Must Argument Be Adversarial?

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

One way to think about argument is to think of it as a fight. In fact, it’s the default interpretation of how things went if someone reports that they’d had an argument with a neighbor or a colleague. If it’s an argument, that means things got sideways.

In logic, though, arguments are distinguished from fights and quarrels. Arguments, as collections of claims, have a functional feature of being divisible into premises and conclusions (with the former supporting the latter), and they have consequent functional features of being exchanges of reasons for the sake of identifying outcomes acceptable to all. So arguments play both pragmatic and epistemic roles – they aim to resolve disagreements and identify what’s true. The hope is that with good argument, we get both.

If argument has that resolution-aspiring and truth-seeking core, is there any room for adversariality in it? There are two reasons to think it has to. One has to do with the pragmatic background for argument – if it’s going to be in the service of establishing a resolution, then the resolved sides must have had fair and complete representation in the process. Otherwise, it’s resolution in name only. That seems clear.

The second reason has to do with how reasons work in general.

Consider the thought that reasons for something regularly play a sorting role between a specified range of alternatives. For example, the evidence that your friend is having iced tea with her lunch is that she has a tall glass of light brown liquid in front of her. But that’s because that evidence distinguishes iced tea from water, a soda, or coffee. But notice that it doesn’t distinguish it from Long Island Iced Tea, which looks just like iced tea, but is a very different lunch drink. You’d need other evidence to tell those two apart. Hence that evidence of what the drink looks like is evidence only against a certain class of possibilities, but it’s not evidence when there are other possibilities under consideration.

Consider another case, but this time with practical reasons. You’re deliberating about where to go for dinner – it’s late and you’re hungry. The curry place that’s in the neighborhood is preferable to the curry place that’s further away. But if you’re deliberating between the curry place in the neighborhood and the burger place also in the neighborhood, the fact that they are in the neighborhood doesn’t really matter either way. So, that the restaurant is in the neighborhood is a reason when it distinguishes one place from another, but it’s not a reason when it doesn’t. That’s how reasons work.

This contrastive role of reasons seems pretty intuitive, and it pays all sorts of other dividends when it comes to explaining how reasons can have the bite they should have in some cases but not others. But here, we are concerned only with its dividends in the adversariality debate. The thought is simply that reasons must have contrastive force, and that contrastive force comes only when you’re sorting between contrary options. Structural adversariality is writ into the nature of reasons, how they work and how we deploy them. You don’t need a person occupying the position of the contrary position, but rather you just need to think out what that position is and what reasons could count in favor of or against it.

Think of the way we really master concepts and ideas. We see debates about them, or we learn about their histories and see their developments and what reasons refined them into the form they have now. That’s contrastive work, the work of structural adversariality refining down what the concept is and should be, given the role it is playing in sorting some range of possibilities from others.

There is plenty of pushback to this idea that argument is intrinsically adversarial, and it’s worth thinking through two of the most influential forms this thought takes. The first is that if argument is adversarial, then there is no ground to distinguish argument from the mere quarrels we’d thought argument was different from. The second is that if we think of argument as adversarial, then that thought will have bad consequences for how we argue. Those are distinct but clearly related criticisms, and we’ll address them in order.

The first objection is that if argument is like battle, then since all’s fair in love and war, all’s fair in argument. Thus, cases of name-calling, exclusion, and general misconduct are not in principle criticizable from this perspective. Adversariality in argument is the problem, and identifying it as the core of argument makes the problem with the practice the practice.

Our reply is that saying that argument is intrinsically adversarial isn’t to say that adversariality is all there is to argument, only that argument must have this adversarial edge of sorting contrary views. Note that nothing about that role for reasons requires (or even encourages) that the sorting be done with hate or mockery. In fact, the key is that adversariality itself here helps identify when the reasons given really are justifying reasons, because it’s in that contrastive role that the reason’s force is revealed. Without the contrasts, it’s not clear how the reasons pick anything out. And, in fact, the rules of adversarial exchange allow us to identify when there are errors of the performance – just as sporting contests have fouls, so do argumentative clashes.

The second objection is that if we think that argument is adversarial, then we’ll prime ourselves for improper performance in these exchanges. As we see it, this objection is an instance of what we’d called a version of the Owl of Minerva Problem for philosophical reflection – that refinements of our concepts create new hazards in our deployment of those concepts. In this regard, we think the objection is close to right – focusing on the adversarial edge of argument can distort how we argue, and thus can yield improper performance. So thinking that argument is about winning can yield the temptation to straw man the opposition or to refuse to hear their arguments.

Our reply is that this is where the tools proposed by those who think that argument isn’t adversarial are useful. Those who’ve proposed other metaphors for argument – barn raising, mutual interrogation, cooperative inquiry – provide us with ways to refocus ourselves on the shared practice of argument and the value our deliberation together adds to it. Just as focusing on how and why one is friends with another person can mitigate the temptation to escalate a disagreement, the same holds with argument. It’s important to remind ourselves that there are goods on the docket beyond being recognized as right or winning a particular exchange. We share a culture, we have a relationship, and we want to see ourselves as fair and open-minded. Those things matter, and some metaphors of argument are better at refocusing our attention on the things that prevent us from escalating the argument. But these tools have their use only because they obviate the escalations that argument’s intrinsic adversariality inclines us toward.

The result is that we think that argument really is intrinsically adversarial, but it’s good not to focus on that feature but rather on other ways argument can be cooperative or on the relationships we maintain in the background of the disagreement. That’s a double-mindedness that may seem impossible, but it’s no more difficult to maintain than the double-mindedness we must have when we appreciate the ‘creative tension’ between artists or excellent competing athletes. And it is akin to the regard we have with our own thoughts when we think that the norms of critical thinking must be applied to them – we think our beliefs are true, otherwise we wouldn’t believe them, but we must also think that we haven’t got all true beliefs, since we need to think critically about how we’ve formed them. The good thing about argument, of course, is that we outsource that critical reflection to our critics. And in that respect, we should be thankful to them for being our critical adversaries.