. They should be understood as specificities that it is reasonable to globalize: for they function as an undeniable part of the common sense of our era. We will therefore need to look for shared meanings, and in a process without end, widen and deepen these meanings. In what follows we will propose some of them for discussion.

1) We are living in a global society impregnated by the market economy. This society has deep inequalities in the distribution of benefits and costs of social interaction at the national and international level. Political domination is exercised over peripheral countries that are externally and often internally culturally diverse. There are common human problems, unprecedented development, and an increase of scientific and technical knowledge with unforeseen technological applications. There are possibilities of immediate communication and global interrelation, etc.

2) Peaceful coexistence, social cooperation, and autonomy - values that imply human rights - have proved to be the best way to resolve conflicts of social interaction in this era, given the characteristics mentioned in 1), and in this sense they cannot be renounced. These values are the patrimony of humanity independently of their origins (they are a specificity that should be globalized) and they are a point of no return because a better society without them is unthinkable and their widening and deepening would permit better quality of life for all human beings. They are the conception of globalized society's common good. In principle, there is no theoretical priority among the different types of human rights. Therefore, their enjoyment by all human beings must be guaranteed.

3) So that these goods can be enjoyed equitably by all, it is necessary to agree upon and put into practice criteria of distributive justice at the national and international levels. Equitable distribution is also a confused concept to which a shareable meaning must be assigned. Consequently, it is not necessary to establish maximum criteria of distribution but acceptable minimum parameters. There would be an acceptable minimum distribution if all human beings in their respective societies are assured of the set of rights according to present basic standards. Many of these standards are fixed internationally. For example, there are definitions of minimal income beneath which one is in poverty; in addition, the level of calories and nutrients beneath which there is malnutrition has been defined, etc. These rights cannot be renounced: the right to life, to the non-mutilation of one's body, to free thought, expression, and opinion, the right to have a government that guarantees these rights and the security of judicial procedures that provide for the right to defense and a fair trial; the right to participate actively in public life, and the right to preserve one's cultural identity.

4) Pluralism and tolerance are not arbitrary values. From the point of view of argumentation, they are derived from the fact that in the field of interaction an absolutely valid conception is impossible. Given the justificatory character of that which is preferable, argument to the contrary will always be possible. But if the claims of 3) are reasonable, then these values have two limits: on the one hand, the actions of those who take advantage of the benefits and opportunities of the present situation to further their own interests without «cooperating in the resolution» of the grave problems of distribution and recognition that afflict our world cannot be accepted. On the other, the actions of those who want to destroy a tolerant and pluralist society or to avoid constructing one in order to impose a totalitarian and dogmatic society are not acceptable.

5) It is enough to conceive of individuals as historically, socially, and culturally placed, taking part in a net of relations that creates identities and oppositions. They possess different degrees of autonomy, depending on the society in which they live, but in principle and in normal situations, all are persons with argumentative capacity, that is, the ability to discriminate among different reasons to decide courses of action.

6) The differences between countries and groups within a society are at times and in many places so deep that an effective way of resolving them, within the limits of pluralism and tolerance, is the strategic contract or agreement. With it the parties agree on distributions, rules and mechanisms that permit the elimination of differential recognition by each of them of their weaknesses and relative advantages. Consequently, the use of force, understood as a mechanism of exerting pressure on others that obliges or aids the realization that failure to agree may cost more than agreement, is not excluded. From this perspective, strategic contracts are morally acceptable when they permit solutions to conflicts that produce access or improvement of individuals or groups previously without it to at least an aspect of the common good, without requiring that someone who reasonably possesses goods give them up. This idea of a strategic pact is applicable to the elaboration of international agreements, the elaboration of national constitutions, the resolution of specific conflicts, etc.

A special case of the application of force is the use of violence. A peaceful or at least nonviolent agreement to resolve conflicts is always preferable. But the definitive renunciation of violence by one party gives the other an unacceptable strategic advantage. Hence the use of violence to seek social justice is not morally unacceptable. But it must have precise limits. These would be:

a) It is legitimate to use it only in cases of serious, prolonged, and unacceptable violation of the highest values of peaceful coexistence, social cooperation, and personal autonomy.

b) It must cease once the objective has been achieved or the other party accepts the negotiation of an agreement.

c) It must respect international law concerning the treatment of civilians and combatants.

These are moral conditions.

d) Violent action must be approved by a majority of those affected by the violations. No one can legitimately act violently in the name of an oppressed or exploited group without its support. This is a condition of democracy.

e) Violent action may be resorted to only if all channels for conflict negotiation stipulated by the applicable laws have been exhausted or after repeated and failed attempts at peaceful negotiation.

These are conditions of juridicality and political correctness.


HABERMAS, Jürgen, Faktizität und Geltung. Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 1992.

MONSALVE, Alfonso, «La noción de auditorio universal» in El Trabajo Filosófico del Continente. Memorias del XIII Congreso Interamericano de Filosofía. Carlos B. Gutiérrez (ed). Bogotá 1995.

MONSALVE, Alfonso, Teoria de la Argumentacion. Editorial Universidad de Antioquia, Medellín.

PAPACCHINI, Angelo, El Desarrollo de los Derechos Humanos. Facultad de Humanidades, Universidad del Valle, Cali 1992.

PERELMAN, Chaïm & OLBRETCHS-TYTECA, Lucie, Traite de l'argumentation. La nouvelle Rhétorique. P.U.F., Paris 1958.

PERELMAN, Chaïm, L'empire rhétorique. Rethórique et argumentation. J. Vrin, Paris 1977.

Alfonso Monsalve
Instituto de Filosofía
Universidad de Antioquia
Medellín, Colombia