Rebirth of Reason


Rules of Engagement for Those Discussions Aimed at Progress (ie. Rational Discussions)
by Ed Thompson

Why write on this issue?
Rand held that there are no fundamental conflicts among the interests of rational men.  If this notion is indeed true, then great benefit would almost certainly await those who adopt a path toward this goal of dealing with others rationally.  Giving this issue the time and energy it deserves, how might we empirically test the potential merit of this idea?  Answer: Empower debaters with "rules and tools of discussion" that allow them to understand the anatomy of both sides of an issue of debate.  This would simultaneously illuminate the evidence-based reasoning that we personally hold in support of our conclusions, as well as that which our "opponent" holds in support of a rival argument.  In other words, it would keep both sides "honest" - by making reasoning transparent, and also by holding it to an explicit rational standard.  In sum, there may be an incalculable human benefit from adoption of a treaty - a sort of "Geneva Convention" of explicit rules and tools - for rational argumentation.

Who is this written for? 
The title of this article focuses light on discussions that are aimed at progress - these I will call "persuasive" arguments.  This implies that there are discussions that are not aimed at progress - these I will call "coercive" arguments.  This article is not written for those who are only interested in coercion, and for them it makes no sense to read on.  For those who care about dealing with others in a manner that allows for the exchange of value for value, this article offers an investment of time and energy that may prove quite fruitful.  Nevertheless, although it may prove fruitful, it pays to keep a sober mind regarding the history of implementing new ideas (pay-offs often lie ahead, but not without the invested work and the occasional pitfalls that arise with the interpretation and application of any new idea). 

One further note: I have tried to make this "discussion treaty" as initially acceptable as possible and acceptable to all reasonable persons from very diverse intellectual backgrounds (and not merely "acceptable" to those explicitly championing Objectivist principles).

What potential value awaits readers (if and where they adopt this "tool")? 
Speaking optimistically, I would have to say that widespread adoption of the following treaty would lead to the eradication of statism and the permanent enthronement of individualism in human affairs (along with world peace, lasting joy, eradication of hunger, and geometrically increasing wealth - worldwide).  It cannot be overstated that, while I find these outcomes possible, this is obviously a best-case, long-range scenario!  However, many subtler benefits may be arrived at along the way (perhaps even the resolution of such common disputes as those that are over "whose turn it is" to do the dishes!). 

That being said, the value will be strongly tied - in individual cases - to a "smart" application regarding the "when and where" you decide to apply this treaty in the context of your life.  The obvious candidate for application is where there is simultaneously an apparent deadlock in discussion AND both sides of the debate have proclaimed their desire for rationality in the discussion.  The work required for implementation/application of the following rules can always be weighed against the estimated cost of each failed discussion (the oxymoronic: "discussion without progress" - in each circumstance).

Rational Discussion Treaty
Rule #1 (the Definitions/Syllogisms Rule - aka: the Clarity Rule) – Agree to work together (collaborate) for a “mutual understanding” - agree to utilize defined terms and transparent (syllogistic) reasoning in the effort to maximize clarity (while we'll see below that you can get too much 'precision' in debates, you can't ever get too much clarity).

Overall justification of Rule 1:  A “mutual understanding” is indispensable to any real ("rational") discussion. The reason for this is because you must first understand a position before you can be said to agree with it - or even to disagree with it! Without mutual understanding in a discussion, it can be said that you literally “do not even know what you are talking about”.  In sum, you must first demonstrate that you understand an opponent's position (by restating it in standard form and with defined terms) before you are allowed to say that you agree/disagree with it.

*How can I tell if I am (or my opponent is) acting in compliance with Rule #1?

Rule 1(a): Definitions.  Define your terms on language relevant to the issue – conform the language used with shared ideas.  In cases of disputes, separate lists of definitions may be initially required.  This will allow for mutual examination, which is done by searching each list for contradictory integrations (ie. poorly-defined terms).  Remember the purpose of defining (differentiation).

Rule 1(b): Syllogisms.  Special justification of Rule 1(b):  Syllogisms are valuable to those who acknowledge that evidence-based logic can establish necessity (indeed, that is its purpose!) and, therefore, contextual certainty.  The key to establishing contextual certainty is to make an inference that is sufficiently vague.  This point can be made much more clear by examining its opposite/antithesis.  Read on.

Antithetically speaking, the key to establishing contextual doubt/skepticism is to demand a degree of precision that is unnecessarily high.  However, this alternative is made possible only if one were so inclined to forget (or fail to "care") that the purpose of philosophy is to inform human action.  One should refrain from intentionally misusing this relationship in argument (intentionally demanding "super-human" precision for coercive purposes in argument, losing sight of the purpose of rational discourse: informed human action).
With this normative principle in mind (that demanding omniscience as a standard is wrong), I'll now attempt to empower rational debaters with a catch-term for its violators.  My proposed term for one who demands impossible precision and certainty (instead of working toward progress in discussion) is: "precision-junkie".  Here is a further, perhaps more illustrative, example:

A carpenter does not need to know the exact length of each plank of wood in order to build a house that is sturdy enough to stand for a lifetime.  He or she is only concerned (in the context of "house-building") to know these lengths down to the nearest millimeter or so.  This degree of precision is both achievable and productive. The type of vulgar skepticism used to rebuke the carpenter for his contextual certainty (that his planks are "equal enough for human purposes") is utterly baseless.  Said another way: For humans living in reality, 100% precision is not required for 100% certainty.

In sum, humans can be certain enough for human purposes - the historical controversy over the possibility of contextual certainty is unfounded (contextual certainty is uncontroversial).  The key to human benefit from contextual certainty is to be sufficiently vague - but precise enough - for human purposes.  Logic affords this certainty and allows for informed human action.  Syllogisms make logic transparent to observers for mutual evaluation, and therefore should be used (at least in all hard cases).

To review syllogisms, the standard syllogism allows for the mutual examination of both truth and validity of an argument ("truth-values of premises" and "validity of conclusion").  Depending on the extent of evidence and the extent of precision contextually imposed on a possible answer, a measure of certainty follows by reasoning correctly from true premises (or premises whose truth-value can be known with enough confidence for human purposes).   The context will indicate the level of precision-certainty that is required for human purposes (see carpenter example above).

Application of Rule 1(b): In application then, re-write what you take to be the essence of both sides of the debate as a standard syllogism.  For each side, create a written list of premises (which you/they presume truthful) and conclusions (which you/they presume valid) and put them in standard, syllogistic form for mutual evaluation. For each separate argument, create 2 premises leading to one conclusion (syllogistic reasoning). Stringing arguments together is allowed (different syllogisms, back-to-back, leading to a grand conclusion). 

One caveat: state your opponent's best argument (no deliberate "Straw Man" which omits their strong points!).  Both sides will get a chance to sanction the form and content anyway, so you may as well state it well the first time through (shabby restatements of an opponent's position will only make the opponent demand a revision - which is entirely unnecessary work if you had only stated it well the first time through).

Rule #2 (the Acknowledge-The-Limitations Rule) – Agree that evidence & logic are all that matters to the strength/weight of any argument. These 2 ingredients make or break any and every argument. The quality & quantity of these 2 things determines (ie. dictates) what is “right” or at least “best” in any given context.  The level of evidence will determine the strength of inference allowed.  The rules of logic will delimit the possibilities for potential solutions.

*How can I tell if I am (or my opponent is) acting in compliance with Rule #2?

Rule 2(a): The level of evidence will determine the strength of inference allowed.  For one example of an easily-accessible (online) objective standard of evidence that has been used successfully (in medicine), see Rule 2(a) notes below.

Rule 2(b): The rules of logic will delimit the possibilities for potential solutions.  While empirical evidence will specifically delimit allowable inferences, undeniable axioms will generally delimit allowable inferences.  A checklist of axioms must be agreed upon for rational discussion.  This may be a contentious area with people, but even a partial list - as long as it's agreed to - may suffice for a given purpose!  It is left up to the debaters themselves to agree on a list.  For an example of an easily-accessible (online) initial list to draw axioms from, see Rule 2(b) notes below. 

Rule #3 (the Final Appeal Rule): The “best available argument” always wins. Appeals to “proof beyond reasonable doubt” are allowed when no rival argument is forwarded (note: this standard is high enough to decide human fate in murder trials). While "contextual proof" (beyond a shadow of a doubt) may arise in the case of self-evident propositions - or even from valid deduction from self-evident propositions - appeals to “absolute proof ” in contextual matters are rejected outright as a denial of human fallibility - expecting “perfection” or “the impossible” when you’re not allowed to (only insane people are "allowed" to maintain these arbitrary expectations, not reasonable people).

*How can I tell if I am (or my opponent is) acting in compliance with Rule #3?

Rule 3: Acknowledge that humans lack omniscience and that they are fallible.  Demanding that these limitations be overcome - before you are willing to give your assent to what is otherwise reasonable! - is an act of evasion, not good argumentation; and it must be agreed that such behavior is unacceptable in the realm of rational human discourse (non-agreement is a violation of rule 3).
Summary Checklist
___  relevant terms are defined (rule 1a)
___  both sides of debate are reconstructed in standard form (rule 1b)
___  level of evidence is quantified (rule 2a)
___  strength of inference is qualified (rule 2b)
___  entire argument is clear of axiom violations* (rule 2b)
___  any final appeal is reasonable (rule 3)

*agreed upon axioms: 1) ________ ,             2) ________ ,            3) ________ , etc.      
I agree to the 6 stipulations in the Summary Checklist above.  I agree to the list of axioms above.

Signed (both parties): ____________________ & _____________________


Notes on Rule 2(a):
*A link outlining levels of evidence corresponding to grades of inferential recommendations (from CEBM):

According to the information available at the link above, the medical "Level of Evidence 1" (1a - 1c) leads to the highest grade (A) or "strength" of recommendation.  In comparisons between options then, those options with Level 1 evidence would supercede others with lesser quality evidence behind them.  A philosophically-relevant level would be: Level 1c ("All or none"):
In medical therapy/prevention, Level 1c is met when: "all patients died before the Rx became available, but some now survive on it; or when some patients died before the Rx became available, but none now die on it."
One philosophical application (with regard to this level) would be the common Socrates syllogism (Socrates = man, men = mortals; therefore: Socrates = mortal).  Or, in analogous terms that are more clearly related to "All or none": Because Socrates was a man, Socrates was mortal (all men from his time have died, none have survived).  In the realm of 'informed human action' then (hint: where we exist), these last 2 facts would justify an inference, and especially so if the cost of not making an inference is high.

Notes on Rule 2(b):
*A link introducing axioms which could be used in a checklist (from Merrill):

*An independent validation of the list above (from Wharton):

(example axiom: "existence exists")

-The End- 
Sanctions: 16Sanctions: 16Sanctions: 16 Sanction this ArticleEditMark as your favorite article

Discuss this Article (30 messages)