That the aim of an argument is to persuade with reasons is common sense. But from the way many people do it it doesn’t seem as if they have grasped the point of an argument. Thus I’ve decided to jot down, in a haphazard and rough way, some principles points to keep in mind when engaging in an argument, both online and off.
(1) The difference between an Argument and a Discussion
A discussion, or a dialogue, is an activity centred around the exploration and discovery of yet to be known or established points. Thus one discusses a point to see what logically follows or how it is illuminated by other points or facts. An argument is not a discussion, although a discussion would involve an argument. An argumentative posture is taken by someone who holds to a definite conclusion and uses premises to justify that conclusion which he already thinks is right or true.
In this light I have often seen people simply repeat in various forms how much they dislike, disagree, or object to some conclusion without offering an argument of their own. Worse sometimes they complain that the person is committed to his position or thinks that he’s right. But if I am contending for a particular conclusion then of course I think I’m right. Why else would I argue for a position or hold to a conclusion than for the fact that I think it is right and true? Do you know of anyone who willfully holds to a position which he thinks is wrong?
Thus when an argument is clearly stated and a conclusion justified with premises, one should engage the premises at once, not simply repeat that one doesn’t like the conclusions. However while one is committed to an argument, an argument normally occurs within the broader context of a discussion which is about exploration of yet unknown inferences or possible illumination in the light of unknown facts. Thus one arrives at some new conclusion or fact when one’s opponents brings new facts and inferences to the table and challenges one’s own conclusions. One either revises one’s conclusion or reconciles the contradictions brought to light, or refute the opponent’s premises. While one does, and ought to, hold one’s own position or conclusion firmly, one needs to be open to be corrected in the light of new facts and inferences which may arise in the course of one’s discussion. To always believe that one is right is not the same as to believe that one is always right.
(2) The Audience Bell Curve
There is such a thing as an audience bell curve. Within any public setting there would be some people who would never agree or believe your stance or conclusion no matter what you say (due to empirical conditions particular to them), and there would be people who are already committed to your stance and conclusion no matter what you say. The point of an argument, as stated from the start, is to persuade with reason. You obviously can’t persuade those who are committed to their conclusion irrespective of your reasons and you obviously don’t need to persuade those who are agreed with your position whatever the reasons maybe. The audience of every argument is therefore aimed at the middle of the bell curve. Those who are not persuaded by your conclusions and yet are open to reasons which might persuade them of it. There are several implications which knowledge of an audience bell curve brings.
(3) Don’t try to Convince or Become the Unpersuadable Person
Once you spot someone who is on the tail end of the would-never-be-persuaded audience bell curve, then one should automatically limit one’s engagement to addressing the objective contents and points of the person in question for the benefit of others, who are more malleable and might be reading the discussion/argument, and simply ignore the rest of what he or she says.
A person already committed to a position would more often than not simply engage in a lot of ad hominems, peppered with a lot of insults and abuses, and rarely engage what you actually say. Argumentation for such a person is not about logic or reasons but about moral posturing and proving his superior virtue/moral character or whatever compared to you whom he would impute all kinds of false motives, characters or vices. Since such a person views his conclusion or position as a matter of moral expression or expressions of one’s identity rather than logic, facts or reality, then arguments with such a person is normally fruitless. One should simply ignore the irrelevant points and engage the relevant ones. The people who are persuaded by obviously irrelevant points would themselves already be of the same kind, and the people whom you are interested to persuade would be able to see the irrelevant points for what they are and need no further address from you.
The flip side to this is not to become or seem to be the person at the tail end of the audience bell curve. The easiest way to do this is to yourself engage in ad hominems or not engage the actual points of your opponents. When you keep reiterating your conclusion and refuse to engage your opponent’s points, then you’re signalling to the rest that you are not interested in the argument at all, just with moral posturing via holding an allegedly virtuous conclusion. You will lose your intended middle of the bell curve audience very quickly with such a posture and seem to be merely preaching to the choir.
(4) Try to Understand and not Mischaracterise your Opponent’s Stances and Position
Part of persuading someone to your position is to criticise the contrary position. However that would require criticising a position actually held by your opponent instead of a position you think or imagine your opponent holding. Otherwise your criticism would not hit home but merely leave your opponent going, who is he actually criticising? Certainly not what I believe or my stance. In university we were therefore taught to present your opponent’s case in its strongest form possible before criticising it. Logicians have noted the existence of straw man and weak man fallacies, where one criticises a “straw man” or a position not held by one’s opponent and then declares that one’s opponent’s position has been criticised.
If there is something you don’t understand about your opponent’s position, clarify.
If your opponents cannot recognise his or her position in your characterisation of it, ask and clarify until your opponent is satisfied with your presentation of it.
Try to directly cite as much of your opponent’s words as possible to make him take responsibility for them and if necessary to make him clarify their meanings when ambiguous or if he says you have mischaracterise them.
There is however a limit to one’s charity with regards this point. One should be aware of motte and bailey argumentative patterns where one’s opponent’s position keeps shifting in order to maintain a stance. Roughly, a motte and bailey argumentative strategy involves first making a very bold, desirably or interesting claim, but which is highly objectionable and indefensible. When the battle is joined a person may retreat and say that oh no no, he’s really only asserting some trivial, uninteresting but more defensible or unobjectionable claim. We have a duty to try to understand our opponent’s position as best we can, but we have no duty to help him win especially through such argumentative tricks.
(5) Identify Your Opponent’s Premises as well as Premises Held in Common
In order for an argument to work there has exist some premises which your opponent holds from which you can use to establish your conclusion. However there are two kinds of premises here from which your opponent can hold and from which you can use to establish your conclusion. First, there are common premises which are held by most people within the middle of the bell curve. The opponent whom you are trying to engage should also himself hold these common premises and if he doesn’t, then point (3) about not trying to persuade people who dwell on the tail end of the argumentative bell curve and simply using his objective points to address the middle of the bell curve audience applies. Then there are premises which are either directly held or logically entailed by your opponent’s particular stances. These should be employed first and as much as possible to force a reduction ad absurdum and to force someone to either clarify, modify or reconcile the seeming contradictions in one’s own arguments. Of course for these to work one must follow point (4) carefully and identify the actual stances of one’s opponents and not strawman them.
(6) An Eye for an Eye Tone
Tone is something nebulous and difficult to characterise and is often a distraction from the objective points raised in a discussion. There is a certain danger in arguing responsibly and objectively in that it becomes a bit dull after a while. To that end I would propose “an eye for an eye” principle as far as tone is concerned. Always begin politely, engage in good faith of your opponent’s motives. No one, at least no one in the middle of the audience bell curve, likes to see politeness repaid with rudeness.
Try to avoid ridiculing and simply insulting a position. First you’re in immediate danger of being characterised as unpersuadable, that is someone who holds to a position as an expression of one’s superior moral character or a product of one’s identity. It’s simple manners and common sense really, be polite to people and practice good manners. Even when your opponents start to ridicule and insult yourself or your position, always maintain your cool and simply respond to the objective points raised. Sometimes people are just short tempered and if you persist with your cool they would calm down after a while.
However there are some who are maliciously intent upon rubbishing your position come what may. When through demonstrable persistence you see someone’s maintain their insults and ridicule against one’s position, you should be able to repay in kind in response to the rhetorical subtone that somehow one’s position is morally inferior or evil or whatever.