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Ask The Question
There’s an easy fix for this problem. As soon as you’ve identified the issue at hand (let’s take a simple but controversial example: “Is it moral to use lethal force in self defense?”), and determined the other person’s position (let’s say he’s called Bob, and his position is “No, it’s immoral”), ask The Question:
"What would I have to show you in order for you to change your mind?"
The conversation could go one of a number of ways at this point.
Bob might be antagonistic—he’s expressed himself purely for the purpose of winding you up. In this case, he won’t be able to answer The Question in a meaningful way, except perhaps to wind you up further. A lot of my friends fit this mold, and it can be great fun arguing with such people—provided you’re aware of what’s going on, and set your goals and expectations accordingly.
Or maybe Bob is the kind of person who forms opinions emotively, without thinking them through; he knows that the idea of self defense with lethal force feels bad, and that’s it. His philosophy is that of an animal (not in a pejorative sense; I love my dogs, but I wouldn’t seek to engage them in conversation) that feels and and never thinks. Any answer to The Question from this particular Bob is likely to be on a purely emotive level.
Climbing further up the ladder, another type of Bob has explicitly identified the reasons for his opinion. Perhaps he was taught by his parents that violence never solves anything, or perhaps he’s a member of a pacifist religion. Sadly, he’s never taken a look at the fundamentals of his argument; he doesn’t understand how his parents, teachers or religious mentors reached their conclusions, and so doesn’t understand what evidence could invalidate them. In the worst case, he’ll be so emotionally invested in those conclusions, he won’t admit that they could ever be called into question. He has a philosophy, he’s consciously aware of it, but he’s never examined it, so it isn’t really his philosophy at all. This type of Bob isn’t going to be able to meaningfully answer The Question either; he’ll most likely argue from authority (e.g., “because the Party says so!”).
The good news is, there’s one last type of Bob. This Bob has his own consciously developed philosophy. He uses that philosophy to guide his actions as best he can throughout all areas of his life. He holds to his opinions with great strength of conviction, and expresses himself with the passion that flows from a rational conviction. He is prepared to check his premises and change his opinions should new evidence come to light. When he needs to, he asks outside authorities for information and opinions, and then integrates those into his own philosophy, questioning rather than accepting blindly. This Bob is rational.
Rational Bob will be able to answer The Question. He won’t have given a serious opinion without understanding the premises and assumptions upon which he’s based that opinion. He often truthfully answers, “I don’t know—I haven’t given it any thought,” when asked a question from left-field. His response to The Question will probably sound something like “I think violence of any kind is morally wrong, as the morality of a behavior is determined solely by the suffering or joy it causes the recipient. You’d have to show me that I’m wrong about morality in order to change my mind.”
Rational Bob might be wrong, but he’s worth talking with, because you can have a rational dialogue with him and it’s almost guaranteed that one or both of you will learn something from it. Rational Bob’s philosophy might be poles apart from yours, but if you both respect and embrace reason and polite discourse, you’ll find debates with Rational Bob much more pleasant than those with irrational people who hold opinions closer to your own.
So is there any point debating an issue with any other kind? Sure, if you know what you want out of it.
It’s worth debating an issue with anyone, even an intentionally antagonistic Bob, if you’re in a public arena and want a platform from which to express your ideas.
An emotive, animalistic Bob is worth 'debating' if you have a reason for changing his behavior. Just remember that you’re not dealing with a thinking human being, so reason is out the door: you’ll have to rely entirely upon on emotive 'arguments.' You won’t be changing his mind—you’ll be changing his feelings.
A partly-rational Bob is worth debating, because you might be able to convince him to check the premises of his philosophy upon which he’s based his opinion. If he gets to the stage of being able to answer The Question with regard to the original issue, he’ll be acting in a manner sufficiently rational as to make further discourse worthwhile. Ultimately, though, it’s only rational people with whom debate is consistently worthwhile.
If you apply The Question carefully, you can minimize prolonged encounters with the irrational Bobs of the world. Not only will you be more effective, you’ll be less stressed as well.
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