A Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion

Beneath the fold, I have stolen some text that lists 12 principles that make intellectual argument possible. In turn, this list was taken from Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments by Edward T. Damer, which was recommended in comments by G. Felis.

I have added in italics my own comments interspersing the more sensible and measured text of my sources. I am doing this because of a major confusion that I have recently and over the years encountered, thinking that argument is about winning. It is not. It is about reaching the best conclusion one can from the premises one has access to. In simpler terms, it’s about approaching truth.

In The Sophist, Plato rightly attacks those who treat oratory and argument as a game in which the prize is to sway, by any means possible, one’s audience. This is something that can be achieved almost without any logic or reason at all, as politicians (and one 20th century politician in particular, but we shan’t Godwinise the post before we begin) so often demonstrate. A critical and honest population is the only guard against this evil. And for that, you need to know the rules of debate. This list is better than Plato’s dialogues.

  1. The Fallibility Principle
  2. The Truth-Seeking Principle
  3. The Clarity Principle
  4. The Burden of Proof Principle
  5. The Principle of Charity
  6. The Relevance Principle
  7. The Acceptability Principle
  8. The Sufficiency Principle
  9. The Rebuttal Principle
  10. The Resolution Principle
  11. The Suspension of Judgement Principle
  12. The Reconsideration Principle
  13. Fleck’s Addendum

1. The Fallibility Principle

When alternative positions on any disputed issue are under review, each participant in the discussion should acknowledge that possibly none of the positions presented is deserving of acceptance and that, at best, only one of them is true or the most defensible position. Therefore, it is possible that thorough examination of the issue will reveal that one’s own initial position is a false or indefensible one.

Humans are fallible and no amount of appeal to authority makes them infallible, Catholic doctrine notwithstanding. So any knowledge and argument we have must deal with this fact. The only alternative is to deny that humans ever know anything, a view I call epistemic nihilism. This is a view held by antiscience proponents, and in particular creationists. They want certainty, and that requires infallibility. And it can’t be had, not even with a holy writ in hand, because fallible humans have to read and interpret it even if it is infallible.

2. The Truth-Seeking Principle

Each participant should be committed to the task of earnestly searching for the truth or at least the most defensible position on the issue at stake. Therefore, one should be willing to examine alternative positions seriously, look for insights in the positions of others, and allow other participants to present arguments for or raise objections to any position held with regard to any disputed issue.

Otherwise, all you are doing is moving formal chess pieces on the board, declaring victory when you have knocked down more pieces of argument than your opponent. If you like winning so much, take up a board game. This is serious business – what hangs in the balance is knowledge, reliability of conclusions, and our futures. If you rely on a bad argument because you don’t care about truth, the end result can be disastrous for you and your children. To ignore truth is to be psychopathic.

This doesn’t mean that the truth achieved is some eternal “gods’-eye” viewpoint. We may never achieve that, but it’s good enough for government (i.e., human) work.

3. The Clarity Principle

The formulations of all positions, defences, and attacks should be free of any kind of linguistic confusion and clearly separated from other positions and issues.

To do otherwise is to disrespect your audience as people and as thinkers. Also, if you can’t state an argument clearly, it is entirely possible you have made some bad mistakes (see Rule 1). Also by Rule 1, we may never achieve total clarity, and often ambiguity makes for a long and satisfying debate, but the ideal aim is to present a clear and unambiguous argument. Or admit that one cannot, and abandon the debate as a mistake.

4. The Burden of Proof Principle

The burden of proof for any position usually rests on the participant who sets forth the position. If and when an opponent asks, the proponent should provide an argument for that position.

This is not set in stone. Arguments exist prior to this particular instance of one (in a dialectic), and sometimes the argument has been set up in such a way that the proponent can reasonably shift the burden of proof back to the opponent. However, most of the time, in a set piece debate, the burden is that of the proponent.

5. The Principle of Charity

If a participant’s argument is reformulated by an opponent, it should be expressed in the strongest possible version that is consistent with the original intention of the arguer. If there is any question about that intention or about implicit parts of the argument, the arguer should be given the benefit of any doubt in the reformulation.

To be uncharitable is to miss the meat of an opponent’s argument and inadvertently or deliberately to set up a strawman to knock over. While a useful tool of political rhetoric, it is not a tool of reasoned debate.

6. The Relevance Principle

One who presents an argument for or against a position should attempt to set forth only reasons that are directly related to the merit of the position at issue.

Otherwise you can shift goalposts to avoid having to defend or set out a proper position. This is evidence of dishonesty. One cannot argue with a dishonest person.

7. The Acceptability Principle

One who presents an argument for or against a position should attempt to use reasons that are mutually acceptable to the participants and that meet standard criteria of acceptability.

Or else there is no debate. Humans share an inordinate amount of value and knowledge, so there is always some common ground. But it may be there is none for this particular debate, in which case learning that is a kind of progress too.

8. The Sufficiency Principle

One who presents an argument for or against a position should attempt to provide reasons that are sufficient in number, kind, and weight to support the acceptance of the conclusion.

Because, after all, that is why we have debates. Ideally. An argument should always compel the hearers to the conclusion, and if your argument can’t do it, you cannot expect others to follow you to that conclusion.

9. The Rebuttal Principle

One who presents an argument for or against a position should attempt to provide an effective rebuttal to all serious challenges to the argument or the position it supports and to the strongest argument on the other side of the issue.

This is probably the most important of these Rules, in my eyes. Unless you have encountered someone with real intellectual deficits, which is a lot rarer than one might think, you are dealing with someone who is at least around average intelligence, and in intellectual debates is probably either much smarter than the mean, or relying upon thinkers who were much smarter. I always say to my students that any view I hold is or was denied by people who were way more intelligent and educated than I am. Of course, I hold to my views (whose else?), because they are what I think is most likely true (or else I wouldn’t hold to them), but so do they, and you have to think they may be right in the abstract.

10. The Resolution Principle

An issue should be considered resolved if the proponent for one of the alternative positions successfully defends that position by presenting an argument that uses relevant and acceptable premises that together provide sufficient grounds to support the conclusion and provides an effective rebuttal to all serious challenges to the argument or position at issue. Unless one can demonstrate that these conditions have not been met, one should accept the conclusion of the successful argument and consider the issue, for all practical purposes, to be settled. In the absence of a successful argument for any of the alternative positions, one is obligated to accept the position that is supported by the best of the good arguments presented.

The keyword here is “obligated”. As a discussant you have an obligation to accept the best argument, or you aren’t playing that game (but maybe the “win at all costs” game). Sometimes one may be unable to articulate the reasons one has against a better argued view, and one will be troubled (and inspired to do good argumentation next time, or write a killer philosophy essay), but you must, in that debate, admit defeat when you are defeated. Many rhetorical types, such as antiscience advocates, refuse to do this. In the face of evidence from multiple sources and of unimpeachable character, they refuse to allow they may be right. When you meet one of these, argument is no longer possible. But they are fewer and thinner on the ground than you might expect from the internet or the media, which highlights the absurd, the dramatic and the exceptional. Most people are honest enough to admit they are wrong when they have been shown to be.

11. The Suspension of Judgement Principle

If no position comes close to being successfully defended, or if two or more positions seem to be defended with equal strength, one should, in most cases, suspend judgment about the issue. If practical considerations seem to require an immediate decision, one should weigh the relative risks of gain or loss connected with the consequences of suspending judgment and decide the issue on those grounds.

This is hard – one usually wants a neat resolution, just like in a 48 minute episode of a situation comedy. But, dare we say it, life is not like that, and we have to leave all kinds of issues unresolved. It is no flaw to say, “we can’t say” or “I don’t know”. We can only do the best that we can, and no more.

12. The Reconsideration Principle

If a successful or at least good argument for a position is subsequently found by any participant to be flawed in a way that raises new doubts about the merit of that position, one is obligated to reopen the issue for further consideration and resolution.

This is hard, especially for managers of technical organisations (like NASA). You build an edifice of thought on a particular conclusion, and that is a serious investment, but if the foundation for that edifice is removed, it is better to start afresh than to rely on a falsehood, though it doesn’t seem so at the time, or to your masters.

From:Attacking Faulty Reasoning: A Practical Guide to Fallacy-Free Arguments” by T. Edward Damer (Amazon.co.uk/Amazon.com )

13. Fleck’s Addendum


And yet I must. It is strangely compelling to do so.

20 thoughts on “A Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion

  1. Nice list and comments, though I’m not sure about burden. I think whose burden is to argue is extremely context sensitive to factors like intuitive plausibility of a given claim, foundations in established literature, etc.

    1. If your correspondents are following the other rules, they will only ask for an argument in support of a claim when they honestly believe that the claim lacks sufficient support. In that case you have the obligation to provide such an argument or to agree that the claim has not been established. OTOH, if you say, e.g., “Booth killed Lincoln” and your correspondent asks “How do you KNOW that?”, you can ask your correspondent to be intellectually honest or else abandon the discussion.

  2. Good list. Keep to the code. But just two points:

    1). I personally have never seen a debate (especially political, or on the net) adhere to all these principles – even for those who argue on behalf of what I believe to be the correct side. It’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and “truth” may be the first casualty (which relates to Plantinga’s argument).

    2). Even if both sides keep to the code and the population is critical (an optimal situation), a debate may not be enough for the population to make a straightforward conclusion about anything. One side may just be much better prepared or informed than the other, or perhaps neither are well informed enough. I guess what I’m questioning, is whether or not “truth” is determined by public argument.

    1. On 1, sure, but this is a code of conduct, not a sociological summary of sampled debates. It has normative force, not descriptive.

      On 2, the code is not asserting that truth is mandated by public acclaim and the volume of applause gathered at the end of some formal debate. It asserts that if we want to find truth by reason, this is the sine qua non. It is a necessary, but not necessarily sufficient, condition for that.

  3. An addendum to #4.

    When proof is tendered by one party it is incumbent upon the other party to take that proof under honest consideration, instead of rejecting it out of hand.

  4. I’ve just glanced over these, but I am favorably impressed by them. One observation that first occurs to me is how different these recommendations are from how the law is practiced. There seems to me a general feeling in the USA that legal argumentation presents some kind of ideal of the rational approach to issues. I am not denying that the law serves an important function in society … well, I won’t belabor my point.

    1. Legal dramas, and the oversimplified and overoptimistic versions given of legal argument in them, have a lot to answer for.

  5. Useful list. I would particularly emphasise clarity and charity. So many of the internet arguments I see are a complete waste of time because the participants misunderstand each other’s arguments, and then proceed to talk past each other.

    Also relating to clarity, perhaps the most common logical fallacy I come across in internet arguments is the fallacy of equivocation.

  6. Hi John,

    Just a note that Fleck’s addendum. It was a bit of a joke that was added after Fleck, a commenter on a discussion I was having on Michael Totten’s website, correctly pointed out that I was disobeying many of these rules AND I was trying to get the last word in. I added the addendum in his honour.


  7. “If a participant’s argument is reformulated by an opponent, it should be expressed in the strongest possible version that is consistent with the original intention of the arguer.”

    Just last night I was at a panel discussion on curriculum wars, mainly historical, at my alma mater, in which the venerable philosophy professor L took part. Perhaps the high point of what I considered a far from successful session came in the first non-question of the question period, which I quote very crudely from memory:

    “Professor L, in the [reference to a controversy in the 1970s] we students had four demands which we were allowed to present in a meeting with the administration, represented by you. You stated all our demands to us at length, taking up most of the meeting. As the meeting ended, I said ‘You have spent the past 40 minutes just repeating all of our demands to us, showing that you understood them and that you disagreed with each.’

    “And you said, ‘Precisely.’

    “I now appreciate that.”

  8. Several of the points, I like.

    But equating discussion to debate, I disagree with rather strongly. I’ve previously blogged about it, discussion vs. debate. The thing is, in debates (and law), the participants are committed to positions.

    In an intellectually honest discussion, both participants have a starting point, but they are not required to stay there, nor do they when the evidence comes forth to cause a change. Some of the issues of ‘presumption’ and ‘burden of proof’ then become quite different matters. This also relates to Fleck’s addendum.

  9. I never think of an argument I make as finished, always something more or a new position and view to take on board. It’s the joy of learning something new that keeps you motivated

    The reconsideration principle. I think because maintaining the correct position is so linked to reputation it is difficult for some academics to move forward.

    Worst case I can think of is Vere Gordon Childe an amazing thinker in archaeology (terrible practical skills though) who’s views became replaced. These events may have partly played a role in his decision to take his own life.

    For such an empirical game the search for knowledge can also become very emotional and heated at times. No shame in being wrong but it’s impossible to learn if you can’t move position.

  10. I think number 10 is wrong. You write, “As a discussant you have an obligation to accept the best argument… Sometimes one may be unable to articulate the reasons one has against a better argued view, and one will be troubled (and inspired to do good argumentation next time, or write a killer philosophy essay), but you must, in that debate, admit defeat when you are defeated.”

    Now, that I think I have a very good argument against A brewing, although I can’t articulate it yet, is hardly a good reason for anybody else to deny A. But it’s a good reason why *I* should abstain from endorsing A, or from “accepting” it; if I should hear others out before considering a matter settled, surely I should hear myself out as well. And besides, if I’m going to go off and devise new and better counter-arguments, my stated acceptance now is just bad faith.

    1. So according to you, it’s always bad faith to concede that one side has offered the better argument, because it might be possible to devise a good counterargument.

      Your mistake is the idea that conceding that you have lost an argument is a disproof of your position … it’s not. All truth claims are provisional, subject to later correction.

  11. This article is just amazing. Thanks for sharing this code of conduct for effective rational discussion. Reading this will really improve you skills. I learned so much from here.

    My Last Post: Keyword Map Pro

Leave a Reply