Arguing to Win

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

MjAxMy1iMmRkOWFmOTdmNjRlZDFlIn the course of discussing the central themes of our recent book, Why We Argue (And How We Should), with audiences of various kinds, one kind of critical response has emerged as among the most popular. It deserves a more detailed reply than we are able to provide here; nonetheless, we want to sketch our response.

Why We Argue presents a conception of proper argumentation that emphasizes its essentially cooperative and dialectical dimension. Very roughly, our view runs as follows. The central aim of cognitive life is to believe what is true and reject what is false. We pursue this by appealing to our evidence and reasons when forming and maintaining our beliefs. Yet in pursuing this aim, we quickly encounter conflicting and inadequate evidence and reasons; furthermore, we discover that we each must rely upon other people as sources of evidence and reasons. Importantly, the others upon whom we must rely do not always speak univocally; they often provide conflicting reasons and evidence. Accordingly, in the pursuit of our central cognitive aim, we confront the inevitability of disagreement. Argumentation is the process by which we attempt to resolve disagreement rationally. Consequently, argumentation is inescapable for a rational creature like us; and the aspiration to argue properly is an indispensible corollary of our central cognitive aim.

The project of arguing well requires individuals to interact with each other in certain ways, and to avoid interacting in other ways. More specifically, in order to argue well, we must individually attempt to take the reasons, perspectives, arguments, criticisms, and objections of others seriously; we must see even those with whom we most vehemently disagree as fellow participants in the process of proper argumentation, and we must engage with them on those terms. This means, among other things, that when engaging in argument, one must seek to make the most of the reasons and considerations offered by one's opposition. Verbal tricks, insults, threats, and obfuscation are failures of argumentation, even when they prove effective at closing discussion or eliciting assent. A lot of Why We Argue (And How We Should) is devoted to cataloguing and dissecting common ways in which argumentation, especially political argumentation, fails.

So much for the nutshell version of our conception of argumentation. Let's turn now to the critical reaction it commonly invites. Critics say that our view is misguided because it cannot acknowledge the brute fact that most often we argue not to rationally resolve disagreement, but to end disagreement; and the favored way of ending disagreement is by winning an argument. Here a sports analogy is often introduced. Critics often claim that just as one plays baseball not (primarily) for the exercise, camaraderie, or the cooperative teamwork, but rather to win baseball games; so it is that when one argues, one argues to win.

What is particularly striking about this common reaction is that the idea that we argue to win is fully consistent with the view we propose. In fact, we rather like the sports analogy; indeed, it seems to us that the analogy works in favor of our conception of argumentation, not against it. Here's why. It's obvious that in order for one team to win a baseball game, a baseball game has to be played. It's also obvious that in order for a baseball game to be played, there have to be two teams playing by the same rules; if the two teams are not playing by the same rules, they are not playing the same game, and therefore neither can win. Consequently, in order for a team to win a baseball game, there first has to be a cooperative agreement among the teams to play ball; and this agreement requires that they agree to play by the same rules. When a team undertakes to play ball, but then cheats, no team can win because no game is being played. It seems, then, that the adversarial aspect of sport depends upon a prior act of cooperation among the opponents: they must both accept and play by the same rules.

Verbal combat that proceeds by way of rhetorical tricks, insults, and misdirection is not argument; therefore, no argument can be won by means of these strategies. At best, they can be deployed to end a discussion in a way that gives the appearance of winning an argument. But that's not arguing, and consequently it's not arguing to win.

Minimally, then, in order to play baseball to win, one must play ball; analogously, in order to argue to win, one must engage in argumentation. Although it emphasizes the cooperative and dialectical elements of argumentation, nothing in our conception presumes that disputants must soften or drop the adversarial stance that commonly accompanies heated disagreement. It simply recognizes that in the heat of argument, one must not lose sight of the fact that one aims to win an argument, rather than simply end a discussion.

An additional aspect of the sports metaphor should be noted. The New York Yankees could win every baseball game they ever play should they elect to play only the local Little League teams. In sports, it is widely recognized that a win against a manifestly inadequate opponent is a win that's really no win at all; in order to play to win, one must be matched with a worthy opponent. Again, we think that analogy with argumentation holds. In argumentation, one must take up with worthy opponents. Argumentative wins against confused, ill-informed, or dim-witted opposition are like Yankee wins against Little Leaguers. Arguing to win, then, brings with it a further requirement: One must play by the rules, but also one must play with the smartest proponents of the opposing positions. Anything less is not arguing to win, but merely trolling for an easy game. As a consequence, it is our responsibility to investigate the views of those with whom we disagree. The fact that there are many ill-informed people who hold a view does not mean that the view is bad, only that there are intellectually lazy people who happen to hold it. We are required to understand the best reasons supporting our opposition's views, not that many hold the worst.

This, of course seems a pretty terrible way to win an argument in the common sense of the term. But remember our ultimate goal. To seek the truth; to avoid error. That's the goal, and given that we are fallible creatures, we can't be too sure the beliefs we hold are the true ones. We have to look responsibly at the alternatives. And that's what argumentative exchange is. We owe it to ourselves and the views we hold to represent ourselves and them as best as we can, but if the views turn out false or unjustified, we owe it to the truth to change our minds. And so pursuing weak opposition and cheating to win a present argumentative exchange frustrates that enterprise. These acts merely look or play-act at good argument, and so lay their claim on the title. But they are counterfeits.