5 How to Engage in Productive Debates

In ethics (and other areas of philosophy), debate has an important role in facilitating the exchange of ideas and providing opportunities for us to learn from each other. However, it is easy to get caught up in the ‘battle’ of argumentation. After all, the first two meanings of the word ‘argument,’ discussed above, suggest an antagonistic approach where two (or more) interlocutors take opposing sides on an issue and fight it out. It is especially easy to fall into an adversarial attitude in ethics where we may have strong feelings about right and wrong or commitments to particular values and our reasoning may lead us to act in ways with significant and perhaps irreversible consequences. In such contexts, it is tempting to try to defend one’s own views at all costs. Indeed, the adversarial process itself can become increasingly emotionally charged, inhibiting our ability to think rationally or listen to the perspectives of others. A focus on winning can distract us from attending to what makes an argument good—having premises that are true (or, at least, acceptable), relevant,  and good grounds for the conclusion we seek to defend.

In order to stimulate productive and constructive discussion, there are a couple of things that we can do. First, when critiquing someone’s position, we should try to find all the points of agreement. This process will help to narrow down exactly where the interlocutors disagree and focus the discussion. Many debates make little progress because people are talking past each other; conflicts cannot be resolved because the interlocutors are not arguing about the same thing! (The abortion debate is a good example. Some philosophers have suggested that debates about the moral permissibility of abortion stall because “pro-choice” advocates focus on the moral status of the mother, whereas “pro-life” advocates focus on the moral status of the fetus.[1])

Second, instead of trying to win the debate, consider engaging in argument repair.[2] This is where you actually help your interlocutor make the best case possible for their position. Argument repair can be achieved by making assumptions explicit, clarifying ambiguous terms, adding missing premises, or showing why the reasons given might be thought to provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion. In our everyday conversations, we typically don’t state all of the premises needed to give a complete defence of our arguments because we share common background knowledge and assumptions with our interlocutors. However, in more complex contexts (such as in ethical disputes), there is often one (or more) unstated premise that isn’t shared by all parties or the argument hinges on an important term that each defines in a subtly different way. (We touched on this in the discussion of disagreement in section 1.3, above.) In these cases, engaging in argument repair can make the debate more productive for everyone by redirecting debate away from an adversarial process to a more collaborative one that is aimed at mutual understanding and a resolution to the dispute that everyone can accept.

Of course, it is important not to misrepresent the argument when we are trying to repair it, which is easy to do if we disagree. Moreover, for argument repair to be successful, the person who originally made the argument must be open to revising their position and their interlocutor must allow them an opportunity to do so. Amendments made are only justified if they make the argument stronger. Added premises must be relevant (it’s remarkably easy to get carried away and add irrelevant premises) and provide good grounds for accepting the conclusion. Moreover, changes must be acceptable to all parties in the debate.

Engaging in respectful, good faith dialogue with each other helps us to make our own arguments stronger and recognize where our own reasoning is lacking or our judgements are wrong. Even when it does not bring agreement, efforts at argument repair may bring insight and mutual understanding, making debates more productive and moving us towards decisions that everyone can live with.


  1. Shannon Dea has an interesting article that takes an argument repair approach by suggesting harm reduction as a common value shared by pro-life and pro-choice advocates and then seeing what follows: https://uwspace.uwaterloo.ca/bitstream/handle/10012/11165/Stettner_2016-Without_Apology.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y#page=327.
  2. See Catherine Hundleby for more discussion on argument repair: https://chundleby.com/2015/01/16/what-is-argument-repair.

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Applied Ethics Primer by Letitia Meynell and Clarisse Paron is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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