You’ve heard them a thousand times. Banning interventions such as puberty blockers and hormones for transgender-identifying minors will be a “direct cause” of suicide. Restrictions on abortion are a direct attack on human rights. And rejecting the curriculum of the Advanced Placement African American Studies course is “racist” and “white supremacist.”
All of these arguments are constantly asserted on the left. But they are also bad arguments, containing all manner of illogic and specious reasoning. And as much as conservatives can casually wave them off as such, it’s also imperative that conservatives understand and deploy the very best kinds of argumentation in order to refute bad arguments and also effectively (and graciously) communicate truth in our increasingly confused culture.
To that end, I propose the following three principles for conservatives to follow and employ when they encounter — and seek to refute — the kinds of poor reasoning so common in our society today. Much of this relies on ethicist Matthew Petrusek’s excellent upcoming book “Evangelization and Ideology: How to Understand and Respond to the Political Culture.”
1. Know Their Arguments Better Than They Do
In order to effectively argue, we need what Petrusek calls a disposition for constructive debate rather than simply point-scoring (as fun as it may be to “own” the other side). That includes trying to sympathetically understand our opponent’s position. A great way to do that is to try to repeat the person’s argument back to them in your own words. It can be as simple as saying, “Tell me if I understand you accurately: What you are saying is [fill in the blank]?”
The purpose of this is not simply to be charitable to the other side (though that’s certainly important). It’s also a way to force your opponent to actually make an argument, rather than simply an emotive, often aggressive assertion. Petrusek explains: “Central to playing the game of truth-seeking is knowing the opponent’s position at least as well, if not better, than he or she does.” And by helping the person package an argument, their errors usually become manifest.
So, for example, the claim that trying to curb transgender interventions for children will result in kids killing themselves needs to be unpacked. Presumably, the person is referencing some talking point he heard about how “trans” teens are X amount of times more likely to commit suicide, and thus if we don’t affirm children in how they want to express their so-called gender identity, we risk them killing themselves.
The problem is that there is currently no scientific evidence to substantiate that claim. Moreover, it elides the fact that 87 percent of gender-dysphoric children and adolescents have “comorbid psychiatric diagnoses,” such as anxiety or depression. Stated simply, correlation is not causation.
2. Demand People Define Their Terms
Arguments can only go so far when two or more people aren’t using the same terms in the same way because the two camps define their words differently. Thus before jumping right into the point-counterpoint debate, we should ask our interlocutors to define their terms. Sometimes the result of that will be that people realize they don’t know what those terms even mean. Alternatively, it could become clear there is a deeper origin point for the disagreement.
“Without pinpointing where the conflict originates, there can be no authentic debate; the disagreeing parties will simply be talking (or more likely, shouting) past each other,” writes Petrusek.
Take the claim that abortion restrictions undermine human rights because they limit a woman’s ability to abort the living organism in the womb. But what are human rights, and how do we go about identifying them? What about the living organism in the womb — is it human, and thus should enjoy those same rights? If the life in the womb doesn’t enjoy such rights, why not?
Moreover, the idea of human rights is predicated on the equality of humanity. Yet, as Petrusek notes, that “all human beings are equal” is far from clear at a purely secular level, given that humans differ in regard to intellect, physical appearance, emotional intelligence, or degree of personal ambition. So on what grounds does a person claim there are such things as “human rights” or that everyone is equal? It’s not that there aren’t such things as human rights or that everyone is equal, but you should push your interlocutor to defend these ambiguous terms.
3. Find the Underlying Philosophical Principles
This points to another important element of real, productive debate: identifying the underlying philosophical principle often doing the unmentioned work in an argument. Petrusek explains that isolating arguments and breaking them down into parts enables us to more clearly recognize their faulty premises because “sound arguments have valid propositions and unambiguous terms.” See if you can spot the philosophy underlying each below claim, and the error.
“Only scientific knowledge is meaningful knowledge.”
The problem here is that this claim, premised on the philosophical error of scientism, cannot be verified or falsified using the scientific method and is thus a form of question-begging, or presuming exactly what is in question. No science experiment can prove the claim.
“All that matters are the practical things.”
This claim, premised on the error of pragmatism, also cannot be empirically tested. Many things we cherish today — literature, sports, music — are anything but “practical.” And many scientific advances — penicillin, X-rays, insulin — happened by accidental discovery.
“We shouldn’t legislate morality.”
This claim is premised on the empirical belief that certain laws are based on hard, empirical truths, while other laws are based on flimsy, subjective definitions of morality. But the problem is that all laws are moral in the sense that they obviously communicate that some behaviors are good, and others are bad. Not legislating morality is, in a word, impossible.
Recovering Our Rhetorical Skills
A lot of what gets labeled an “argument” today is less true argumentation and more just fighting and name-calling (claims about alleged racism, white supremacy, or “the patriarchy” fall into this category). The above examples only scratch the surface of Petrusek’s guidance for developing more precise, effective arguments.
It is not hard for conservatives to identify opportunities to employ these tactics. Think about how you could respond to those who claim people need to be protected from “harmful” or “dangerous” speech. Typically, these arguments amount to little more than emotivism and voluntarism: the assertion that a person’s emotions and individual will trump everything else, even, ironically, things they otherwise claim to believe in, such as logic, science, or democracy.
“Pointing out to others that their political views have the same rational consistency as a two-year-old ‘arguing’ his case by thrashing on a grocery store floor exposes intellectual fraud,” writes Petrusek. Of course, that doesn’t mean we should tell our opponents they are acting like 2-year-olds. Simply implementing the kinds of tactics described above will often do that for us, enabling us to take the high road, and hopefully persuading the open-minded that our views on transgenderism, abortion, and anti-racism are based not on bad premises or emotion, but truth.