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Hold on There, Robert Samuelson! Let's Think This Through!

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However, debate about any given legislative proposal usually involves debate about competing values, because legislative proposals are usually complicated enough that they involve more than one value issue.

Now, the observation about competing values brings us to the issue that most concerns Samuelson the problem of denigrating opponents to one's own views as "less moral" -- as Samuelson delicately puts it. Put less delicately, we may tend to see our opponents as "evil" or at least as people who are up to no good good-for-nothing people.

When we are carrying on public debates about any given legislation proposal, it strikes me as inevitable that we will tend to characterize our opponents in the debate through negative invective. The use of invective to arouse people against what our opponents are advocating strikes me as fair enough. In the final analysis, invective is usually a way of saying, "Shame on you!"

Even though stirring up political anger about a given legislative proposal is obviously the way to move people to undertake political action to oppose the proposal, political anger as such should be tempered by reasonable argumentation. There's the rub that most concerns me political anger can get out of hand and lead at times to violence against one's opponents.

As we know from experience, political anger can at times lead certain individuals to undertake violence against another individual, as it led one antiabortion agitator recently to murder an abortion doctor in a church in Kansas.

In a similar way, political anger can lead to mob violence against other people.

And the American Civil War was fought because of political anger could not be channeled constructively through reasonable debate.

So the real alternatives are reasonable debate versus violence.

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At the present time, we have a seemingly intractable debate in the United States about gay marriage. As a result, those intellectuals among us who have the intellectual wherewithal to try to advance this debate should try to do so, as the estimable Martha C. Nussbaum has tried to do in her new book FROM DISGUST TO HUMANITY: SEXUAL ORIENTATION AND CONSTITUTIONAL LAW. But it remains to be seen how widely read her book will be.

Regarding the seemingly intractable debate about legalized abortion in the United States, I have published my views about legalized abortion in the first trimester in more than one previously published op-ed piece published at

More recently, I have also published pieces at about the spirit of argumentation and debate, and about the need for American education to try to inculcate the spirit of argumentation and debate in students.

Students in law schools must inevitably learn the spirit of argumentation and debate, because as Aristotle notes, forensic rhetoric is used in courts of law.

For Aristotle, philosophic dialectic involves pro-and-con debate designed to clarify philosophic conceptual constructs and predications. As a result, undergraduate philosophy majors and even undergraduates who take a few philosophy courses but not enough for a philosophy major learn the spirit of argumentation and debate.

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Lumped together, law students and philosophy students probably do not make up a very large percentage of the population of the United States. But are they together a sufficient number of people to leaven the rest of the at times yeasty American population, or should we collectively undertake to educate more undergraduate students in philosophy and perhaps even secondary students?

In the meantime, how can we collectively undertake the remedial education in philosophy of all those at times yeasty American adults who have not studied philosophy?

Can our American experiment in representative democracy hope to endure much longer with so many yeasty citizens who have not studied philosophy? Or will we have another violent civil war to settle the seemingly intractable debates about legalized abortion and gay marriage?

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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