On Arguments

There are few people who actually care more about solving an argument rather than winning one. Should their position be challenged, most simply start building walls around it in order to maintain it, all the while shooting bullets back at you in an attempt to end your siege. Not for a moment do they consider turning around and actually attacking their own position themselves, side by side with the challenger whose strength they now have on their side.

The latter course of action is natural if you wanted the truth. If your position is based on a solid foundation, it will stand, and you will stand upon it all the happier having tested its strength. The former on the other hand is natural if you’re not looking for truth, if you fear the change that may come of it. People define themselves by their beliefs, and so to them, attacking their beliefs is the same as attacking them, so it’s no wonder they will defend their position with zeal and would not for a moment consider turning around and testing the assumptions on which their own position stands.

Schopenhauer wrote a treatise in response to his disgust to this state of affairs called The Art of Always Being Right, one half satire, the other half a serious playbook on winning arguments. It’s an entertaining read, though the subtext is of a more depressing nature, being a true reflection on how most arguments are settled. Schopenhauer’s tactic collection includes: making your opponent angry, postulating what has to be proven, false syllogisms, appealing to authority and so on, with about 38 tactics in total, none of which in any way useful in actually trying to find the truth of the matter, but all of them good for destroying your opponent. The amount of chicanery listed is a reflection of just how far people people will go to win arguments rather than do the honest thing and try to actually solve them.

Before entering into an argument you need to make sure that your interests and the interests of those you are talking to are aligned, that is, are you both looking for the truth, or is it that one of you is after something else? If they are entrenching their position rather than looking for a solution then the more arguments you pose the more resistance you will encounter. If you really want the other party on your side then your best bet is to appeal to self interest. When Cyrus the Great wanted armor and weapons from his uncle in order to upgrade his archers to heavy infantry for an upcoming battle together, he was met with some resistance. To overcome this he appealed to self interest and reminded his uncle that it was not unusual to have your own arrows kill your men who are engaging in combat, but if Cyrus’ men were equipped with melee weapons instead of bows then they would not have to face this risk. This wasn’t a veiled threat, it was a real concern. He got his weapons and armor.

In all other cases where you have no vested interest other than that of finding truth but face an opponent who does not share this goal, you might as well use Schopenhauer’s playbook, though it is probably wiser to do as Nietzsche recommends and learn to simply pass by1. To argue with fools is to be one, so if you want a healthy discourse, make sure that the first thing you do is vet the participants.

  1. Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Book 3, Chapter 7: On Passing By, Friedrich Nietzsche
September 2012