Stephen Walker ’26 (DCI Fellow)
Arguments are difficult. Whether stemming from our own personal attachments to ideas or a fear of criticism and negative social outcomes, people often tend to stigmatize arguments as impolite, irrational drains on our emotional well-being that only serve to produce tension and animosity between the parties involved. In my own experience, I have faced such feelings of hopelessness, of innately distressing conversations bound to go nowhere. Contentious arguments can give one the feeling they are fighting for the sake of fighting and nothing more. But this does not have to be so. Argument can be one of the most meaningful forms of positive interaction individuals can engage in with one another.
The DCI’s deliberative framework and the constructive norms our Fellows cohort has been exposed to have reconfigured my entire perception of how one ought to engage in argument and what they should hope to get out of it. One of our required readings for the program, Why We Argue (And How We Should) by Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, details two sweeping norms for augment that I have relied on through my work to improve my relational and facilitator abilities: argumentative earnestness and argumentative responsibility.
Argumentative earnestness and responsibility have allowed me and other practitioners who utilize them to guide arguments away from zero sum competitions aimed at forcing one person to concede entirely to the other side through manipulation and distractions toward a positive, holistic exploration of issues at large and an informative pursuit of truth.
Aikin and Talisse describe argumentative earnestness as our duties to pay close attention to evaluating the reasons placed before us to justify a position or a view. By blocking out the noise–pressures to win, manipulative rhetoric, bias, and distractions–and evaluating arguments based on the reasons and logic behind them, the merit of a point can be more clearly established and progress can be made in what would otherwise be a contentious, stagnant process.
Argumentative earnestness takes what Aikin and Talisse label “intellectual courage,” or the courage to not just focus on the truth when others try to pressure you away from it but to also realize you may be biased and misleading others. It takes intellectual courage to admit that, much like the other side, you too can use flawed arguments in pursuit of winning rather than the truth. Going beyond holding the other side in arguments to such scrutiny by holding yourself to equally high, if not higher standards, can ensure you are constantly improving the quality of the arguments you produce.
Argumentative earnestness on its own is not enough to ensure a successful argument. Looking at the variety of reasons that may go into one side or another regarding a particular topic will round out your arguments to a fuller extent. Looking beyond what may be the widely preferred or most obvious reasons for holding a belief, we find out that there can be many reasons for taking a specific stance on a specific issue.
When we try to empathize with those who might take these different positions, regardless of whether we agree with them or not, it allows us to engage with the other side to the fullest extent possible. When we engage with the full, honest perception we have of the other side’s stance we can either learn and change our own perspectives on an issue or develop more robust responses than we would otherwise be capable of when engaging with simplified reasons. In this way, argumentative responsibility inspires learning and is essential to productive argument.
In my work as a deliberation facilitator, I am sometimes tasked with playing devil’s advocate by taking on the role of the other side when everyone in a deliberation agrees on an issue and the conversation reaches a stand-still. Without engaging in argumentative earnestness and responsibility, it could be very hard to be the sole advocate for another perspective that one sometimes may not even agree with themselves. Embodying these principles in my attempts at being a better devil’s advocate has allowed me to focus on the reasons behind competing stances, encouraging people to examine their views in ways that would not be possible without such a focus on reason over confrontation.
Playing devil’s advocate to urge members of my deliberation groups to consider opposing arguments has been a truly fruitful exercise to watch play out. People not only willingly consider the full scope of reasons behind views they may have otherwise immediately rejected, but they learn how to better respond to such reasons and enhance their reasoning processes. This can allow deliberators to examine their views, thus enhancing their ability to reason through and properly weigh the merit of counterarguments they may face for the stances they take on various issues. It also allows them to build up the courage to admit when they may be wrong or faced with superior reasoning.
In my experience, when we try to exercise argumentative earnestness and responsibility in our efforts to deliberate, we tend to learn more, have better arguments, and have a better chance of unlocking the truth. This allows us to not only be aware of the flaws in the stances we take but to make clear to others in a constructive, rather than hostile way, the problems in the reasoning that they present. Better arguments make better-informed citizens and by leaning into not just argumentation but constructive norms, we learn and grow in ways that would not otherwise be possible. We learn and grow as a community of citizens unified by our pursuit of truth.