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