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How to argue your case like a great philosopher

Is your social media ‘bubble’ sheltering you from others with opposing opinions? If you’re anything like the 61% of millennials who get their news from Facebook, chances are you’re limiting your exposure to views you disagree with. Dr Patrick Stokes, senior lecturer in philosophy at Deakin University, says staying stuck in your ‘bubble’ can make it impossible to have an effective argument or dialogue.

As 19th century English utilitarian John Stuart Mill said: ‘He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. His reasons may be good, and no one may have been able to refute them. But if he is equally unable to refute the reasons on the opposite side; if he does not so much as know what they are, he has no ground for preferring either opinion.’

Robust debate is part of a healthy democracy, and it’s an important skill in both work and life. But there’s far more to the art of argument than simply stating your opinion. Dr Stokes shares some tips.

Step 1: Check whether your opinion is actually valid

Before you get carried away, it’s important to realise not all opinions are equally valid, Dr Stokes asserts. ‘Everyone has a right to express their views, but “I’m entitled to my opinion” isn’t true, if it means “I’m entitled to have my view taken seriously just because I sincerely hold it,”’ he says.

‘The first question to ask is, “Is this something where it’s possible to be wrong?’ Dr Stokes advises. Consider which of the following three categories your opinion falls into:

  1. tastes or preferences (e.g. on food or music)
  2. views grounded in technical expertise (i.e. legal or scientific)
  3. views on questions of practical value (i.e. ethics or politics).

If the topic falls into the first category, you may be able to have a robust discussion with your opponent, but it’s unlikely you’ll ‘win’ an argument such as ‘vanilla is better than chocolate’ or ‘metal is better than jazz’.

If the topic fits into the second category, ‘you need to ask whether you’re capable of assessing the factual claims in play,’ Dr Stokes says. Does the question requires specialist knowledge and training? If specialists disagree with you, ‘what would license you in saying you’re right and they’re wrong?’ he adds.

If it’s in the third category, Dr Stokes warns your opinions might be wrong in a different way. ‘They might be irrational, or grounded in facts that are false, or they might be ungenerous or self-serving or simply hypocritical.’

'‘The first question to ask is, “Is this something where it’s possible to be wrong?’'

Dr Patrick Stokes,
Deakin University

Step 2: Argue your case like a pro

When putting together your argument, Dr Stokes says it’s important to keep it as clear as possible. The fewer premises it requires your opponent to assume, the stronger it will be.

‘Turning up to an argument with premises that everyone involved agrees with is a very powerful start. If we all agree on the starting point we’ll get much further identifying where we differ and what the strengths and weaknesses of each view are,’ he advises.

‘Be clear in how you express yourself to others, and be clear to yourself exactly what you are and are not claiming. Don’t claim more than your argument entitles you to claim, but also don’t shirk the consequences of your view.’

Step 3: Listen and respond to your opponent’s point of view

Listen carefully, be courteous, acknowledge which points you agree on, and ask questions if necessary to make sure you’ve understood your opponent’s point of view, Dr Stokes advises. ‘Apply the “principle of charity”: if your opponent’s view can be interpreted in more than one way, assume they meant the most reasonable way possible or the way that makes the most sense,’ he adds.

The next step is to explain precisely which parts of their view you think are wrong – and why.

If your opponent has made you realise you’re wrong and your position is hopeless, concede defeat. Alternatively, you may realise it’s best to ‘agree to disagree’.

‘Of course, some opponents won’t play by the rules of argument, in which case your task is a bit different,’ Dr Stokes adds. ‘You won’t convince them, but you can show onlookers why the person you’re arguing with is wrong and perhaps disingenuous.’

Finally, always consider context

While debating and discussing issues can be a good way to understand another person’s point of view, Dr Stokes suggests there aren’t many arguments that are ever definitively ‘won’. It’s important to be polite and to use tact and sensitivity when choosing the context and situation in which to argue.

‘Fighting racism in the public sphere is a vital and noble cause; provoking a fight about Muslims with your racist great-uncle over Christmas lunch probably isn’t going to help anyone much or change any minds,’ Dr Stokes says.

‘Sometimes it’s just not worth the argument at all.’

To continue improving your debating skills, find out more about studying philosophy at Deakin.

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Dr Patrick Stokes
Dr Patrick Stokes

Senior Lecturer in Philosophy, Faculty of Arts and Education, Deakin University

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