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How can people who disagree have a respectful and constructive argument?
I'm still looking for good books on this topic, so in the meantime this is my best attempt:
- Make sure everybody has a functioning reason, contact with reality, and
a good will.
- Respect the Golden Rule.
- Use the only appropriate "Decision Method": Facts and Logic.
- "Back away" from the problem until some common ground can be found.
- Propose, scrutinize, write down. Repeat until problem is solved.
Before starting a discussion, at least three prerequisites are necessary: a functioning reason, contact with reality, and a rectified will.
A "functioning reason" implies many things, but the first and most obvious is that the Principle of Non-Contradiction must be accepted:
It is clear, then, that such a principle is the most certain of all and we can
state it thus: 'It is impossible for the same thing to belong and not belong to
the same thing at the same time and in the same respect.'
[Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b12-20].
If this Principle were not true, then for example "2+2" could be equal to "4" and "3453" at the same time! Or you could be overweight, and underweight at the same time! (Hurray! Hello chocolate ice cream!)
You also need contact with reality. One possible wording of this Reality Check is:
It is rational, true, objective, realistic and certain that 'Moving cars are
hazardous to pedestrians'. [...] Indeed, readers who happen to have been star
pupils in kindergarten will recognize this reality check as the sophisticated
version of the command 'Look both ways before crossing a road'.
[Hugh Gauch, Scientific Method in Practice, p. 134]
Neither of these principles can be "proved" strictly speaking. This is because a "proof" is showing how a statement (which is not evident) is logically caused by more fundamental statements which themselves are obvious. And these two principles are some of the most fundamental you can get!
But these two principles can be given "proofs" in the wider sense. People who deny these principles can be shown to be inconsistent, and reduced to silence (since they can't assert anything without contradicting themselves, or can't get across the street without being transformed into ketchup).
[2.3] For the third prerequisite, i.e. rectified will (or "good faith"), see among others "None More Blind Than He Who Doesn't Want To See".
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this
sums up the Law and the Prophets"
[Mt 7:12, also Lk 6:31]
It seems hard to deny that debates tend to fail, not because of a shortage of logic, but because one or more participants stops being courteous and polite. Here, I would like to claim I've never been responsible for such failures, but hum, well, kind of, you know, ... anyway, I'm sorry, and I'll try to avoid that next time. And pray for my conversion, I need it badly.
One of the most important rules of any debate, is that a good "Decision Method" must be used. In other words, the opponents during a debate will make various assertions. We need a way to decide if those assertions are true. In a way, the quality of a debate will depend on how we'll decide if an assertion is true.
Here are some examples of bad decision methods:
- Whoever is richest is "right"; or
- Whoever is the most famous is "right"; or
- Whoever is highest in the hierarchy is "right"; or
- Whoever has the biggest muscles is "right";
- Whoever is a personal friend of the Pope, or the Queen, or Wayne Gretsky; or
- Whoever is driving a eco-friendly car;
- Etc., etc.
When examining an assertion made by a participant, we must use facts and logic to decide whether the statement is true. The whole question of facts is vast, but the Second Finger is a good start. The whole question of Logic is also vast; a good overview can be found here.
Among the bad decision methods in philosophical debates, one of the most frequently used is the "Argument of authority". Saint Thomas Aquinas condemns this method in no uncertain terms in his Summa Theologica [Ia, q. 1, a. 8, ad 2.]: "Locus ab auctoritate, quae fundatur super ratione humana, est infirmissimus". And of course, since Saint Thomas is a saint, and you are a nobody, he must be right and you are definitely WRONG!
Seriously, the argument of Authority is not always bad. There is of course the special case of theology (since assertions made by a Being with infinite intelligence are not to be taken lightly!). There is also the debating technique (sometimes called "Ad hominem") where you take your opponent's assertion as if it were true, and then use it against your opponent by logically deducing false consequences from his assertion. (In a way, it's based on the argument of Authority, since you base your argument on the Authority of your opponent, who must be the greatest expert ever on his own opinion!) Finally, if no better argument can be found, an assertion made by an expert is better than nothing (which leads into the whole domain of Dialectics, or probable arguments).
(In a way, this whole Section repeats what has already been said above about non-contradiction and contact with reality, but it's worth insisting.)
A debate is not a boxing match. You can punch an opponent, but you can also punch an unconscious person, or even a bag filled with sand. A debate on the other hand is a social effort to find truth. If one party disagrees with a statement, then the other party has to try to show that this statement is true, by somehow linking it with other statements both parties agree on.
If there is no common ground between the parties, strictly speaking, no debate can occur. There can be no logical effort to connect controversial statements with more fundamental statements all parties agree on. When this occurs, you can have a shouting match, or paralysed silence, or a monologue describing the sins of others, and so on, but you can't have a debate. A "debate" without a prior effort to find common ground is not a debate, but an optical (and auditory) illusion.
Objectively, a statement is either true, false, or a mixture of both. That is why you can either agree with a true statement ("Concedo" in Latin means "I grant, I agree"), or disagree with a false statement ("Nego" means "I deny"), or agree with the true part of the statement, and disagree with the false part (hence the "Distinguo", i.e. "I make a distinction").
Subjectively speaking, it also works. Whether or not a statement is actually, objectively true, you can still say: "It appears true to me".
In a way, all constructive debates, no matter how complex, end up being "symphonies played on the three-note piano of reason: Concedo, Nego, Distinguo". Armed with that "three-note piano", you can run through a simple cycle of proposing a statement, then seeing if the other party grants, denies, or partially grants it (Concedo, Nego, Distinguo), then writing down the results, and starting over until agreement is reached.
In my experience, an honest and fair quest for the truth using this method often gets quickly bogged down in a mutual recognition of ignorance. This is a great result! Instead of being angry at "the other side", both parties end up being confronted with their ignorance. This leads to humility (the "Shield of Science") and more careful research. At least, this is movement in the right direction!
In my opinion, the big principles here above are essential. A constructive and respectful debate cannot occur without them. But often those principles aren't enough, and we have to add rules, like:
7.1) Find a good moderator. A very good "Common Ground" to start with is to both agree on a moderator. Try to find someone who is good at keeping everybody focused on the question, and not on the personalities of the people involved. (If you don't have a moderator, see #7.7 here below for a good alternate solution.)
7.2) Study good Philosophy textbooks. Just like good farmers should study Agronomy to improve their yields, people who want to harvest truth should study Philosophy. My suggestion to start you off is "The Philosopher's Glove".
7.3) Use the dictionary. Sooner or later, terms must be clearly defined.
7.4) Number the statements. Seems obvious enough, but I've actually seen people argue over a document with un-numbered paragraphs, which had an English and a French version (and the translations didn't match), and they were arguing through interpreters! Definitely not a recipe for success!
7.5) Replace loaded terms with common labels. Suppose for example you are trying to find common ground between pro-choice and pro-life groups. If you talk about "abortion" in French Canada, you'll displease half the crowd. If you substitute those terms for "V.P.I. or Voluntary Pregnancy Interruption" (the euphemism commonly used by pro-choicers in French Canada), you'll displease the other half. So you could invent new labels for these "Bones Of Contention", like BOC-1. You could then define once and for all that "BOC-1" is what pro-lifers call "abortion" and pro-choicers call "V.P.I. or Voluntary Pregnancy Interruption". You will need to define "BOC-1" more precisely, but at least now you're past the label and actually looking inside the jar. (There are many other examples, like "Terrorist" versus "Freedom fighter", or "Dead animal" versus "Delicious bacon", etc.)
7.6) Pass around a "right to speak". In a discussion group, it's very useful to agree on a maximum duration for an invervention, and then to have some object that represents the right to speak (like a ping-pong ball, or even a piece of paper with "Right to speak" written on it). The chairperson hands out this object to people who raise their hand, and he disciplines those who speak without having it, or who exceed the maximum duration for an invervention.
7.7) Choose an appropriate means of communication. If for example you're dealing with a person who is in bad faith, an e-mail exchange posted on the Internet eliminates many problems:
- you cannot be interrupted;
- when the person in bad faith contradicts himself, you can easily point to one of his preceding e-mails to show it;
- when the person in bad faith denies what is obvious, you can call upon the spectators on the Internet;
- when the person in bad faith changes, without warning, the definition of the words he is using, you can flag it;
6.8) Adapt the right to speak to e-mail debates. If the discussion is done by e-mails, rule #7.6 on the right to speak also applies, but a bit differently. Hence, you must avoid sending more than one e-mail at a time (and avoid sending attachments without permission), and wait for the answer before sending the next e-mail. Moreover, you must avoid asking your correspondent to read more words, that what you are yourself willing to read coming from your correspondent.
"Arguing with those people is impossible!"
I answer: "Distinguo", depending on the circumstances surrounding the debate. "Concedo", having a constructive argument is impossible when one or more of the prerequisites described above is not satisfied. But "Nego", if it is claimed that having a constructive debate is intrinsically impossible. It is not intrinsically impossible, since men by their very nature have the capacity to seek and find truth.
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