How To Make A Fair And Honest Argument



Christopher Ebbe, Ph.D.   11-16

ABSTRACT:  “Discussion” usually consists of persons each trying to influence the others to agree with them (especially in political discourse).  A disciplined way of making discussions work better, by addressing the flaws in one’s own arguments, is described. 

KEY WORD:  discussion, discourse, conversation

In the essay “Bringing Society Together” (at I suggested that discussions of societal and political issues would be more useful if people approached them with a genuine intent to understand the basis for the other person’s or sides’ opinion, rather than to convince them of the error of their ways.  To foster trust, each person would also focus on explaining his position, not just advocating for it as if its truth or usefulness were already established.  As part of that essay, I also suggested that every public statement, written or oral, be required to address, in the same speech or written piece, the weaknesses of the position being advocated.  It would help public discourse if publishers (newspapers, etc.) adopted this as a requirement.  It takes humility to follow these suggestions, but they are guaranteed to produce more useful discussion than the process of arguing, which usually escalates into shouting or near-shouting and results in anger and greater alienation.  Human beings influence each other all the time, and this is normal, but our society right now needs ways to find common ground and to create legislation through compromise rather than fighting.

In addition, using methods that attempt to irresponsibly force others to go along with our views should be considered immoral.  This includes appeals to superiority/inferiority (you should go along with my view because I have more status than you), threats of potential violence or other harm (if you don’t go along with my view, I might hurt you), trying to humiliate the other person so she will give up, and domination by speaking more loudly or using body language to dominate the other person.  These methods may result in apparent agreement, but they totally disrespect the other person, which will result long-term in resentment and quite likely in eventual betrayal.

If one believes in basic equality as an essential element of social equilibrium and comfort, then one sees the other person’s views as having equal legitimacy with one’s own, until proven otherwise through finding errors in facts or in logic or exposing dominance ploys.  Doing this requires calm exploration or those underlying factual assumptions and the reasons why the person sees things as he does in terms of his background and life experiences.  Of course, if one’s purpose is to get one’s way regardless of how that affects others, then one will continue to use immoral influence methods (which are immoral because they violate the other person’s basic equality and are used to try to take advantage of him).  (I am suggesting that any act that harms others for one’s own benefit be considered immoral, whether it is legal or not and regardless of whether it is permitted by a church.)

Discussions of competing views would be more useful if both parties committed themselves to finding the truth (as near as possible) rather than simply to getting their own way.  This would be greatly enhanced by both parties identifying and addressing the weak points in their own arguments.  You might shrink from doing this because you see (correctly) that this would take some of the force out of your argument, but if both parties do this, it would create a much greater possibility of finding what common ground the parties might have, which could then be a basis for joint action, thus avoiding stalemate and gridlock.  We usually assume that the other side will point out our weaknesses in their rejoinders, but doing so ourselves would be more honest and would give the other party evidence of our good will in trying to find ways to create mutual benefit.  Every proposal has some negative impacts on someone, and to ignore this for the sake of what we want to get is insulting to those who will be harmed and makes them distrust and dislike us.  Here are some examples.


Particularly in the last twenty years, there has been an escalation of exaggerated language in political discourse.  Advocates of equality for all have started calling every instance of inequality or unfairness “oppression,” which is a misleading and provocative exaggeration, just as anti-abortion advocates call every abortion “baby-killing,” which is not correct.  These exaggerations are resorted to in an effort to “win” the argument by overwhelming the opposition, but people who are unthinkingly influenced by such tactics are then in a worse position when it comes to policy-making, since they are not in possession of the correct facts.

Slavery and making those of a particular religion second-class citizens are oppression.  Micro-aggressions (most often references to those of a minority group using outdated language or phrasing, sometimes unintentionally) and upholding public order laws are not oppression.  Police keeping public order, with both individuals and groups, with reasonable restraint, is not oppression.  Abortions in the first month of pregnancy, when the foetus is a foetus and not a baby, are not baby-killing.  An undifferentiated mass of cells in the beginning stages of organization is not a baby, even though it may become a baby.  The results of these exaggerations are to push people farther apart and make it harder to create the best public policy possible. 


A proposal should be a complete proposal.  Stating only one side of it is misleading and dishonest.  (In this sense, formal debate rules, with opposing sides, create dishonesty.  This, applied in our adversarial judicial system, is the source of the disdain most people have for lawyers, because in giving their clients a “vigorous” defense, they purposely distort the truth by claiming one possible version of the truth to be the actual truth.  This may be good for clients, but it is not good for the truth.)  In order to move toward the best policy decisions possible (in which neither side gets its way entirely), every proposal and advocacy should address its weaknesses as well as its hopes.

Advocates for large-scale responses to climate change should not only say what they think is needed in terms of societal responses but should also, in the same speech or written piece, (1) acknowledge that climate change is not scientifically proven but is science’s best guess for an explanation of observed data regarding global weather conditions and (2) describe the negative economic impact that their proposed responses would have on citizens.  It is false to claim that fossil fuel use can be eliminated completely and replaced with wind, solar, and tide power, and such an effort would lower the standard of living of our society, at least for decades.  The key question is how much lower, and this should be addressed.  If you want people to give up parts of their lives, you owe it to them to say how much it’s going to cost them.  It’s essential to know what we will have to give up, so we can balance that against the chance that climate change is less serious than currently thought.  We need to envision the catastrophic consequences of not doing all we can to minimize climate change, if it is as serious as currently thought.

Advocates questioning climate change should acknowledge that there is a strong consensus among scientists that significant contributions by human beings to global warming seem like the best explanation for accumulated weather data, even though that does not prove conclusively that the contribution of human beings is significant.  They should also describe when arguing their case what is likely to happen if mankind does nothing to try to minimize global temperature increases and what their personal responses would be if they discovered down the road that they had been totally wrong.  Would they then share their wealth with their fellow citizens, as recompense for being wrong?  We do not customarily hold people accountable for outcomes that they could not reasonably be expected to predict, but if those predictions are made for self-serving motives rather than from an honest and objective assessment of the data, then perhaps those persons should bear some responsibility.  If we held a referendum on some dramatic responses to climate change, and all who voted also signed a contract that if their predictions turned out to be wrong, they would pay a certain amount (for their losses) to those who voted oppositely, then the rhetoric level would be considerably lower!

Advocates of lenient immigration policies and having a multicultural society should acknowledge the negative impacts on society of large numbers of immigrants, even when they are speaking only to those who want a multicultural society.  For example, running a multicultural society is more costly than a monoculture (printing all government documents in multiple languages, providing translators in all public services, providing education in multiple languages), and without an increase in the actual total wealth of a society, having more persons competing for the same number of jobs will result in some non-immigrants being unable to find jobs.  The businesses that immigrants start may be of some value, but they do not increase the total wealth of society but rather split it up into smaller pieces for everyone.  Unless there are new resources provided by new immigrant businesses, the money spent in immigrant businesses is money not being spent in non-immigrant businesses.

Advocates for fewer regulations for businesses should list, in the same speech or article, the negative actions that some businesses are likely to take without the eliminated regulation (more pollution, poorer quality control, more food-borne illnesses, less customer service, higher prices), and explain what should be done about those negative actions.  Since we know from experience that the vast majority of business persons are motivated more by profit and success than they are by doing the right thing for the populace as a whole, it would be absurd to claim that these negative results would not happen. 

Advocates for free-market conditions should explain what happens to those who can’t compete in a totally free market or are not protected by law and what, if anything they would do about those citizens.  Advocates for lower taxes should acknowledge openly that the history of lowering taxes to stimulate economic growth are very mixed and should explain what they would do about it if their predictions are wrong.  (Would they offer to pay double taxes themselves for five years if they were wrong?)  Advocates of deregulation should acknowledge the many times that deregulation results in higher costs to consumers rather than lower costs (as they always promise) and should say what should be done if their predictions are wrong.  Advocates for globalization of business should acknowledge that some workers are harmed by globalization and say what they think society should do about that.

Advocates for expanding welfare (public monies given to the disadvantaged) should explain what that does to the self-esteem of recipients and how that process will or will not result in motivating recipients to gain employment (since many receiving such monies are then better off than they would be if they entered the job market at minimum wage).  Advocates against welfare should explain what should be done about those who “can’t” find jobs.  Would that include letting them starve, debtors prisons, or hard labor?

Advocates for conservative policies, which fit less populated areas better than they do urban areas, should explain why the negative impacts of their policies on urban centers should be tolerated for the sake of slower growth and slower societal change (which is the main emotional motivation for conservative policies).  Advocates for liberal policies, which fit urban centers better than they do rural areas, should have to explain why rural areas should be subjected to faster societal change for the sake of certain benefits to urban areas.

Advocates for acceptance of transgender persons in society should explain why the benefits of such acceptance outweigh the greater confusion that many citizens would feel about their own gender identity that would result from having more choices.

Advocates for freedom to express religion in daily life should explain why the benefits of that outweigh the resulting disruptions to the life of society caused by those expressions of religion (Muslim workers having several paid prayer periods during the day; women who want contraception services having to make additional special arrangements for those because a business owner doesn’t want to pay for them on religious grounds; gay or transgender persons or persons of a “foreign” religion refused services in public businesses on the basis of the business owners religious views).  Advocates of acceptance of greater diversity in various respects should explain why those who disagree on religious grounds should have to live with and to some extent pay for that greater diversity.

This attitude of seeing the whole truth about one’s proposals is applicable to all speeches and writings, to dyadic discussions, and to group discussions.  It would also be useful, even while formulating one’s own opinions and proposals, to include all of the impacts on all other groups of people—i.e., make this a habit of thought.  This would cut down on the number of poorly thought out proposals that we all have to listen to before the proponent admits to its problems!

The point here is that we should all be honest about how we impact other citizens.  As noted above, every change benefits some but negatively affects others, either materially or psychologically or both.  If we want some change in procedures or laws, we should be honest about how it will help us but harm some others.  Consider adding to your repertoire of persuasion this concept of acknowledging the mixed results of every position you take, and you will help to build more trust in society and greater willingness to work together for the greater good.  You automatically think of the problems with other people’s views, so why not start the habit of always checking out the problems with your own views?