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When Arguments are Good

In an earlier post I mentioned the difference between argument and dialectic. I said that dialect had four parts. First, we both know what we are talking about. Second, we are willing to be objective. Third, we are open to the idea that we might be wrong. Fourth and finally, we are willing to discover the truth. Arguments are disagreements with another person that do not have all of these four parts. Some arguments are good and some are bad. Every good argument made by people who are objective, aiming at the truth and open to the idea that they might be wrong.

Before we discuss the good arguments, we should mention what arguments are and why they matter. An argument is any disagreement between two or more people for any reason at any time. So arguing with your children is one kind of argument. Scientists argue with each other over what theories of the world are true. Arguments can range from the trivial arguments over what sort of food to eat to the important arguments over whether or not we should punish criminals with death. Arguments can matter simply because arguments must occur. If we must argue, we might as well argue well.

In every good argument we are open to the idea that we might be wrong. Imagine for a moment that we were not open to that idea. Since one side must be wrong, if they are not willing to admit it then the argument is simply an expression of emotion usually anger. If you want to be angry at someone it is far better to tell them why you are angry than to start an insincere argument.

Good arguments are also objective. Being objective simply means you try and see things as they really are. You are willing to understand your opponent. You try to understand them. You try and explain your own position so that they can understand it. You speak truthfully about your own position and your opponents. You only argue for something that you actually believe, for reasons that you believe are actually convincing. Finally, if you are convinced that your position or any of your reasons are no longer convincing, you admit this to your opponent. This point is probably the hardest to actually do in a real argument. Admitting that you are wrong is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Strong people believe that learning the truth makes them stronger, weak people just believe falsehoods.

Finally, in all good arguments we must be focused on finding the truth. The truth matters in all arguments. If you are not really concerned about the truth then you are using arguments as a way to impose your will on other people. That is the sort of actions that we condemn politicians for. It is just a different way of expressing our wants. I want you to believe this rather than I believe that this is true.

There is only one thing left to say. A good argument has at least two people who are going to follow these guidelines. If only one person is going to do so, then they are wasting their time. This is part of the reason people are advised not to cast pearls before swine. In other words, starting an argument with someone who is not willing to have a good argument with you is only wasting your time and doing more harm than good.

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