The Difference Between a Narrative and an Argument

The Difference Between a Narrative and an Argument June 22, 2016
By Eric Drooker // www.drooker.com

There’s something fishy about The Way We Talk About Right and Wrong. I get this:

Person A: I think prostitution is wrong.
Person B: I have 9 objections to your proposition.
Person A: Bring it on.

I also understand this:

Person A: I think prostitution is dandy.
Person B: I will hit you with a bat until you admit otherwise.
Person A: Bring it on.

But the our current dance through the fields of Big Moral Questions goes something like this:

Person A: I think prostitution is wrong.
Person B: Here, listen to this podcast about the real lives of sex workers.
Person A: But I’ve been drinking since three o’clock-
Person B: Shh. In episode 4, Daryl, a stock-broker by day, talks frankly about his decision to enter into sex work after his business went bankrupt. He’s a 28 year old Danish man who likes Radiohead.
Person A: Yeah, but-
Person B:  He has a grandmother. She grows sunflowers.
Person A: Yeah, but-
Person B: He lives in an apartment just like yours. Except his welcome mat says: “Wipe Your Paws.”
Person A: What does this have to do with-
Person: Your paws, can you believe that?

Whenever a group comes under moral criticism, our political instinct is to present their “real life stories.” I’m thinking of “normalization” campaigns, as when The 1 in 3 Campaign presented “Remarkably Normal: Abortion Stories” or when The New York Times Magazine rolled out “The Everyday Faces of Sex Workers.” I’m thinking of the “personal narrative drives” of religious groups under popular suspicion: Scientology and Mormonism use the technique in winning style. I’m also thinking of the odd prohibition we place on moral argument, that it can only stem from knowing the stories of the subjects of our moral criticism: “Do you actually know any transgender/divorced/fascist/vegan couples?” We rarely argue for or against a particular moral behavior, considered abstractly. We contextualize it within a real-life story.  

It should be obvious that the use of narrative as a response to moral criticism is absurd. If slavery is wrong, it doesn’t matter how heart-wrenching and hip NPR’s series on The True Experience of Slave-owners is. If euthanasia is a Bad Thing rather than a Good Thing, no photo-journalism campaign telling the Real Stories of Elderly Citizens Deciding to Die With Dignity changes the fact. If I hold that an action is evil, all a narrative of some person doing that action proves is that, yowzers, there are real-life people to apply my moral belief to. 

A narrative can provide flesh and blood to what might otherwise become a pale and abstract moral ideal, but it’s a teenage immaturity that thinks of ideals as weak things simply because they are abstract things. Liberty is an abstract thing, and while one could certainly speak of it in watery terms, one can also paint it as a topless woman leading the French Revolution or build a nation of self-governing farm communities on its basis. Progress is an abstract idea, and while one could make it a pale principle quite apart from actual lives, one could also decimate the Jewish population of Europe, invent the atomic bomb or strip-mine West Virginia on its basis.

Narrative cannot be opposed to general principles, because even a cursory glance at our lives reveals that our narratives are inspired, shaped, and utterly wound up with general principles. Real life is in real-relation to the ideal. Impersonal ideas are important to persons, and therefore personal in the end. If all this is true — that the abstract shapes the concrete — then there is nothing particularly generous or wise about our current coronation of narrative over principle. Beneath the veneer of “respect for real people” a cold depreciation of humanity lies smirking: one that considers the human person as concretized, fixed, incapable of conversion and unable to freely leap from her narrative in the light of some newly grasped ideal. Under all our talk of “giving a human face to the controversy” is a denial of what makes the face truly human — its capacity to freely turn from falsehood towards truth, from evil towards the good. A moral view of humanity that values narrative over principle inevitably considers humans as creatures incapable of principles.

To make this point clear, simply consider how the typical, NPR-style, moral-argument-as-narrative dialogue might go if there was a genuine recognition of the capacity of the person to break free from their narrative under the inspiration of some newly envisioned moral idea.

Sheila introduced me to Joe, a trans-man working as an app-designer in Northern Virginia. Of course, he is completely free to drop all that in favor of subsistence farming.

“I feel like our notion of gender as an exclusively male-female phenomenon is just part of our oppressive Judeo-Christian heritage,” said Joe, pouring me a cup of green tea. Being a free, rational being in daily discourse with other rational beings, he may come to believe a contrary position, rooting the communal understanding of gender in the givens of nature rather than arbitrary mental constructions.  

Linda, his co-worker, disagrees. (Right now.) She was raised in a Christian home. (Which is largely irrelevant. When it comes to real people with free wills, a Christian home is as much an opportunity for leaving the faith as for continuing in it.) “Either you know what it’s like to menstruate, or you don’t,” she told me, spinning on her easy chair and leaving open the opportunity for a new general principle (that the psychological sense of gender is unrelated to the reproductive functions of the body) to convince her utterly.

Narrative doesn’t work well with any transcendent view of the human person. It only succeeds as a method moral argument if a particular person’s current decisions and beliefs are absolutized, concretized, and fixed fast to the person. He becomes, whether he wills it or not, a type. Any consciousness of our propensity for conversion would reduce a narrative argument to rubble.

And in fact, rubble is all a narrative argument can be. To re-appropriate David Hume for my purposes — an “is” is not an “ought.” No accumulation of facts could ever amount to a moral demand. No description of a life could ever say a word about whether one ought to live out the decisions and beliefs of that life. From a logical point of view, narrative only amounts to moral argument by sneaking some general principles through the back door. And of course, this is how narrative arguments actually function. By “showing” the life of this or that moral or immoral agent, they implicitly endorse or denounce the moral ideal by which he does or does not live. Narrative is only an alternative to moral ideals insofar as it is the narrative of a moral ideals. The only difference is that within narrative arguments we believe we are being convinced by a human face, a “real life” — a concrete, lived-experience. In reality, we are only ever convinced by whether we think an act is good or evil, but narrative helps to shove that crisis moment of moral decision to the background, happily treating us all as consumers who need the bitterness of some new morality sweetened by the saccharine coat of “real-life experience.” But even as I deem it logically ineffective (Very Bad Job, C-), I know that the use of narrative is a practically effective method of re-educating the morally-convicted.

Continue reading Part 2, or just come to your conclusions now and comment about them below. 

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