Some arguments go on for hours with the same basic points being repeated back and forth and never moving forward, some result in the resurfacing of every bad thing that ever happened between you and your opponent that had long been resolved until then, others end with one side running off and then shouting out an insult amid their retreat in a pathetic attempt to have the last word. Yep, some arguments really aren’t worth having. And I’m sure even if us sensible folk think back we can recollect a time when an argument brought about the worst in us and we behaved in ways we regret.


So, considering we’re all level headed people, how does this happen?


A large part of the problem is that in an argument you rely on your opponent for your exchanges to operate in a functional, problem solving way. If an opponent is wholly erratic and/or unjust in their interpretations and replies to your arguments it becomes impossible to say anything that can help lead to a productive conclusion.


The quote ‘‘Never argue with an idiot- they drag you down to their level and then beat you on experience’’ springs to mind. However, my problem with this quote is if you were arguing with a well intentioned idiot, although the argument would breakdown through their lack of understanding, it wouldn’t get to the point of the really terrible arguments that become nasty, heated and petty.


The problem behind the really bad arguments doesn’t lie in stupidity; it lies in people approaching the argument as a power struggle rather than for what it should be as an intellectual exchange in order to resolve a disagreement using reason.  


When people care only about winning the debate, not about being correct, this is when everything starts to fall to pieces. If an opponent is merely there to get their opinion adopted by the other then the argument is nothing more than a charade as no matter how compelling the case put forward they will never change their stance. Because any intellectual ways of solving the issue at hand are void this leaves the door open for frustration to build and can cause one to resort to other means to influence the exchange such as name calling, shouting and storming off.


So in light of this problem, I have deemed it a worthwhile task to outline some core ground rules that need to be followed for those of us that want to have a rational adult debate.


The Rules:


1. It should not be looked or conducted as a battle- it is two or more groups trying to ‘work towards a truth’.

2. Ego’s should be left out of the matter. Do not argue with your pride on the line and nor should someone ever try to damage their opponents (i.e. trying to rub in victories, mockery etc).

3. All parties have to accept that they might be wrong. There is always the possibility that our logic or information could be flawed in ways unbeknown to us. 

4. No side is allowed to get angry or aggressive.

5. People should be allowed to finish what they are saying. Not everything is a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer – you cannot know what someone’s opinions/points are unless they are able to say them in full.

6. People should be allowed plenty of time to come up with answers. It would be advisable to have a system to note things down on. Someone not being able to immediately think of or articulate an answer does not equate to their eventual answer being invalid.

7. Each person should try to help their ‘opponent’. They should be happy to repeat things and explain any words or concepts that the other does not understand (often I have seen people’s arguments be dismissed because they did not know a certain word, this is in no way a logical conclusion, and relates back to ego led ‘make the other look stupid’ aims rather than trying to ‘work towards the truth’). If someone thinks they could give their opponent some information that would be useful to them or a better articulation of what they think they’re trying to say etc – they should offer it.

8. Insults and taunts are strictly off limits- they’re logically empty phrases designed to emotionally hurt/provoke the opponent – they are acts of war not of debate (searching for truth). The integrity or abilities of the other character can’t be questioned unless it is truly relevant, i.e. their honesty can only be put into question if some point they say is relying on them being an honest person. 

9. (to go with above) All points must be relevant to the issue at hand. To often do knaves bring up outside points to cast doubt on a person and sidetrack the argument from the trail of thought that will show them to be wrong. If a person lost an argument last week, it doesn’t make them wrong on this occasion. What you’re debating now is what you need to debate, nothing else – it’s amazing how argumentative types tend to care so little about the actual argument at hand.

10. Both opponents need to listen to the other- without this simple rule being followed there is no debate- its just two people making noises before physical combat or going home.

11. Questions must be answered (provided they’re relevant).

12. A debate has never been decided indefinitely. We only ever appear to have found answers and who knows what one discovery could do in terms of changing the appeared outcome. We do not always argue well at certain times – in some cases the argument causes adrenaline levels to rise making the body’s blood supply go into the muscles and away from the brain where the oxygen is needed making us not think straight. I think we can all think of times when we lost arguments we feel we should have won and then later remembered the key point that didn’t come to us in the heat of the moment. If practical, the issue should be open to revision if someone feels they have more to say at a later date.

13. Any contentious issue of morality is up for debate: debate is there to decide what is right and wrong, not to be governed by it. (If something is clearly wrong then it should be a short debate).

14. No person has an obligation to finish an argument if the other person persists in not following one or more of the already mentioned rules even when their error is pointed out to them. This doesn’t necessarily mean they are wrong, it just means they are not worth debating with.


Additional Thoughts


  • To continue from rule 14 if people cannot respect the above rules, or if simply they seem a bit too dim to grasp the concepts at hand even after straight-forward explanations, you can continue if you wish but my soul advice is simply this: get out of there. No length of time spent is going to change the mind of a person that is not open to external ideas- you will waste your time and energy on a fruitless task.


  • Also, if they start insulting you and you feel your anger starting to boil– still get out of there. There have been times in the past where I thought I would return the persons disrespect but this only made things worse as it leaves the person you are arguing with in a position to question your integrity. Feel free to state your reasons for leaving if you feel it will do any good, i.e. ‘your not listening’ ‘you keep changing the subject’ ‘your clearly just trying to make yourself look good rather than exchange ideas logically and I want no further part in your attempts to inflate your ego nor to participate in what is a chronic waste of my time’ etc – then go… or fight/murder them but that’s another topic outside debate not related to this article (in general I’d advise against).


  • In regards to ‘people should be allowed plenty of time to respond’ it’s a difficult one to judge in practical terms as if someone takes 50 minutes to reply to a simple question then it seems they are using the time to find excuses or are just out to waste your day, but then again maybe the answer required is deceptively complex. How long a debate goes on for ultimately falls on the time constraints and patience on the individuals involved. In the end you cannot force someone to debate no matter how wrong they are- it’s a pity but there you go. On the plus side if someone keeps trying to argue with you all the time on subjects you don’t care about then at least you don’t have to pay them any attention.


  • When I say ‘all issues of morality are up for debate’- I mean general moral issues- if it is personalised then it can be a bad thing. For example- to debate whether it is acceptable to debate who’s spouse is better looking is acceptable whoever you are with – its an external issues, no one’s feelings can get hurt. However, if you start debating whether Jonny’s girlfriend is better looking than Stewart’s in a debate that involved Jonny and Stewart… and their girlfriends- this is unacceptable (unless they all say its fine to before hand).


  • The number of people who agree or disagree doesn’t equate to something being automatically right or wrong. Not so long ago it was agreed on mass that the world was flat, racism was acceptable and public beheadings were a family day out. I refer to the classic Oscar Wild quote “Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” Much of the time with the general public certain ‘truths’ get ingrained in their minds and they are merely remembering taught clichés rather than arguing progressively with an open mind. All good ideas start with either one or a few people adopting them and then grow from there. The percentage of support may well be a good indicator and often is the only reasonable way to make decisions but it is by no means ‘proof’ – the proof lies in the logic, and if it’s measurable- the results.


So to wrap things up…


These rules being followed will not mean that things necessarily reach a concrete conclusion, but they should at least mean things end amiably.


There is still room for abuse of the rules- people can leave claiming the other person hasn’t been listening when they have, people can not explain things well even when they say they’ve put it in simple terms and so on. It can happen because of this reason: a good debate is a partnership. You will get no where without a necessary level of integrity and intelligence being displayed by your opponent. And this is a problem because people who lack intelligence or integrity generally are more likely to be wrong in what they say. It’s a flaw what can you do?


However, before taking up the temptation to blame all sour argument in the past on our opponents it would be useful to remember that even us level headed folk are also flawed beings. We are not born a perfect species and we have to compete against ourselves and our own instincts as much as anything as we try to move forward. The human race is considerably stupider than it should be because often people cling to bad ideas in an attempt to save ourselves from embarrassment or having to admit to ourselves that we are wrong. Yep as daft as it seems it’s a very frequent occurrence for us to hold onto wrong ideas to try to avoid looking stupid, not the smartest move all things considered.


Try your best to be aware of when you are holding yourself back clinging on to flawed ideas and be patient and understanding when you see it in others- no one chooses to think/act stupidly, it just happens. And of course, if all else fails: get out of there!