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How to Argue With People

“Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula….in matters of immortality everyone has the same self-righteous conviction.” – Ernest Becker

My wife and I had a conversation recently about how to talk to someone on a topic about which they disagreed. She and this person had many discussions on the topic but couldn’t seem to move toward any sort of a resolution. Both she and this other person had strong views with neither being clearly right or wrong and she asked how to change the context of the discussion so they could get beyond their impasse. I’ve taught logic for many years but in many cases, being “more logical” isn’t really the problem. Both she and the other person were making logical arguments.

The situation in which she found herself involved a lot of different factors including personality, background beliefs, how ideas were presented, and, of course, the rationality of what they both were saying. As I thought of the feedback I’d offer, I found myself drawing from my philosophical training but also my nearly two decades of experience as a manager at one of the top tech firms in the world. Working with very smart and passionate people means you’re constantly having to navigate disagreements to resolve them in the best way possible.

While every argument is as unique as the people having them and there is no cut-and-dried approach that will “always work” in finding a resolution, there are, I think, some general strategies that can at least help make a conversation more productive--or at least more interesting.

What Is an Argument?

“When ideas fail, words come in very handy.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

The term “argument” may invoke the image of a type of heated discussion where two people are angry with each other and use strong words and loud voices to make a point. In philosophy, an argument has the formal meaning of presenting a truth claim (the conclusion of your argument) that is supported by reasons (the premises of your argument). In rhetoric, which is the art of persuasion, this is the logos or logic or content of the argument. You’ll notice that this definition doesn’t necessarily include a disagreement or even a discussion: someone wants to convince somebody of something and presents an argument with the other person listening to the evidence and hopefully being convinced of the truth of the conclusion. But things are not so easy in the real world. Most of us don’t have willing listeners waiting anxiously to learn what we have to say so they can be convinced. On many topics, people have views of their own and are ready to present counter-arguments and this is where things can get sticky.

While logic is a central and important aspect of argumentation, when there is a disagreement, we have to think about how we position ourselves and our ideas relative to the other person or people with whom we’re arguing so that our discussion is the most fruitful it can be. Sometimes these elements are referred to as the ethos and pathos of an argument. Jonathan Haidt, in his powerful book1 The Righteous Mind (affiliate link) argues--yes, argues--that reason alone isn’t up to the task of helping us navigate many contentious social discussions. In fact, this is a central theme of his book. He writes, “…reason is not fit to rule; it was designed to seek justification, not truth.” In his book, he gives some anecdotal research data that suggests that people that reason heavily about specific topics are no more inclined to have improved behaviors relative to those topics (he uses moral philosophers as an example). Knowing all the sound arguments for a specific course of action is not the key to actually behaving differently. His conclusion:

Anyone who values truth should stop worshipping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast research literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. (Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (p. 104). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.)

A quote from the English theologian G.K. Chesterton has stuck with me in this regard: “The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.” (see here for context). To get an argument on more fruitful ground then involves logic, yes, but also a host of other disciplines and strategies.

The first step may be to change the way the argument is framed.

Framing an Argument

“I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.” – Steven Wright

When we think of arguing with someone, even when we’re arguing philosophy, we tend to think of the dialogue as a kind of competition. I have an idea I believe is true and my goal is to convince the other person that I’m right and they’re wrong. They may have the same goal. It’s you against the other person and him or her against you. In many situations, if we can re-frame how we think about the discussion, it can change the way we approach our argument and how we listen to theirs. Consider this approach: frame the argument as a mystery to be solved rather than a competition to be won. The idea is that you place both you and your interlocutor on the same side of the discussion and you’re both in pursuit of the same truth or the one idea on which you can agree. Think of it as the both of you against ignorance. I’ll call this “The Socratic Stance” after the philosopher Socrates who cared more about getting to the truth than he did about winning an argument.

Now this framing requires that both of you agree that you might not know some things and you both need to learn together. You both have to agree that you want to get to the truth of an idea about which you both can agree and you pursue this as a common goal. Sometimes philosophers talk about this as adopting a “defeasible” position towards our ideas. This simply means we adopt the position that we may be wrong and we acknowledge that each of us has cognitive biases that may affect our judgment of facts. If you both adopt this view, then it becomes easier to pursue the “right” idea together (even if it ends up being the original idea that one of you had). This isn’t to suggest that you and the person or people you’re arguing with shouldn’t have strong views on a topic or that you won’t argue for a specific side. It just means that you both adopt a defeasible stance on your views and work to find the truth together through the process of argumentation.2

Avoiding Brick Walls

“He has Van Gogh’s ear for music” – Billy Wilder

One other point is worth considering before we look at some strategies. We have to evaluate whether both people in the discussion really are after truth or if they just want to bully and to get their way. If the latter, discussion can be almost impossible.

Philosopher Robert McKim provides us with some character qualities to look for when attempting to dialogue with someone and I think they’re crucial to applying the re-framing approach I suggest above. Generally you can have the most fruitful discussion with people that, in McKim’s language, are “intelligent, clever, honest, reflective, and serious, who avoid distortion, exaggeration, and confabulation, who admit ignorance when appropriate, and who have relied on what have seemed to them to be the relevant considerations in the course of acquiring their beliefs.” (Robert McKim, Religious Diversity and Religious Ambiguity (affiliate link), p. 129) Of course a lot of the adjectives that McKim uses to describe this ideal person are subjective. What does it mean to be ‘intelligent’ or ‘reflective’? Even so, I think the general idea is that you will have the most success getting to truth if you’re arguing with people that have the same goal and the intellectual and emotional tools to pursue it (and that you yourself possess these virtues as well). If this isn’t the case, then some work may need to be done before you can start a fruitful discussion.3

Similarly, Dr. Paul Herrick, in his excellent text book Think with Socrates (affiliate link), writes, “Critical thinkers are therefore not people who have eliminated all cognitive biases from their minds. Rather, they are people who have learned how biases can affect their thinking and, having attained this awareness, continually examine their beliefs and test them against reality in order to minimize the effects of unconscious bias.” (Paul Herrick, Think with Socrates: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Oxford University Press, p. 115) That, I think, is a disposition McKim is after as well.

How to Argue: Six Strategies

Okay, so you’ve done a quick bias check. You and your interlocutor agree that you want to get to the truth of the matter you’re discussing, and you both seem to be reasonable, honest people not prone to exaggeration or distortion. You plow into the discussion but seem to make little progress. If you’re someone in the legal profession or find sport in a knock-down, drag-out argument, you may enjoy these types of sparring matches. But many of us, I suspect, want our conversations to lead somewhere that gets us closer to something we can act upon. To that end, the following six strategies are tools we can use to to help accomplish that. I don’t offer them as an exhaustive list by any means. But I have found these to be strategies that I use most often and help me have the most effective conversations.

1. Have a little empathy

“If two persons picture the same thing, each still has his own idea.” – Gottlob Frege

Recognize that the person or people you’re arguing with have their own beliefs and desires that may be as “valid” as yours. This may seem obvious but in the heat of a good argument, it can become easy to get into the mindset that our own beliefs and desires are somehow superior or better grounded or more worth fighting for than those of the person with whom we’re arguing. Of course it’s natural and probably appropriate that we think our ideas are correct. But it helps to remember that the other person thinks the same about their ideas. This is really about the ability to relate to another person in a genuine and authentic way.

2. Be aware of hidden biases

“With most men, unbelief in one thing springs from blind belief in another.” – Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

As mentioned above, we all have biases. Some we’re aware of and others we’re not. This strategy is less about watching everything we say and more about adopting an attitude of learning simply because we may have deep-seated assumptions, background beliefs and a host of other psychological tricks that may literally block us from seeing another point of view clearly. Haidt writes in this regard:

Psychologists now have file cabinets full of findings on ‘motivated reasoning,’ showing the many tricks people use to reach the conclusions they want to reach. When subjects are told that an intelligence test gave them a low score, they choose to read articles criticizing (rather than supporting) the validity of IQ tests. When people read a (fictitious) scientific study that reports a link between caffeine consumption and breast cancer, women who are heavy coffee drinkers find more flaws in the study than do men and less caffeinated women. (Haidt p. 98)

Taking this further (and in one of his more cynical moments), Haidt claims that modern technology has given us the means to justify almost any position we wish to hold. Regardless of the position we want to take, we can find a body of people on the Internet that will help us justify our beliefs. He writes,

And now that we all have access to search engines on our cell phones, we can call up a team of supportive scientists for almost any conclusion twenty-four hours a day. Whatever you want to believe about the causes of global warming or whether a fetus can feel pain, just Google your belief. You’ll find partisan websites summarizing and sometimes distorting relevant scientific studies. Science is a smorgasbord, and Google will guide you to the study that’s right for you. (Haidt, pp. 99-100)

Nicholas Nassim Taleb seems to concur. Taleb talks about how the famous mathematician Benoit B. Mandelbrot needed to “invent his predecessors” in order to get his ideas into the public square. While Taleb claims this can be necessary—even for sound arguments—in order to get people to accept what you’re saying, I think it gives weight to the reality of the “confirmation bias” that we’re all pre-disposed to at some level. Taleb quotes Mandelbrot:

‘I had to invent my predecessors, so people take me seriously,’ he once told me, and he used the credibility of big guns as a rhetorical device. One can almost always ferret out predecessors for any thought. You can always find someone who worked on a part of your argument and use his contribution as your backup. (Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: Second Edition: The Impact of the Highly Improbable (Incerto) (affiliate link), Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition, p. 256)

Being aware that we have these biases and being aware that we may largely be unaware of which ones are at work in our thinking on a topic can go a long way in helping us be more open to other ideas. In fact, we may want to be open to a radical idea just because we find ourselves so strongly opposed. When we find ourselves in this state of mind, we might want to consider that a bias (or two) may be at work.

3. Be clear on what the argument is about

“To the hard of hearing you shout and for the almost-blind you draw large, startling pictures.” – Flannery O’Connor

Is what you’re arguing for a belief or opinion? Is it a desire—something you’re not sure is true or false but something you want to to be true? Is the claim evidential or logical? Is it something you believe is factual and for which you can produce evidence? I’ve found that sometimes I or the other person aren’t really aware of what it is that we’re actually trying to claim and that ends up causing a lot of confusion and wasting a lot of time.

In order to achieve clarity, the Socratic method can be really helpful. This involves asking a lot of questions before digging in on your position. I like to ask “meta-questions”: Why do you care about this? What do you see as the implications of your view? Are you able to articulate the opposing viewpoint and the things that motivate those that hold that viewpoint?

This last set of questions is particularly important. When I settle on a particular position (say in a political argument), I always ask myself if I really understand not only the factual claims of the other position but why someone might hold it. Many times, I realize I actually have no idea what the other side really is saying—I know sound bites or caricatures of the position. And many times I don’t take the time to understand why a person would argue for that position; what motivates them. Getting this on the table in a discussion can take the air out of latent antagonism that may be present and help move the conversation in the right direction because it helps reduce the chance that both of you will be attacking straw men.

One discipline that can help correct for this problem is to spend time actually attempting to adopt the position of the other person and taking their side in the argument. This involves a genuine effort to find the best possible version of their argument, internalizing it, and attempting to actually make the argument yourself. This can be extremely challenging particularly for ideas about which you strongly disagree or believe are patently false (this, by the way, is an example of where McKim’s advice is important: if you believe you’re talking with someone that has the virtues McKim talks about, it can help to prevent you from dismissing the view without really considering it).

As a way of testing whether you’ve really understood the idea, you may restate the argument back to a person who holds it to see if you have it right. If you’re cynical or if you overstate or understate part of the argument, or if you neglect important evidence, the other person will let you know. When you can fully articulate the other person’s argument without complaint from them, then you most likely have really internalized their position and that gives you an excellent starting point from which to have a discussion.

4. Get to first principles

“No science ever defends its first principles.” -- Aristotle

I find that many arguments tend to focus on second-order topics: the actions of a politician, the policy of a company, the behavior of a neighbor. Few seem ever to get to the principles or philosophy that support either the criticism of or agreement with those arguments. A first-principles approach to a conversation is when we work to understand the foundational principles the argument is grounded on rather than symptoms that are expressions of those ideas.

For example, an argument may start out discussing the actions of a given politician–politicians tend to foster group solidarity or deep party affiliation. But what we really tend to care about (hopefully) is the implication of the actions of that politician or the moral or political philosophy that grounds those actions. It may be the case that you and the other person actually agree on the core principle but one of you believes the actions of the politician is the best way to implement that principle and other doesn’t. Here’s an admittedly simplified example but one I hope will illustrate the point.

Open the gates or build a wall?

Suppose a politician comes out strongly against illegal immigration. Two interlocutors, Bob and Sue have different views on this position. Bob supports the politician, arguing that the politician has the best interests of the country at heart. Sue is deeply opposed to the position arguing that the politician is painting with too broad a brush and needs to consider those looking for a better life. The argument may go like this:

Bob: Senator Johnson’s view on immigration helps citizens here without having to spend resources on people that are in this country illegally.

Sue: But many people are in horribly toxic and poor situations in their home country and are just looking for a way out. Others just want to work and get paid a decent wage. Senator Johnson’s views on this are inhumane.

Bob: Why is this country responsible for their situation? I feel for them but Johnson cares about the needs of our own citizens. We have terrible health care, our infrastructure is failing, and we are going into more debt each year and Johnson wants to fix all that. One way is to curb illegal immigration.

Sue: Well, first a lot of the the work being done to keep this country going is done by immigrants and Johnson seems oblivious to that. Second, we are a wealthy nation and have more resources than many poor nations. Johnson should want to help those in need.

Bob: Her first responsibility is to the citizens of this country. She shouldn’t be voting for policy that de-prioritizes that.

Sue: That just sounds so callous. If she understood the hardship many face around the world, Johnson would be more open to people trying to get in.

Bob: Oh, she’s open—as long as people come into this country legally.

This conversation may go on and on this way with each person promoting their ‘side’ but never moving the conversation towards something that fosters learning and growth for either person. Bob and Sue may start quoting facts and figures to support their view and bring in evidence that they believe “logically” shows their position to be the right one. But the conversation doesn’t seem to make progress. Part of the problem is that Bob and Sue are arguing for their position based on the actions of the politician rather than identifying foundational principles they actually both might care about. Here’s another version of that conversation that is focused on first principles:

Sue: Why do you think Senator Johnson’s position is reasonable?

Bob: Because a strong stance against illegal immigration can help reserve resources for our own citizens and those that come into this country legally.

Sue: Okay, so what is the value you’re after? What is it that you think this position accomplishes?

Bob: Well, I think it means that the people paying the taxes reap the benefit of those taxes. That seems fair to me and that’s something I value.

Sue: Fair enough. I can agree that this important. Do you think that there can be some benefit from immigration in general?

Bob: Of course! I know this country was built by people that came into this country from all over the world. What I’m against is the illegality of the situation.

Sue: I’m against illegal activities too. But wouldn’t you agree that the legal immigration process is so time consuming and expensive that if every person coming into this country had to go through legal channels, a lot of the current work force that we rely on to benefit the citizens of this country would disappear overnight?

Bob: I do get that yes. I’m thankful that there are people willing to do the jobs that help the country run. I just want the process to be legal and the people doing the work to pay taxes like the rest of us.

Sue: And would you also agree that some people are in crisis situations and there should be recourse to help those in emergency situations?

Bob: Yes, in principle. But there are a lot of complexities around that and I’d want to ensure that we have a process that protects our own citizens while helping those in genuine need.

Sue: I do too. So is there a middle ground where both can happen? Instead of Johnson’s course-grained, hard-core stance, can we maybe find a politician willing to revamp the immigration process making it easier for good people willing to work hard and pay taxes and to quickly and reasonably evaluate those in distress so they get into this country legally?

Ben: I can get behind that, yes.

The issues being discussed here are complex and while this dialogue is over-simplified in the extreme, it’s intent is to illustrate the method of this strategy. What Sue does here is adopt the Socratic Stance and seemed genuinely interested in Bob’s position with the goal of determining whether they can find areas on which they agreed. Her strategy was to ask questions rather than make statements. This form of “argumentation” seeks first to learn about the first principles of the other person and then make claims that supported her own position but in a way that gets them both closer to a truth “out there” that they both could agree to.

5. Find edge cases and work your way in

"He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire." – Winston Churchill

One of the best strategies I’ve found for moving a conversation forward is to find edge cases that help to uncover the boundaries of the positions each person holds. This strategy is closely related to strategy 4 but is more about technique rather than content. This strategy can help you find first principles. The goal is to determine exactly where your position and the other person’s differ. Once you find that boundary, you can get closer to the ideas on which you disagree. Many times, the area of disagreement is fairly narrow and once you discover it, you can spend your time on the finer points.

The other side of this strategy is that you’re attempting to find areas on which you do agree. If you’re narrowing down the topics on which you disagree, then you’re probably finding some areas on which you agree. Dr. Herrick, in his fine logic text, Introduction to Logic, calls this “finding common ground.” In a section titled, “Four Steps to Building a Good Argument” he questions what we should do if someone doesn’t accept the premises (the reasons we’re giving to support the claim we’re making) of our argument. He writes, “… if you want to reason effectively with another person, you should begin with premises that you and the other person both accept as true. Otherwise, you might be wasting everyone’s time.” (Paul Herrick, Introduction to Logic, Oxford University Press, p. 33). Finding the boundaries of your disagreement can help accomplish this. Here’s an example.

Music, Mowing, Macanudos, and More

Suppose you believe your neighbor tends to make too much noise after a reasonable hour and you need to have a conversation about what is reasonable. You argue that if you can hear your neighbor’s music after 10pm, you won’t be able to sleep and this can impact your ability to function the next day. Your neighbor responds that it’s her home and her right to play music in her home when she wants and as loud as she wants. You both agree that what a person does in their home is their business so you found a “first principle” of sorts. But you argue that fully exercising this right might need to be limited when a person’s activity impacts others around them in a negative way. You make your case but your neighbor doesn’t budge and you appear to be at an impasse. To get around this stalemate, you can attempt to find edge cases to figure out where your neighbor might agree with you and build on that. Consider the following conversation:

You: Do you think any of your neighbors should be allowed to play their music all night at any volume?

Neighbor: Yes, that’s their right. I may not like it, but that’s their right to do so in their own home.

You: Okay, do you think it’s appropriate for any of your neighbor’s to mow their lawn at 3 in the morning or have a yard party that plays music over loud speakers at full volume at 3 in the morning.

Neighbor: Well, that seems rude and inconsiderate. But I’m not sure I’d have the right to stop them. It’s their home and their yard. Again, I might not like it, but I don’t think it’s something I can rightfully tell them to stop doing. If I don’t like it, I should put on headphones or earplugs so I don’t hear it.

You: What if your neighbors started dumping their yard waste or trash in your yard? Would you have a problem with that?

Neighbor: Yes! But you’re not suggesting that playing music on someone’s own property is the same as dumping garbage into someone else’s are you?

You: Not necessarily. I’m just trying to find situations where we can agree. We both agree that dumping garbage into a neighbor’s yard shouldn’t be permitted, correct?

Neighbor: Yes.

You: Why do you think that’s not appropriate?

Neighbor: Because now they’ve gone beyond their home and they’re impacting me and my home with their trash. That’s crossing a social line that I don’t think should be crossed.

You: Okay. Again, we agree. Would you be okay if your neighbor liked to smoke big cigars every night and the smoke made its way into your open windows and into your bedroom while you were trying to sleep. Would you be okay with that? They’re in their own yard after all.

Neighbor: I don’t like cigar smoke. I’d probably ask them to stop.

You: Why? They’re smoking on their property in their own yard.

Neighbor: Because this is more like the trash situation. The smoke is now crossing the boundary of their home and entering mine.

You: You could close your window to keep it out

Neighbor: I could. But if its warm or I want to leave my window open, that now impacts my right to do what I want in my own home.

You: Again, we agree on this. While it might be their right to do some particular thing, you would prefer it if your neighbor limited their activity when it impacts you directly in a negative way. You might still respect that right, but you are asking them to limit their rights and respect yours, correct?

Neighbor: Yes, I guess that’s true.

You: For me, playing your music loudly after a certain hour is essentially the same as the neighbor throwing trash or sending the cigar smoke into your window. I understand you like the music and respect your right to play it. But when your music ‘enters’ my home, I have no ability to control it. Using headphones or earplugs to “control it” is similar to you having to shut your window to control the cigar smoke. Your right to listen to music is now imposing on my right to sleep comfortably at a reasonable hour. I’m not asking you to not listen to music. I’m asking you to restrict that right after 10pm so my right to get some sleep is honored. Can we find a compromise that respects your rights and mine as well?

While its certainly true that arguments of this type rarely go this smoothly, I hope the strategy is coming through. By finding boundary conditions in analogue or similar cases, you can establish where you and the other person might agree and attempt to find a common ground in the specific situation about which you’re arguing. You then can focus on the specific areas where you disagree. When done correctly, this can be a powerful way to move around an impasse in an argument to find common ground and make the points you’re trying to argue more clear.

6. Know when to quit

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it." -- Groucho Marx

We’ve all been here. We go round and round on an argument and don’t seem to make headway. Sometimes it’s because the argument may get heated and both people have to calm down. Sometimes you can’t seem to understand the definition of the terms you’re using in the argument. Sometimes, you may not fully understand what the person’s goals are or just think the other person is wrong. This is the strategy that is sometimes stated in the clichés, “agree to disagree” and “play the long game.”

I’ve found that setting an difficult conversation aside for a time allows each person to think about the matter, do more research, talk to more people and let the ideas evolve naturally. When you revisit the argument days or weeks later, you may find that your position or the other person’s may have evolved to the point where you can have a more fruitful conversation. Letting an argument “rest” for a while can be very effective in changing either your mind or that of your interlocutor. This is especially true when you’re both pursuing the truth of the matter rather than trying to “win” your side of the argument.

There’s no rule for knowing when to quit but if you find yourself getting frustrated (or get a sense that the other person is) to the point where you’re more interested in beating the other person than getting to the truth of the matter or if you’ve covered the same ground more than two or three times with no real progress, it may be time to hit the pause button and come back to the discussion at a later time. A good strategy can be to either change the topic to another aspect of the argument or stop the discussion altogether and save it for a later date. This can feel like defeat at the time but it actually can be a very effective strategy for making progress in a discussion over the long term.

Arguments in the Real World

As mentioned above, these strategies aren’t meant as a one-size-fits-all method for making conversations fruitful and reasonable. But I do think they provide a good foundation for developing a strategy for effective dialogue. Practice these strategies the next time you’re in a heated conversation. As you apply them, variations will emerge and you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t.

In an age of social media, there is a growing concern that we’re becoming less social. Having productive conversations is both challenging and a necessity. While attempting to follow a set of strategies can seem too prescriptive and can even seem to be manipulative and take the “organic” nature out of conversations, some guidelines are just what we need when we want to argue for something that may be controversial or sensitive. In this article, I suggest that the following ideas may help open us to new ideas and to have better conversations about tough ideas. So next time you find yourself at a conversational impasse, try:

  1. Reframing the conversation so you’re both on the same side looking for truth rather than trying to win.
  2. Having some empathy and understand that you both care about your ideas and believe they’re right.
  3. Being aware that you might possess hidden biases that keep you from seeing other points of view.
  4. Being clear on exactly what it is you’re arguing about.
  5. Getting to first principles–the ideas that you really care about and that form the foundation for your argument.
  6. Finding edge cases that establish the boundaries of your disagreement so you find the areas on which you agree.
  7. Knowing when to quit to give the ideas in your arguments space to breathe.

More Resources

Philosophy News Articles

  • What is Logic? by Dr. Paul Herrick. In this article, Dr. Herrick introduces the basics of formal logic and explains the concepts with a lot of examples and clear descriptions of the core ideas.

  • Short Little Lessons in Logic. This series by Philosophy News features easy-to-consume lessons in Logic for busy people. It’s a course on the fundamentals of formal logic that you can take at your own pace for free.

  • What is Truth? An article on that age-old question. Learn about various theories of truth and some modern challenges to the idea.

  • What is Knowledge? Knowledge and truth are complementary but different aspects of a larger problem. This article discusses various views on knowledge and talks about how knowledge relates to truth.

  • What is Skepticism? by Dr. Joseph Shieber. Skepticism can have a negative connotation but Dr. Shieber teaches us how to use skepticism to avoid pitfalls in reasoning. He also gives us some history of the idea and some practical advice for being better skeptics.

Books

While there are many good books that could be listed here, these are a few that we’ve found provide a well-rounded perspective on many aspects of this topic4.

  • Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. The book to begin a study on cognitive biases.
  • The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. A solid book that dabbles in cognitive biases but also in why people form and hold beliefs and how to start a conversation about them.
  • The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. A neo (or is it post?) Freudian analysis of why we do what we do. Essential reading for better understanding why we form the beliefs we do.
  • A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston. A handy (and inexpensive) reference book for constructing arguments. Written for everyone but packed with helpful content. A good book for every desk.
  • Incerto by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Four books to challenge our understanding and acceptance of predictability. Read these to learn from their rhetorical style as well as for the content.
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol S. Dweck. The title reads like a self-help book but the content is actually solid and helpful for developing an approach to forming and sharing ideas.

  1. I highly recommend that anyone interested in this topic read Haidt’s book. It covers the science and psychology behind a lot of the strategies discussed in this article.

  2. When I’ve presented this idea in the past, some people think it sounds “soft” or “wishy-washy” or “lacks conviction” or something of the sort. And that certainly can be true. But context is everything. If someone is harming your daughter, you generally don’t want to take a defeasible position that you might be wrong and it could possibly be okay for this person to harm your daughter. Or if you’re a manager and you need your direct report to do something, it can be counter-productive to consider that maybe you don’t want them to do it after all. The cases we’re talking about are those where the ethics or facts of the matter are not clear and both people involved have an equal say on the topic even if you have different ideas about what is right or wrong and hold those ideas strongly. It’s an acknowledgement that the evidence may be opaque and that you and the person have different but equally reasonable positions on some topic.

  3. It’s also worth noting that while a person may generally have these characteristics, we all have topics about which we’re very passionate and which can cause us to neglect our generally even-handed approach being more than ready to “go to the mat” for our position in a way that is inconsistent with the values we generally pursue. This is important to be aware of and keep in mind as well.

  4. The links for these books are affiliate links (Amazon). Purchasing books using these links help support Philosophy News. Thank you!

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