Robert Griffith | 18 October 2023
Robert Griffith
18 October 2023


The 18th-century French writer, Joseph Joubert, gave us this profound statement:  “It’s better to debate a question without settling it, than to settle a question without debating it.”

I am one of five children and so I recall many great arguments in my household as seven people attempted to live together in bliss and harmony. I also recall being told many, many times, “Don’t argue!” Therefore, like most of us in our culture, I grew up with a negative view of arguing. Multiply that across a whole society and you end up with millions of people who remain silent because they think arguing is wrong and many others who can only argue in a destructive or condemning way because they see argument as a battle for the high ground which must be one.

Perhaps a glance at Websters Dictionary will reveal how far we have drifted from the real meaning of the word argue. Webster provides six helpful definitions of the word argue:

–  To give reasons for or against something
–  To contend or disagree in words
–  To give evidence of
–  To consider the pros and cons of
–  To prove or try to prove by giving reasons
–  To persuade by giving reasons

There is nothing inherently negative in any of those definitions! Even the second one can be done respectfully and without condemnation or personal attack.

Argument is everywhere. From the kitchen table to the boardroom to the highest echelons of power, we all use argument to persuade, investigate new ideas, and make collective decisions.

Unfortunately, we often fail to consider the ethics of arguing. This makes it perilously easy to mistreat others – a critical concern in personal relationships, workplace decision-making and political deliberation.

One of the greatest problems in our modern society is that we seem to have lost the ability to argue well with others. More often than not what begins as a constructive dialogue with differing opinions being shared and respected in a spirit of seeking the truth, quickly disintegrates into personal attack and defense.

We seem to have completely lost (or never had) an understanding of the basic norms we should follow when arguing. Logic and common-sense dictate that, when deliberating with others, we should be open to their views. We should listen carefully and try to understand their reasoning. And while we can’t all be Socrates, we should do our best to respond to their thoughts with clear, rational and relevant arguments.

Since the time of Plato, these norms have been defended on what philosophers call “epistemic” grounds. This means the norms are valuable because they promote knowledge, insight and self-understanding.

What ‘critical thinking’ is to internal thought processes, these ‘norms of argument’ are to interpersonal discussion and deliberation.

These norms of argument are also morally important. Sometimes this is obvious. For example, norms of argument can overlap with common-sense ethical principles, like honesty. Deliberately misrepresenting a person’s view is wrong because it involves knowingly saying something false.

More importantly, but less obviously, being reasonable and open-minded ensures we treat our partners in argument in a consensual and reciprocal way. During arguments, people open themselves up to attaining worthwhile benefits, like understanding and truth. If we don’t ‘play by the rules’, we can frustrate this pursuit. Worse, if we change their minds by misleading or bamboozling them, this can amount to the serious wrongs of manipulation or intimidation.

Instead, obeying the norms of argument shows respect for others as intelligent, rational individuals. It acknowledges they can change their minds based on reason and so can we.

This matters because rationality is an important part of people’s humanity. Being ‘endowed with reason’ is lauded in the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights to support its fundamental claim that humans are born free and equal in dignity and rights.

Obeying the norms of argument also has good effects on our character. Staying open-minded and genuinely considering contrary views helps us learn more about our own beliefs. As philosopher John Stuart Mill observed, “He who knows only his own side of the case knows very little.”

This open-mindedness helps us combat the moral perils of bias. What’s more, the norms of argument aren’t just good for individuals, they are also good for groups. They allow conflicts and collective decisions to be approached in a respectful, inclusive way, rather than forcing an agreement or escalating the conflict.

All this accords with everyday experience. Many of us have enjoyed the sense of respect when our views have been welcomed, heard and seriously considered. And all of us know what it feels like to have our ideas dismissed, misrepresented or caricatured.

Unfortunately, being logical, reasonable and open-minded is easier said than done. When we argue with others, their arguments will inevitably call into question our beliefs, values, experience and competence.

These challenges are not easy to face calmly, especially if the topic is one we really care about. This is because we like to think of ourselves as effective and capable, rather than mistaken or misguided. We also care about our social standing and like to project confidence. In addition, we suffer from confirmation bias, so we actively avoid evidence that we are wrong.

Finally, we may have material stakes riding on the argument’s outcome. After all, one of the main reasons we engage in argument is to get our way. We want to convince others to do what we want or think what we think and follow our lead. All this means that when someone challenges our convictions, we are psychologically predisposed to hit back hard.

Worse still, our capacity to evaluate whether our opponents are obeying the norms of argument is poor. All the psychological processes mentioned above don’t just make it hard to argue calmly and reasonably. They also trick us into mistakenly thinking our opponents are being illogical, making us feel as if it’s them, and not us, who’s failing to argue properly.

Arguing morally isn’t easy, but here are some tips to help:

Avoid thinking that when someone starts up an argument, they are mounting an attack. To adapt a saying by Oscar Wilde, there is only one thing in the world worse than being argued with, and that is not being argued with. Reasoned argument acknowledges a person’s rationality, and that their opinion matters.

There is always more going on in any argument than who wins and who loses. In particular, the relationship between those arguing can be at stake. Often, the real prize is demonstrating respect, even as we disagree.

Don’t be too quick to judge your opponent’s standards of argument. There’s a good chance you’ll succumb to defensive reasoning, where you’ll use all your intelligence to find fault with their views, instead of genuinely reflecting on what they are actually saying. Instead, try and work with them to clarify their reasoning.

Never assume that others aren’t open to intelligent argument. History is littered with examples of people genuinely changing their minds, even in the most high-stakes environments imaginable.

It’s possible for both sides to ‘lose’ an argument. We only need to observe question time in our Federal Parliament to see this at word. Even as the government and opposition strive to ‘win’ during this daily show of political theatre, the net effect of their appalling behaviour and non-existent standards is that everyone’s reputation suffers.

There is a saying in applied ethics that the worst ethical decisions you’ll ever make are the ones you don’t recognise as ethical decisions. So, when you find yourself in the thick of argument, do your best to remember what’s morally at stake. Otherwise, there’s a risk you might lose a lot more than you win.

We have many serious needs in our nation at present, one of them has to be the fact that we seem to have lost the ability (or the desire) to argue well and social media has made it so easy to attack and condemn – neither which belong in a good argument.

“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it,” (Evelyn Beatrice Hall)

This famous adage reflects certain necessary principles of a truly free society. It recognises that all members of the public enjoy the same standing and dignity, and so have the right to freely express their convictions, seek answers to questions asked in good faith, and expect that all will listen with respect to the responses to those questions. Such a process is the best way to establish good policy because it ensures that ideas rather than their proponents are in focus.

These essential elements go to the heart of the dependence of civil society on free speech and the respect for others that free speech depends on. It is impossible to extract the best possible policy from a distorted, truncated or – worse – silenced debate.

Yet it seems that this could be where we are heading given the state of public and political discourse in this country.

Australia faces a choice: do we allow the level of our public discourse to further disintegrate so that we become a society that is essentially ungovernable, or do we rededicate ourselves to the idea that we share in a common humanity that permits and in fact demands that people are allowed to raise their voices without fear of condemnation and persecution?

Let’s argue well.