How to have a productive argument

May 2013

Scott Alexander of Slate Star Codex has an awesome post about a terrible argument:

Recently, Alas, A Blog wrote an article saying that Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.

No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, – and…

No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another.1

You should probably go read the whole thing because it’s great. But in case you don’t have time, here’s the highlight of Scott’s takedown of Alas, A Blog‘s argument:

In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.

So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.

Yes, yes, yes. This is how you think productively about mind-killers.

See what happens when you actually give a damn about the people on the other side? See what happens when you model them as people, instead of, I don’t know, machines designed to transform food and water into misogynistic arguments? What happens is that you start to actually understand them and then maybe you can have a productive debate that doesn’t end up with everyone flailing around madly like usual. (Maybe. The last part’s still hard.)

I see this happening all the time and it makes me really sad. Especially because of how frequently it happens to people who hold completely reasonable and opinions. They go around thinking (justifiably, usually) that they’re right about something, and then before long they’ve lost sight of the fact that the person they’re arguing with is a real person with a real background and experiences and emotions, not some abstract idea of The Other Side that they have to score points on.

Please don’t let this happen to you. Repeat after me:

My opponent is a real person.

They are not some abstract set of arguments.

They are a complicated lump of thoughts and feelings and desires and beliefs, just like other real people.

They are not there to “score points on”, but to find the truth with.

My opponent’s values are not insane.

If it seems like they are, I will think harder.

Then I will figure out what is actually going on and solve that problem, instead of ranting about them to my friends to show off my brilliance and correctness.


  1. For clarity, it does not necessarily reflect my views that I’m praising a piece attacking a pro-choice article. A bad argument is a bad argument. 


Enjoyed this post? Get notified of new ones via email or RSS. Or comment:

email me replies

format comments in markdown.

Decius

See what happens when you model them as people, instead of, I don’t know, machines designed to transform food and water into misogynistic arguments?

Careful of the straw men you build. A significant percentage of pro-life though is based on actual oppressive beliefs, such as the though that anything which prevents sex from leading to birth should be banned.

Also, I have trouble understand how someone who isn’t consequentialist can hold a terminal value at all; can you explain how a non-consequentialist can desire to reduce the number of murdered fetuses and turn that into a plan of action?

reply

Max Christian Hansen

Good stuff, Ben. I’ve lost some sleep, but it was worth it. (Much of the lost sleep was sacrificed by having followed a path to Scott’s “Consequentialist FAQ”–excellent writing & thought.)

Once I had it from the grapevine (do grapevines publish chapbooks?) that you’d been to a CFAR workshop, I meant to talk to you about a topic within which this post fits nicely: Having learned something about how to be rational, how do we then influence the society around us, including vast numbers of people nowhere near ready to be taught rationality? I expected to hear the topic had been covered at CFAR (because Julia often mentions it on the podcast), but also wondered how such a huge subject can be covered in a weekend.

It’s a lifetime’s work, and I’m glad you’ve made a start on it.

Decius: I think it’s true that a “significant percentage” of pro-life thought is tied to oppressive beliefs. (As a pro-life feminist I’ve often been embarrassed by some of my “allies”). But notice I said “tied to” oppressive beliefs and not “based on” same. I choose those words because, in most times & places in human history, morality has necessarily been oppressive. I’m not talking about moral philosophy, but practical morals, which for millennia have been taught at whip’s end.

Realize that most peoples, at most times, have needed some sort of morality. Yet most persons have existed in the lower strata of social pyramids. Thus, whether a society thinks of its moral system as a result of rational thought (rare) or a gift from a deity (common), that system usually becomes a part of the arsenal of tools by which social stratification is entrenched, which is another way of saying it becomes a tool of oppression.

Our situation, in which we can think about morality without much reference to avoiding spankings or hellfire or the secret police, is newish and rare. For nearly everybody down to our day, that morality and oppression went hand in hand was neither surprising nor regrettable.

reply

Ben

@Decius–

Careful of the straw men you build. A significant percentage of pro-life though is based on actual oppressive beliefs, such as the though that anything which prevents sex from leading to birth should be banned.

I agree completely that many pro-life people hold oppressive beliefs which cause their beliefs about the moral status of abortions. The problem happens when we start thinking of them as some sort of logical obstacle, rather than a person whose beliefs exist for a reason (a reason more reasonable than that they just like to oppress women).

Also, I have trouble understand how someone who isn’t consequentialist can hold a terminal value at all; can you explain how a non-consequentialist can desire to reduce the number of murdered fetuses and turn that into a plan of action?

For a non-consequentialist, it might be moral to desire to reduce the number of murdered fetuses but not turn it into a plan of action (even if reasonable plans of actions exist). Heck, a non-consequentialist might even have a utility function (in fact, by Von Neumann-Morgenstern, they had better), they just won’t always try to maximize it.

(Or something like that. I probably couldn’t pass a deontology ideological Turing test, so I may not know what I’m talking about.)

@Max–I have no idea! But I’m not sure what you mean by “nowhere near ready”. You mean something like “so irredeemably crazy that CFAR’s curriculum wouldn’t even stick”? That may be true, but I doubt it.

Anyway, the sanity waterline is already slowly rising, so I think already we’ll get there eventually; it’s more a matter of speeding it up than making it happen at all.

reply

Max Christian Hansen

@Ben: No, I don’t mean vast numbers of people are irredeemably crazy. And I’m chary of using the word crazy anyway, since it’s the term of choice for people who want to dismiss, without understanding, persons suffering from mental disorders. Also since among the clearest thinkers I know are people with axis 1 conditions.

No, I mean that thinking is a social, not a solitary activity, and most people are embedded in a social matrix that does not conduce to their thinking clearly.

I’d love to spend a whole day discussing this with you, but not now & not in this forum.

Much of what I mean, though, lies in two of my favorite quotations from some pretty good writers:

“You tell me whar a man gits his corn pone, en I’ll tell you what his ‘pinions is.” Mark Twain.

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” Upton Sinclair.

It’s a pretty major event when a person finds some freedom from the social matrix that dictates how and what we will think.

And as, in the US, we implement social policies aimed at educational and economic disempowerment of masses, we make it that much less likely for each member of those masses to find it in their interest to think independently.

Could write all day on this. Must! Stop! Now! But thanks again for a great post and a very stimulating chain of links.

reply

Decius

And as, in the US, we implement social policies aimed at educational and economic disempowerment of masses, we make it that much less likely for each member of those masses to find it in their interest to think independently.

I think you meant “with the result of” rather than “aimed at”. Considering the legacy of the discussion, that’s a major distinction.

reply

Max Christian Hansen

@Decius: A very good point.

reply