Costs vs. Benefits
Arguments often alienate people and friendships can be lost or threatened in the process. We are all rational people; if the costs of alienation were greater than the resulting benefits, we would not argue.
A benefit of argumentation is that we can learn more from arguments (or profound discussions) than from superficial conversations. One of my personal motivations for argumentation is that I am looking for a way to connect with another person. A strong bond develops when two people discover that they see the world in the same way. The discussion also provides an evolution of the viewpoint if there is a consensus about the fundamental premise of the issue. Since there is no need to rationalize the initial opinion, the discussion is focused on developing deeper conclusions. For me, the risk of disagreement has a lower expected cost than the benefit that could be derived by connecting with another human being.
The danger of an argument is that one person can be placed on the defensive and a simple discussion can evolve to the validation of the person's belief system. If the point of the argument becomes a justification of another person's subjective reality, it becomes a very dangerous argument to lose.
Many times it is difficult to realize when an opinion challenges a person’s perception of reality. This mistake happened frequently with a previous boss. When theories were discussed, a potential disagreement had the effect of crushing a series of dominos that supported the fragile structure that rationalized his view of the world.
Confirming a view of reality is only one reason that someone may feel the need to express an opinion. Another reason is impatience. It takes great patience to avoid an argument when one person disagrees strongly with another person's position. If we were truly patient, we could remain silent in order to avoid an argument. Yet many people believe that silence is dishonest because silence can be interpreted as a sign of agreement.
The negative cost of argumentation is usually related to a person’s ego. The ego receives gratification from “being right.” Some people argue only to prove that their opinions are right and other opinions are wrong. These types of arguments are necessary to validate the person’s ego at the expense of others. Unfortunately, the ego does not realize that “being right” does not provide a validation of anything. Instead, it is an insecurity that needs to be overcome. Nothing changes if someone’s opinions are proven “right.” The only thing that changes is that the person who is attacked and placed on the defensive feels alienated and hurt. The relationship between the two debaters is also likely to become damaged as there tends to be a loss of respect and admiration as a result of the attacks. It is very difficult to be around people who always have to be “right” (especially since we do not live in a black and white world where right and wrong are objectively determined for every issue).
The Content of Arguments: Facts vs. Opinions
The content of arguments varies considerably. Sometimes people argue even when they agree because of differences in semantics. If individuals first agreed on their definitions, they would not be arguing. Voltaire said, “ If you wish to converse with me, define your terms… How many a debate would have been deflated into a paragraph if the disputants had dared to define their terms! This is the alpha and omega of logic, the heart and soul of it, that every important term in serious discourse shall be subjected to the strictest scrutiny and definition.”
Other times people argue opinions, generalizations or exceptions as though they were facts and thus, they believe there is a right or wrong answer. Facts have right or wrong answers. Yet, opinions (or generalizations and exceptions) have a number of “right” answers.
In the essay, “Karma and Reincarnation,” L.H. Leslie-Smith says, “Obviously, belief has nothing to do with fact. The disbelief of the majority of men cannot make a truth false; and an untrue statement is rendered nonetheless because the whole world believes it to be correct. Nor can our desire that something may be true affect its validity in the least.” In concurrence, Gilbert Murray (in the essay entitled “Failure of Nerve”) stated, “It is obvious, when one thinks about it, that quite often a large number of people who know nothing about a subject will all agree and all be wrong.”
I often think about the content of arguments. Even though we might say that people always argue about facts or opinions, this dichotomy seems too simplistic. There are different types of facts and different types of opinions that completely change the nature of the argument. In utter amazement, I have often watched two people vehemently argue a fact that clearly has a right answer. Undoubtedly, one person is right and the other person is wrong, but the evidence that would prove which argument is correct is not physically present. In turn, these people spend significant time arguing that they are right without the proof that would back up their argument (and some people believe that if they raise their voice, the other person will be intimidated into agreeing). Why don’t these people just use the time to look up the fact on the Internet? No matter how long they fight about the issue, the fact does not change and one person will never be able to convince the other that he or she is right or wrong without presenting the evidence (which seems arrogant and will embarrass someone even though the physical proof is the only resolution). Why would one person think that if he or she talks louder or longer that the other person will concede? And even if the other person gives in, it does not mean that the antagonist is correct.
At the same time, some facts can have two answers that are both right. For instance, someone may attribute a quote to Socrates and another person may attribute the same quote to Plato. Since Socrates did not write down his own beliefs, our primary knowledge of Socrates’ beliefs is related to us through Plato’s words. This issue becomes further complicated because Plato’s works attribute certain words to Socrates, though we can never be certain that Socrates actually spoke those same words. For example, we could say that Socrates said “an unexamined life is not worth living” or we could say that Plato wrote those words in his essay, “The Apology of Socrates.” Since Plato wrote the essay as though he were Socrates, the quote could be attributed to Socrates or Plato. In actuality, it is a fact that Plato wrote those words; it is a fact that the character “Socrates” says those words in the Apology essay; but it is an opinion that Socrates said those same words in real life. Is it a fact that Jesus said, “love your enemies” or did someone else simply attribute those words to Jesus? We can never be absolutely certain even though we may strongly believe that Jesus said those words. Since Jesus did not officially publish anything and since the words were written almost 100 years after he died, we simply have to trust the authenticity of the source (which requires faith instead of proof).
The diverse content of arguments has led to the creation of the following fact-opinion continuum:
Facts: There are absolute facts that have conclusive proof (which are universally accepted) and there are subjective facts that have contradictory proof. Facts have right or wrong answers even though subjective facts can appear similar to opinions.
White Facts: these are indisputable statements that can be proven once the information is presented. People should never argue white facts because there is a right answer that has evidence to support it. The only reason that anyone would argue a white fact is that the information is inaccessible to the person at a certain point in time. It is dangerous to argue white facts because one person can always be proven wrong once the evidence is presented. An example of an argument over a white fact is when a colleague argued that irrespective was not a word. Once the dictionary was presented, he had to admit that he was wrong (which can be embarrassing or humiliating).
Gray Facts: these are statements of fact that have contradictory evidence. There appears to be no right answer if the evidence on both sides is convincing. People who argue gray facts usually argue about which evidence is correct. A gray fact argument can be frustrating because the evidence is inconclusive, so both sides appear to be right. An example of a gray fact argument is when two people argue the cause of a certain disease. One person can present evidence that the disease was caused by one factor and the other person can present evidence that the disease was caused by another factor.
Opinions: Any thought, statement, or belief that does not have a proven answer. Nobody can be right or wrong about an opinion.
White Opinions: A white opinion is a viewpoint that has no right answer subjectively or objectively. An example of a white opinion is the argument about whether to go to a party or the neighborhood bar. One person may believe that the party will be more fun than the bar and another person may believe the opposite. There is no right answer unless the experiment could be controlled so that both activities are experienced simultaneously. However, since one person cannot be at different places at the same time, it is impossible to prove the superior outcome. Even if one person goes to the bar and another person goes to the party, the comparisons are still subjective. White opinions are the easiest arguments to accept differences in beliefs because it is obvious that there is no right answer.
Gray Opinions: A gray opinion is a viewpoint that has no right answer subjectively, but it does have a right answer objectively. The right answer is simply unknown at a particular point in time (but can be proven later). An example of a gray opinion argument is when two people argue over whether a new widget will penetrate the market. One person can have thousands of reasons why it will penetrate the market and another person can have thousands of reasons why it won't penetrate the market. There appears to be no right answer but if the widget is introduced, the answer will be known. After the product’s introduction, the right answer becomes a fact; it either penetrates the market or it fails. There was a right answer objectively but no one knew it at the time of the discussion (of course, if the widget is not introduced the right answer will never be known and if the execution was poor, there could still be further arguments about its penetration). Arguments over gray opinions are the most common arguments and the most productive because a convincing argument could cause the right decision to be implemented.
Black Opinions: A black opinion is a viewpoint that has no right answer subjectively but it does have a right answer objectively even though the right answer will never be known in this lifetime. An example of a black opinion argument is when two people argue over the existence of life after death. There either is life after death or there isn't life after death but neither person knows the right answer and they won’t know the answer even if they argue the issue every day of their lives. Subjectively, one person may believe very strongly that his or her viewpoint is right because these arguments are often based on faith. Black opinion arguments are also very common but very difficult to resolve. Many times black opinion arguments end up threatening another person's view of reality. These arguments are the most dangerous because the viewpoints can touch upon the fundamental belief systems of the people who are arguing. Black opinion arguments can also be the most fascinating because two people are entering unknown territory that will be unknown as long as they live. Black opinion arguments are also more philosophical than any other type of arguments.
Generalizations: these are white, gray and black opinions that are believed by the majority of the population. For example, one person might argue that more people have fun at bars (white opinion) or that most times a new widget is introduced it penetrates the market (gray opinion) or that most people believe in life after death (black opinion). An argument that uses perceived generalizations is extremely common because it appears to give credibility to an opinion. In other words, it makes an opinion appear similar to a fact. However, it can never be proven that the majority of people believe anything unless a poll was taken on every opinion that is discussed and even if the majority believes the opinion, it still doesn't mean that the opinion is right.
Exceptions: An exception is the opposite of a generalization. Many times exceptions are argued as an attempt to disprove a generalization or two people could argue whether the exceptions are really generalizations.
The fact-opinion continuum helps us clarify the essence of an argument. After I developed the framework, I quickly recognized arguments that were futile and I could minimize the discomfort that results from disagreement. For example, when I realize that I am being drawn into an argument about a fact, I just say that I have a policy not to argue facts because the evidence is not currently available; or I delay the discussion (and avoid embarrassment) by saying that I will check my source at a later time. If I notice that the argument is about a “black opinion,” I am more sensitive to the possibility that the other person’s belief systems may be threatened and I can minimize defensiveness by taking a gentler approach (or by using a significant number of qualifiers). It is also important to recognize that some people argue vehemently when their opinions are quite similar. In The Story of Philosophy, Will Durant says “similar people quarrel, and the bitterest wars are over the slightest variations of purpose or belief.”
Arguments vs. Discussions
Not surprisingly, many people believe there is a significant difference between an argument and a discussion. This belief is usually due to a difference in semantics. For arguers, there is no difference between the two. Whenever an issue is discussed, it is defined as argumentation.
Yet in our society, arguments have a negative connotation and discussions have a positive connotation. Therefore, some people simply define positive conversations as discussions and negative conversations as arguments. Others define a topic as a discussion if there is agreement but the same subject is defined as an argument if there is disagreement.
The expression of passion can also redefine a discussion as an argument. Some people are passionate arguers because they feel strongly about everything that they believe in. They can be just as passionate about mundane arguments (such as the arrangement of furniture) as they are about philosophical arguments (such as the existence of a superior being). Some people believe that passion can be used as an attempt to change the other person's opinion. However, this is a futile attempt because other people’s opinions can only be changed with their consent. Consent is based on convincing argumentation and an open mind, rather than by hearing passionate points of view.
Sometimes one person may define a discussion as an argument even when the other person doesn’t realize that he or she is arguing. Non-arguers (which is the majority of the population) find disagreement threatening and arguers think that it is a natural form of conversation. Arguers think that disagreement is healthy and interesting and non-arguers think that it's confrontational and uncomfortable. If we were extremely perceptive, we would argue only with people who liked to argue and we would be patient enough to avoid arguments with people who don't like to argue (though it is difficult to recognize a non-arguer if you're not arguing).
Agreeing to Disagree
Often it is better to agree to disagree than to try to reach consensus. Yet, this plan of action can be impossible to implement if the arguments won't rest without a shared conclusion. This is especially true when people are arguing opinions as though they were facts. Two people should be able to state that there is no right answer so it is perfectly acceptable to disagree, but unfortunately, this tactic is rarely successful. People’s egos get involved and without agreement, they feel alone with their beliefs. Egos force arguers to attach themselves to the outcome of the discussion. If they could feel indifferent about agreement or disagreement, the arguments could rest without consensus.
It may be easier to agree to disagree when there is respect between arguers. Maybe argumentation says less about the characteristics of each individual and more about the relationship between the two people. I only argue with people I respect. It is difficult to share my conclusions with people who are unable to appreciate the information or people who are unable to accept differences in opinions.
Argumentation has certain rules of fair play but often a serious violation occurs. When individuals feel that they do not have a counterpoint to a particular argument, they verbally launch a personal attack against the other person. Attacking the opposition is expressed with statements such as, “why are you on the defensive?” Obviously during an argument, both people are placed on the defensive at different times; it goes back and forth from defense to offense like a tennis match. This personal attack also implies that being defensive is a negative attribute. However, acting defensively should be expected when another person is on the offensive. For example, if one person accuses another person of being ignorant, defensiveness should be expected. After hearing an insult, individuals will automatically protect their self-image. A lack of defensiveness implies that the person agrees with the statement. If people think positively about themselves and if a statement conflicts with their perceived identity, they should be able to defend themselves without criticism.
Another unfair attack on the opposition is the comment “why do you think that you are always right?” If an arguer does not think that an opinion is “right,” he or she would be arguing a different point. In other words, most people do not argue beliefs that they think are wrong (unless they are just playing the devil’s advocate for the “fun” of it). This particular attack on the opposition usually occurs at the exact moment when someone feels that the argument has been “lost.” This insult is also usually directed toward extremely competent arguers. Their points are strong and hard to discredit so the natural “comeback” is that they need agreement. Ironically, the person who needs agreement is usually the one who initiates the personal attack.
The Greek Sophists were often victims of personal attacks. These philosophers questioned everything and significantly contributed to the field of philosophy. However, they were also extremely skilled at winning arguments and they taught their students how to effectively gain an advantage over their opposition. We are now taught that the Sophists used misleading statements to prove their points. Most admit the Sophists were extremely clever but perhaps they were too effective. It is easier to say that the argument was won due to the “faults” of the victor than to admit defeat.
Socrates and Plato could also be labeled as Sophists because they often obtained agreement on a particular statement and then used this agreement to discredit their opponent’s argument. In other words, they used the arguer’s own words against him. Many would define this style of argumentation as Sophistry because opponents were mislead by being “forced” to agree with conclusions that conflicted with their original opinions. Yet, Socrates and Plato were congratulated for their brilliance while other similar arguers were criticized for misleading their opponents.
There are a million statements that can be used to attack the opposition as a way of avoiding the issues. This is a clever ploy because it diverts attention from the argument and directly hurts the other person, who immediately goes into a defensive mode. The person who is attacked could have had an excellent point before this tactic was employed but the point is soon forgotten because the argument switches to an evaluation of one person’s character.
Win or Lose
Argumentation is a true challenge in life and one of the best ways to learn about new points of view. However, it is important to be able to learn from a healthy discussion without believing that there is only one right answer or conclusion to any topic presented. Arguments can be dangerous if they turn into a “win or lose” situation. If we care about the people who are involved in the discussion, we would not want them to feel like that they have “lost.” Why would we want this pain inflicted on another human being? The most compassionate arguers know how to end a discussion without having its conclusion appear as a “loss” by one of the participants.
In the book, The 72 Names of God, Berg says, “Two people can have opposite opinions and conflicting viewpoints, yet both can be right. Enmity and bitterness occur when people respond reactively to each other, with intolerance to each other’s view…What good is being right if suffering and pain are the cost? What is so terrible about being wrong if personal peace, joy, and contentment are the rewards? It is only the ego that worries itself about being right or wrong.”
We must also avoid argumentation when other people become emotional or when they view their position as a justification for their belief systems. Some people are uncomfortable with disagreement because they believe that a rejection of a particular opinion is the same as a personal rejection and thus, disputes disrupt their need for continual self-validation. We cannot be responsible for increasing or decreasing a person’s self-worth; we just need to know when silence is appropriate or when we should switch the subject by talking about something less controversial. It is insensitive to continue an argument when it is clear that the other person is uncomfortable with the subject matter.
I love to challenge people because that is the way I learn about human nature. For me, it is one of the best forms of education. However, I also know this is a selfish desire for my own personal growth. Not everyone is on the “road less traveled” and not everyone has the goal of self-actualization. Based on body language and eye contact, we need to know when it is time to “turn down the heat.” If a statement sounds threatening, we could turn it into a question because people tend to respond less negatively to questions. Or we could apologize for the discomfort by saying that the discussion was based only on intellectual curiosity and was not meant to imply that there was a right or wrong answer.
I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes people simply believe things without questioning them. I may want to analyze every opinion but others do not. For example, if certain individuals were told that the Bible says, ”an eye for an eye,” they may believe that God believes in revenge and they may never question the ethics of revenge. Personally, I may want to know why someone believes in revenge and I may want to disagree with revenge; but I also need to be sensitive to other people’s preferences to believe in revenge without disagreement.
If individuals do not want to discuss or think about preconceived opinions, or if disagreements are too threatening, or if the viewpoints exist without a logical rationale, we need to have the compassion to let the opinions exist without contention. A discussion involves two people and no one should be forced to talk about something that causes discomfort or embarrassment.
Argumentation is the mutual consent to discuss controversial issues. It is important to remember that all individuals retain the right to express their opinions without being forced to justify their belief systems. Even if we want to discuss the merits of one opinion or another, we cannot force others to do the same. The First Amendment says that all individuals have the right to freely express their opinions; it does not say that these people must be forced to rationalize their opinions without their consent.