Ground Rules for a Rational Discussion

 Posted by on 12 February 2007 at 6:40 am  Uncategorized
Feb 122007

So there I was, minding my own business quietly reading at a coffee store last weekend, when an acquaintance struck up an ideological conversation.

It was entertaining enough and skipped around various mixed-economy things, but soon got goofy in the ways I’ve grown accustomed to seeing. Sadly, there seemed to be a tinge of anger behind his (understandable) frustration with being challenged in ways he didn’t expect, and it snowballed from there before we pulled the plug. Very unsatisfying.

In this instance, my delightful mate had been watching it unfold and later wondered aloud if I shouldn’t carry around a little business-card-sized Agreement to try to forestall that sort of thing. Here’s what she sent me as an example:

I, _______________ [your name] do of my own free will, voluntarily agree to enter into an intellectual discussion with Greg Perkins. I acknowledge that Greg will use all of his knowledge and skills to present evidence and argument in support of his position. I agree to not be offended and angry, or to become upset and throw things at Greg when I cannot do the same. I agree to attempt to digest the evidence presented by Greg, in lieu of making unfounded assertion after unfounded assertion. I agree that when I begin to turn red and snap at Greg, that I should surrender my argument at that point and go learn more about the topic and what Greg has offered for my consideration.

Finally, I agree to hold Greg’s fiancĂ©e, Tammy Ryan, entirely harmless for any and all pissed-off feelings I have toward Greg following the discussion.

Hilarious and flattering as it is, that may not be quite what is needed. Thinking over the common ways things go off the rails while talking with non-Objectivists, I put together the following to try to set expectations, keep things on the rails longer, encourage more seriousness and intellectual honesty, scare away the unworthy, and so on. (And yes, it is depressing that almost all of it should go without saying.)

Ground Rules for a Rational Discussion

  • Intellectual conversation has a purpose: to share, compare, and test our understandings of reality with the goal of our both better seeing the truth of the matter(s) under discussion. And perhaps more important, it constitutes training that develops our capacity for thinking and communicating well.

  • First and foremost, evidence and reasoning shall be offered in support of assertions that are in doubt. If an objective case cannot be made, or the case runs contrary to other evidence and reasoning, then the commensurate level of qualification is expected in the presenter, along with an appreciation of an appropriate level of skepticism in the recipient(s).
  • The same standards apply to everyone involved. If something is disallowed for one, it is disallowed for all; if something is required of one, it is required for all.
  • In particular, reason is not a tool for merely convincing others of what we otherwise hold to because of feelings, tradition, faith, authority, “just knowing,” or whatever. It is hypocrisy to expect the canons of reason to guide your partner in pursuing knowledge while not expecting the same for yourself.
  • Finally, if the conversation does not proceed as expected and your position is not faring well, then your preexisting confidence does not warrant assuming that this surprising turn of events is due to mere rhetorical skill or sophistry in your partner; it could well be that your disagreement is with reality and that you are in effect shooting the messenger. Indeed, if you have been participating in an error so widespread and/or subtle as to evade identification up to this point, gratitude and happiness is warranted.

Toward Beneficial Training

  • Regarding the training mentioned above, for it to be beneficial requires internalizing the idea that while winning an argument can be a satisfying affirmation of prior work, letting a desire for victory take precedence over a commitment to correctness is a dangerous inversion of values — a reversal of cause and effect — as well as a recipe for a humiliating demonstration of weak character.

  • First and foremost, relying on weakness in others’ training, intelligence, knowledge, or psychology to maintain your position cultivates this inversion of values, and it corrodes the presumption of intellectual honesty (importantly, in your own understanding of yourself, but also in others’ knowledge of you as such reliance is realized).
  • Cultivating the opposite means always assuming (even eagerly hoping) that deficiencies in your reasoning and argumentation will be noticed and pointed out. If and when that happens, how you address such a report can speak volumes about your training, intelligence, character, and general worth as a thinker and discussion partner.
  • This of course comes in degrees. For example, sustained failure to appreciate your dependence on a basic fallacy may result in termination of the exchange with the judgment that you are simply not equipped for such a discussion. But it would be far worse to evade acknowledging and correcting such a condition by throwing up rhetorical dust with, say, a clumsy accusation that your accuser is committing some conversational sin (all too often your own alleged sin) — in which case you would be relying on his not having sufficient self-esteem and skill to clear away the dust, refute the smear, and add the incident to your snowballing list of unworthy moves. An evasive escalation like this can quickly destroy your credibility and result in termination of the exchange with the judgment that you are deficient both intellectually and morally.
  • Finally, please note that sophomoric debate tactics only underscore desperation, immaturity, and blind commitment to the inversion of values mentioned above. For example, shifting from arguing some point to a position of extreme skepticism will be seen as transparent sophistry: if there is no reality, or there are no truths to know about it, or knowledge is generally unavailable to us, then there is no need for the conversation you were eager to undertake so long as you felt good about the direction it was headed. The same goes for other self-excluding gems from Philosophy 101 like disapproving of someone for making value judgments per se, clinging to the (black and white) idea that nothing is black and white, and so on. Appropriate analysis will follow and termination of the discussion may result.

But the above is just what I quickly came up with. I imagine many here have had similar experiences to mine — what would you put in a brief boilerplate for garden-variety intellectual conversations?

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