Civility in Argument

Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Statues - Arguing MenDemocratic politics is all about argument. Hence, with the US election season upon us, expect commentators from across the spectrum to begin offering familiar lamentations regarding the sorry state of our popular political discourse. Often these critiques express a yearning for a mostly fictitious past in which opposing candidates addressed their differences of opinion by means of calm and reasoned discussion rather than with attack-ads, smear campaigns, and dirty tricks. One popular way of posing the complaint is to say that in contemporary US politics, we have lost our collective sense of civility.

We all agree that civility in political argument is an increasingly scarce good. Yet it’s not clear precisely what civility is. On some accounts, civility is equivalent to conflict aversion; one is civil insofar as one is conciliatory and irenic in dealing with one’s political opponents. Civility in this sense seeks to deal with disagreement by disposing of it. Civility of this kind is little more than a call for compromise at the expense of one’s own commitments. Hence this kind of civility might be inconsistent with actually believing anything. To be sure, compromise among clashing viewpoints is frequently a fitting avenue to pursue once argument has reached an impasse. But when taken as a fundamental virtue of argument itself, compromise is vicious.

Another prevalent account of civility is focused on the tone one takes in arguing with one’s opponents. The thought is that when arguing, one must avoid overly hostile or antagonistic language. On this view, a paradigmatic case of incivility is name-calling and other forms of expression overtly aimed at belittling or insulting on one’s opponents. Now, there is no doubt that maintaining a civil tone when arguing is generally good policy. But a civil tone is not always required, and there are occasions where aggressive language is called for. Argument is a form of confrontation, one with words instead of weapons, and any norm that prevents argument from displaying the critical edges of disagreements undercuts what inspires the argument to begin with. Furthermore, it is possible to fail at proper argumentation and yet maintain a calm and respectful tone of voice. In fact, under certain circumstances, one patronizes one’s interlocutor precisely by sustaining one’s composure. If civility of tone has a purpose, it is to maintain conditions under which proper argument can commence; thus it is not itself a component of proper argument.

In order to get a clearer view of what argumentative civility is and why it is important, we need to begin by saying something about why we argue. Argumentation is the process of articulating our reasons for holding our beliefs. The point of articulating our reasons is to put them on display so that they may be examined and evaluated. When we argue specifically in response to disagreement, we supply our reasons for the purpose of demonstrating to our interlocutor their strength, and the comparative weakness of the reasons that support opposing views. Argumentation hence has within it the idea that one should believe only what the strongest available reasons support; it is, again, the activity of supplying reasons for the purposes of testing and evaluating them. This means that arguers are committed to the possibility of finding that their reasons are weaker than they had initially thought or that their opponent’s case is in fact stronger than expected; and when one’s reasons come up short, one may have to revise one’s belief. Unless conducted against the background commitment to the possibility of revising one’s views, argumentation is pointless.

We now are able identify civility in argument with tendencies that enable the exchange of reasons among disputants. Chief among these concerns the need for those who disagree to actually engage with each other’s reasons. This requires arguers to earnestly attempt to correctly understand and accurately represent each other’s views. For similar reasons, arguers must also give a proper hearing to their opponents’ reasons, especially when the opponent is responding to criticism. In addition, when making the case for their own view, arguers must seek to present reasons that their opponents could at least in principle see the relevance of. We can summarize these ideas by saying that civility in argument has three dimensions: Representation, Reception, and Reciprocity.

To see how this framework works, consider that erecting a straw man, harping on a gaffe, or seizing on a clumsily-formulated claim by one’s interlocutor without allowing for restatement are all uncivil because they depend upon an inaccurate representation of one’s interlocutor’s view. It is also uncivil to speak over one’s opponent, or engage in behavior designed to signal overtly that you are no longer listening. Similarly, it is uncivil to simply repeat your same talking points when your interlocutor has attempted to introduce something new into the debate. And it is contrary to the point of argument to ignore good points made by your opponent. These are all failures to be receptive to your opponent’s reasons.

Finally, it is uncivil for, say, Christian opponents of same-sex marriage to offer in an argument with secular proponents of marriage equality the reason that the Bible forbids homosexual activity. This is because the secularists’ position is premised on the claim that Biblical pronouncements do not determine what the state should do. In our example, the Christian’s proposed reason could not count as a reason for the secularist. What the Bible says could of course be the Christian’s reason, and thus could help to explain why the Christian has the view she does; but in arguing we are trying not merely to explain our views to others, but to give reasons to each other. This requires us to trade in considerations that all parties to the dispute could recognize as relevant, on topic, and worth discussing.

Thus we see that civility in argument is not a matter of being nice, calm, or even polite. It instead has to do with being a sincere arguer. Civility is consistent with sharp tones, raised voices, and other forms of adversariality that would in other contexts be inappropriate. But our model of civility also holds that name-calling, impoliteness, and hostility are to be avoided when they would obstruct or undermine properly run argument.

We began with the claim that democracy is all about argument. This is all the more obviously true once we notice that in our day-to-day politics so many of argument’s imposters prevail and thrive. Proselytizers, propagandists, bullies, and manipulators must pose as arguers in order to get their jobs done. Democracy’s success depends upon our ability as a citizenry to reliably make the distinction between argument and sophistry.