Why and How to Debate Charitably

September 29, 2009

Chris Capel has written a short essay about “why and how to debate charitably,” and I’m struggling to find anything significant to disagree with him about.*  You should really read the whole thing, but I’ll provide his list of rules with short explanations below:

1. The golden rule – “treat the person’s position as if it were your own.”

2.  You cannot read minds – when someone appears inconsistent, consider that you could simply misunderstand their argument.

3.  People are not evil – “You should be extremely suspicious about your judgment of a person’s position when you think that position has implications that you find distasteful (or worse).”

4. Debates are not for winning – “Never make a person defend words that they’ve abandoned.”

5.  You make mistakes – “many more than you realize…   Look for your mistakes, and admit to them.”

6.  Not everyone cares as much as you – “be willing to tolerate people who apparently hold distasteful positions.”

7.  Engaging is hard work.

8.  Differences can be subtle.

9.  Give up quietly – “If you don’t want to engage someone using all these rules, don’t engage them at all.”

I hope that this forum, Permutations, will host productive discussions and debates.  You need not involve yourself in them, but I hope that you do, and I hope that if you do, you debate charitably.

*Admittedly, I would water this list down a little bit.  Instead of rules, I would call these guidelines.  For example, I don’t believe people should be required to ignore every argument they can’t engage at the highest and most charitable level.  If Chris and I ever get the chance to discuss this point, I have a feeling that we’ll be able to come to agreement.  Perhaps you have stronger disagreements?  I’d love to hear about them in the comments.