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How to win at arguments: Six philosophical tips

Unthinkable: Do you need to crush others with your intellect or is sowing doubt victory enough?

Enormous energy is expended daily by people trying to convince others of the errors of their ways. In tweets, posts, sermons and speech, argumentation abounds. But to what end?

The Belfast-born critic Robert Lynd captured the dilemma in his 1936 essay Arguing: "Consider for a moment. You who are middle-aged must have taken part in thousands of arguments. You argued in the nursery and you won, though your nurse did not admit it . . . You argued triumphantly at school without ever converting a schoolfellow . . . You have been arguing, say, for 40 years, and how many converts have you made? You will be lucky, I think, if you can name three."

The poor return on arguing might tempt you to give up on it altogether

It’s not that people don’t change their minds, Lynd said. Rather change rarely happens because of a well-made point. “I myself became a socialist in my teens, but I was no more reasoned into it than into smoking,” Lynd wrote. “The thing simply happened without my knowing how or why it had happened.”

The poor return on arguing might tempt you to give up on it altogether – but despair not! The Unthinkable column this week brings you six top tips for how to “win” at arguments, gleaned from three new publications on the nature of bad thinking and bias.


How to Deal with Idiots (and Stop Being One Yourself) comes to us from French philosopher Maxime Rovere, with a wonderful translation for Profile Books by David Bellos. While the original, best-selling French title applies "des cons" as a catch-all phrase for practitioners of idiocy, Bellos points out that the English language allows for a "superabundance" of categories – from boneheads and pillocks to numbskulls and f**kwits – and he has great fun reminding the reader of this variety.

When Bad Thinking Happens to Good People by Steven Nadler and Lawrence Shapiro (Princeton University Press) takes a more academic approach, deftly guiding us through concepts such as deduction, induction and evidentialism. The third book, The End of Bias by Jessica Nordell (Granta), is a gripping survey of the science of prejudice against the backdrop of racial and gender discrimination.

While they have different priorities and approaches, the three books suggest certain tactics to be used in the face of intransigence.

1. Ask a question:

“Do not try to educate idiots. Change the situation, not the person,” Rovere advises, and what better way to change the situation than ask a question. “5G networks spread Covid-19? Really? Who carried out this study?”

Socrates, whom Nadler and Shapiro describe as the “hero” of their book, is the template here. The pair note that through “relentless questioning” the Greek philosopher sought “to discover whether a person really does know what he or she claims to know”.

2. Hold your whisht:

Saying nothing, and allowing your interlocutor to talk, is a sure way to “de-escalate conflicts”, Rovere argues, but only if you have self-control. Someone’s faulty reasoning can propel us into a state of “bedazzlement”, or indignation, and “the greater your emotion, the less you can see”, he writes.

By all means be disgusted by harmful opinion but you’re only hurting yourself if it “causes you to lose your cool and your analytic abilities”, says Rovere. As a calming effect, he advocates that you remember “there is always someone out there for whom you are the idiot”.

3. Acknowledge your differences:

If you’re arguing with someone from a different background – or a different gender, ethnicity or culture – you may think it’s good manners to brush over that fact. But Nordell cites research showing that people who acknowledge difference are perceived as less biased.

You have a better chance of finding common cause with a traditional opponent if you don't threaten their identity

“For much of this project I struggled with what felt like a paradox, the fact that emphasising differences carries the risk of entrenching essentialist stereotypes and increasing prejudice and discrimination, but downplaying them can generate feelings of invisibility and disrespect,” she writes. In time she came to see: “The problem is not in seeing difference, but in the values and meanings we attach to it.”

There’s a lesson here for today’s culture wars: You have a better chance of finding common cause with a traditional opponent if you don’t threaten their identity. The trick, Nordell suggests, is not to let our different histories prevent us from having a meeting of minds.

4. Recognise there are different types of ought:

Participants in public debate tend to jump straight from condemning an argument to condemning its speaker, as though poor reasoning was a sin.

Nadler and Shapiro remind us that there are different types of ought. An epistemic ought is where you should accept the weight of evidence. A moral ought is where you should comply with a moral code. “Epistemically stubborn people are not always, in virtue of their epistemic stubbornness, immoral.”

The pair add a third category – prudential ought: “Sometimes it might be prudent to believe or not believe something.” You might have no evidential reason to believe in God, for example, nor any moral compulsion, yet still find it prudent to keep the faith.

The lesson? When you find yourself in an argument check if you’re both talking about the same category of ought.

5. Be mindful of suffering:

If someone isn’t thinking straight consider the possibility that there is some underlying stress or trauma. In a perceptive analysis of police brutality in the United States, Nordell examines the high rates of depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental distress in urban police forces and how this can contribute to situations where the brain “stops working”.

Unbearable stress shoots people into a “black zone” of aggression. Conversely, making people feel at ease de-escalates hostilities. In a moving section, Nordell describes an incident involving a police officer who had been called to deal with a domestic dispute where a man was refusing to hand over his child to his ex-partner. Instead of threatening arrest, the officer explained she was there to listen and help. She told him she could see how much he loved his daughter. They started talking, the man started crying and an agreement was reached.

Nordell encourages us to be “mindful” and see the other person “not as an adversary but as another suffering human being”.

6. Don’t actually try to win:

On his way to the trial that would see him sentenced to death, Socrates met Euthyphro who was seeking to have his father tried for murder. Socrates grills the younger man about what led him to that choice of action.

“The dialogue, like so many of Plato’s works, seems to end on a disappointing note,” Nadler and Shapiro write, but for Socrates the goal is never beating his opponent. Sowing doubt is victory enough. In the dialogue, Socrates acknowledges Euthyphro’s proclaimed belief in piety but asks if he has “no fear of having acted impiously in bringing your father to trial”.

This may be the best one can do when facing militant anti-vaxxers or climate deniers. Don’t start lecturing. Just ask: How will you feel if you’re wrong?

There is no guarantee that following any, or all, of these rules will help you to beat Lynd’s tally of three “wins” in 40 years of opining. But, remember, Socrates never won an argument in his whole life. If you find yourself with a similar score then at least you’re in good company.