Mike Huemer, my favorite philosopher, is now blogging.  Huemer’s first two posts of provide a checklist of rules for constructive debate that elegantly complement Rob Wiblin’s checklist of rules for coping with adversity.  It’s all common sense, but common sense remains uncommon.  Highlights from Huemer’s “Tips for Political Debate”:

1. Guiding principle: Your goal is to make progress toward understanding, if not agreement.

It is not to “score points”, express emotions, prove your moral or intellectual superiority, humiliate the other party, or otherwise cause harm. (If this isn’t true, then you shouldn’t be engaged in discussion at all; you’re part of society’s problem.) Everything else follows from this.

c. Don’t presuppose the rest of your ideology.

Illustrating (b)-(c): if you’re arguing with a conservative, do not presuppose that America is an oppressive patriarchy, that capitalism is unjust, or that religion is the opiate of the masses. You won’t be persuasive; you’ll just further alienate the other party. If you can’t make your point without assuming that sort of thing, then you don’t have a good argument.

a. Do not discuss your interlocutor’s personal traits.


c. Exception: if the negative remarks are the actual issue.

None of the above is to suggest that you may not say what is necessary to defend your view on the actual issue. Example: if you’re debating whether gay marriage should be allowed, and your view is that it shouldn’t be allowed because homosexuality is wrong, then you can say that – even if, for example, your interlocutor is gay. Or, if you’re debating whom one should vote for in the election, and your view is that Trump should not be elected because of his bad moral character, you can say that, even if your interlocutor loves Trump. But do not go an inch beyond what is necessary to make your point on the issue. (E.g., don’t discuss how Trump’s supporters are idiots.)

7. Don’t confuse issues.

a. Don’t let your central position dictate every other answer.

When other issues come up in the conversation, do not just adopt whatever position on every other question you have to adopt in order to defend your original position. Rather, think about what is an independently plausible answer to each question.

c. Don’t raise ten different issues at once.

If you want to have a purposeful discussion with someone, pick one issue to discuss. On that one issue, do not make arguments that depend on your controversial views on multiple other issues. E.g., to defend your controversial position on health care, don’t rely on your controversial views about race, and the minimum wage, and capitalism, and education . . . Doing so guarantees that no one will be persuaded and no progress will occur.

My main quibble comes when Mike states:

11. Don’t misinterpret people.

a. If what they said sounds stupid or irrelevant, you probably misunderstood it.

Hate to say it, but if his previous ten tips are half as neglected as he says, then the average debater’s statements will be riddled with stupid and irrelevant claims.  I would replace Mike’s (a) with:

(a’) If what they said sounds out-of-character or contrary to their overall thesis, you probably misunderstood it.

Even this is somewhat lenient; after all, people often contradict themselves.  But if a debater seems to insert a reasonable observation into an otherwise silly position, you’re more likely to be misunderstanding their seemingly insightful observation than their overall inane position.  Indeed, perhaps a better replacement would be:

(a”) If what YOU say sounds stupid or irrelevant, you’re probably wrong or off-topic.

P.S. Next week, I arrive in Berlin for the OEB conference.  I plan to get dinner here at 5 PM on December 4.  All EconLog readers are welcome to join me. 🙂