How To Argue Well

Uploaded by ZJemptv on 19.01.2011

People have sometimes asked me how I'm so good at arguing. Well, I wouldn't say I am.
I've just had a lot of opportunities to practice. I don't consider it to be something that's
difficult, and I've never had any formal training in this area. It's mostly just something I've
worked out on my own. I might still be rather unskilled at this, and there's probably a
lot about argumentation that I haven't learned yet. But there are a few guidelines I've established
that are helpful to follow here. If anything, the key to all this is knowing yourself, controlling
yourself, and holding yourself to a high standard of integrity. From there, good argumentative
practices will follow. First of all, be right. I cannot overemphasize how important this
is. I'm sorry, but this isn't about how to defeat anyone no matter what your position
is. That might help you look good in a public debate, but it's not conducive to having actual
productive arguments. Some things actually are wrong, so don't try to defend them if
you care about having an honest discussion. Be on the correct side of things. It makes
it very easy for you to have good arguments, and very difficult for your opponents to have
good arguments against it. Second, if you don't know if you're right, be cautious, don't
argue, and wait before you say anything. This is probably the foremost reason why I seem
like I'm good at arguing. I don't make a habit of weighing in on things I don't know about
or haven't thought about. You'll almost always be on solid ground when you offer your views
if you know when not to argue. If you seek to develop a position, inform yourself. Research
the topic you're interested in, read everything you can about it, investigate different positions
on it, see what makes sense, and synthesize it all into a coherent understanding of the
subject. Start talking to others about it. Bring your position into contact with theirs,
let your viewpoint be challenged, and see if it survives. When you talk to people, you'll
be able to learn about things that you hadn't thought of or wouldn't have thought of on
your own. They can help fill in your blank areas and provide a more complete picture
of the argumentative landscape. You'll find out what your position will have to account
for, which of your arguments are good, and which ones are not. Clashing with others will
make it clear when you need to revise your views or even change them entirely. This is
how you'll come to develop a well-supported position, and a well-supported position is
a defensible position. Third, don't fixate on winning. Make good arguments, but don't
obsess over trouncing your opponent at all costs. This is not about beating some person
in an argument just because it's that important for you to win. It is possible that you might
be wrong. So don't insist on fighting someone to death at the cost of your own intellectual
honesty. It's not that important. Clobbering someone over the head with overheated rhetoric
does not count as winning if you're still wrong, even if they concede. The winner is
not determined by who gets flamed to a blackened corpse first, so don't play dirty. Such a
false victory comes only at the expense of yourself. It's not doing you any good, and
it lowers the quality of discourse for everyone involved. Fourth, don't keep using bad arguments.
If one of your arguments has been refuted, proven wrong, or shown to be flawed, stop
using it. Don't act like it just didn't work on this particular person, so you can try
it again on the next person. If you use a bad argument, you're going to get pounced
on -- and even if you're not, you ought to be. When you keep using an argument, knowing
that it's wrong, you're refusing to acknowledge its weaknesses, and hoping the other person
doesn't notice. You're trying to pull one over on them. It only fosters an atmosphere
of distrust, and that's no way to have a discussion. If you do end up being wrong, admit it, update
your own positions, learn from it, and move on. That's what you expect them to do, right?
Fifth, be incisive. Learn to separate and analyze the individual elements that comprise
an argument. Get inside the argument, tweak the variables of it, and explore what it might
be like if certain conditions were different. Try and cut through it until you get to the
underlying principles, and see what else those principles might suggest. Look for implications
of it that are so ridiculous, even your opponent wouldn't agree with them. Search for the deeper
flaws of an argument, not just superficial ones that don't pertain to the real substance
of it. Think about what it would be like even if most of their argument was valid, and then
figure out why it would still be wrong anyway. Formulate your counterargument to withstand
the most inconvenient conditions -- otherwise, you risk offering a less-than-optimal response.
Try and pick out the assumptions that are in play. Don't just accept them at face value
-- examine them critically and see if they actually make sense. Some assumptions may
not be obvious. Some might even be intentionally obscured. Find them, and bring them out into
the open. Sixth, stick to your point. Pin people down on specific items. Don't let them
weasel out or use evasive language, and make sure they acknowledge when they're backing
away from one of their arguments. If they've been unclear about something, ask them to
explain it. This is especially useful when they've hinted at something that's completely
baffling, repugnant, or offensive, and you'd like to get them to say it outright. But they
might not want to do that, and that's why it's important to stick to your point. Seventh,
criticize ideas, not people. Criticize beliefs and attitudes, not the people who hold them.
If you focus on the arguments and proving them wrong, this will come right back to the
people who subscribe to them, and they'll be shown to be wrong. You don't have to go
after individuals, and you shouldn't act like your opponent is inherently a bad, wrong and
evil person. Yes, some people actually are just really terrible. Sometimes they do embody
lots of awful viewpoints. And you can certainly point that out, but always explain why. It's
your job to show what it is about them that's so horrible. Eighth, try and get them to come
over to your side on their own. Give them the necessary foundations to realize the validity
of your position. Implant the ideas and concepts that underpin your own views and inevitably
give rise to them. If they arrive at your conclusion by their own reasoning, it's much
more likely that they'll actually change their mind on a more permanent basis. Finally, get
used to the fact that this isn't always going to work. Even if you hold to these principles,
it won't always be effective, because people aren't necessarily reasonable. Sometimes you
might even be wrong. It does happen, you know. But if you follow these recommendations, you'll
be prepared to have a productive conversation, more capable of correcting your own errors,
and everyone you talk to will be better off for it.