Debate can be an educational opportunity (for hopefully at least one participant), but many people find it to be a “waste of time.” This is likely due to the fact that many people have bad habits and know very little about how to debate well. Nonetheless, the Internet gives us new opportunities to debate using message boards, blogs, and so on. I want to encourage people to debate informally in everyday conversation whether face-to-face or online, and I will discuss five argumentative virtues that can help us have better debates—charity, relevance, clarity, modesty, and justification. These virtues apply to any sort of debate including philosophical essays, but I will also discuss certain flaws I’ve encountered in informal debates.
What is a debate? Debate, broadly construed, consists of a disagreement between people when each person’s opinion is justified and defended through argumentation (giving reasons to accept conclusions). There have been some philosophical debates spanning for thousands of years between hundreds of participants, some debates are made for spectators (often in the political arena), but most debates are found in informal conversation.
Debate often requires us to give objections to an “opposing” argument or belief—or to defend our own argument or belief from objections. Either way, we need to understand at least one argument, belief, or objection given by someone else. When considering the arguments and beliefs of others it’s often a good idea to make sure we understand them as well as possible, and to understand why an intelligent person could agree with the “opposing” belief or argument. To do this, it’s a good idea to try to see things from the opposing person’s point of view.
To misunderstand or fail to properly describe an opposing argument or belief is often catastrophic to our argument. This is known as the “straw man argument fallacy.” It is uncharitable, and it’s not relevant. If you change an opposing belief or argument and make it worse than it really is, then you are likely to try to object to the changed argument or belief, but such an objection can’t prove that the actual opposing argument or belief is unjustified. Additionally, such distortion is manipulative, deceptive, and dismissive.
For example, Sue might argue that “abortion is wrong because each fetus is a person.” It would then be uncharitable for Jen to respond, “Why do you think a fetus is capable of rational thought?”
To belittle or quickly dismiss the opposing point of view, argument, or belief is often insulting and it’s likely to make ourselves seem pompous. Such behavior is unlikely to advance the conversation.
I have noticed that being uncharitable is often accidental because people often try to “read between the lines” and others might assume you have the same beliefs and arguments “in mind” as countless others they imagine existing (or that they have encountered in the past). This might be inevitable to some extent because every conversation is likely to require us to have many assumptions, but it’s often something that can lead to a straw man argument.
Being charitable requires us to be minimally respectful and modest. We are unlikely to have an informative debate if we don’t consider the other person to be worthy of a debate.
It’s often a good idea to make it clear how our objections are relevant to the opposing belief or argument—and we should generally make it clear how we can defend our arguments and beliefs from objections.
First, one way to make sure that our objections are relevant is to make it clear whether we object to an opposing premise or conclusion. (A premise is a reason given to accept a conclusion.) If an argument is logically sound, then the conclusion has to be true. Therefore, we would need to know that a premise of an argument is unjustified before we can know that the conclusion is unjustified. For example, consider the argument “hurting people is never wrong, kicking people hurts people, therefore kicking people is never wrong.” If this argument is logically sound, then the conclusion has to be true. However, the argument is not logically sound because it’s false that “hurting people is never wrong.”
Second, the fact that a premise is false is not sufficient to know that the conclusion is false because a better argument might be possible. For example, someone could argue that “Dogs exist because the sky is blue.” It’s true that the sky is blue, but that doesn’t prove that dogs don’t exist.
Third, it can be a good idea to keep in mind that arguments must be logically valid or the premises aren’t even relevant to the conclusion. Logically valid arguments have premises that logically imply the conclusion, but logically invalid arguments don’t. For example, “Dogs are animals because dogs are mammals” is logically invalid insofar as proving the conclusion to be true (i.e. dogs are animals) would require an additional premise—that mammals are animals. A logically valid argument would be “dogs are animals because (a) dogs are mammals and (b) mammals are animals.” To fully understand logical validity, it can be a good idea to learn formal logic.
Keep in mind that many things said during debates are irrelevant, such as the fact that the opponent is lazy, unemployed, or foolish. Saying anything negative about the opponent is not only likely to make yourself sound pompous, but it’s off-topic—totally irrelevant to the opposing beliefs and arguments.
If something is said during a debate that diverts attention away from the relevant arguments, then a red-herring fallacy has been used. To change the subject or divert attention away from arguments during a debate is unlikely to advance the conversation.
It’s not always clear how many arguments and objections are relevant in a debate, and it’s not always clear what we want to say.
First, many words are vague—there’s a gray area and it’s not clear where we want to draw the line. For example, it might be clear that Socrates is a “good person” but it might not be clear if President Barack Obama is good enough to be a “good person.” We can clarify how we can draw the line or simply avoid using vague words.
Second, many words are ambiguous—there can be more than one meaning. For example, it’s not clear that Karl Marx, one of the original communists, would be unlikely to consider the Soviet Union to be a communist country. If the meanings are considered to be similar (such as an alternative to capitalism), then the ambiguity is likely to cause confusion. We can clarify how we use words like “communism” or we can simply avoid them.
Third, it’s not always clear what our conclusions are. Does someone want to conclude that everyone should agree that Obama is a good president—or that it’s rationally permissible to believe that Obama is a good president—or that the belief that Obama is a good president is a somewhat better belief than the alternative—or simply that there is some reason to believe that Obama is a good president?
Fourth, it’s not always clear how our arguments work. It’s a good idea to list every single premise that an argument requires, but hidden premises are very common. For example, we can argue that “It’s usually wrong to hurt people, so it’s usually wrong to kick people.” This argument might look perfectly reasonable, but it’s actually missing a needed premise—that kicking people is likely to hurt them.
One common mistake during debates is to try to prove too much. We can rarely prove that everyone has to agree with us about anything, but this is often what people try to prove. To make matters worse, some people even argue that other people are idiots for disagreeing with them. Although it might be true that only idiots have certain beliefs, it is not usually something that would be worth debating about. (For example, everyone should agree that 1+1=2.)
Additionally, many people seem to think it’s obvious what they want to argue, even though vagueness, ambiguity, and hidden premises plague our language. To tell someone who asks for clarification or misunderstands our arguments that she needs to “learn to read English” or that she “completely missed the point” will likely make us sound pompous and is unlikely to advance the conversation.
Modesty requires that we realize what little our arguments actually prove, and that we don’t have an arrogant attitude. It’s often a good idea to be modest about our own capability to be rational or our capability to prove anything substantial using arguments. Implying that we are superior to others is likely to be insulting and is unlikely to advance the conversation.
It’s often a good idea to give justifications for our premises—a reason that others should accept them. For example, we should believe that Einstein’s theory of relativity based on his expertise and scientific consensus (based on evidence). An appeal to expertise, observation, and the fact that certain beliefs are “intuitive” are all common forms of evidence.
At the same time we can justify our beliefs all day. Consider that you tell someone something you know is true and that person continually asks for justifications. For example, I can say that I know Einstein’s theory of relativity is true, and Sue can ask, “How do you know that?” I can reply that scientific consensus confirms Einstein’s expertise. Sue can then ask, “How do you know that expertise counts as a form of evidence?” I can then say that we should trust the opinion of experts who are likely to have sufficient evidence for their beliefs (unless we are also experts)—such as when a math teacher tells the children that “1+1=2.” Sue can then ask, “How do you know we need to trust the opinion of experts including math teachers?” This can go on forever. So when is it a good idea to justify our opinions? My suggestion is that, at minimum, it’s a good idea to try to meet the other person halfway.
How can we meet the other person halfway during a debate? The better the justification an opponent offers, the better justification we can offer. On the one hand if an opponent offers no justification, then we need not offer any either. What can be asserted without justification can be dismissed without justification. On the other hand if we merely ask an opponent to continually justify every assertion over and over forever, then the conversation will be one-sided and get boring. Instead, it’s often better to be willing to offer objections (involving our justification) to the opponent’s assertions—when the opponent is willing to justify her assertions.
Moreover, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that the “justifications” people give for their beliefs are often rationalizations—failed attempts to reason well in an attempt to legitimize a belief. Such failures have been categorized by philosophers and are known as “informal fallacies.”
Many people understand debates as the silly banter between politicians or as shouting matches, but debate can be much more than that. It can be a social form of reasoning, and it’s often helpful to have other people to double-check our reasoning process because we often overestimate our own ability to reason. Simply put, debating can be educational. Of course, debates are not always educational. I hope that the five virtues mentioned here can help change that. If our arguments attain higher levels of charity, relevance, clarity, modesty, and justification; then our debates are going to be likely to be more productive.