While discussing an issue with non-objectivists, I find it difficult to communicate effectively my position because of the popular conception of certain words or ideas. Selfishness, altruism, values, the good, and the evil are common stumbling blocks. I know this is a common difficulty due to the loose use of the language in our culture. How can I start to bridge the gap without lengthy side track explanations that never seem to penetrate far enough to be effective. Without their willingness to delve deep enough, it seems like a fruitless pursuit.
I've dealt with this problem as follows.
Take the commonest problem word: "selfishness." If you tell someone your definition, he'll probably go along, but think you're just being difficult or impractical, since everyone knows definitions are subjective, arbitrary and a product of social convention, after all.
What you have to do is explain your definition and then make clear why yours is right. This is best achieved with a simple but proper example of concept formation. For instance, I usually point out that the reason people call chairs and tables by different names isn't because everybody agreed to do so at some point, but because they are different things.
Most people will grasp this, and with it in mind, they'll understand what you mean when you say that you use selfishness differently, because, for example, stealing from a charity is different from not donating to one.
In short, give an example of an everyday term people use correctly, and then explain how in the word you're using differently, people inappropriately lump together or separate things that shouldn't be lumped or separated. The important thing in terms of making a lasting impact on your audience is to impress upon it that this isn't just you being eccentric, but that there's an objective reason for defining words a certain way.
My approach to this is to avoid the hot-button and lingo words at first. I talk around them. For example, instead of altruism, I might say duty. Selfishness --> rational self interest. The Good --> things that support my life. A=A --> things are what they are. And so on.
After a while, I can usually start introducing new definitions, but I would normally preface that by explaining how the meanings of some words have been distorted over the years. Using examples of doublespeak from 1984 often helps get the point across. After that, I carefully explain things like when I say "altruism," I mean it in this way, and for this reason.
The challenge here is that this approach relies on the other person being reasonable, which, unfortunately, they often aren't -- so the conversation may never get as far as definitions. At least if I go this route, though, I can be confident that if I fail to get through, it wasn't just a matter of miscommunication, but was something more fundamental.
answered Jan 08 '12 at 05:14