Friday, April 22, 2011

Charitable arguing

I was planning to write this post, but Greg Mankiw did it for me.

Here is my tangential advice. Arguments are usually not fully specified and you have your choice on how to interpret them. Taking a moment to hunt for an interpretation that makes an argument good -- before you denounce it as a bad argument -- is a nice heuristic that forestalls the tempting leap from "There exists an interpretation that makes this a bad argument, but it may not be what he had in mind," to "This is a bad argument!" And as someone who has spent a significant fraction of his life engaged in serious (written) debates on all manner of topics, I have to say: I used to do it the first way, now I do it the second way, and there is no question about which attitude is superior. If you look for good interpretations, you end up spending most of the time asking questions about what people really meant by things. Besides clarifying the meaning though -- and almost more importantly -- it also gives them a chance to refine or update their claims without the strong implication of having been wrong. People happen to reach agreement much more quickly when you make their true initial position easy to abandon by interpreting it much more loosely than they actually had in mind. Which is sort of obvious, in retrospect.

This means being as charitable as possible to the arguments of others, and asking lots of questions. It pays off.

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