Jean-Paul Sartre refused to eat lobsters because they resembled giant insects. Fresh fruit and vegetables, he felt, were also too…
Not all arguments are created equal. Many aren’t even arguments at all. Even utterances that appear to be advancing a rational argument might prove to be little more than subjective opinion, ungrounded speculation, emotive ejaculations or assertions backed by little more than blind faith.
You can’t engage in a rational argument against such utterances and expect to win. The good news is that you don’t have to tackle non-arguments head on. The answer? Simply disqualify non-arguments from the conversation altogether.
Clearly, you can’t do this via non-arguments of your own; invective might feel like a satisfying response but it turns you into the very thing you oppose. Rather, you can set the bar for what qualifies as rational discourse, and if your opponent refuses to agree to clear that bar, then they disqualify themselves from the conversation.
Rational discourse is like a social contract. The stipulations of the contract have been decided over millennia of reflection on the nature of reasoning and good argumentation. Of course, not all conversations need to adhere to the rules of this contract – a discussion of the relative merits of your preferred sports team or musings on what to make for dinner, for example – but as soon as you tackle an issue about which there is a fact of the matter, then it is prudent to follow these rules. Anything less is table thumping.
But how to set the bar? Well, there are a few simple guidelines. The veracity of a rational argument depends on the reasons given in its support. These reasons in turn must contain no contradictions and commit no logical fallacies. Where factual claims are made, there must be evidence in support of them. There must be no traces of irrationality, such as influence from biases or justification by virtue of faith. And there must be honesty about what is genuinely motivating the reasons supporting any assertion.
It’s useful to ask your opponent whether anything – be it reason or evidence – could change their mind. If the answer is ‘no’, then they disqualify themselves from rational discourse. (The same applies to you – while arguing you should try to channel British analytic philosopher Bertrand Russell, who famously said: “I would never die for my beliefs… because I might be wrong.”) It is also important to always leave the door open for your opponent to re-enter rational discourse at any time, providing they agree to clear the bar.
The beauty of this approach – and the miracle of rational discourse – is that when you engage in it you can never lose. Even if your argument is shown to be flawed in some way, then that realisation will only take you closer to the truth. Either way, you win.