Part 2: Arguments and Disagreement

Part 2: Arguments and Disagreement

What role should arguing play in helping you decide what to believe? And, should disagreement about some issue make you much more skeptical about whether it is true? In part 2, we will be breaking these questions down and providing a couple of optimistic answers.

Lecture 2: Having Better Arguments

The word “argument” has many negative connotations. If used appropriately, however, arguing provides us one of the best chances we have to uncover surprising or difficult truths. In this lecture, Paul explains why this is, and why philosophers think you should be arguing more, not less.

Arguments are Everywhere

Arguments are everywhere. Just log onto Facebook or visit the opinion section of any major newspaper if you do not believe me. In fact, you do not even need to open your laptop, just pay close attention to the next discussion you have with a friend, or think out loud before you decide what you ought to do next. “I could eat dinner, but it’s only 5 p.m. and I am not that hungry. Since I want to work out today anyway — and the gym closes at 7 — I may as well do that now and eat on my way home.” 

Arguments are all over journalistic media, too, so acquiring the skills to break them down and engage with them will make us more media literate and more engaged participants in public discussions.

That is an argument.

Arguments can consist of simple reasoning about relatively inconsequential things (like one’s gym schedule and preferences), or they can be highly abstract, intellectual attempts to persuade a broad audience to affect cultural change.  Arguments are used to influence public policy, to encourage a re-evaluation of the status quo… even to demonstrate the existence of souls or the impossibility of knowledge.

All arguments are attempts to establish the truth of some claim or set of claims. They can be made verbally, as in conversation, or in writing. They can be made via social media, as part of a public awareness campaign, in a political debate on national television, or in a board room in a corporate office. They are — quite literally — a ubiquitous form of communication, and we encounter them constantly. Because of this, it is important to understand what arguments are and how to evaluate them. Acquiring these skills makes it possible to identify common errors, locate the sources of disagreement, and construct convincing cases for your ideas, beliefs, or proposals.

Applying the Concepts: A Recipe for Better Arguments

In this video, Paul sets out a few steps for ensuring that your arguments are as constructive and helpful as possible so that you can make sure your disagreements are as productive as possible. The key is never to lose sight of the fact that both you and your opponent might genuinely care about the truth.

Additional Resources


Activity: The Argument Game

It helps to think about making arguments as a kind of “game” where the point is to cooperate with other players to pursue the truth. In this video, Paul explains this metaphor and teaches the basic moves in “The Argument Game.” Print the worksheet one-sided to play the game.

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