I'm newly subscribed but looking to contribute, and I was wondering if anyone would be interested in an article (or series thereof) teaching, in a formal and well-defined manner, how to argue. It would cover things like:

  • The general outline for a compelling argument;
  • How to systematically construct a sound deduction from premise to conclusion;
  • How to properly substantiate (that is, bring examples and illustrations for) a point;
  • How to notice an unsound argument;
  • How to define and point out the flaws once you do;
  • Et cetera.

There are two reasons why I think such an article might be helpful for this community: Firstly because having learned those skills you could apply them in the privacy of your own head, both to your own arguments and those of others, which in my experience gives a huge boost to critical thinking ability. Secondly because I think most of this community would like to actually make the world a saner place, and those skills are really handy when trying to explain to some intelligent-but-uninitiated schlub why a given silly belief or deduction is in fact silly, or conversely why any of the tools of rationality we use here are in fact rational. It's not magic, but it helps.

It might also improve the level of discourse on the site, of course, but frankly the level of actual argument here is really high in comparison to that of most real-world forums (let alone most Internet forums), and I'd guess with about .75 certainty that nothing I could teach would make it noticeably "better" (a higher growth rate for the function describing the probability of reaching truth as dependent on resources spent arguing). But at the moment I'm inclined to attribute that to the kind of people doing the arguing, rather than the training they have.

And yes, I've noticed articles here that touch on the subject, like Yudkowsky's on inferential distances or language, but I haven't seen anyone having the hubris to try and cover the entire subject in broad strokes. Hubris is a personal speciality of mine.

If this would be helpful, and particularly if there's anything you feel should fall under this heading that I missed in the above list, please say so. If you don't think such an article would be helpful, also please say so. Two reasons I've considered for why that might be the case:

  • It's irrelevant - most LWers know it already, or it wouldn't actually improve their critical thinking and they're not interested in playing the missionary;
  • It would do more harm than good, in much the same way as knowing about biases can. This is an especially large risk since what I'm teaching would come from my years as a tournament debater, a game which while great fun spits in the face of the very concept of truth. I'm mostly relying on the objectivity and lightness I've witnessed here to mitigate that risk, but if I'm wrong by all means point it out.

PS: No, of course it's not a good idea to finish an argument with reasons that it's likely to be wrong! Who told you to do that?

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7 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:56 PM

Personally, I wouldn't. This is Philosophy 100 stuff - there are tons of textbooks and stuff, even online, for 'introduction to logic' etc.


Argumentation can be troublesome because it encourages rehearsals rather than seeing with fresh eyes. It can also obscure your true rejection. (See also the comments here.)

However, there have been some posts describing how to argue without rationalizing: LCPW, How and Why to Debate Charitably, Better Disagreement. I wouldn't mind more, so long as they address my aforementioned concerns about rationalization.


Why not just write the article, post it in the discussion area and see what people think of it?

ETA: In this post lukeprog suggested some ideas for useful articles. The most interesting suggestion in my eyes was this:

Informal Fallacies as Errors in Bayesian Reasoning. Just as science errs or succeeds as it agrees with probability theory, informal fallacies are justified only in so far as they agree with Bayes. A recent summary of this is here.

I've read the paper but didn't feel like writing it up; but it's interesting, and relevant to addressing questions like "what is a compelling argument?" and "how can one identify an unsound argument?"

I suggest you write up or comment on (elements of) that paper, if you want to write an interesting and relevant article on good argumentation for Less Wrong.

Secondly because I think most of this community would like to actually make the world a saner place, and those skills are really handy when trying to explain to some intelligent-but-uninitiated schlub why a given silly belief or deduction is in fact silly, or conversely why any of the tools of rationality we use here are in fact rational.

If you have significant experience with this part I'd enjoy seeing an article on it. Significant here means that you've seen enough people not just "lose the argument," but actually go on to apply what you tried to teach them, to get a good feel for what teaches people instead of merely winning. I definitely don't think we need a post on how to win arguments.

Please go ahead and write your article! I'd be very interested in reading about this kind of thing. Even if part of debating is black arts stuff with winning the debate' rather than search for thruth no matter where she lies (to put it a bit melodramatic), it's good at least to be good at recognizing* the tricks.

The same is true for amusing, easy-reading stuff like The Game or The 48 laws of Power; you don't want to take it too serious, but it's good to be aware of it, as one can observe some of it in daily life, and understanding helps. That's not meant as sarcasm -- I'm interested in what you learned about debating, and hopefully I can learn something from it.

Since i suck at arguing i would love to see more posts on this subject. I also agree with previous commenter's that a clear distinction needs to be made for things that are darksidey or purely meant for winning an argument no matter what.

there are times when winning the argument is better for your terminal values than always trying to convince the other party of truth.


Good argumentation is ethical argumentation!

"Argumentation ethics asserts the non-aggression principle is a presupposition of every argument and so cannot be logically denied during an argument. Argumentation ethics draws on ideas from Jürgen Habermas's and Karl-Otto Apel's discourse ethics, from Misesian praxeology and from the political philosophy of Murray Rothbard.

Hoppe first notes that when two parties are in conflict with one another, they can choose to resolve the conflict by engaging in violence, or engaging in argumentation. In the event that they choose to engage in argumentation, Hoppe asserts that the parties have implicitly rejected violence as a way to resolve their conflict. He therefore concludes that non-violence is an underlying norm (Grundnorm) of argumentation, that is accepted by both parties.

Hoppe states that, because both parties propound propositions in the course of argumentation, and because argumentation presupposes various norms including non-violence, the act of propounding a proposition that negates the presupposed propositions of argumentation is a logical contradiction between one’s actions and one’s words (this is called a performative contradiction). Specifically, to argue that violence should be used to resolve conflicts (instead of argumentation) is a performative contradiction.[3]""