Once we shift our attitudes about arguments and view them as occasions for learning and not as competitions, we will find that we do not have to be mean or dismissive to our opponents. Indeed, we should not be mean to them, and we should not think of them as “opponents,” for they may turn out to be our teachers. We should at least regard them as friends, which is what Socrates typically does in Plato’s dialogues.
With that in mind, we will want our friends to present the best arguments they can, even when we disagree with their conclusions. We want this because we want to discover the truth. If we let our friends slide by with less forceful arguments, we may well miss an opportunity for learning something. Ideally, we want our opponents to be as rational, clear, and persuasive as possible so that we do not miss out on what they know. As J. S. Mill (1806-1873) once wrote, “Lord, enlighten thou our enemies. Sharpen their wits, give acuteness to their perceptions, and consecutiveness and clearness to their reasoning powers: we are in danger from their folly, not from their wisdom; their weakness is what fills us with apprehension, not their strength.” We want our “enemies” to be as wise and clear and perceptive as possible, for they are not really our enemies, properly speaking. Ignorance or foolishness are the true enemies. If we want to learn the truth, we want everyone to be as sharp and perceptive as possible.
The contemporary philosopher Daniel Dennett has suggested three rules to follow when we criticize someone else’s argument:
- You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
- You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
- You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.
Note that this does not necessarily mean saying that the other person’s conclusion is right. Sometimes we are encouraged to interact with others in such a way that no one is ever said to be wrong about anything, and everyone is right, and we should all hold hands and give thanks for each other’s company. It’s a nice thought, perhaps, and of course we should always be kind and respectful to others. But we can respect others and follow Dennett’s suggested rules while still disagreeing, raising forceful objections and criticisms, and insisting that the other person’s view is false. It is tricky, to be sure, since no one ever likes being told that they are wrong. (Well, Socrates seems not to have minded.) But the truth is at stake. And if the truth matters, then we are not doing anyone any favors by saying they are right when they are not.
The trick is to show respect and even kindness while disagreeing and making clear exactly where our disagreement is. This is what Dennett’s rules are about: being fair and generous to one’s partner while also being as clear as possible about what is right, what is wrong, and why. This is the ideal of a philosophical argument.
It is one thing to understand the ideal and quite another to be good at achieving it. It is hard to be fair to those we disagree with and to refrain from making all of the unfair but devastating and clever remarks we might make at their expense. But whenever possible, we should view each argument as a trial with the very best lawyers appointed for each side. We want the “prosecution” to be aggressive in putting together the evidence and arguments for their side, and we want the “defense” also to assemble the evidence and arguments effectively for their side. Sometimes we have to switch back and forth between serving as prosecutor and as defense attorney as we try to make each side as compelling as possible.