Debating In A Civil Society

Screaming at one another and treating political opponents as enemies doesn't seem to be getting us anywhere. But is there a realistic alternative?

Bryan Caplan offers four Principles of Good Debating that strike me as about right:

Principle #1: Strive to address people who don’t already agree with you.  Realistically, you’ll at best change the minds of the undecided.  But the best way to sway the undecided is to reach out to your most intransigent opponents.

Principle #2: Talk to your opponent like he’s your best friend, even if he does the opposite.  Not only are ad hominem arguments invalid, but they send the signal that you lack better arguments.  You’ll also think harder and more creatively about your position once you spurn invective.

Principle #3: Split your time between talking to your audience and talking to your opponent.  The optimal balance might not be 50/50 exactly, but you should spend a goodly amount of time both appealing directly to your opponent, and pointing out his blind spots.

Principle #4: If you’re uncomfortable publicly defending aspects of your position, reconsider your position.  In extremely oppressive societies, keeping your thoughts to yourself is common sense.  But in modernity’s largely open societies, your discomfort says more about the quality of your beliefs than the unfairness of the world.

He’s talking here about verbal debating in front of an audience but this applies pretty well to online argumentation as well.   These are not, of course, Principles for Maximizing Traffic or Principles for Getting a Book Deal.

Relatedly, Norman Geras points to this TED Talk from Michael Sandel on “The Lost Art of Democratic Debate.”

There’s a handy transcript available for those, like myself, who prefer to digest through reading rather than listening.    Essentially, he argues that we tend to shout and focus on the minutia of things rather than moving to the bigger moral questions.    He uses Socratic debates over the just distribution of flutes and the rather dated question as to whether Casey Martin should be allowed to ride a golf cart during PGA play to illustrate this, concluding:

So let’s step back from these cases and see how they shed light on the way we might improve, elevate, the terms of political discourse in the United States, and for that matter, around the world. There is a tendency to think that if we engage too directly with moral questions in politics, that’s a recipe for disagreement, and for that matter, a recipe for intolerance and coercion. So better to shy away from, to ignore, the moral and the religious convictions that people bring to civic life. It seems to me that our discussion reflects the opposite, that a better way to mutual respect is to engage directly with the moral convictions citizens bring to public life, rather than to require that people leave their deepest moral convictions outside politics before they enter. That, it seems to me, is a way to begin to restore the art of democratic argument.

Geras responds,

He’s surely right. First, unless one follows this advice one cannot get to the bottom of any serious political difference. Second, even if you think it impossible to resolve fundamental moral differences through argument, we have no better way to proceed than through the attempt at reasoned discussion. You may shift someone or help to inflect their view. Even if you don’t, they or you may achieve a better understanding of the other’s position. In the end it will come to a decision, through whatever combination of representational and decision procedures a given democracy involves. But up to that point the kind of advocacy Sandel recommends – and attempts in this short session to exemplify – is to date the best thing we have.

That’s of course right.     But it’s very difficult in practice, especially within the parameters of sound bytes and attack ads.

Indeed, it’s just difficult, period.   Sandel briefly touches on a contemporary debate:  same-sex marriage.

There are those who favor state recognition only of traditional marriage between one man and one woman, and there are those who favor state recognition of same-sex marriage. How many here favor the first policy: the state should recognize traditional marriage only? And how many favor the second, same-sex marriage? Now, put it this way, what ways of thinking about justice and morality underlie the arguments we have over marriage? The opponents of same-sex marriage say that the purpose of marriage, fundamentally, is procreation, and that’s what’s worthy of honoring and recognizing and encouraging. And the defenders of same-sex marriage say no, procreation is not the only purpose of marriage. What about a lifelong, mutual, loving commitment? That’s really what marriage is about. So with flutes, with golf carts, and even with a fiercely contested question like same-sex marriage, Aristotle has a point. Very hard to argue about justice without first arguing about the purpose of social institutions and about what qualities are worthy of honor and recognition.

I agree that fundamental principles are the way to debate the issue.   And, indeed, tackling it that way ultimately changed my mind from a reflexive rejection of the idea to accepting that I had no rational basis for why same-sex marriage should be illegal.   But I’m not sure how scalable that technique for a position is visceral and cultural rather than intellectual.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. john personna says:

    Good post, and for the record I think you take a higher path than many, James.

  2. steve says:

    It is difficult to discuss politics in real life as so many people have no idea about basic facts or history.

  3. Wayne says:

    Anyone who thinks that the only or even the main reason people oppose same-sex marriage is they think marriage is about procreation has not been listening. Any claims by them that they consider and\or understand opposing point of views become questionable.
    As for debates, yes sometimes people do get too fixed on the details but then again it is hard to make progress in a debate when someone refuses to acknowledge the simplest of facts. I had times when someone would absolutely not agree to anything I would say even if it had nothing to do with the debate. I would say “the sky is blue. Right” (which the truth is interesting but l won’t go into it here) and they wouldn’t acknowledge that fact.
    The big pictures arguments have their own issues. It might be nice to get two people to agree that we need to grow the economy. For most that is a no brainer. The question then becomes how and at what price. Many will disagree if the person’s “how” will help or hurt the economy.  It then comes down to personal beliefs of which many cannot be tested with any amount of control.  Often it is more about personal taste which is subjective and doesn’t lend itself to logical argument. It is like arguing what is the best color, red or blue. Arguments can be made for both colors but in the end it comes down to a person own taste.
    I like to go on but the post is already getting long.

  4. Wayne says:

    Many people basic facts and history are stated as and are a bit subjective.  What constitutes a objective fact is often not understood . Many will either not acknowledge or agree what those are.
    Example someone stating “a great fire happen in town x in 1883 and burnt down a large portion of the town destroying many people’s lives.   Assuming the speaker didn’t make a mistake like having the wrong year or if it was a suburb,etc,  A fire happening in town x in 1883 are objective facts.  The “great”, “ large portion” and “destroying many people’s lives” are subjective. The person may have a good argument as to why they think those things and I may agree with them but it is still subjective.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    There are a number of prerequisites necessary for democratic debate which aren’t in place now.  First, it’s essential that the post-modern requirement that only those qualified to speak authoritatively on a subject be considered be abandoned.  That’s been known as the ad hominem fallacy (or the genetic fallacy) for nearly a millenium.

    Second, we’ve got to allow people to be wrong in a respectful manner.  Not allowing people to be wrong makes every debate a battle to the death.

    Third, we’ve got to abandon the notion of “wrong once means always wrong”.  It’s another instance of the ad hominem fallacy.

    Democracy and democratic debate require a certain level of consensus and I’m honestly beginning to despair that there is a large enough body of consensus on which to base a functioning representative democracy.

  6. john personna says:

    There are two ways to err by ad hominem fallacy.  The first is to use it in its pure state (ie. “don’t listen to that jerk”), the second is to make radioactive reasonable demands (ie. “stop being such a jerk”).  As a practical matter, I see the fallacy claimed spuriously as often as accurately.

    And maybe this leads to my favorite for rational discourse … kids should be taught how to read critically, and yeah how to spot the major logical fallacies.  I saw them in a college sophomore level Logic class … but I know that was not a real popular course.  Most people pick them up a little at a time, and have never had mid-term on correctly spotting the ad hominem 😉

  7. An Interested Party says:

    “Anyone who thinks that the only or even the main reason people oppose same-sex marriage is they think marriage is about procreation has not been listening.”

    Forgive my lack of listening, but what are the other important reasons to oppose same-sex marriage?

  8. john personna says:

    “Forgive my lack of listening, but what are the other important reasons to oppose same-sex marriage?”

    Both sides vote their social vision.  That a conservative social vision attempts to preserve an older social order should not be surprising.

  9. Wayne says:

    “Forgive my lack of listening, but what are the other “important” reasons to oppose same-sex marriage?”
    Just to jump ahead of the debate for a second.  “Important reasons” is subjective in nature. Understand that what is important to them may not be important to you or me.
    List of some of the reasons.
    As JP refer to tradition. Marriage has meant a particular type of union between a man and a woman for ages and many want to keep it that way.
    Something that is similar but not the same. People have had enough with this PC society thrusting junk upon them.  Part of which is the PC crowd consistently changing word meanings and\or society’s standards.
    Then there are those who fear this will open a floodgate of lawsuits to get “equal” benefits for these new marriages. This will results in great increase to cost to business regardless of the outcome.
    The same arguments use to allow this group to be allowed to be married can be use for many other groups as well. Why not let someone be married to more than one person? The old slippery slope argument.
    My post is getting long so I won’t continue. It should be needless to say it but there are many reasons. You may not agree with them or consider them important but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant. Not knowing or understanding these reasons reflects upon those who don’t.
    A good debater (IMO knowledgeable person) will know the opposing positions and views.  I suspect James does or at least to a better extent then he stated about same sex marriages. I just wanted to clarify that.