Ten Ethics of Debate

The following are some guidelines I believe are helpful to any debate in which the participants are seeking truth, rather than trying to defend a position for its own sake. I would call these guidelines of Freethought for debaters...

By far, the majority of people, in general, mean well. If you really believe that they are intentionally being evil - don't waste time in debate with them. However, if you really think about it, most people, no matter how deranged their position or how harmful such a position may be to you, hold it because they actually believe it is the right position to take. It is easy to hate a stranger but try to imagine how you might respond if a loved one were to take the same position. Hate positions, beliefs, policies, and actions but love people.

It is possible to argue with someone for an hour before realizing that you actually agree but are using different semantics. Even if you don't agree, miscommunication about definitions can lead to huge blocks of unproductive time in argument. Be clear with your definitions and be sure you are clear of theirs. Think of your first few rounds of discussion as strictly information gathering - don't make judgments at the beginning and don't jump to conclusions. Ask questions - especially about words such as love, religion, government, spiritual, moral, better, believe, wrong, etc.

Often, as emotions rise, it is easy to turn debate into a vendetta. The purpose of debate, in the freethought spirit, is not to demoralize your opponent, to make yourself look or feel good, or to enact revenge for other statements. There is only one proper purpose for such discussion, and that is to find truth - no matter what the consequences or implications of such conclusions.

Most people are not open-minded and merely want to win the argument. Identify victory-seekers early. If there's little chance of them listening to anything you have to say, or if they refuse to listen to obvious reason, then it is best not to waste your time. If you must converse on such topics, be passive - listen, ask questions, and let them reach conclusions on their own.

Often, because they are feeling insecure of their position, threatened by yours, or simply unaware, people will use wording which you may find insulting. If these are raw insults by themselves, then it is best to end the conversation. If the insults are part of the argument itself, there are a few things to keep in mind. For one, he or she may not realize how offensive the remarks are to you. Secondly, this may only be an exaggerated word used to over stress a concept. Most importantly, focus on their intentions - not how you perceive them. If the words are offensive to you but you have every reason to believe the person wasn't intending to offend, then don't worry about it. In the end, remember that words are just words - get tougher skin and move on.

If offended in any case, simply tell them their words are offensive and why but do not answer with equal offense - there's no point to it. When you engage in revenge talk, you ensure that you will not be listened to, your position will not be spread, and you will likely hurt the cause for which you fight. What is worse is that you are hurting a good cause for your own emotional gratification. What is sometimes confused with enthusiastic support for a cause is actually selfish betrayal of it.

Sometimes you may feel lulled into ad homonym yourself. Don't do it - even a little. That includes using sarcasm, humor at the other's expense, or even wording that merely suggests something insulting without stating it overtly. Insulting people is a completely separate task from debating. Insults never make your point better than plain facts. It is best to stick to the issues at hand.

To be fair, you yourself must be open-minded enough to listen and really consider what the other person is saying. Put yourself in their shoes and imagine yourself believing what they believe - much like an actor. Not only does this help you to listen, it helps you to understand why they believe what they do. This will mean that you can both spend your time focusing on the key points of difference, rather than squabbling over fringe elements of the issue. Don't feel threatened or hurt if you are "loosing" the argument. You know you are not perfect. This means that you absolutely must be wrong about some things - you just don't know which. This might be one of them. You don't have to concede in one sitting but you can at least say, "That's a good point. I'm not sure about that but give me some time to look into it and think about it and I'll get back to you." If you look into it and, after careful consideration, find that you are wrong, then change. Your position is not you. It is a good idea to admit this openly to the other person to affirm them in their correct stance as well. This can also be an opportunity to show them that you yourself are not merely a victory seeker in debate. Letting others know when they are right is a way to "cash in" on your open mindedness and not only improve relations but set a good example, which will encourage open mindedness in others too.

It is better to lose the debate than to win it with deception. If you had to distract your opponent with logical fallacy, ad homonym attacks, or irrelevant data, then you have intentionally spread what might be falsehood for your own personal gain. If you need shifty tactics, then you are probably wrong and should concede defeat. If you "know" you're right, then you should be able to back it up with facts and logic. If you can't, then you're either wrong or you need to learn more. Put the argument on hold to study the other's points further if you must but do not attempt to win by illegitimate means.

Regardless of what much of the world, including debate clubs, encourage and promote - for the ethical and thinking person, the point of a debate is not to win. When two people disagree, either one of them is wrong, or both of them are. This presents a good opportunity for learning and improvement - maybe for him or her but also maybe for you. If you win the argument you have helped to enlighten someone else, but if you lose then you are the most fortunate of the two, for you have learned something new today. Pride is irrelevant, and a vice when it leads one to be unethical or to care more for one's image or position than for truth. Finding or spreading the truth is more important than you.