Argue Well By Losing

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I love a good argument. No really! Even ones online.

The problem is, so few of them are any good. They tend to go nowhere and offer nothing of value. They just consist of one side attempting to browbeat the other into rhetorical submission.

What?! You are not persuaded by my unassailable argument? THEN LET ME MAKE THE SAME POINTWITH ALL CAPS!

ARE YOU NOT CONVINCED?!

red-cardYou want to argue? Argue with this card! Image: from wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0.

So what makes an argument good? (besides when you agree with me which is always a good move)

A while back, I read an interesting article about Professor Daniel H. Cohen, a philosopher who specializes in argumentation theory, that tackles this question.

As an aside, I wonder how his kids feel arguing with someone who’s basically a professor of arguing? Must be hard winning that argument about extending that curfew.

The article starts off with a scenario that captures 99.9% of arguments (online or offline) well:

You are having a heated debate with friends about, say, equality of the sexes. You’ve taken a standpoint and you’re sticking with it. Before you know it, you’ve got so worked up that, regardless of whether you believe your argument is the most valid, you simply just want to win, employing tactics and subterfuge to seek victory.

I like to think of myself as a very logical reasonable person. But when I read this scenario, I realized how often I’ve fallen prey to that even in what should be dispassionate technical arguments!

I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one. I’m just willing to admit it.

Cohen points out that the “war metaphor” is at fault for this tendency. Often, it’s the so-called “losers” of an argument who really win:

He explains, “Suppose you and I have an argument. You believe a proposition, P, and I don’t. I’ve objected, I’ve questioned, I’ve raised all sorts of counter-considerations, and in every case you’ve responded to my satisfaction. At the end of the day, I say, ‘You know what? I guess you’re right.’ So I have a new belief. And it’s not just any belief, but it’s a well-articulated, examined and battle-tested belief. Cohen continues, “So who won that argument? Well, the war metaphor seems to force us into saying you won, even though I’m the only one who made any cognitive gain.

The point of a good argument isn’t for one person to simply win over the other. It’s ideally for both to come away with cognitive gains.

Even if the goal of an argument is to reach a decision, the goal isn’t to win, the goal is to define the parameters for a good decision and then make the best possible decision with that in mind.

I’ve come to believe that when two reasonably smart people disagree on a subject, at the core, it is often because one of the following:

  1. One or both of the participants is missing key information.
  2. One or both of the participants made a logic error that leads to a wrong conclusion.
  3. The participants agree on the facts, but have different values and priorities leading them to either disagree on what conclusion should come from the facts.

In my mind, a good debate tries to expose missing facts and illogical conclusions so that two in the debate can get to the real crux of the matter, how their biases, experiences, and values shape their beliefs.

I’m assuming here that both participants are invested in the debate. When one isn’t, it becomes overwhelmingly tempting to resort to any means necessary in order to wipe that smug smirk off your opponent’s face.

Troll_Face

Of course, both sides will believe they’re the one who is drawing conclusions from years of objective rational analysis, but they’re both wrong. In the end, we all succumb to various biases and our values. And a good debate can expose those and allow participants to discuss whether those are the right biases and values to have in the first place? That’s where an argument really gets somewhere.

Another philosopher, Daniel Dennett, lays out these rhetorical habits when critiquing or arguing in his book, Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

​1. Attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly and fairly that your target says: “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”

​2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

​3. Mention anything you have learned from your target.

​4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These habits nicely complement the improved metaphor for arguing espoused by Cohen.

So the next time you get into an argument, think about your goals. Are you just trying to win or are you trying to reach mutual understanding? Then try to apply Dennett’s rhetorical habits as you argue. I’ll try to do the same so if we end up in an argument, there’s a better chance it’ll result in a good one.

This will serve you well not only in your work, but in your personal relationships as well.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.

Comments

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29 responses

  1. Avatar for BCS
    BCS October 21st, 2013

    Your 3 points of difference are rather interesting, but in my experience the first 2 are transient: i.e. if they are the root of the difference of opinion then if the argument stays rational long enough then the unknown will become apparent and the opinions will become conditional or the logic error will become clear then be dealt with.

    The third possibility (a value difference) on the other hand is more permanent. I've been in a few good arguments (ironical, the one that comes to mind was a tangent from gender equality) that bottomed out on that sort of issue and the term "axiomatic" came to mind as a good way to describe the difference.

  2. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 21st, 2013

    > but in my experience the first 2 are transient

    That's the hope at least!

    > The third possibility (a value difference) on the other hand is more permanent.

    Yeah, that's where the discussion goes deeper and starts to challenge values and assumptions. I think this is where thinks get more interesting, albeit more volatile. :)

  3. Avatar for Roman Gorodeckij
    Roman Gorodeckij October 22nd, 2013

    it's strange that logical fallacies haven't been mentioned in this article

  4. Avatar for Stilgar
    Stilgar October 22nd, 2013

    WEB FORMS IS BETTER THAN MVC!

  5. Avatar for KitD
    KitD October 22nd, 2013

    "2.
    One or both of the participants made a logic error that leads to a wrong conclusion."

  6. Avatar for Edwin
    Edwin October 22nd, 2013

    I disagree with you.

  7. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    Ha! Funny you should say that. I already started a follow-up that focuses on that. :)

  8. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    This falls under #3. We have different values. :)

  9. Avatar for Vitoc
    Vitoc October 22nd, 2013

    Logic only works with logical people. I've learned over the years there are plenty of people that don't give a flying frick about logic, reason, or rational thought. They don't think; they feel.

  10. Avatar for Norbert Beckers
    Norbert Beckers October 22nd, 2013

    He also held a TED talk on the subject: http://on.ted.com/Cohen

  11. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    Even so, I think Dennett's approach works well. At least you can quickly determine using this approach if the other person is interested in a good argument.

    Often, I find what when I characterize the other person as someone who's not interested in logic, *I'm* the one who's lost out because I've already given up on learning anything from the other person. Characterizing the other person as illogical should only happen after going through the process.

  12. Avatar for Kirk Backus
    Kirk Backus October 22nd, 2013

    There is something fundamentally wrong with this line of reasoning, the shyness away from truth. The argument has sidestepped this by mentioning a third party called "the facts" which is never explained, just assumed.

    The facts assume a foundation of truth formed by ones belief on what gives authority to the facts. If two people stand on different foundations, then the "three reasons reasonably smart people would argue" will not hold in its entirety.

    What makes an argument interesting is to lead one another into breaking down each other's reasoning and revealing that foundation.

  13. Avatar for Force Crater
    Force Crater October 22nd, 2013

    Still looking for "advantage", eh?

  14. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    Hmm, that's kind of what I was trying to get at with my number 3, but maybe I didn't characterize it well. I was thinking of the "facts" as being something like this: they agree that event XYZ did occur. But the foundation of their beliefs, values, experiences, lead them to differ in what XYZ means.

    > What makes an argument interesting is to lead one another into breaking down each other's reasoning and revealing that foundation.

    Yes! This is what I was trying to get at.

  15. Avatar for Vitoc
    Vitoc October 22nd, 2013

    Perhaps. Go through the process enough and it just wears you down, or perhaps you _do_ actually learn from the observable pattern and pessimism is the end result. You start feeling like you're wasting keystrokes that could have been better spent elsewhere. If someone can't be appealed to with logic and reason, how else can you appeal to them? Compromise for compromise's sake?

    What do you think about the concept of agreeing to disagree?

  16. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    > You start feeling like you're wasting keystrokes that could have been better spent elsewhere.

    That is certainly a risk. :)

    > What do you think about the concept of agreeing to disagree?

    I'm more of a fan of "I don't want to talk about this anymore." I think "agree to disagree" is often trotted out to early or used to imply that two propositions are equally valid when one of them clearly isn't.

    A couple posts that capture this sentiment well:

    https://theconversation.com...

    http://freethoughtblogs.com...

  17. Avatar for Mike McG
    Mike McG October 22nd, 2013

    Great write-up. I agree that most arguments boil down to value preferences, such as prioritizing fairness vs equality (they are different), loyalty vs pragmatism, community vs self... I've found that people are rarely willing/able to alter their values after a single argument/discussion (myself included). Values are things that we carry with us for years if not decades. We continually, almost unconsciously, rely on them on decisions big and small. We credit them with our successes to constantly revalidate and reinforce our belief in them (thanks you, confirmation bias). A logical argument about a particular decision cannot unearth decades of "evidence" supporting a foundational belief; cognitive dissonance can be resolved by simply rationalizing the immediate evidence/case as a fluke, an exception to the rule.

    Still, logical, patient argument is worthwhile for immediate decisions. And, when sustained, can unseat strongly-held foundational beliefs. I think the best one can hope for in an argument that collegially escalates to a values discussion is for one (or both) sides to signal open-mindedness, "Hmm, well, I'll think about it."

    But I could be wrong. I'll think about it.

  18. Avatar for P. F.
    P. F. October 22nd, 2013

    Nice article, but the animated figure was extremely distracting.

  19. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 22nd, 2013

    Yeah, it's a bit overboard. I replaced it with a static trollface. How's that?

  20. Avatar for Leslie Dawson
    Leslie Dawson October 22nd, 2013

    Watch a woman get DESTROYED in a LIVE debate in record time: http://www.youtube.com/watc...

  21. Avatar for Leslie Dawson
    Leslie Dawson October 22nd, 2013

    That's why logic doesn't work on women. They are too dumb to comprehend it: http://www.youtube.com/watc...

  22. Avatar for Leslie Dawson
    Leslie Dawson October 22nd, 2013

    Women don't have the capacity to fathom logic the way men can: http://www.youtube.com/watc...

  23. Avatar for Alexander Troup
    Alexander Troup October 23rd, 2013

    One or both of us is missing key information.

  24. Avatar for Alexander Troup
    Alexander Troup October 23rd, 2013

    It is like a finger, pointing to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory. http://www.youtube.com/watc...

  25. Avatar for Guest Antagonist
    Guest Antagonist October 23rd, 2013

    That whole troll meme is annoying ... one of the things I see on the net I wish would go away ...

    Maybe what bothers me is how popular a scribbled cartoon that looks like it was done by a 3 year old is so popular, which is depressing because its mass acceptance has larger implications ... re: the downfall of society ...

  26. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 23rd, 2013

    > because its mass acceptance has larger implications ... re: the downfall of society

    Perhaps. Or it might be a reminder not to take oneself too seriously.

  27. Avatar for Brad Westness
    Brad Westness October 25th, 2013

    I don't think it's so bad as all that, but I do think it doesn't really add value and is simply ugly to look at, so much like people who include LOLCats (since I don't like cats) in blog posts, I'm subtly predisposed to disagree with any points being made.

  28. Avatar for zabienne
    zabienne February 26th, 2014

    well, I think you did. I got it exactly that way. (stumbled over the article now and liked it and felt strongly enough to write and assure you just that.)

  29. Avatar for haacked
    haacked February 26th, 2014

    Thanks!