Good Arguments Demand Careful Thinking

It is important to argue clearly, not loudly.

If you watch enough people talk about politics, you’ll quickly conclude most people just aren’t very good at it. There’s often a kind of emotional intensity that clouds communication. But there’s also a general lack of skill at articulating the complex ideas and frequently-unexamined principles that motivate so much political disagreement.

That’s why it’s important to cultivate our ability to communicate our ideas and for better understanding both our ideas and those of others. You can be the best speaker in the world, but if your opponent feels you’re misrepresenting his views or haven’t taken the time to study his side of things, he’s unlikely to be swayed by what you have to say.

I can’t stress enough that when approaching any topic — whether in debate or not — it’s crucial we think clearly. We — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, whatever — tend to approach any question with a fog of beliefs, biases, and vague impressions. We seek out evidence that supports what we already think true, and look for ways to reject evidence that doesn’t. We’re more forgiving of the mistakes in reasoning made by those on our side, and pounce voraciously on the most minor mistakes made by ideological foes.

All this leads to spirited debate, but it doesn’t lead to good debate. It doesn’t lead to the kind of debate or discussion that creates a feeling of sympathy in our interlocutors or makes much progress in encouraging them to accept — or at least not so thoroughly reject — our views.

Perhaps the most important first step in ensuring a fruitful debate is also one most easy to skip over: We need to define our terms. Almost nothing derails an argument faster than when both sides use the same words to mean different things. If I say that human beings have rights and you say they don’t, it’s important that we know what the other means by rights.

This happens all the time in political debate. Take equality. Am I for it? Well, yes and no. It depends what you mean by equality. Equality of resources, including forced redistribution? Because if it’s that, then I’m against it. But does equality instead mean equal treatment by the state, equality before the law, and equality of basic rights? Well, in that case, sign me up!

So before plunging too far into a discussion, take a moment to think about whether everyone is talking about the same thing. It’s as easy as asking, “What do you mean by that?”

We should try to recognize when we’re making bad arguments. We never set out to argue poorly. But we often stumble into it, most frequently by not stopping to consider whether the arguments we’re making are at all plausible. The philosopher John Stuart Mill, in his great essay, On Liberty, pointed out that, “while every one well knows himself to be fallible, few think it necessary to take any precautions against their own fallibility, or admit the supposition that any opinion, of which they feel very certain, may be one of the examples of the error to which they acknowledge themselves to be liable.” It does us no good in communicating our ideas to have those ideas based on shoddy foundations. But even beyond harming our capacity to communicate well, it also means doing ourselves a disservice. Who wants to believe things for bad reasons?

One of the best ways to avoid making bad arguments is to spend time studying counter-arguments. And the best way to do this is to read — and understand — our critics.

Any argument made often enough will give rise to counter-arguments. Sometimes the initial argument can withstand them, and sometimes it can’t. Likewise, sometimes those counter-arguments will be strong and sometimes they won’t.

But regardless of whether we believe our own positions are inviolable, it behooves us to know and understand the arguments of those who disagree. We should do this for two reasons. First, our inviolable position may be anything but. What we assume is true could be false. The only way we’ll discover this is to face up to evidence and arguments against our position. Because, as much as we may not enjoy it, discovering we’ve believed a falsehood means we’re now closer to believing the truth than we were before. And that’s something we should only ever feel gratitude for.

Second, even if we’re not wrong, understanding and wrestling with counter-arguments improves our grasp of our own views and makes us better able to articulate and defend them.

Allow me the indulgence of quoting again from Mill, this time at length.

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious. Because he has felt, that the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind. No wise man ever acquired his wisdom in any mode but this; nor is it in the nature of human intellect to become wise in any other manner. The steady habit of correcting and completing his own opinion by collating it with those of others, so far from causing doubt and hesitation in carrying it into practice, is the only stable foundation for a just reliance on it: for, being cognisant of all that can, at least obviously, be said against him, and having taken up his position against all gainsayers — knowing that he has sought for objections and difficulties, instead of avoiding them, and has shut out no light which can be thrown upon the subject from any quarter — he has a right to think his judgment better than that of any person, or any multitude, who have not gone through a similar process.

Mill is absolutely right. Following his prescription is demanding, of course, but it’s worth it if we want to be better able to convince others of our deserved confidence in our positions.