Arguing Ethically

Being engaged in the throes of an argument is hard work. It takes quite a bit of intellectual, emotional and, sometimes, physical effort to stay in the fight. Often though, we are tempted to take short cuts that undermine our credibility and, in some cases, hit our pocket book. Here's a short list of things to avoid and things to do to make an argument as ethical as possible. 


Open-mindedness is an important part of having a real and respectful debate, but only when "open-mindedness" is properly defined. To be open-minded is to accept the possibility that you could be wrong. This means being open to new ideas or ideas which seem odd to you simply because they are different. Open-mindedness does not mean automatically assuming that every one else is right, though; one can still be open-minded and make judgments about the validity of a variety of claims. 

Be Honest 

Evaluate your own motives carefully. If you are in an argument to "win", then, I'd say you are in it for the wrong reason. It's tempting to believe that our own way of thinking should be the final word on a subject and that, perhaps, the world would be a better place if everyone agreed with our point of view. It's also tempting to attach too much personal currency to the fate of your argument. You are not your argument; it stands and falls on its own merit and has nothing to do with your worth as a human being. 

The point of arguing is to get closer to the truth.  That should be the prime motivator. There is nothing wrong with making up your mind about an issue; "free thinking" is usually only an illusion of degree.  (Alright, you caught me: that was a conclusion to an undeveloped argument, right?)  There's usually nothing wrong with proselytizing or trying to make people aware of your position, but care must be taken here. You could be wrong; indeed, there is a good chance that you could be in one way or another.  Perhaps your approach, style, tone or sources could be improved. Be prepared to accept counter attacks and work at refining your argument as much as you can. 

Admit your own limitations. There's probably no way that you can have at your fingertips all the facts concerning an issue. There's also the possibility that you have either been mislead by whatever source you use, or that you simply made a mistake. 

Don't try to trick your opponent 

From time to time, you may be tempted to trick your opponent into either agreeing to something that isn't so, or discredit them by giving them a "test" without their knowledge. Don't. When and if something like this is discovered, your credibility will take a serious nose dive. This forces your opponent to apply additional levels of skepticism, which only breaks down trust. In an academic setting, chances are you will receive an F for your efforts.

Maintaining trust between the parties is vitally important to real and useful debate. When trust has been lost, it's usually a good time to take a break from the debate. 

Avoid fallacies 

Most fallacies are the result of hasty and uncritical thinking and are quite often unintentional. A fallacy knowingly committed, though, is fraud and selfish manipulation. In a word: it's unethical. If someone points out fallacious thinking on your part (and it is indeed fallacious), make an effort to admit it. Correct your mistake as soon as possible. 

Cite your sources

Whenever you use any "facts" to bolster your position, make sure you properly document them. In a formal setting, this is vitally important. Use whatever methods are most appropriate to the discipline in question; some disciplines are much more liberal about how you cite your sources, while others have a time-honored method which, if tampered with, will subtly (or not so subtly in some cases) devalue your argument. In the non-academic world of the internet, citation of sources is even more important because of the internet's ability to spread rumor and baseless opinion. 

In citing your sources, make it as easy as possible for your reader to get to the source in question. In internet communications, liberally link to any Web sites you are referring to. If links are not possible (and even if they are; Web sites can go down), be as specific as possible on where you found your information. Information from television shows are more difficult to check, so be sure to include as much information as possible on the name, air date and speaker. Some TV shows may have transcripts available; link or cite the transcript where possible. Use whatever style you feel most comfortable with; the format isn't as important as making it easy on your reader. After all, you are trying to make a case, not frustrate or confuse your audience. 

Why is citation so important to an ethical debate? Besides the obvious, technical reasons, citation, especially of internet sources, is vital because it shows you are actively working to discover truth, can support your argument with ethical sources, and, most importantly are being transparent about your motives. 

Being a good sport 

"Winning" and "losing" gracefully are important skills. If the sports metaphor works (which I'm not entirely sure it does), then being able to say, "my argument fails but I'll be back" is probably a good thing. It's also important not to demand unconditional surrender of your opponent. Acknowledging "defeat" and "victory" graciously is important for two reasons, one, because you have just been helped in improving your argument, and, two, because respect and the free exchange of ideas are encouraged. In recognizing the humanity of your audience, even those that disagree, and promoting common ground, being willing to re-adjust your thinking will get you closer to your goal: that of discovering truth. 

Know when to quit

Sometimes, you just have to quit. When you encounter someone who refuses to engage in an honest and respectful debate, someone who moves the goal posts every time truth is being discovered at their expense, or a debate that had degraded into witless name-calling, it's time to give up.

We've all met people who will instinctively bristle at the shadow of anything that remotely threatens their worldview. It's not enough to just strongly disagree, but at every turn this type of person digs their heels in and smugly clings to invincible ignorance, launches into personal attacks or knowingly tries to manipulate the situation. Unless we are required to work with people like this, it's often best just avoided.

There may be times when agreeing to disagree might be the best place to end a debate with another person when nothing useful can come of further communications on the subject at hand. 

Work hard 

Philosophy is a lot of work and argument can be doubly so, because you are dealing directly with other people. Recognition of this fact can go a long way to getting closer to the truth.  Remember, most, if not all, "deep" issues have been debated for hundreds if not thousands of years; it's unlikely that you will definitively solve the puzzle yourself.  We can only contribute to the pursuit of truth and arrive at our own conclusions.