In part 2, we were left in a particular conundrum: while we realize that having arguments matters to changing not only opinions but also behaviors. We can’t only change opinions because even some of our most sure-footed opinions have a kind of “truth-as-we-know-it” character. We believe it to be true, but that can change. So we know that arguments matter, but not for the reasons we have assumed. While the truth may be fairly reliable in terms of advances in knowledge, it isn’t so much “truth” that grounds any moral development. We understood that moral development is grounded by a more persistent agreement with kinds of legitimacy. Whether something is legitimate or not is measured against a roughly recognized range of values.
For example, I live a twelve-minute drive to work, give or take. Some will say that this is pretty reasonable. Taking a bike would take me 33 minutes (by my GPS) and would be substantially more dangerous. However, I often encounter a cycling professor while walking from my car to the entrance of the University. I know they cycle for a variety of health and enjoyment reasons, but also because they do not want to add polluting emissions into the environment. And now I consider whether I should also cycle to work. I also value reducing emissions. And so, a moral argument arises in my mind. What do I refer to when considering this moral situation? Should I be concerned with impressing upon the do-gooding cyclist that I am just as environmentally conscious as he is? Should I force my mid-teenage kids to ride a bus for an hour to get to school every day, so that I can ride a bike? Should I undertake the long argument (which I am not prepared to do) with my wife of justifying taking a bike (which is more dangerous) instead of driving a car? Should our family rearrange all our after-school activities to fit our transportation desires? I think again about the cycling professor and realize that he does not have the same “shuttling” responsibilities I have. Well, this seems pretty complex…
It turns out, that my decision of whether to cycle or drive to work is grounded in a lifeworld (a form of life imbued with moral ideals and aspirations) that is entangled together in delicate ways with other things that I value. These other things I value – my son’s volleyball or basketball practice, church commitments, my wife’s work schedule – are legitimate. And it turns out the cycling professor thinks so too, and thus holds no judgment towards me. It turns out that an ethical lifeworld legitimates and contextualizes particular moral considerations to such a point that undertaking an argument about whether I should cycle or drive is not so much grounded in a truth-as-we-know-it, but is merely informed by it.
But we know that considering the argument is important because, as my case above shows, we have values that actually conflict with practiced lifestyles; knowing it is a moral issue makes me feel as if certain parts of myself are under attack. I really am left wondering if all the after-school activities, the need for both my wife and me to work, and living so far from our youngest child’s school are not moral problems in themselves because we have adopted a lifestyle that is contributing to the destruction of the planet. What would happen to other interested parties in this situation, like my wife and children, if I tried to make the change? I definitely would learn the values of these people very well if I tried to make the argument. But, in the end, if I changed all of that, my life would definitely get worse.
So I want to apply the following “rules of thumb.”
Consider engaging in an argument when the following conditions apply: (1) you are reasonably well prepared to participate; (2) there is a reasonable chance of success in terms of having an argument exchange that advances one morally or epistemically (even if it’s not necessarily a ‘victorious’ one); and (3) you will not make the situation worse. It’s easy to think of cases where an argument isn’t advisable… like the one above.
Approach argument with Meekness
A vexing problem of argument and reasoning is that everyone thinks they’re quite good at it (including the ones who are not). Charles Sanders Peirce noticed this and observed in 1877: ‘Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already.’
It is true that people care about reasons, but they tend to do so in a peculiar way: they care about reasons for others. Again, our own beliefs appear correct to us because the nature of having a belief means thinking that it’s true. Thinking that a belief is true means thinking that you have good reasons for it, since they supposedly took you to this true belief. So, you must think that you’re already good at reasoning. How can you detect your own errors of reasoning if you are already inclined to think your reasons are good?
I noticed this particularly strongly in what might be a rather grotesque observation after having lived abroad for so many years. When living in Thailand, I realized that the way Canadians cleaned their bums was wasteful and unhygienic. They used mounds of toilet paper. Oftentimes, Canadians wouldn’t be completely clean. In Thailand, people cleaned themselves using a hand-held bidet. Without the waste of toilet paper, Thai people were far cleaner. Not only that, with only one swipe of toilet paper, they were also dry. I had originally thought my way of using the washroom was more developed, but it turns out, it was highly influenced by a culture imbued with capitalistic values and the belief that increasingly complex technologies provided pseudo-solutions.
Peirce’s problem, confirmed by my experience, shows that not only do people have an innate bias toward the things they believe, but they also have a tendency to congratulate themselves for their successful management of the evidence in arriving at those beliefs (and to disparage others for their failures in this regard). But openly engaging in the process of arguing one-to-one with others – subjecting yourself to their reasons – can help you get around your own logical blind spots.
Anticipate that arguments will feel like attacks
An attempt by someone to change your beliefs will often feel like an attack or an imposition, especially when the belief in question is important to you. One reason for this is that the other person is suggesting – and they can’t but suggest this – that you have somehow failed in your duties as a reasoner in concluding what you do. The beliefs you hold have implications for you and your capacities to manage evidence. To believe the ‘wrong’ thing can thus seem like a particular kind of failure. Hearing reasons in an argument is also a kind of imposition in that you can’t perfectly control the evidence that you receive (which can be uncomfortable when that evidence challenges your beliefs). The challenge and change your beliefs might undergo in an argument doesn’t always feel good. It’s not supposed to. You’re going to feel a little pressure. But you can anticipate and try to accept this discomfort, knowing that the experience could ultimately be good for you – and that the person whom you’re arguing with, and whose beliefs you seek to change, might be uncomfortable too.
The frequent comparisons of argument to sports or combat are true in some critical respects. Like war, an argument can concern the settling of things that are important. And, as in war, in argument people are affected against their will. However, the point of arguing is to get someone to believe something – and to do that, you have to offer them reasons. If you want someone out of your way in a contact sport, you push them. If you want someone to go your way by argument, you can’t just make them (demand is not a reason). You have to offer them reasons such that they move in that direction on their own – or, more precisely, that it occurs to them to go that way. That’s what it is to change someone’s mind. And it is rooted in some shared, but deeper, belief.
In attempting to get you to accept that it is going to rain later, I have to direct your attention to things that will provoke that thought, like the dark, looming clouds, or the weather app on my phone. Similarly, if you want someone to change their view about abortion rights, you have to point them to evidence against their view. And if you want to be successful in this, you must point them to evidence (facts or values or aspirations) that they already accept or will accept as evidence. Those who disagree with you will try to do the same with you.
Seek to understand the alternative view in addition to your own
To give an argument that is convincing and that gets to the truth, you must do your best to be able to articulate the subject of your argument. This requires that you know your view and the reasons for it and that you also understand the competing views, the reasons for them, and the potential points of disagreement with your view.
One path to having a firm grasp on your own view and your reasons for it is to take on the perspective of being a teacher. What’s the core idea? What makes it a worthwhile idea? A good arguer is like a good teacher. A good teacher explains clearly, motivates interest, and gets recalcitrant audiences to see the point. This takes patience and a willingness to speak to people where they are. And the key to teaching a big idea is to show how it fits with other things, how it helps to explain why things are as they are, and makes life less puzzling.
When you can articulate your own view, it’s important to try to understand those who have rejected it. A good arguer has to speak to and be heard by those with whom they disagree. This requires that they know the alternative views in the ways that those who hold those alternative views know them.
If you are going to argue with someone, you have to see them as rational; otherwise, arguing can’t reach them. You have to try to understand them on their own terms if you are going to give reasons that they see as reasons. It can help to expose yourself to how someone sees their own reasons. This could mean reading their websites, watching their news shows or TikToks, or listening to their podcasts. It most certainly means listening patiently to someone as they describe their view before you engage them. You don’t have to like it, but exposure to alternative perspectives can educate you on how people who disagree with you will reason with each other. After you’ve started to ‘learn their language’, there will likely be strange and occasional moments when you seem to better understand how they understand themselves. You can see one or more of the reasons for their view as a good reason – that is, you can see how a careful thinker might arrive at that conclusion – even if it hasn’t changed your view. Pay attention to those moments. Being able to say that good reason back to someone you are arguing with as something that you have heard and thought about critically is valuable when you are trying to present them with reasons of your own.
To argue effectively for your viewpoint, you will have to give someone reasons that both of you see as reasons. This is the process of legitimation I mentioned in part 2. Otherwise, you are not addressing your interlocutor’s reasons, only your own. And you won’t have any chance of resolving the disagreement.
Be prepared to argue about arguing
Arguments are often maddeningly indirect. Say you’re trying to make a point about mass shootings in the United States, and you point to research showing that most public shootings do not end when a so-called ‘good guy with a gun’ takes matters into their own hands. Let’s say the person you’re speaking with rejects this by advancing an anecdote about a recent mass shooting where an armed citizen killed the shooter. True though this story may be, you’ll have to explain that single anecdotes aren’t strong evidence. They are interesting cases, but not necessarily reflective of broader trends. Notice that now the conversation has turned into one about what good arguments are, rather than about mass shootings.
Some ‘rules of the road’ for arguing can help you navigate these discussions and avoid making weak arguments yourself. For example, when one gives reasons as part of an argument, those reasons should be relevant to one’s conclusion. If they aren’t, that argument is a non sequitur; the conclusion does not follow. An argument should also be reflective of all the relevant reasons available – that is, one shouldn’t ignore a well-known reason for an opponent’s viewpoint, but should acknowledge and address it.
There are also, of course, fallacies to avoid – bad types of arguments that, in the heat of the moment, might seem like good ones. For example: arguing that because somebody has personal flaws or shortcomings, they are wrong about an issue (ad hominem abusive); giving reasons that seem good only to someone who already accepts your conclusion (‘begging the question’), or describing an exaggerated version of an opponent’s view (creating a ‘straw person’) and then criticizing that exaggerated view instead of the person’s actual view. These concepts can serve as interpretive devices for criticizing flawed arguments and can also keep you from falling for them.
The key here is that, for this vocabulary of fallacies to play the re-railing role it’s supposed to play, you can’t just use the terms and expect them to work like magic incantations on your opponents. Pronouncing a criticism of your view an ad hominem or a straw man isn’t enough. You’ve got to explain what the error is and why these terms fit the case. So, with the ad hominem, you have to show how your opponent’s comments on someone’s looks don’t invalidate that person’s take on public policy. And with the straw person, you have to explain that you actually said that ‘taxation is a down payment on civilization’, not that libertarians are uncivilized.
The indirectness of argument is a perpetual source of frustration for arguers. But this is just what it is to engage in argument – we don’t just talk about the item at issue, we have to talk about how we are talking about it. Things get complicated, because we, in managing the disagreement, have to work out lots of things adjacent to the disagreement on which we can agree. Such meta-discussions, as we call them in the business, make us aware of the rules of the road.
Aim to argue justly
Consider this analogy: certain actions are prohibited in war (eg, indiscriminately targeting civilians), and the same should be true in an argument. An unjust victory in argument – in which one ostensibly ‘wins’ the argument with distortion or deception, or by otherwise arguing unfairly – is not really a victory at all. Not only will you have triumphed with bad reasons, but you will also have harmed your interlocutor by degrading their reasoning power. In turn, you hurt yourself: it’s in your interest to lose arguments when you deserve to. Losing spares you from error – whether it be your false belief or your mistaken sense that your argument would be convincing to others. Either way, you’ve learned a lesson. It’s for this reason that Epicurus averred that ‘the one who loses in a philosophical dispute gains more the more he learns’.
Like war, an argument doesn’t last forever. It’s going to end, and you may have to continue interacting with your interlocutor. Not only do you not want them to feel degraded, but you also want to maintain a relationship of trust and mutual respect. Looking to ‘own’ someone in an argument has the wrong orientation, that of domination not only during the exchange but afterward. Instead, we should approach our particular and individual exchanges with the hope that we can set the stage for a more respectful and honest culture of reasoning together. For sure, this is but a hope, but it’s better to serve as an example of that aspiration than as an example of how an argument can go wrong.