Arguing ethically

11 Jun

Everyday conversation is generally a site for exchanging social pleasantries, exchanging trivia and anecdotes or ‘shooting the breeze’, and reaffirming identities, among other things. Occasionally these everyday conversations take the shape of amorphous dilettante arguments about politics and culture, and even more rarely they turn into serious arguments. But the habits of casual argumentation and unfamiliarity with formal argument theory doom most of these ‘serious’ arguments. So rather than proceeding teleologically towards better understanding of a topic through measured refutation and agreement, the arguments either become pitched ego fights or exercises in using logical fallacies or non-existent evidence adeptly to ‘win’ the argument or some combination thereof.

“Unethical” (explained later) argumentation can leave people flustered as they realize – much too late – that the other party has changed the entire argument or distracted them with some contestable irrelevant data, or through an outright fabrication.

I use the word ‘unethical’ in reference to argumentation in the paragraph above and it is incumbent upon me to explain what I mean by that. An argument is generally understood as “discourse intended to persuade” and the idea is to stipulate ethics of persuasion. In other words, stipulating that one follow the rules of inference, logic, corroboration, and procedure ‘ethically’. Broadly construed ‘ethics’ in an argument can be seen to convey a person’s conviction in coming up with a better understanding of the issue at hand, and general introspection to all facets of argumentation. Of course ‘ethics’ alone won’t help construct a ‘better’ argument for there are objective criteria for what constitutes a better argument.

I here briefly go over some key tenets, as I see them, of conducting an ‘ethical’ argument.

Issue, Topic, Question

Most ‘arguments’ in everyday life start with an anecdote or an example and not as formally constructed questions. The conversation then slowly slides into an ‘argument’ as somebody identifies the anecdote as a hypothesis and engages with it.
It is important to be alert to this juncture and to take time at this point to think through the ‘hypothesis’, and where possible turn into a broader question devoted to understanding the ‘topic’ underlying the hypothesis. More importantly, it is necessary to pin down the question or hypothesis with more precision. Additionally, one should think through the breadth of the question and see to what degree is the question tractable.

During the course of the conversation one can renegotiate the wording of the question as more information comes along the way and conversants develop their understanding of the topic or as interests shift.

The pattern of argumentation will differ depending on the topic and question at hand. If one is to say argue about a causal claim then one must iterate through possible causes and see which ones apply to what degree and why. On the other hand if one wants to understand historical context around say origins of democracy, the task then becomes listing possible historical aspects including socio-economic and elite key actors.

Hypothesis and Data

One can use deductive or empirical reasoning (or both) to support one’s claims. Both obviously lend themselves to different types of problems. For making empirical arguments, one needs to rely on data and there it becomes necessary to think through how applicable the data is, how generalizable the instance is if you use an instance to say corroborate a claim, and any major data or instances that exist that will rebut the hypothesis or sometimes provide insight into contextual variables. Aside from applicability there is also the issue of how probable each of the datum is and how large the effect sizes are. Of course part of argumentation also involves judging other people’s data. You can judge data using the criteria I describe above.

One may run into problems of insufficient data or unreliable data and there you can choose to continue the conversation at a later stage after getting the data or pursue the argument by making conditional arguments. For example, if X were true, then the following event is likely to occur.

The caveat that accompanies all empirical reasoning is that it is easy to think that you know more than you do, especially about topics that seem familiar but go largely un-inspected. Systematic analysis of an issue will often uncover troubling gaps in one’s own knowledge and one must allay the instinct to fabricate and instead be conscientious in acknowledge the gaps.

Psychology of argumentation

The most pernicious and bankrupt argumentation occurs when the ego gets involved. To avoid it, focus your critiques on the data or argument and offer them in a manner that is broad minded and acknowledges opposing contribution. The unsaid point here is that your commitment should be towards reaching a better understanding of the issue at hand rather than ‘winning’ or whatever that means.

An important part of conducting an ethical argument is to acknowledge gracefully where you are wrong. This habit goes a long way in ameliorating any tensions that may emerge during the course of argumentation.

Another thing to keep in mind is that almost always people don’t start from polar opposites of an argument (that I believe is a function of conversational norm and selection bias as in whom you choose to ‘argue’ with), though there might be sub-arguments where they may have opposing stances. Hence there would be a large number of cases where both arguments can survive.

Avoid Common Logical Fallacies

Straw Man – “A straw man argument is an informal fallacy based on misrepresentation of an opponent’s position. To “set up a straw man” or “set up a straw-man argument” is to create a position that is easy to refute, then attribute that position to the opponent.” (Wikipedia)

You can find other common logical fallacies at the bottom of Wikipedia’s page.