Rational argumentation in text
By Gennady Stolyarov II
As a writer of argumentative treatises, frequenter of Internet discussion forums, and Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator, a magazine devoted to thoroughly logical examination of any topic with intellectual value, I seek to explicate here precisely what rational argumentation entails. In particular, I seek to analyze its qualities in textual media, including books, essays, and interactive discussions via e-mail or on public forums.
These media are especially different from verbal conversation or oration, which I had discussed earlier, in the fact that the communication they offer is delayed. Unlike most conversations and speeches, which occur instantaneously before a live audience capable of producing a near-immediate response, the textual media concretize a given moment’s thought into a format which can endure for all eternity and be just as accessible to a person living ten years from now, provided that the text itself remains, as to somebody today. Furthermore, the type of response expected from the reader is far less pressured with regard to time, granting him ample leisure to understand the argument and, if he wishes, respond to it. In a conversation, if one waits a minute before answering, an awkward situation would result, if not the end of the conversation itself. In an online discussion, if one waits two days before replying, there is no problem.
However, with the increased leisure of the textual time lag comes increased responsibility. While, in conversation, for example, occasional slips of the tongue, stumbling, or misuse of grammar might be understandable given the expected rapidity of the response (though a skilled orator should be able to avoid them), in text they are unforgivable. If typos, omissions, or inadvertent errors are found in text, any party is perfectly justified in pointing them out, and can only be considered helpful in such a capacity.
Furthermore, any rational textual argumentator should be expected to explain his point of view to a far greater depth than ordinary conversation, or even a brief speech, would permit. To merely say, “I think X,” is indeed concise, but it is not rational argumentation. Rational argumentation implies saying, “I think X, and here are my reasons for thinking it…” And here I hope to give my reasons for thinking that rational argumentation entails the qualities I shall attribute to it. I shall address my advice to those who seek to become rational argumentators themselves and learn how to present their arguments with skill and profundity.
1. Do not fear complexity. Reality is complex, and so are most entities, qualities, and relationships within it. Logic, in the words of Ayn Rand, is the art of non-contradictory identification, and reason is the process which applies logic to reality. The job of reason is not to scorn, evade, or simplify complexity, but to embrace and to systematize it, for only through recognizing complexity can one accurately identify reality. To understand something is not to make it simpler than it had once seemed, but rather to rise to the level of complexity of the topic one seeks to fathom. Indeed, absolute truths are absolute because they have always been true and will always be true. To understand them, it is oneself that any argumentator or reader should seek to change and improve, not the truths themselves.
All too many people today, even those who proclaim themselves advocates of reason, seek the quick answer rather than the correct one, valuing conciseness over truth, brevity over comprehensiveness. They will not tolerate any explanation of the nature of anything, however broad the subject, that exceeds a single, short, choppy sentence composed of commonplace monosyllables. No matter what they try to make of themselves, they are not rational argumentators. They are simply lazy. Or, in the words of economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe, they have a “high time-preference,” desiring everything, including answers in a discussion, immediately and not thinking of long-term benefits and consequences. But the processes of discovery, learning, and discussion itself are, by nature, gradual and incremental. Therefore, the modern fashionably impatient reader or participant in textual discussion will, also by nature, be hostile to any manner of genuine intellectual progress and innovation, elaborated as it must be in excruciating length and depth. The person with high time-preference simply does not have time for rational argumentation (or, indeed, for anything else), because he is constantly hurrying to get everything over with, now, now, now! When examining how much knowledge and substance, or lack thereof, such a person possesses, the answer becomes readily explainable in light of his disdain for complexity and the patience which must accompany it.
The rational argumentator is the complex argumentator. When examining the nature of reality, he recognizes that, not only is it complex, but it is also structured. It is this structured complexity which he ought to present, both in the content and the form of his argument, to reflect the reality which he seeks to identify and systematize. No matter how elaborate his words and ideas, they should never be jumbled or chaotic. Quite the contrary, complexity is conducive to clarity and precision. Consider the difference between the following statements. “Earth is round” is a simple expression, and very much in error, even if the error lies solely in its ambiguity. (What does “round” even mean? Is it round like a pancake? Or round like the region near the vertex of a parabola? And are we talking about the planet Earth, or the earth beneath our feet?) “The planet Earth exhibits a spherical shape” is a much more complex expression, involving a multiplicity of concepts, yet it gives a far more precise idea of what entity one is describing, and what property one seeks to identify about it.
The only people who are either capable of rationally arguing or capable of being swayed by rational argument are those willing to spend time understanding the issues under examination, in all their structured complexity. The textual media give them all the time they need to achieve such understanding; they can begin and end their analysis at whatever moment they desire, provided that they have considered everything honestly and rigorously. There exists a bilateral responsibility here. The rational argumentator is responsible for presenting the full complexity of his ideas in a structured fashion, and his reader is responsible for earnestly and sincerely seeking to understand the full scope of the argumentator’s presentation.
If necessary, the reader can always ask questions of clarification, and the argumentator can always define his terms for ease of understanding. But neither party should ever shun complexity itself, for there is no rational justification for doing so.
2. Define all terms precisely. This was also my advice to the rational orator, but, in textual argumentation, it is of even more paramount significance. With text, one has far more space to present definitions, clarifications, and substantive asides. Indeed, for any intelligent reader, the extra space occupied should not be a distraction, but rather a constructive supplement to the core of the argument. It is always better to portray one’s case clearly and unambiguously the first time than to do so in a speedy, condensed fashion that simply begs questioning, opposition, and misinterpretation.
Most issues the argumentator discusses tend to have had a considerable amount of debate on them in times past, and there exists an entire menagerie of standard, superficial ways a given discussion can go, which have already been tried a hundred times to no avail. An Objectivist, when claiming, for example, that he considers selfishness the only true morality, is often barraged with accusations that such a value system implies justifying “stepping over other people” and depriving them of their rights. Counterarguments can become as ridiculous as the accusation that the Objectivist would be willing to support genocide. If the Objectivist took care to define selfishness beforehand as a moral code which advocates neither sacrificing oneself for others nor sacrificing others for oneself, then such misinterpretations on the part of the opposition would not even arise. Certainly, opponents of selfishness might challenge it with other arguments better aimed at the Objectivist definition, but at least those are far more likely to be unique, interesting, and worth responding to. Clear initial definitions prevent debates from following roads already over-trodden.
3. Address arguments of the opposition. The surest way to land in the unpleasant situation of engaging in an already tried debate is to keep to only one level of argument and counterargument. Consider the following debate:
Hawk: I am a patriotic American and believe that we need to stay in Iraq. This is a campaign to stop terror where it originates, and to spread principles of freedom throughout the world.
Dove: There is no purpose in staying in Iraq. Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror, and no weapons of mass destruction have been found, and we have no business imposing our principles on the rest of the world.
Hawk: You are being unpatriotic. Why do you not support our efforts to go on the offensive against terrorism, especially when so many people have benefited from America’s enforcement of freedom in other countries?
Dove: The war in Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism! And the initial justification was Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, which he did not have. And what gives you the right to say what is proper for other countries?
Both sides’ argumentation in this mini-debate has been unconvincing and repetitive. In terms of content, the second pair of statements was identical to the first, with the distinguishing feature of escalated emotional antagonisms on both sides. This is so because both sides have refused to narrow in on the precise points the opposition has made and instead consider restating their original points as exempting them from the burden of rational examination. This is no mere caricature. I have heard approximately this same debate for the past two years in the mainstream media, including the press, and have been appalled that only a few “fringe” intellectuals on both sides have ever dared to delve any deeper into the controversy. Let us examine how this debate can be improved:
Hawk: I am a patriotic American and believe that we need to stay in Iraq. This is a campaign to stop terror where it originates, and to spread principles of freedom throughout the world.
Dove: What do you mean by a “patriotic American”? Can one be a patriotic American and still oppose the war in Iraq, if he believes opposition to be more in accord with America’s founding principles? Furthermore, I do not see any direct links between Iraq and al Qaeda, therefore, I consider Iraq to be an entirely different situation from the war on terror. As for principles of freedom, how can we consistently impose freedom through force?
Hawk: A patriotic American is somebody who supports policies that protect the inalienable rights of Americans against aggression, foreign and domestic. Terrorists, rogue regimes, and dictators inherently threaten those rights. If you fail to see the Iraq/al Qaeda link, where did Abu al-Zarqawi come from? Is he not an al Qaeda terrorist operating a vast network in Iraq? Do you think he could truly have appeared overnight after the American occupation began? What about reports of Saddam’s support for Palestinian suicide bombers, or his officials’ meetings with the 9/11 hijackers? As for “imposing” principles of freedom, we are doing no such thing. We have merely removed the coercive presence of Saddam Hussein, which was stifling the ability of Iraqis to autonomously make their decisions. We have the right to do this by Locke’s theory of government. Whenever a government violates its mandate to protect the rights of all of its citizens, it becomes the right of any party, ourselves included, to alter or abolish that government.
I would post the Dove’s response, as I would have made it (although I am a Hawk), but it would occupy half a page. As can be seen, each subsequent response becomes longer and more complex than the last, as more specific claims are investigated in greater depth, new facts and theories are introduced, and the controversy is allowed to develop to a point where substantive discussion, as opposed to back-and-forth hurling of the same party line, is possible. Indeed, the Dove now has quite a task before him: he needs to show that his view is also in line with the definition of patriotism; to demonstrate that the facts the Hawk raised concerning al-Zarqawi, suicide bombers, and meetings with the hijackers are insufficient to implicate Saddam as a terror sponsor; and to address the Hawk’s rejoinder concerning the removal of coercive force and Locke’s theory of government. Certainly, the Dove would need to be an intelligent thinker, not a one-sentence-hollering street protester, to be able to prevail in this argument. The Hawk would also need to be quite ready to respond in a focused, targeted manner to whatever claims the Dove raises.
The fact is, anybody can throw at anybody else the second-hand mantras absorbed every day from major newspapers and television channels. This does not make such people rational argumentators. The rational argumentator is the original argumentator, and needs to engage in original, hitherto unseen, further unrepeatable debate. The best way to make an original debate is to consider its unique context: the fact that the person one is debating against is an individual in himself, rather than the “standard Hawk” or the “standard Dove” (such people do not exist). Different individuals know different facts, hold different value premises, and can rationally, honestly hold quite different systematic worldviews. To address the views of one’s particular opponent, rather than the “standard” anything in a debate is to ensure almost with certainty that the debate will indeed be unique and valuable. In text, especially, there is always ample room to pick out the subtleties in one’s opponent’s argument and to elaborate on the specifics of one’s own.
There are different formats for properly responding to an opposing argument. One can cite the argument verbatim, and then offer a response afterward. Or, if one is confident that one interprets the other side correctly, one can summarize the opponent’s argument in one’s own words, as the Hawk had done in my example of an improved debate. This is called the point-by-point response strategy, and it is the hallmark of a rational argumentator who seeks to structure the debate in all of its complexity.
It is also possible to isolate a fundamental flaw which encompasses multiple opposition arguments, and to point out the flaw itself, while rationally demonstrating why it is false. The pitfall to avoid in such a strategy is over-generalization. If one claims that arguments A, B, C, and D share the same underlying error, a point-by-point response to each of the arguments is still necessary. The argumentator needs to show how, specifically, A, B, C, and D each demonstrate the same error. If the argumentator simply writes, “The arguments are all flawed in the same way,” without showing how this is true, he is merely making an assertion, not an argument. Thus, there is no way for a debater to rationally avoid referring to specific opposing claims made.
4. When citing, include actual information. One of the worst mistakes an argumentator can make is to bring up an external source (be it a fact, a theory, or an author) and not show how precisely that source relates to the particular argument being made. Just saying, “Ayn Rand proves that I am right” gives absolutely no useful information to the reader, and does not advance one’s claim one bit. One needs to mention what Ayn Rand wrote on the subject, how she proved what she proved, and why this necessarily implies that one’s argument is right. It might be instructive to post quotations and links to online information, or to simply summarize the argument oneself. There is always space to do this in a textual discussion, and not to do so implies one of two mindsets. Either one simply does not see the necessity of justifying with rational argument the applicability of any fact or authority one cites, or one thinks that everybody simply has to agree with his precise interpretation of the fact or what the authority wrote, and somebody who does not agree is not worthy of seeing the evidence. Only irrational argumentators have something to fear from not being transparent about their sources, since, if they gave more actual information about what they cited, they might find that what they cited disagrees with their contentions. Instead, such individuals would use citations not as arguments, but as intimidators, claiming, “This fact/authority supports my argument, and, in opposing my argument, you are ignoring or evading this fact/authority.” Usually, the argumentator to whom this is addressed is doing nothing of the sort. He might not dispute the fact/authority at all, but only the particular beliefs and interpretations of his adversary. Quite the contrary, it is likely the claimant of such a thing who ignores or evades his own cited fact/authority by failing to say anything substantive about it.
Unlike a speech, where citing too much specific information (such as the date of an article’s publication, or the edition of the book a passage was taken from) would be an unnecessary distraction for the main arguments, in textual argumentation, it is far more desirable to give the opponent and the audience full access to one’s claimed resources, so that they might examine such sources on their own merits. Thus, more extensive citations and information on how to access the source ought to be welcomed.
5. Keep the argumentative and the personal realms separate. This implies both a reticence about one’s own personal affairs and a hesitancy to make insults and personal accusations against others. If, for example, in a debate on smoking, argumentator A claims that smoking is immoral, and argumentator B responds by saying that he, personally, smokes, B is setting himself up for an unpleasant situation, even for an accusation that he is personally immoral. Instead, B should defend the morality of smoking (his position, not mine) on a theoretical, universal level, valid for all individuals and not having the danger of lapsing into personal insults and indignations.
There are two possible realms of conversation, the abstract and the personal. Textual argumentation should always concern the abstract, even if the argument is about activities that some people choose to undertake in their private lives, such as smoking, alcohol consumption, drug use, romance, marriage, abortion, or euthanasia. A properly abstract argument might be: “People who support abortion fail to recognize that abortion is murder.” It is sufficiently general to avoid any accusations against one’s opponent. An improperly personal claim, on the other hand, might be: “You support abortion, therefore, you are a murderer.” Most people who support abortion have never themselves had or performed one, and, even as an opponent of abortion, I would grant them the benefit of politely examining their argument and then responding to it as abstractly as I would to a disagreement on ontology or epistemology.
If the argumentative and personal realms are kept apart, and the personal not introduced into the text, it becomes possible to engage in the widest possible scope of debate without destroying the prospects for further discussion. Under this premise, all ideas become fair game, and it becomes permissible to utterly devastate the entirety of one’s opponent’s claims while remaining impeccably polite and respectful of the adversary’s intelligence and privacy. The only time it is justified to make a personal accusation is when the other argumentator initiates improper conduct, such as beginning to use insults and expletives in a public forum. Then, it is permissible to reprimand him for the impropriety and irrationality of his conduct, but not to descend to the same level. Indeed, if there were a debater’s code of chivalry, the above would be it.
Consider readership, also. Rational readers are not interested in seeing how X and Y mock and harass each other back and forth via text. Nor are they interested in learning private details about X and Y’s lives. (And X and Y should be embarrassed to document these petty feuds and intimacies for all posterity to look at.) They are interested in abstract, universal arguments which they can apply to their own conditions, no matter what the particulars of their lives might be.
Truly rational argumentation is a demanding task that only truly thoughtful, erudite, principled individuals can undertake. There are no shortcuts in arguing properly, just as there are no shortcuts in properly understanding reality. There is no means of evading complexity without being simplistic. There is no means of avoiding ambiguity without definitions. There is no way to enjoy a unique and productive debate without addressing the opposition’s claims. There is no way to gain the support of facts and theories without actually stating what those facts and theories entail. And there is no way to argue in an enlightened fashion while having the manners of Eminem (though I might even be unfair to Eminem when comparing his behavior to some of the discussions seen on forums these days). Textual media are convenient, even leisurely, but, if one wishes to craft through them an argument valid for all eternity, one needs to take the necessary intellectual responsibility for creating text worthy of lasting that long.
G. Stolyarov II is a science fiction novelist, independent philosophical essayist, poet, amateur mathematician, composer, contributor to The Autonomist, Le Quebecois Libre, and The Liberal Institute. He is also Editor-in-Chief of The Rational Argumentator , a magazine championing the Western principles of reason, rights, and progress. Learn about Mr. Stolyarov's newest science fiction novel, Eden against the Colossus, here and his newest non-fiction treatise, A Rational Cosmology, here . Mr. Stolyarov can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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