It can be difficult to find anyone willing and able to engage in rational debate, but it is something I think we should aspire to having. Many people refuse to engage in rational debate because they find it offensive or they would rather engage in name calling. I believe that rational debate has a lot to offer. It can help us better understand how to reason properly and to develop critical thinking skills. Rational debate is important to everyone who wants to know what they should believe about a controversial issue because we need to know if there’s a good argument in favor of a belief.
Based on my experiences, I also believe that people tend to be much worse at rational debate in general than they realize. They not only give very bad arguments on occasion without realizing it, but it is often unclear how they think their arguments have any bearing on a debate whatsoever. This is likely because they don’t quite understand how arguments and debates function. I will explain the very minimal requirements of rational debate here.
Rational debate has little to do with debate teams or political debates as seen on TV. Debate is a discussion about what we should believe between two or more people who disagree on some subject. One side in a rational debate gives arguments for some belief and defends that belief from objections. The other side of the rational debate gives arguments for why we should reject the belief and defends their position from objections. Rational debate requires that we do not try to trick or manipulate our opponents. Instead, we must be sincere about what we should believe and why.
A simple diagram of debate looks like the following:
We can consider the initial argument, objection, and defense to all be the necessary steps of both sides of a debate. Each side should have its own initial argument and their arguments should be defended from objections. However, we should keep in mind that there can actually be several initial arguments for a position, several objections to each argument, and several ways to defend an argument from objections. Debates can become very lengthy and complicated for that reason. Some philosophical debates have lasted for thousands of years between several different authors.
I will discuss each major step of debate—the initial arguments, objections, and defenses. Examples will be given of each.
People are motivated to participate in a rational debate when they both disagree about what we should believe. For that reason both sides of the debate present an argument for what they think we should believe.
Let’s consider a potential topic for rational debate. Wendy might think we should use the death penalty and Casper might think we shouldn’t. In that case Wendy would argue that the death penalty should be used and defend her view from objections; and Casper would argue that the death penalty shouldn’t be used and defend his view from objections.
The conclusion of Wendy’s argument is “we should use the death penalty,” and Casper’s conclusion is a rejection of that belief—that we shouldn’t use it.
The initial arguments are the reasons given for us to believe the conclusions. For example, each side could argue the following:
Wendy’s initial argument
- Evil people deserve to die.
- If evil people deserve to die, then we should use the death penalty.
- Therefore, the death penalty should be used.
Casper’s initial argument
- We shouldn’t kill people unless it’s necessary to save lives.
- Therefore, the death penalty shouldn’t be used.
After the initial arguments are presented, we have an argument to think something is true and an argument to think it’s false. At this point in the debate we can’t be sure that either of these arguments is successful. If both arguments are perfectly good, then we will have a good reason to think the death penalty should be used, but we have another good reason to think it shouldn’t be used. We will then have a good reason to think that two contradictory statements are both true, but we know that two contradictory statements can’t be true.
That’s where objections come in. These are arguments given against the arguments given by the opposing side. In this context objections are not against the conclusions of the opposing side—they are only against the arguments. In particular, an objection tells us that an argument given by the opposing side is not a good argument. There are two main reasons to think that an argument is not a good argument. One, a premise could be unjustified. Two, the premises might not properly support the conclusion.
An example of each type of objection is the following:
Casper’s objection against Wendy’s initial argument
- All evil people can be reformed.
- If all evil people can be reformed, then they don’t deserve to die.
- Therefore, evil people don’t deserve to die.
This objection gives us a reason to think Wendy’s first premise should be rejected. That premise is needed for her argument to give us a reason to agree with her conclusion. If we reject the premise, then Wendy’s argument will not give us a good reason to think that we should use the death penalty.
Wendy’s objection to Casper’s argument
- Perhaps the death penalty is necessary to save lives.
- So, even if “we shouldn’t kill people unless it’s necessary to save lives” is true, perhaps we should use the death penalty anyway.
- Therefore, Casper’s argument fails to give us a good reason to believe that the death penalty shouldn’t be used.
This time no premise in particular is objected to, but it is explained that Casper’s argument isn’t a good reason to think the death penalty shouldn’t be used—even if his premise is true.
A defense is a reason to think an objection isn’t a good argument. A defense could be said to be an objection to an objection. During the debate Wendy will be required to tell us if she thinks her argument can be rationally defended from Casper’s objection or if she retracts her initial argument, and Casper will be required to do the same.
An example of defenses include the following:
Wendy’s defense of her initial argument
- Casper doesn’t give us a good reason to believe that evil people can be reformed.
- If Casper doesn’t give us a good reason to believe that evil people can be reformed, then Casper doesn’t give us a good reason to believe that evil people don’t deserve to die.
- Therefore, Casper doesn’t give us a good reason to believe that evil people don’t deserve to die.
This time Wendy’s argument is a bit weaker because it’s merely stated that one of Casper’s premises is not justified. This seems like an appropriate response to an argument in a debate that is particularly controversial. It could also be mentioned that the premise is controversial and our best science does not support it. We can prove pretty much anything in a debate if we are allowed to require everyone to agree with our controversial premises, so it is necessary to try to find premises that we believe our opponents will agree with.
However, we should also note that it is important for both sides of a debate to try to find premises that everyone can agree with. If no premise is ever accepted during a debate, then the debate will never end. A person can be asked to justify premises with additional arguments over and over again forever. It would be unfair to ask one side to argue endlessly in this way.
Casper’s defense of his initial argument
- Incarceration is just as effective as the death penalty at saving lives.
- If incarceration is just as effective as the death penalty at saving lives, then the death penalty is not necessary to save lives.
- If the death penalty is not necessary to save lives, then we should reject that “perhaps the death penalty is necessary to save lives.”
- Therefore, we should reject that “perhaps the death penalty is necessary to save lives.”
It seems fair to assume that Casper’s initial argument contained an unstated premise—that the death penalty isn’t necessary to save lives. People don’t always state all of the premises of their arguments, and that premise can be justified in order to defend his argument from Wendy’s objection. In that case one premise of Wendy’s objection in particular can be refuted.
Although I have discussed the basic requirements of rational debate, there is a lot more that could be said. Even so, this is a good starting place. If we want to know what we should believe, we should know arguments both for and against the belief when possible. We also need objections and defensive arguments. We need to know if we have a good reason to reject an argument, and we need to know why exactly it’s a good reason to reject the argument.