Environmental Ethics
PHIL 323 / INDS 323
The University of Arizona

Why argue?
Why would you want to do it better?
How you can do it better.

by Elizabeth Willott

You want some thing or state of affairs. Generally, to get that, you need to negotiate with other people. Improving your communication skills, i.e., improving your arguing skills, will help. So, to ‘get what you want’ is one reason for arguing. Other reasons to argue are to find out what you believe and what other people believe and why.

Note: ‘getting what you want’ does not have to be about strictly selfish wants–You may want your spouse/friend/relative to understand you better, or you to understand them better; your children to examine their own beliefs and make their own decisions; etc.

A Good Argument:
1. Shows what position a person holds
2. Allows others to present their point of view
3. Helps arguers reach and understand new views and reasons for those views
4. Does not stomp on people

A key reference for these notes is Michael A. Gilbert’s How to Win an Argument: Surefire strategies for getting your point across, 2nd edition, 1996, New York, John Wiley, 194 p.

Michael Gilbert writes, "You can also learn a lot about people from arguing with them. First, you learn what they believe about the issue at hand and why they believe it. Second, from the way they argue you also learn about their values, their beliefs, and the ways in which they present them. You end up not only with insights into your argument partners’ positions, but your partners’ entire worldview as well." p.10 He continues to emphasize the benefits: "You want your beliefs to be true. ... By spotting weaknesses, mistakes, and falsehoods in your own and other people’s arguments, you stand a much better chance of holding to and acting on true beliefs. The advantage to this approach is success; making decisions on false beliefs can only lead to error and trouble." p.11 So, some reasons exist to become a better arguer.

Are there reasons NOT to become a better arguer?

Some people use argument skills to browbeat others. However, this isn’t a necessary consequence of learning to become a better arguer–this is abuse of the learning. You don’t have to become obnoxious.

Michael Gilbert writes, "Unlike arming people with guns or bombs, no one will die from being armed with the techniques of argument. Instead, real communication will be increased through greater awareness of the complexities and subtleties of argument." p.7

What IS an argument? A disagreement? Typically–but not necessarily. I might formulate an argument to explain why I hold a certain position. You might hold that same position and just want to know more about why I hold it. No disagreement: We might argue to discover more about each other’s beliefs.

What IS an argument? An argument, in philosophy, is a claim that is backed by reasons.

At the start of this page I made the claim that you could benefit from becoming a better arguer. I backed that claim with some reasons why you would benefit: you could become more knowledgeable about your views, other people’s views, and be more able to influence others.

Sometimes arguing is difficult. Either you or your co-arguer may be too attached to a position or claim. Then it is difficult to make much progress. Creative argument involves being open to examining your beliefs and the reasons you hold them. That is what these notes address. Although you might not enjoy having your beliefs knocked about, you can benefit from the experience.

My aim in writing this is that some of you likely are hesitant about participating in arguments and speaking out in class. I want to plant a seed–give you reasons why it is in your interests to develop your skill in speaking out and in examining your beliefs. One of our objectives for this class is to provide a forum for you to safely test out speaking out and arguing and thereby improve your skills. We strongly encourage you to participate.

Listen carefully to arguments presented and formulate your own. Set your ego aside and look for truth or at least discover different ways of looking at issues and situations.

Gilbert summarizes, "In a creative argument both parties are more interested in finding the truth or solving the problem than in being right. When you argue creatively you are interested in your partner’s arguments, and you listen to them carefully to see if there is helpful information or insights. Your partner is also listening to you, and you work together to come up with the best solution or correct answer. Creative argument minimizes the role of the arguers’ egos and maximizes their commitment to inquiry." p.14 In Phil 323, we aim to provide a place where you can creatively argue. You can develop new skills and learn to maintain better control over your mind and emotions in discussions. This isn’t a course called "Critical Thinking" but we will expect you to develop your critical thinking skills during this course. By the end of the course you should be better able to recognize poor arguments and be prepared to offer better reasons in your own arguments. Some of the assigned papers are included for historical reasons. Some are not tightly argued, some are argued better than others. We will do our best to warn you which ones to look at analytically and which ones to read for joy, interest, or ideas.

Some key pointers to arguing effectively:

1. Know why you are arguing: What is your purpose? Do you believe you can achieve your purpose? If you are arguing with a fanatic, it’s unreal to believe you will change his/her mind–but you might have some fun, and you might benefit because you can examine your own claims and reasons in the process of arguing. At other times, you may be arguing because you do want to convince someone to change their mind–you wish to convince them that your reasons support a substantially different conclusion than the conclusion they currently hold.

2. Know what you are arguing about: What is the topic? What is YOUR claim? What is your co-arguer’s claim? What reasons support your claim? your co-arguer’s claim?

3. Come to know your blind spots–if you can’t be dispassionate, then perhaps it’s time to exit that argument for a while, but note that you could benefit from exploring that topic in the future.

Learn defensive arguing techniques

Gilbert writes.
"Just as defensive driving techniques teach you how to protect yourself against sloppy and dangerous drivers, here you will learn to defend yourself against bad arguments and tricky maneuvers. Many people only care about winning an argument. They want to change your mind and don’t care how they do it." p. 15. You want to maintain control over your mind–You don’t want to be manipulated! Learn how to defend yourself.

Technique #1: Know where you are going

1. If the disagreement is about a fact, don’t argue– Agree on what will serve as the source to resolve the issue. Find a source you both pre-agree will be authoritative: What’s the capital of Canada? What was the high temperature yesterday–as recorded at the Tucson airport? These aren’t worthy of "argument".

2. If you are engaged in healthy arguing, most of your arguments will be about opinions and complex issues–What is the best car to buy? Context is important–if you have 5 kids and like camping the answer is likely to be different than if you are 85 years old and need it for driving to church, shopping, and doctor’s appointments. How dependable does it have to be? Is gas mileage important? Is impressing other people important? In these cases, part of determining ‘best’ is going to hinge on drawing out all the factors that need to be weighed in the decision. If you are arguing to reach some sort of conclusion, then you will need to explore many different facets of the situation. Most of the topics we cover in environmental ethics fit this category–the issues are multi-faceted.

Technique #2: Know what is involved in productive arguing


There’s a claim or conclusion. People under 3 feet tall should not be permitted on roller coasters.

There are reasons. Roller coaster safety bars are designed to hold people of a certain size; people who are too small are not safely restrained by the bars.

"Reasons answer the question, ‘Why accept this claim?’" (Gilbert, p.31)

KEYPOINT: Just restating the claim is not to argue. The key is to provide reasons. How deep do the reasons have to go? That "depends". People can ask reasons for your reasons–ask you to defend your reasons. "While this can go on forever, most arguments are self-limiting. Sometimes a point of common knowledge or agreement is reached, while at other times you may arrive at a point of fundamental disagreement. Separating reasons and claims, examining them carefully, will aid you in learning what are the crucial differences between you and your opposer. Knowledge about crucial differences is valuable; once it is known, the chances of reaching some consensus can be judged. How basic is the difference? Is it an irreconcilable difference? These are important questions." p.32-33 Technique #3: Assume that people have reasons for their beliefs: Do not argue with people who don’t, and limit your arguing when people don’t have "good" reasons
1. If your purpose is to learn more about a position and beliefs, then there’s no point in arguing with someone who does not have decent reasons. From this it follows:

DON’T ARGUE WITH FANATICS! (Well, unless you find it fun.)

Gilbert writes: "Fanatics are so easy to rile and excite that the desire to argue with them is often overwhelming." p.36.

NOTE: Often, fanatics know the basic arguments for both sides, but rarely are they deep thinkers so you will find their reasoning goes ‘strange’ very soon into the argument. Most fanatics tend to rely on "special pleading"–claim to knowledge that is available only to them. Anyone who disagrees is believed by the fanatic to be blind in some way.

2. If it is important to argue with a fanatic (say a friend who is set on joining a cult), one approach is to ask: "What would it take to prove you are wrong?"

3. Don’t be obnoxious or pushy–people will reach a point in giving reasons for reasons that they can’t get past. Just because they can’t convince you doesn’t mean they don’t have decent grounds for their beliefs! If you are an obnoxious skeptic or too ‘pushy’, you’ll damage your reputation as respecting other people in arguments. Respect is the key. Leave an argument if you are not treating the other person with respect or if you are not being treated with respect.

Technique #4: Expect consistency and note inconsistency

Treat like cases similarly. If you wish to treat two situations differently, then you ought to have a reason why you treat them differently. How are the two situations relevantly different?

Technique #5: Know the principle(s) behind a position

Say someone is against the shooting of elephants. They might believe shooting elephants is wrong because they believe elephants are endangered and that the species is in danger. The principle might be that we ought to save endangered species. Or they might believe shooting elephants is wrong because they believe elephants are highly intelligent and moral beings and worthy of our respect, and that killing them is murder. Or they might believe that hunting is wrong because of what it does to the hunter rather than the hunted. You will want to find out which principles your co-arguer holds so you can understand what he/she is saying and engage in profitable argument. If you don’t know the principles, you will not understand.

Technique #6: LISTEN!

Although this may shock your co-arguer, do it anyway.

If you can restate what they said and show you really did listen, the co-arguer is more likely to listen to you!

If you get side-tracked–admit it! Find out where you got lost. You were saying x, y, z, and then I must’ve missed something because then you said ‘a’ and I don’t see how that fits. If the other person misses your point, say something like, I guess you missed my point, I said m and n–how will you deal with my point ‘n’?

Technique #7: Respect Intuitions (but recognize their limitations):

We often start with an intuition, but we want to figure out why we have the intuitions we have. Argument can help us discover that. Another person is not likely to be very impressed by your intuitions–you need to provide arguments supporting your intuited conclusions.

Technique #8: RELAX!

Listen, argue, listen, argue–breathe often and deeply. Don’t sweat the names of fallacies and all that stuff. Just listen, argue, listen, argue. Does the argument ring true? Focus on the claims and the reasons and breathe. Arguing does not need to be stressful. If there’s one thing I want you to learn from this course, that would be it.

Technique #9: Consider that the other person might be correct!

Maybe not fully correct, but he/she might have some good ideas that you would benefit from hearing.

For example: (This is a mouthful of negatives--You can figure it out if you pick it apart slowly.) Just because someone at Nike says that Nike can’t do much about the manufacturer Kuk Dong doesn’t make it false that Nike can’t do much. Perhaps Nike CAN’T do much. Just because a statement comes from Nike, or a Catholic, a Jew, an environmentalist, an industrialist, a feminist, or a Dead White Male .... doesn’t make it automatically acceptable or rejectable. Look at the content.


Circular Argument:

"Of course we know that God exists. It says right in the Bible that God exists, and the Bible must be true since it’s the Word of God." p.64

You’ll only accept the reason: It says in ... if you already accept the claim: That God exists.

The reason is only acceptable if the conclusion is true, so it doesn’t support our reaching the conclusion.

Reasons need to support claims. They can’t rely on the claims for their legitimacy.

Manipulation by Intimidation:

If someone says "Nonsense" ask: Why do you think it is nonsense? – So, treat dismissive statements like a claim–what is the reason for the claim.

"If your opposer says ‘Everyone knows...’–and you don’t know–then your opposer is wrong." p.85 Gilbert, 1996

"Never let the fear of looking dumb make you argue poorly." (Gilbert, 1996)

Be prepared to say: I don’t follow, please explain that again a different way–and you will preempt many attempts to manipulate you.

Appeal to force:
Some appeals to force are legitimate, but only if backed up with something substantial.
"A threat is never a good reason to believe something, but it may be a good reason to do something."
Give the mugger your money when he says: Your money or your life.
However, if you are in an argument, your opponent's ideas are not something that are direct dangers to you. Similarly, if your opponent appeals to your fear of unknown, foreigners, or harm or danger, you need to be careful to keep your emotions in check and ask for evidence and other support.

Name Calling: "Creeping socialism", "Strident feminism", "Tree hugger stuff"

Ignore the naming and give or ask for reasons. Michael Gilbert suggests something like the following as a reply: "Look, Didi, call it what you want. I don’t care if it’s Socialism, Fascism, or Sufism, I think it’s important because ..."

Caution: Don’t fight about labels–fight about reality. "A person’s background may explain why they give an argument, but it will not be grounds for dismissing it." p.104, Gilbert, 1996 "Name calling, smearing, and dismissing arguments because of their source are all ways of avoiding the real issue. These tactics are common among those who do not wish to listen or consider. Beware: If a person’s character, motives, or background is raised, demand to know why it is relevant to the argument." p.106, Gilbert, 1996 Subject Changing: People do this to avoid answering your questions–particularly in public settings. Keep your focus. Bring the topic back. If you get bewildered, don’t assume it’s you–ask for clarification. Gilbert says a lot about this, and he says it well: "To avoid being caught by a change of subject, know what the argument is about, listen very carefully, and be sure of your own position. After all, if you are confused or unclear as to your own position, you can hardly accuse an opposer of changing the subject." p.76 Gilbert, 1996

"(T)he best way to combat a particular fallacy is to know what you are doing. If you have a clear idea of what should be going on, you will know the moment your opposer leaves the track." p.76 Gilbert, 1996

"All it takes is a moment’s inattention to miss a switch. When it does happen, something unfortunate takes place: You get that feeling of bewilderment and you assume it is you, and not your opposer." Gilbert, 1996

"Most arguers do not have the confidence to suppose that the other person has made a mistake or committed a fallacy when it’s so much easier to blame themselves: ‘There I go again, too stupid to know what’s happening, too thick to follow the argument. Well, he’s pretty bright, so I suppose he knows what he’s talking about.’ Like hell! All you do with this attitude is compound a felony. First you forget to listen; then, when you come back and are confused you assume it is you, not your opposer, who is at fault." p.78 Gilbert, 1996

"If the confusion is not caused by a mistake, then you owe it to your respondent to try to follow his argument. If the confusion is caused by a shifty maneuver, you owe it to yourself to stop and ask. In either case, whether the bewilderment is your fault or your opposer’s, you should look for the cause." p.78 Gilbert, 1996

"The key to beating a change of subject is, first of all, to know that it has happened. If the thread of an argument is lost, stop and find out what is going on. The odds are it had nothing to do with you." p.81 Gilbert, 1996

Arguing from Popularity

1. Everyone steals office pens.
2. Everyone bribes customs officials.
3. Everyone smokes marijuana.

These just don’t work. There’s a big difference between a reason and a rationalization, even though pinning down the difference may be difficult!

Dealing with Experts and Expertise

Does a movie star necessarily know which politician is best? On the other hand, because someone is a movie star, it doesn’t follow that he/she doesn’t know anything about the politicians–perhaps the movie star really does have some good info or argument you could benefit from hearing. So, watch for inappropriate appeals to authorities or inappropriate rejections of reasons.

You can challenge: Excuse me, but I don’t see what Springsteen’s approval of this farm bill has to do with the goodness or badness of the farm bill. What are the advantages and disadvantages of the bill?

Sometimes you need to respect expertise–then respect it–don’t bow down to it. Even if the expert is appropriate (say a medical doctor and you have a fever), experts won’t know the particular contexts you face (if the doctor doesn’t ask if you’ve been traveling to Africa, don’t expect him or her to right away figure out you’re suffering from malaria).

"Never agree with an expert unless you really do know what she is talking about–no matter how stupid you feel." p.96, Gilbert, 1996

• Ask for explanations–A true expert should be able to explain
• Persist!

Straw Man

Sometimes your co-arguer will distort your position or paint a position that no one actually holds–but it’s a position that the co-arguer can attack. (This type of arguer is not worth spending much time around.) Make sure you ask: is this a realistic position?

Gilbert warns: "Always be suspicious of positions that are too easy to attack: They have very likely been distorted." p.110, Gilbert, 1996

"Distortion of your own position can be halted by interrupting with something like this: ‘That’s a very interesting view. However, it has nothing to do with my position. Let me explain again.’" p.111, Gilbert, 1996. I concur with his suggestion, but would emphasize that unless you have all day, that you may need to interrupt!

Slippery slopes
  • Ever-better wine (This story is about a wine that gets better every day–The problem: If you’re a wine drinker, when is it optimal to drink the wine?)
  • Fetal development to baby, to adult
  • Child height and roller coaster safety
  • Driver’s license age limit and maturity
All of these are examples where there isn’t a great difference from one day to the next (or one height to the next) but there is clearly a difference between one extreme and the other extreme (e.g., a single cell as a fertilized ovum vs. billions of cells in a person who has the capacity to make and execute plans and be a moral agent).

"Always keep track of what assumptions you have granted for the sake of argument–you may want to take them back." Gilbert, 1996.

Even if you don’t want to "take them back", you may want to include context: The ability of a fetus to survive outside the womb (it’s viability) might be significant in some contexts; the ability of the fetus to feel pain might be significant in another.

Doubtful evidence; false cause; hasty generalization

"A statement needs more than reasons for acceptance–it needs good reasons." p.119

Can the reasons containing empirical claims be substantiated?

Is the ‘evidence’ in the form of correlation? Then be careful. It supports, but doesn’t prove. Correlation between DDT and egg-shell thinning. But likely many other contaminants were higher if DDT was higher and those other compounds were typically not monitored in studies linking DDT with egg-shell thinning.

That a statement is a generalization is not grounds for dismissing it automatically. You need to ask: Does the generalization hold for that particular context? Are there grounds for accepting or dismissing it?

over-generalizations – can frequently be knocked down with a single counterexample. ‘Never’, ‘always’, ‘all’ and ‘none’ often signal over-generalizations when the more appropriate term may really be ‘rarely’, ‘typically’, ‘most’, ‘few’.

Gilbert cautions "Never make a general statement stronger than you need to–you may be forced to retract." p.129 Fallacy of the False Dilemma. Choose between two alternatives. But often there are more than two alternatives. Don’t let someone unfairly narrow a situation to two. Oppressor/oppressed; Rich/poor. When the choice seems extreme, examine the middle. Your co-arguer may be creating an image of only two alternatives so he/she can find problems with one, and thereby conclude the other. This is NOT appropriate if there are actually more than two alternatives.


*Fisher & Ury: Getting to Yes. 2d ed. Penguin, 1991.
*Huff, Darrel. How to Lie with Statistics. Norton, 1959.

There are numerous other books on critical thinking. Not all of them are "gentle" since the same awareness that you need to overcome attacks on you can be used in the other direction to attack others who lack the awareness. It is my sincere hope that you will use what you have learned from this article in a way that achieves good.

Phil 323 Hot Stuff

The University of Arizona
Last update August 8, 2003.
willott at u.arizona.edu
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