2 min read

What's the point in arguing?

It's good to be right when arguing. To feel vindicated. To win. To know that you were right all along.

I can remember feeling the smug satisfaction of being right after an acrimonious exchange. And the sense of shame – or loss, even – when someone proved me wrong after I insisted that I must be right.

These feelings come, in part, from a culture that views argument as an individual sport: two arguers – like two chess players – engage in battle, and the superior arguer wins the match. But winning and losing has little to do with the kinds of arguments that we should care about and prioritize: productive arguments, the ones that create knowledge or lead to effective decision-making.

One of the primary purposes of these arguments is to understand the nature of the argument itself.

You may favor the use of the death penalty, for instance. Or you may be against it. Or in favor of it in certain limited circumstances. These broad positions, however, tell us little about the nature of the death penalty issue.

Perhaps you believe that the state has no right to execute individuals or for the state to do so would be morally wrong. Perhaps you believe in moral retributive justice – that some crimes are so heinous that the criminal deserves death, and the state is the most obvious choice to perform the deed. Perhaps, like me, you are open to the idea of the death penalty, but see little evidence that it is an effective deterrent, a fair amount of evidence that it is more costly than life in prison without possibility of parole, and plenty of evidence that innocent people have been executed.

A good argument elucidates the texture of the issue, connecting evidence, examples, deduction, inferences, and other persuasive ingredients to explore what, in other areas, would be called "the problem space". The arguers don't have to walk away from the argument fully – or even partially – persuaded. But they do have to be willing to learn.

We might learn that the death penalty issue has various pillars supporting it: deterrence, the likelihood of parole and future crimes, the cost of implementing the death penalty, the risk of being wrong, the perceived moral necessity for punishments to fit crimes, how death is actually administered, and so on. We might learn about the language we use: how certain words may be inflammatory or easily misconstrued; or what our opponents actually mean when they say a certain phrase. We might learn about the person we're arguing with: the cultural and moral frameworks they're working from, prominent examples that shape their thinking, the logics they employ. We might learn about the nature of issue: by perceiving a logical inconsistency that we hadn't before; or gaining knowledge about the evidence – and the nature of the evidence – supporting a specific point. We may learn about the nature of argument itself and improve our abilities to critique other arguments and shape our own.

The point is simply that arguing has little to do with winning and everything to do with learning. The argument is a co-creation that results from the structured collaboration of the arguers. We don't just trot out arguments because we should; we shape arguments because they matter.