Arguing is challenging, and sometimes very painful. We have all had arguments that made things seem worse after the argument than before it. In real life, arguing combines a number of very complex values – none of which are straightforward in their own right – into a form of interaction that can make the values hard to recognize. Values like the truth, self-justification, justice, sympathetic and empathetic relationships with others, intelligence, worthiness, and reason are often mixed together in an unrecognizable mess. Particularly common types of argument introduce competition into the mix, which raises the stakes on the outcome of the argument – like political arguments, school debate clubs, and relationships where power relationships are also being negotiated. 

Chances are good that you are reading this because you’ve had an argument that made things worse. Maybe the other person trotted out a personal story as definitive proof of some general claim, or they misrepresented your reasons in order to make you look foolish, or they called you nasty names or did any of the other too-many-to-name things that people who argue tend to do. These experiences are partly why people view arguments as hostile and intellectually unproductive – something to be avoided. 

Perhaps you are looking to learn some new terms to describe the annoying moves people make, or maybe you’re the competitive type and hope for a shortcut to ‘own’ others with facts and logic. Well, there are a few high-sounding words in the following, but my hope is that by the end of this article, you, the reader will have a better grasp of what is truly at stake in arguing, why it goes awry, and how to get it back on track. The key to arguing better consists not in learning new tricks, but in recognizing how arguments work and why they are important.

Arguments and their problems 

Let’s first get a handle on arguments. To start, we need to differentiate between an argument as a product and an argument as a process. As a product, an argument is a collection of reasons (called the premises) and the thing that the reasons show (called the conclusion). So, for example, the utterances ‘Bring your jacket because it’s going to rain (a temperate zone practice) or it will protect you from the harmful effects of direct sunshine (a tropical zone practice)’ are examples of an argument in this sense. So is ‘God exists because the world needs a first cause, and God is the first cause.’ In contrast, as a process, an argument is an exchange of reasons between interlocutors. Two people exchanging reasons over jackets or God’s existence are in the process of an argument. According to some of the best understandings of argumentation, including Doug Walton from the University of Winnipeg and Tony Blair and Ralph Johnson of the University of Windsor (all of whom I have been privileged to study under), the rules for a better argument process are ultimately derived from the rules for good argument products. This is because, in the end, what people who argue are wrangling over is what conclusion everyone’s best reasons jointly support. In other words, the cannon of argumentation aims at an interdependently-determined truth.

That seems straightforward enough, since truths that are independent of human minds may be said to exist, we can’t say anything more about them as independent of minds. After all, once we start to say something about them, the truth becomes necessarily involved with particular minds. This understanding of the point of an argument has been understood as dogmatic, beginning with Immanuel Kant. As such, “the truth-as-we-know-it” is a core feature of having arguments. Frequently, though, it seems commonplace but necessary to say that such “truth-as-we-know-it” is often far from clear, and often hotly contested.

If we analyze the behavior of people in the process of arguing, we might ask: what are arguments for? It is deceptively easy: we exchange reasons with others in order to affect their beliefs or commitments. I give you reasons to believe that something is true because I want you to believe that it’s true, or to believe more strongly. Maybe we disagree about it, maybe we don’t. Either way, I give you my reasons. And you assess them. People do this so often, and about so many things, that they rarely note it. ‘Bring your jacket,’ one might say, ‘because it’s going to rain.’ This is an argument, a mundane one, but it’s worth noting that it’s trying to change another’s beliefs and then actions in accord with that belief. It gets a little trickier when, for example, my mother used to argue: “put on a jacket (to me), because I’m (my mother is) cold.” We recognize, more than the value of the truth-as-we-know-it, i.e., the sneaking in of a power relationship, and the inherent value of a certain power structure. We sometimes call this persuasion, but sometimes it is called a manipulation. In all cases though, it is an effort to act toward a common goal. There is an underlying need and value to coordinate opinions and behaviors because our lives together frequently need that. 

We disagree, and so argue, over things both big and small. Many of these disagreements pose a problem for how to go forward, in light of the differing views. Let’s say you and a random social media user, disagree over abortion. (For my views on abortion see here.) He believes that abortion ought to be illegal in all circumstances; on your view, it ought to be legally permitted in most cases. The answer to this question matters greatly. It’s not like a dispute over our particular tastes in food which can remain unresolved without jeopardizing our relationship – it must be settled. Sure, we could settle it many ways, like drawing straws, examining entrails, or by violence, but reasoning it out together offers the highest chances of improving everyone’s “truth-as-we-know-it” standing, and it greatly improves our ability to go on living with coordination of action. Under ideal conditions, the social media user and you offer your reasoning. And then you, together, see where those reasons go. But it’s here that we get into trouble.

The primary problem is tied to a misunderstanding of the very nature of the thing that argument is intended to affect: are we going after a belief or ways of acting? 

In the previous example of the debate on abortion, the interlocutor is a random social media user. Thus, how we really act in our actual contexts is pretty much off the table, because we can easily disaffiliate from that interlocutor. Any argument the two of us undertake is almost completely concerned with our cognitive beliefs. If it is merely about a cognitive belief, then the forms of arguments and comprehensive understanding of fallacies (common, but invalid play in the process of arguments) would be enough to combat the struggle to get to the “truth-as-we-know-it.” The cognitive struggle: just having a belief means that you think your beliefs are true, just as other people think their own beliefs are true. After all, these are beliefs rather than hopes, desires, or fears. This starting point can make it difficult to even contemplate the possibility that someone else’s opposing belief is correct. That is the problem we so often face, largely because our debates are on platforms defined and constituted by the ability and desire to disaffiliate. (For my ideas on disaffiliation, please see a recent talk I gave at a conference at King’s University: Part 1, Part 2)

Another important feature of beliefs is that we arrive at them not so much by direct, voluntary assent to them. We haven’t gone through a process of enlightened argument or dialogue to arrive at them. Instead, we have typically adopted our beliefs in an embedded life in certain communities – and much of this is done subconsciously because it is embedded in the existing form of life in which one is already situated. You cannot simply will yourself to change what you believe. What can change your cognitive beliefs is exposure to information, real life=examples, and reasons. Yet, people are drawn to sources that support their existing beliefs and selectively attend to evidence that confirms those beliefs. Much of this we do without noticing. There are built-in reasons – religious, social, economic, institutional – to adopt these beliefs without the demand for cognitive assent. The existence of these belief-preserving tendencies underscores only one of the significances of argument: one must carefully avoid exposure to the influence of undue power or influence that subverts the necessary form for cognitive assent. Argument threatens to burst that bubble – at least in the form of cognitive beliefs.

Thinking back to the parts of my education with Walton, Blair, and Johnson, it seems as if this was the primary concern with the purposes of good argumentation – that we cognitively come to correct belief. In the history of philosophy, this makes sense. They were framed in a predominantly Anglo-American understanding of philosophic argumentation (called analytic philosophy). And this thinking is relevant today if seeing this “guide” to arguments published by Aeon/Psyche is any indication. The key academic concerns with why arguments matter are primarily cognitive. But I think there is more than just cognition at stake, as you may have guessed.

Join me in to see why our cognitive assent is not the only thing at stake, and why focusing only on cognitive assent actually undercuts moral reasoning in what is really at stake….

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