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The Collective
Friday, August 4, 2006
By Brett Marston (guestblogger)

This post by Chris Capel is a detailed exposition of rules for civil debate. I especially like Chris’s list of guidelines, starting with what he calls the Golden Rule:

Treat the person’s position as if it were your own.

and “you make mistakes“:

You make mistakes. You make many more mistakes than you realize. Mistakes are not your enemy. They do not help your opponent, because debates cannot be won. There are no points to score.

Chris’s guidelines are excellent. It is important to put them in context, however, and here I’m not sure that he gets things entirely right. Chris defends his attempt to provide these rules with a kind of criticism of ideologically-charged debate, and he contends that a failure to follow rules of civility is productive of social evil:

People who don’t strive to follow the principles of sound, rational debate are complicit in the intellectual chaos that characterizes open societies and effectively cripples mankind. I wouldn’t be surprised if this chaos were a necessary (but not sufficient) cause of the phenomenon of fundamentalism.

I think that a more subtle analysis is probably required. Attempting to engage others is a good thing. People can share good arguments in ways that they cannot share, say, land. But I would turn Chris’s description around: the intellectual chaos of open societies is an effect of the conditions of democratic debate, in which the criteria of success is not full persuasion but persuasion enough to convince someone to vote (or supply campaign dollars). For structual reaons, it’s probably true that full and open communication is not a public action, or not reliably a public action. Some level of comfort with that fact is a requirement of functioning in liberal democratic societies.

Link via Unfogged.

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2 Comments

  1. That last section was added in a revision where I felt I somehow *needed* some sort of condemnation of uncharitable people, but the ideas are quite nascent. Thanks for the link.

    Comment by pdf23ds (Chris Capel) — Friday, August 4, 2006 @ 9:42 am

  2. It’s a really good post! My criticism is only with the context. We have a couple of institutions where full understanding might be part of the public responsibility: CIA analysts, I hope, really want to get things right, and I’ll bet that appellate judges in conference often approach dialogue in this way. But it really is a private virtue. That’s why you won’t find it on, say, Red State - the point there is to develop resources for winning, not mutual understanding.

    Comment by Brett Marston (guestblogger) — Friday, August 4, 2006 @ 3:51 pm

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