Rebirth of Reason

Keep it Purposeful
by Joseph Rowlands

In most areas of our lives, it's common knowledge that if you want to accomplish a goal, some means are better than others. As you work towards that goal, you should be directed by your purpose, and let it be the standard by which you judge your actions.

Debates, arguments, and discussions among Objectivists and others tend to lose sight of this basic premise. When you're arguing, you have to have a goal. What is the goal, and are you using the most effective strategy? If you've ever ended a conversation with the feeling that you made no progress, maybe it's time to figure out why that happens.

The first, and most important step in this process is to decide on a goal. You have to be clear about this ahead of time. Just "seeing where it goes" will never go where you want it to. So upfront, what is your goal?

There are a number of goals that you can pursue when arguing with someone. The first one is convincing the other person that your position is correct. A second is "crushing your opponent". That might include humiliating them, proving them wrong, proving yourself right, getting them angry, outclassing them in style and awareness of trivia, or any number of other things. A third is convincing other people that may be listening to the debate that your position is right. There are a lot of things you may be trying to accomplish, but you have to make up your mind which it is.

The point isn't that one is better than another. Sometimes it's fun to beat the other person. Sometimes it's hopeless to try to convince the person you're arguing with. Pick whatever you want, but stick with it.

The reason is that these ends are not compatible. You can't do them all at the same time. Your goal is the standard by which you decide which actions to take. If you have more than one goal, you have more than one standard. This is a problem I call the Fallacy of the Second Standard. By attempting to accomplish more than one goal, you'll destroy any chance you have of winning any of them.

For instance, if you're trying to convince the person with whom you're arguing of a point, embarrassing him and making him look like an idiot will only make him defensive. Instead of trying to communicate to him your ideas, you'll end up focusing on his ideas. Instead of keeping things positive and friendly, you'll make it adversarial.

Or, if you're trying to give him a good thrashing, you should not get indignant when he doesn't accept your arguments or thank you for enlightening him. If he's a very rational, brave man, he may ignore the insults and eventually admit that he was wrong. But you aren't making that easy or likely. And even this thrashing should be better defined if you want to accomplish something. Are you trying to show him that he's very ignorant of the topic and should study more? Or are you trying to make him so angry he'll go away and hide? You decide.

Just remember that mixed goals will produce mixed results, with no success for any of them. Next time you have a conversation, think about what you would like to accomplish, and stick with it to the end. And if a conversation goes poorly, ask yourself honestly if you acted consistently according to that goal.