Why and How to Debate Charitably

by Luke Muehlhauser on July 20, 2011 in Guest Post,How-To

Will Newsome pointed me to an old post by Chris Capel called ‘Why and How to Debate Charitably’. Because it now exists only on the Internet Archive, I’ve decided to reproduce it below.

The issue

People are really terrible at arguing. The biggest thing by far that happens, in my experience, is that people see implied assertions (implied positions) in others’ posts that the posters didn’t intend, and attack the others based on those perceptions. (Note: I don’t mean logical implication—it’s valid to attack someone based on that.) Discussions end up being about three times as long as they needed to be, in the rare cases when manage to resolve themselves at all. (They usually don’t resolve themselves.)

Now, this sort of thing is often called “putting up a straw man”. But I don’t think that’s an accurate way to look at it. In normal, productive conversation, people intentionally try to imply assertions all the time. Perhaps more often than not. But it’s only problematic sometimes. Take, for instance this sentence: “I wish George W. Bush had never been born.” While that’s not something that you actually hear much (people tend to express things more, umm, creatively), it’s a statement that’s absolutely charged with possible hidden implications. Many of them are very likely true and intended, and virtually no one would ever object sincerely to their being assumed by someone engaging with the person who made the comment. For example, the speaker is probably strongly opposed to Bush’s performance and policy in the presidency. The person probably has a good deal of personal animosity against Bush. Those assertions do not necessarily follow from the original statement, but they’re implied so strongly that, in normal situations and in the current cultural context, it’s safe to assume that they hold.

Now, there follows a much broader range of implied assertions (implied positions) that are less likely true—the likelihood is probably still greater than 50%, but not greater than 80%. For instance, the speaker might be a Democrat, but they could also hate Democrats. They’re not likely a Republican, but they might be one that opposes Bush specifically, but not most Republicans.

The problem

But even when people responding assume those things, it’s not always a problem. Because, often, the respondent will realize that the speaker doesn’t necessarily hold those positions (that the implication is probabilistic), and will phrase their response accordingly. Even when the respondent is mistaken about the implied assertion, they will, when being civil, revise their ideas about the speaker when the speaker disclaims the position the respondent was assuming of them.

But when things really break down, it’s when the respondent sees possible implications and assigns them too-high probabilities and then fails to give the speaker the benefit of the doubt when they disclaim those assertions. Often, it’s because the respondent is unaware that the implied assertion is not actually explicit in the speaker’s words. The respondent is so ideologically separated from the speaker, and often unfamiliar with (or, worse, dismissive of) of the subtleties and variations of different positions similar to the speaker’s that they’re not familiar with, that they’ll obstinately group the speaker’s explicit positions with a wide array of other positions perceived to be similar, but that the speaker never explicitly stated (or even implied with a probability higher than 60%). And when this happens, communication becomes much more difficult.

Sometimes, if explicitly disavowing those respondent-assumed positions will convince the respondent that the speaker does not in fact hold them, then conversation can resume slowly, and progress quite slowly (and often heatedly). But it seems that all too often, the respondents (of any ideology) have such a distrust of the people they debate with that the respondents will not trust an explicit disavowal, even if only for the sake of argument while they show that the speaker must necessarily hold that position (or something like that). Or, if they do back down a bit about what they assume of the speaker, they only do so a little bit, and continue making other erroneous assumptions at every turn in the conversation. Now, this distrust in itself is not always a bad thing. It’s necessary sometimes, for dealing with those people who hold truly extreme positions that aren’t worth intellectual consideration. But it seems like nowadays it’s being used by mainstream leftists against mainstream rightists, and vice versa. It’s used by mainstream feminists, and libertarians, and environmentalists, and fundamentalists, against anyone not in their in-group.

And that’s a huge misfortune, for everyone. When the majority of people become unable to hold rational conversations with those in the opposing ideological camp, the effectiveness of society-wide (or subculture-wide) dialectical processes that can lead to consensus on issues, and that can make effective coalitions possible, and that can lead to real intellectual progress at a cultural level, drops proportionately. (That’s not to say that it’s ever been any better, just that if it were…)

I think that people who contribute to this problem are blameworthy. People who don’t strive to follow the principles of sound, rational debate are complicit in the intellectual chaos that characterizes open societies and effectively cripples mankind. I wouldn’t be surprised if this chaos were a necessary (but not sufficient) cause of the phenomenon of fundamentalism. And those who positively reject these rules are, I think, worthy of contempt. (On the other hand, I welcome those who reject them to engage with me based on them. Particularly, if you think that the rules should be followed among those within a particular ideological range, but discarded when engaging with those outside that range, I’d like to hear your reasoning, because I am very suspicious of it.)


Rules for being charitable

Now, I do believe that it’s perfectly OK to not want to engage with someone, because they’re so poor at argument that they’re beyond hope, or they communicate so unclearly that you can’t understand what they’re saying, or that they use technical language that’s above you, or because you don’t have time for an in depth argument, or because the subject bores you. Even, maybe, because you think they’re dishonest. But you should be really careful before making that last judgment until you have a lot of experience in arguing productively with those of very different ideologies.

When you encounter someone who has very different positions from you, but whom you still consider honest and worthy of genuine engagement, here is what you should do. (I’m going to number these at some point, when I think I’ve got them mostly complete. I want to avoid renumbering them once they’re numbered.)

First the central rule, the one that sums up all the others:

The golden rule

Treat the person’s position as if it were your own. First, make sure you understand the argument. Then go about trying to see how you would disprove it to yourself. Then, walk step by step with the person through your rebuttal, and see where the arguments you use against their position fail to have the same effect on them (and why). Charity is about empathy.

Now, details…


Rule: You cannot read minds.

As soon as you find someone espousing seemingly contradictory positions, you should immediately suspect yourself of being mistaken as to their intent. Even if it seems obvious to you that the person has a certain intent in their message, if you want to engage them, you must respond being open to the possibility that where you see contradictions (or, for that matter, insults), none were intended. While you keep in mind what the person’s contradictory position seems to be, raise your standards some, and ask questions so that the person must state the position more explicitly—this way, you can make sure whether they actually hold it. If you still have problems, keep raising your standards, and asking more specific questions, until the person starts making sense to you.

If part of their position is unclear or ambiguous to you, say that explicitly. Being willing to show uncertainty is an excellent way to defuse the person’s, and your own, defensiveness. It also helps them to more easily understand which aspects of their position they are not making clear enough.

The less their position makes sense to you, the more you should rely on interrogative phrase and the less on declarative. Questions defuse defensiveness and are much more pointed and communicative than statements, because they force you to think more about the person’s arguments, and to really articulate what it about their position you most need clarification on. They help to keep the discussion moving, and help you to stop arguing past each other. Phrase the questions sincerely, and use as much of the person’s own reasoning (putting in the best light) as you can. This requires that you have a pretty good grasp on what the person is arguing—try to understand their position as well as you can. If it’s simply not coherent enough, the case may be hopeless.


Rule: People are not evil.

You should be extremely suspicious about your judgment of a person’s position when you think that position has implications you find distasteful (or worse). Unless you can see very clearly that they are explicitly advocating such a position, you should frame your response with the expectation that the implication was unintended, and contrary to their actual position. Give them the opportunity to show you how you misunderstood them, or to fix the flaw in their position, by offering your most charitable rendition of their position and how the distasteful conclusion follows from that. If the conclusion appears to be a necessaryconsequence or assumption, then you can certainly state the argument in strong terms, and not allow them to simply disclaim the implication. But don’t be accusatory. Just because the implication is distasteful, and you think their argument leads to it, doesn’t mean they don’t share your distaste for it.

And if they really are a moral monster, or a jerk, or some other variety of low-life, then you can charitably give them plenty of rope to hang themselves with, and then charitably kick the stool out from under them. And isn’t that fun, sometimes?

Humans are quite tribal, and easily see bad intentions—it’s a universal weakness. You have to distrust yourself a little bit to compensate for this.


Rule: Debates are not for winning.

Never make a person defend words that they’ve abandoned. Be on the lookout for when this happens quietly—people don’t usually explicitly disavow positions. But they do change positions during debates, more than you’d think, and you should applaud that (but don’t gloat!) when it happens—both for them and yourself. If a person seems to have changed their position, you don’t win any points. You don’t come any closer to winning the debate, because debates are not for winning. If your arguments appear to have changed someone’s position, you should be honored, and grateful for the opportunity to be involved in such a high quality debate.

People make mistakes. Don’t hold it against them. Often one’s views are very ill-formed, but can turn out to be quite strong after a bit of fiddling, so be patient and understanding with people. Encourage them to experiment with different ways of formulating the argument. Play the devil’s advocate. If a person’s arguments have distasteful consequences, don’t hold it against them. First, see whether they want to change their arguments to overcome those distasteful things as well.

If you truly feel that the person’s old words are still relevant, put them at a small distance, and bring them up as if they were completely separate arguments. If you think about them and can’t see how they still apply, or aren’t contradicted, then ask the person.


Rule: You make mistakes.

You make mistakes. You make many more mistakes than you realize. Mistakes are not your enemy. They do not give your opponent an advantage, because debates are not for winning, and your opponent has the same goal you do—finding the truth. (They are honest, right?) There are no points to score.

Mistakes are your friend. Constantly look for your mistakes, and when you find them, admit to them. Don’t apologize for them (unless the mistake was being rude or breaking one of these rules). Celebrate them. But not too loudly, because if you’re finding as many as you should be, all that celebration will get old pretty fast. But be skeptical even when you find them. Many of your mistakes will turn out not to be mistakes after all.


Rule: Not everyone cares as much as you.

Be willing to tolerate people who apparently hold distasteful positions. Remember rule number 2, and that people’s views are often ill-formed. They may strongly care about, for instance, feminism or social justice, but still interested in experimenting with some form of men’s rights or Hayekianism. They will probably be very interested in trying to reconcile the two positions, and if it turns out that they can’t, they still may not be willing to fully embrace the distasteful position that their arguments lead to. They might trust that their arguments probably fail somewhere, based on where they lead. Or their whole line of reasoning might be admittedly hypothetical, and not applicable to the current world. To engage with them, you must engage in the same spirit. You must share their belief that their ideas might be reconcilable with your principles.

If you have an emotional investment in a certain position (say gender/social equality), and a person’s arguments lead to a position inconsistent with yours (sexist/classist implications), then you will likely find it easy to react emotionally. That doesn’t make it OK. When you react emotionally, your ability to follow the preceding rules is severely impaired. Even if the person supports your position in general, they may not have the emotional investment in it that you do, and there is nothing wrong with this.Such people are able to play with opposing positions in a detached way, without getting at all defensive about either side. There is nothing wrong with this. If you can’t engage with them in that spirit, then the productivity of the discussion will likely be much lower (depending on how skilled of a debater they are), and it will be your fault.


Rule: Engaging is hard work.

Engaging properly with others is hard work. Don’t skimp on your end of it. Always make the effort to meet the other person halfway. Also, feel free to tell them you don’t have the energy or time to continue, or to take your time in getting back around to the discussion, rather than put in a 50% effort.


Rule: Differences can be subtle.

Ideological differences are often based ultimately on intuition, i.e. gut feelings, i.e. emotional reactions, to certain hypothetical situations. Many times, perhaps most of the time, those reactions are a product of one’s experiences in life. Sometimes those reactions are obviously invalid, such as an animosity against liberals or conservatives. (Those groups are too broad to be very meaningful, and so a blanket reaction to them is never going to be justifiable.) If you have an invalid reaction like this, it can be overcome by repeated exposure to contradictions in your position, or between your position and reality. (If you seek out and accept that exposure, that is. Humans aren’t very good at that.)

But some reactions (intuitions) are to aspects of a situation so broad and hypothetical that productive discussion on them is extremely difficult. I suppose the prime example of this is opinions about where to place the beginning of life, and the point at which the associated rights come into effect, during conception and pregnancy. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen someone coherently make the case that any particular view is more valid than another. I doubt it can be done. Debate about abortion tends to be about societal implications, autonomy, and general welfare.

There’s one clear sign (not to exclude others) that you’re dealing with this sort of difference, and that you need to stop and bring the discussion to a more abstract and general level: when you disagree about the meaning or the direct implications of a small section of text (e.g. 20–50 words). Most people, when they encounter this sort of disagreement, get especially exasperated, and start accusing each other of dishonesty or other deception—even people who are still being civil. But this is exactly the opposite of what the right reaction is. When you find that kind of disagreement, it should be very easy to structure the remainder of the discussion around it to figure out exactly what some of your different assumptions and mental models are, which is very likely to lead to a lot more understanding. So you should be glad to find this sort of disagreement, since you’re lucky to have such a clear example of the nature of your underlying differences.

Now, you rarely get such clearcut examples of deep differences, so be on the lookout for any small differences in the way that the person thinks about issues. If a subtle difference at the beginning of a chain of reasoning seems like a likely candidate to be the cause of more substantial differences, move the conversation to the more abstract and general level. There’s no point in going around in circles when the only way out is up. There are some specific differences you can be aware of, so that you can more easily recognize them when they happen in conversation. Sara Robinson writes about a few of them. Let me know if you know of others I can include here.

Differing assumptions and worldviews can run very deep and influence how we acquire and process information in very substantial and unintuitive ways. To really be able to debate charitably with others, you must thoroughly integrate this belief into your reactions. Don’t drop an argument at the very moment where it could begin to be the most fruitful and enlightening. Unfortunately, this might require, to some extent, that you become a philosopher. (And thought experiments can get so tedious.) And while you might end up with your head in the clouds, at least you’ll have learned something.

Oh, and, of course, don’t treat others’ differences in intuition as indicative of mental illness, unless you don’t want to engage them. And this leads me to my last rule:


Rule: Give up quietly.

If you don’t want to engage someone using all of these rules, don’t engage them at all. Ignore them, or tell them that you won’t be engaging them. Don’t be too quick to pull the troll trigger, but don’t be too slow, either. (I need another article on that issue alone.) If the person is apparently a troll, ignore them. (Or if you’ve already been engaging them, tell them you think they’re dishonest and why and then ignore them.) Either let others engage them using these rules, or let the maintainer of the community censor them. (And I believe that maintainers should be fairly liberal with the delete key. But that’s the maintainer’s job, not yours.)


Rules for dealing with lack of charity

Now, all the above is good and well to strive to follow. But what should you do when you’re dealing with those who don’t follow these rules? I have many ideas on this aspect of debate as well, which I will write up sometime.



These are rules that I think apply universally. Doing anything less is poor form, and straying too far from these rules is almost certain to lead to unresolved, even exaggerated differences. But by following this advice, you’re almost certain to resolve debates much more often, and much more civilly and enjoyably, to find your own positions being improved by exposure to your opponents’ ideas, and to generally foster a better sense of rationality in the community you participate in.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Citizen Ghost July 20, 2011 at 5:37 am

Very generous and thoughtful. It shows a real commitment to intellectual honesty and rational discourse.

But I’m afraid you’ll never make it as lawyer.

…or as a Christian apologist.


cl July 20, 2011 at 9:44 am

…or as a New Atheist.


Taranu July 20, 2011 at 10:23 am

Thank you for this post. It’s very helpful.


Citizen Ghost July 20, 2011 at 3:08 pm

…or as a New Atheist.

I’ve never figured out what on earth a “new atheist” is. Seems to me that it’s just a marketing term for selling books. In terms of the views these “new atheists” hold, they are hardly any different from the “old” ones. Some atheists are perfectly capable of approaching debate fairly and charitably. Others are not. (Or rather, some are not interested in doing so).

But here’s the difference. There’s no reason in principle why a nonbeliever cannot follow these guidelines. There is however, EVERY reason, to conclude that Christian Apologetics is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the guidelines set forth here – as well as the guidelines themselves.


cl July 20, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Well, you could substitute “atheist apologist” for “new atheist” and things wouldn’t change much.

But here’s the difference. There’s no reason in principle why a nonbeliever cannot follow these guidelines. There is however, EVERY reason, to conclude that Christian Apologetics is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the guidelines set forth here – as well as the guidelines themselves.

Oh please. What’s next? Your daddy can beat up my daddy? LOL!


Steven Carr July 21, 2011 at 3:54 am

The part about not reading minds and implied assertions is very valuable.

Never assume, just because somebody says he is a Christian, that he has the same beliefs as other Christians you have met, or is implicitly asserting the same propositions as other Christians.


Citizen Ghost July 21, 2011 at 8:14 am

Oh please. What’s next? Your daddy can beat up my daddy? LOL!

Nope. I was drawing a distinction that is real and identifiable.

It’s not an accident that there is no such thing as “atheist apologetics.”


cl July 21, 2011 at 11:22 am

Citizen Ghost,

I was drawing a distinction that is real and identifiable.

Hogwash. You haven’t identified anything real yet. You simply said,

There’s no reason in principle why a nonbeliever cannot follow these guidelines. There is however, EVERY reason, to conclude that Christian Apologetics is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the guidelines set forth here – as well as the guidelines themselves.

Of course, the truth is, there’s no reason in principle why a Christian cannot follow these guidelines. Further, I disagree with your unsupported assertion that there is EVERY reason to conclude that Christian Apologetics is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the guidelines set forth here. Can you can give us “EVERY reason,” or even any reason, to make the conclusion you did?


MACHISMO Personified July 21, 2011 at 1:08 pm

Oh please. What’s next? Your daddy can beat up my daddy? LOL!

FWIW, his dad probably could.


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