Losing arguments gracefully

Francisco asked:

I am interested in philosophy because I want to become a better critical thinker, which hopefully will result in me becoming a better debater. I want to beat others in arguments. What do you suggest I do to achieve this goal?

Answer by Gideon Smith-Jones

If you just want to beat others in arguments, being a better critical thinker isn’t too important. Far more useful would be a willingness to keep on arguing until you opponent gives up or backs down — or collapses from exhaustion — coupled the implicit belief that you are never wrong.

As a first step towards this goal, I would recommend that you take a course of assertiveness training. You need to give your ego a bit of a boost. Don’t let the bullies with more knowledge or higher IQs get you down. You can work on your voice, too. Lower the register a bit (it’s more manly) practice your auditorium filling, parliament filling ‘boom’.

Are you married, Francisco? The experience of many, or possibly even most husbands is that they regularly lose arguments with their wives. If this happens to you on a regular basis, you need to learn how to do so gracefully. It would be better in the long run. There’s a lesson to be learned there, on more than one level.

For the philosopher, there is one, and only one reason for wanting to win an argument: you want to establish the truth. The desire to win arguments when the truth is not on your side is the mark of a sophist. If you are wrong in your beliefs, then as a philosopher you should want to be proved wrong — as Socrates says on more than one occasion. When you prove to someone that they are wrong, you are benefitting them. When they prove that you are wrong they are benefitting you.

John Stuart Mill, in his brilliant defence of the liberty of thought and discussion in his book On Liberty (1859) describes truth as the outcome of a ‘contest of opinions’. Think of debate in those terms, rather than a contest between persons. When, as a result of a healthy contest of opinions, the truth wins out, we all — ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ — have reason to celebrate.


One thought on “Losing arguments gracefully

  1. I guess what I really meant to say is that so much of suffering, pain, intolerance, and violence is based on stereotypes, and assumptions regarding a certain idea or group of people. I want to be able to debate well so I can convince others to reevaluate their poorly-based assumptions and erroneous thinking, in the hope that they will analyze something a bit more carefully before judging someone or something harshly.

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