Discuss Confronting Disagreement

A cartoon showing a man and woman about to enter a meeting. The man says, “If this meeting becomes too heated, we’ll create a distraction . . . like running out the door.”

Chris Wildt/Cartoonstock

By employing the principles of accuracy and charity,and by effectively criticizing arguments, there canbe constructive disagreement that avoids heatedemotions and verbal aggression.

Mastering the skills of identifying and constructing arguments is not easy, but atthis stage you should feel fairly confident in your command of such skills. The bigtest now is how you will react when someone disagrees with your argument orwhen you disagree with someone else’s argument. Although advancing anargument does not require an interaction, as mentioned in Chapter 2,disagreements are bound to occur. Many of us likely prefer to avoiddisagreements. Indeed, many people are terrified of debating a point because theyfear offending others or worry that a debate will only bring out the worst ineveryone, quickly escalating into an emotional display of verbal aggression and“I’ll show you!” attitudes on both parts. Few truly gain from or enjoy such anexchange. This is why most people avoid addressing touchy subjects duringholiday dinners: No one wants a delicious meal to end with unpleasantness.However, few gain from allowing contested issues to go unchallenged, either,whether you are simply stewing in resentment over your uncle’s unenlightenedremark about a group of people or whether society fails to question awrongheaded direction in public policy. Not knowing how to disagree in a calm,productive manner can be quite problematic. We should recognize, however, thatsome do like the tension of the battle and find the raising of voices and the test ofquick retorts very exciting. Even so, all they gain is the confirmation that they canwin by being the loudest, most articulate, or most aggressive. Unfortunately, this isan illusion, since quieting the opposition does not amount to having convincedthem.

The solution to this common problem is threefold. The first part involves clearlyarticulating premises, examining the coherence of the argument, and identifyingthe support for each claim. This part is the most technically difficult but is alreadywithin your reach, thanks to the standard argument form. As we have discussedthroughout this book, being able to draw an argument buried underneath fillersentences, rhetorical devices, and such allows us to grasp the meaning andcoherence of what is being communicated. In this section, we will closely examineanother factor in identifying arguments: the correct interpretation of anargument. We will call this the principle of accuracy.

The second part is not technically difficult, because it is an attitude or state of mind. In ordinary idiomatic language, it is referred to as givinga person the benefit of the doubt, letting someone have his or her say, or putting suspicion aside. In other words, we should judge others andtheir ideas fairly, even if we may be less than inclined to do so. Philosophers call this attitude the principle of charity.

Finally, the third part involved in handling disagreement is developing good habits of criticism. Evaluating an argument effectively requiresunderstanding the types of objections that might be raised and how to raise them effectively. This understanding can be equally helpful inrecognizing criticisms that our own arguments may receive and criticizing opposing arguments effectively.

Applying the Principle of Accuracy

The principle of accuracy requires that you interpret the argument as close to how the author or speaker presents it as possible. Beingaccurate in your interpretation is not as easy as it may sound.

As we examined in Chapter 2, arguments are typically not presented in standard form, with premises and conclusion precisely stated.Instead, they may be drawn out over several pages or chapters or occasionally even distributed across different portions of an author’s work.In these sorts of cases, accurately interpreting an argument can require careful review of the work in which it occurs. Accurate interpretationmay require familiarity with the author’s other works and the works of other authors with similar views. Knowing an author’s broader viewscan give us a better idea of what he or she means in a specific case. Some academics spend their entire careers trying to clearly and accuratelyunderstand the work of important authors who were themselves trying to be as clear as possible.

At the other end of the spectrum, arguments can be presented in ways that give us very little to go on. A letter to the editor is short and self-contained but is often not stated clearly enough for us to really be certain about the details of the argument. If you are lucky enough to hearan argument presented verbally, you may be able to ask for clarification, but if the argument is written, then you are out of luck and have togo through the effort of attempting to figure out what the author meant to say in its best light.

As discussed in Chapter 2, it is often not only tempting but also necessary to reword or paraphrase a claim. The principle of accuracy requiresthat you exercise a lot of care in doing this. Sometimes one can unintentionally change the meaning of a claim in subtle ways that affect itsplausibility and what can be inferred from it.

In short, the principle of accuracy requires that you interpret any argument as closely as possible to the actual statement of the argumentwhile paying attention to features of context. One test for assessing whether you have correctly presented another person’s argument iswhether that person is likely to agree with your wording. This often involves making sure that you have interpreted the person favorably.

Applying the Principle of Charity

A man sitting in a chair reads a book.


Applying the principle of charity means to set asideour confidence in our expertise and to be open toentertaining the positions presented by others bydoing a fair reading of the argument provided.

The principle of charity is likewise easy to understand but harder to apply. Inbeing charitable philosophically, we seek to give our opponent (and his or hercorresponding argument) our utmost care and attention, always seeking tounderstand the position presented in its strongest and most defensible lightbefore subjecting the argument to scrutiny.

We tend to see the good in arguments that include conclusions we agree with andthe bad in arguments that include conclusions we disagree with. When someoneon our side of an issue presents an argument, we are prone to read their argumentfavorably, taking the most charitable interpretation as a matter of course. Think ofhow you respond when considering your choice for a candidate in an election. Doyou tend to interpret more favorably the words of candidates who are members ofyour own political party, those who support positions that benefit you personally,or even those whom you might find most visually appealing? Do you see positionsdifferent from yours as silly or unfounded, perhaps even immoral? If so, you mayneed to be more charitable in your interpretations. Remember that manyintelligent, sincere, and thoughtful people hold positions that are very differentfrom yours. If you see such positions as not having any basis, then it is likely youare being uncharitable. These tendencies are the manifestation of our biases (seeChapter 8), and ignoring them may lead to the entrenchment of our biases intodogmatic positions or fallacious positions. For example, if you criticize anargument based on an uncharitable interpretation, this can be considered a caseof the straw man fallacy (see Chapter 7).

Our tendency to be overly critical of arguments for positions we disagree with is deep-rooted, and it requires a lot of effort and psychologicalstrength to overcome. But the mechanics are simple: Suspend your own beliefs and seek a sympathetic understanding of the new idea orideas. The principle of charity can become a habit if we approach it methodically, as follows:

  1. Approach new or opposing ideas under the assumption that they could be true, even though our initial reaction may be to disagree.
  2. Make it a goal to understand the opponent’s argument, instead of nitpicking and looking for contradictions or weaknesses.
  3. Consider the strongest argument for the opposition instead of the weakest argument for it.

Given how difficult it can be to charitably interpret arguments, you might wonder whether it is worth the effort. However, there are goodreasons for being charitable.

First and foremost, it is important to remember that the goal of logic is not to win disputes but, rather, to arrive at the truth. We have reasonto believe that the conclusions of stronger arguments are more likely to be true than the conclusions of weaker arguments. If we wish toknow the truth of an issue, we should examine the best arguments that we can find on both sides. If we do this and notice that one side’sarguments are stronger than the other’s, then we have good reason for adopting that side of the issue. On the other hand, if we do not look atthe strongest argument available, then we will have little reason to be confident in our final decision. Being uncharitable in interpretingothers may help you score points in a dispute, but there is no reason to think that it will lead you to the truth of the matter. (For morediscussion of this important point, see Chapter 7.)

Second, by making a habit of applying the principle of charity, you develop the skills and character that will help you make good decisions. Aspeople come to recognize you as someone who is fair and charitable in discussions, you will find that they are more willing to share theirviews with you. In turn, your own views will be the product of a balanced look at all sides, rather than being largely controlled by your ownbiases.

Balancing the Principles of Accuracy and Charity

Two men having a discussion are seated opposite each other at a table.

Digital Vision/Photodisc/Thinkstock

When it is difficult to balance the principles ofaccuracy and charity, try to be more charitable inyour interpretation, especially in more informalsettings and discussions.

If arguers always presented the strongest arguments available and did so in aclear and organized fashion, there would be little problem applying the principlesof accuracy and charity. Unfortunately, we all sometimes present arguments thatare not as strong as they could or should be. In these cases the two principleswork can against each other—that is, the most charitable interpretation may notbe the most accurate.

In general, the principle of charity should be given more weight than that ofaccuracy. This is especially true when the arguments are presented in less formalsettings. By giving people the benefit of the doubt and treating their views ascharitably as possible, you will earn a reputation as someone who is moreinterested in productive discussions than in scoring points. You will have a lotmore discussions this way, and both you and the other people involved are likelyto learn a lot more. In informal settings, it is best to assume that people aremaking a stronger argument, rather than trying to hold them to precisely whatthey say.

The situation is somewhat different when interpreting arguments in academicwriting such as journal articles. Journal articles are written carefully and re

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