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What’s The Point of an Argument?

In my experience, there really are two goals that people argue for when they argue about issues and depending on which one of these goals or reasons people use will shape the argument dramatically. Sometimes an argument is just not worth having or is not worth having with the person one is having it with. It all depends on the reason or goal of why someone is in the argument in the first place.

The first goal of an argument is that the person wants to win the argument. They don’t care what you say, they just care about winning. So they will say anything. They will misrepresent your position, they will appeal to authority, they will get overly emotional, and they will do whatever it takes to win the argument. Notoriously, these people will be the first to suggest that they know they won’t be able to change your mind on an issue because they are projecting their own mindset into you.

Arguing with these people is often a waste of time. Sometimes however, you can get past their stubbornness and get them to actually care about learning something. But this is difficult because their goal isn’t to learn, it is just to win.

That brings me to the second goal of an argument and that would be to advance one’s knowledge. One puts out an opinion and someone else challenges that opinion. But the goal isn’t to win and to hold your opinion; it is to try to see where the other person is coming from and to maybe change your opinion if one is presented with a valid argument or some credible evidence.

This goes beyond just a willingness to change one’s opinion; it is desire to genuinely understand where the other person is coming from. It means that you don’t just take what they say at face value, but that you also try to understand the meaning behind their words.

Let me use an example. Recently, Sam Harris wrote a blog post about profiling and in that post he was advocating that we profile Muslims and anyone who looks like they could conceivably be a Muslim. Some people too this to mean that we can only determine what a Muslim looks like by a glance. In other words, they take Harris’s words at face value without trying to genuinely understand what he might have meant.

Even after Harris clarified what he meant in his addendum, people still clung to the idea that “looks like” means very superficial characteristics like skin color. I didn’t have to wait for the addendum to figure out that Harris meant all kinds of other traits including behavior when he said “looks like.”

While I have been pretty vocal against profiling, I don’t want to get into that argument here. My point here is to talk about arguing itself. When we argue an issue like this, what is our goal? Is it to win the argument and be proven correct? Or is it to genuinely understand where the other person is coming from and be open to changing our opinion if that is where the argument goes? We should give the person we are arguing with the benefit of the doubt. If they say something that seems out of character for them or that is pretty absurd on the surface, we should ask for clarification and/or we truly understand what their position actually is. This is how we have a reasonable conversation.

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