Good Arguments Demand Careful Thinking

It is important to argue clearly, not loudly.

Aaron Ross Powell
5 min readSep 28, 2017

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If you watch enough people talk about politics, you’ll quickly conclude most people just aren’t very good at it. There’s often a kind of emotional intensity that clouds communication. But there’s also a general lack of skill at articulating the complex ideas and frequently-unexamined principles that motivate so much political disagreement.

That’s why it’s important to cultivate our ability to communicate our ideas and for better understanding both our ideas and those of others. You can be the best speaker in the world, but if your opponent feels you’re misrepresenting his views or haven’t taken the time to study his side of things, he’s unlikely to be swayed by what you have to say.

I can’t stress enough that when approaching any topic — whether in debate or not — it’s crucial we think clearly. We — progressives, conservatives, libertarians, whatever — tend to approach any question with a fog of beliefs, biases, and vague impressions. We seek out evidence that supports what we already think true, and look for ways to reject evidence that doesn’t. We’re more forgiving of the mistakes in reasoning made by those on our side, and pounce voraciously on the most minor mistakes made by ideological foes.

All this leads to spirited debate, but it doesn’t lead to good debate. It doesn’t lead to the kind of debate or discussion that creates a feeling of sympathy in our interlocutors or makes much progress in encouraging them to accept — or at least not so thoroughly reject — our views.

Perhaps the most important first step in ensuring a fruitful debate is also one most easy to skip over: We need to define our terms. Almost nothing derails an argument faster than when both sides use the same words to mean different things. If I say that human beings have rights and you say they don’t, it’s important that we know what the other means by rights.

This happens all the time in political debate. Take equality. Am I for it? Well, yes and no. It depends what you mean by equality. Equality of resources, including forced redistribution? Because if it’s that, then I’m against it. But does equality instead mean equal treatment by the state, equality before the law, and equality of…

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Aaron Ross Powell

Host of the ReImagining Liberty podcast. Writer and political ethicist. Former think tank scholar.