TUTORIAL – The Golden Rules of Argumentation
Central to philosophic discussion (and most serious discussion) is argumentation, be it done orally or in writing. In the papers you will be doing in my classes, you will typically be taking a position on an issue upon which there are two (or more) legitimate, intellectually defensible, points of view, and you are trying to persuade the listener/reader by force of your reasoning and factual evidence—as opposed to your personal passion or witty rhetoric—that your perspective is likeliest to be correct or worth supporting.
In your discussions in class and especially in your essays, you should follow the three “Golden Rules” of argumentation:
- Represent all sides of the issue fairly;
- Accept your rightful burden of proof;
- Reason rightly.
Each of these is an elaboration of the basic notion that philosophic discussion requires intellectual honesty on all sides. Let’s take these in order.
First, always state the opposing views fairly. Always state your opponents’ positions in such a way that each of them would say, “Yes, that is a fair statement of my views on this issue.” Deliberately misstating another person’s opinion—called “setting up a straw man” in informal logic—is a common ploy in political polemics.
For examples, a Leftist may accuse people who oppose his proposal for (say) universal pre-Kindergarten education as being “child-haters” who are indifferent to the well-being of the young. A Rightist may accuse people who oppose his proposal for (say) increased defense spending as being “appeasers” who are indifferent to the defense of the
country. But you can love children and want the government to help them but oppose universal pre-K—say, because you think that pre-K education is not generally effective or the government doesn’t have the money for it. And you can love your country and want the government to protect it but oppose increased defense spending—say, because you think that the country is already adequately defended or that it doesn’t have more money to spend.
Polemics tend to serve only to rally the faithful; they seldom convince people who do not already believe the ideological perspective from which the polemics spring. They are not serious discussion.
In philosophical essays, we are not after polemics, but essays that seriously engage interesting viable perspectives—not uninteresting straw men.
Second, never take as “fact” that which is not accepted by all sides. If a claim is debatable, DEBATE IT, that is, support it with arguments and evidence. So, for example, if you say something like, “At this point in American history, most Americans would like to see the Second Amendment abolished “ (or on the other side, that most Americans still favor it), you need to cite some scholarly surveys to support your claim, because it is surely not something obvious to everyone else in the debate.
Third, avoid bad reasoning. Don’t rely on fallacies (i.e., illogical reasoning) when arguing for or against a point. Make sure that the evidence you offer would, if true, establish with at least strong probability your conclusion.
If you haven’t taken a course in introductory logic or critical thinking, you can get a quick overview of the major mistakes in reasoning people often make by reading my tutorial, “Common fallacies to avoid.”
The famous philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce—arguably the greatest philosopher America has ever produced—observed that logic is “the ethics of belief.” Just as you ought to treat other people as you would want them to treat you, you ought to reason with them the way you would want them to reason with you.