Reasons to Believe

An Intellectual Code of Conduct, Part 1

From childhood, we’re taught to follow the Golden Rule: treat others as we want to be treated. Jesus Christ included this principle in His description of the greatest commandments: “The second [commandment] is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

This biblical truth extends even to intellectual debates. When facing a challenging or rude opponent in an argument (whether in person or on the web), it’s all too easy to let anger, pride, and bad logic rule our conversation. But intellectual sloth, credulity, prejudice, and especially dishonesty bring dishonor to Christ in the eyes of skeptics.

By contrast, God is honored when His people demonstrate such disciplines as study, reflection, discernment, and honesty (Acts 17:11; Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 14:29; Colossians 2:8; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). The ability to handle others’ arguments (especially intellectual opponents’) with fairness and integrity is an intellectual virtue and a core principle of sound reasoning. This “intellectual golden rule,” or “principle of charity,” calls for treating others’ arguments with the same degree of care and detail as we expect to be shown toward our own.

Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll share three rules that can help ensure respectful dialogue—even on tough topics.

Rule #1: Take the Time and Effort to Get an Opponent’s Argument Right

When we intentionally (or unintentionally) distort someone else’s argument and then proceed to critique the misrepresentation, we commit the straw man fallacy—so named because just as it is easier to knock down a straw figure than it is a real man of bone and muscle, so it is easier to dispose of an exaggerated or simplistic argument than it is a well-balanced and substantive one. The logical error committed is a lack of relevance; any criticism brought to bear on a misrepresented argument never really applies.

In a face-to-face argument (especially a heated one) it’s easy to commit the straw man fallacy because we are more likely to think about our own response and less likely to listen carefully to an opponent. A good way to avoid this mistake is to restate our opponent’s argument back to him or her. This practice can produce better listening, clearer understanding, and more successful communication. Moreover, people appreciate being heard and, thus, may become more open to other perspectives and possible critique. Attitude and demeanor, not just argument, affect persuasion.

This virtue applies to written polemics as well. When critiquing the writings of another (even in an internet chat room) it is important to give the writer a fair reading, to strive to understand and represent that person’s true position. Again, we would certainly want our own writings treated in a similar manner.

If an opponent does raise a straw man, then it is proper to call attention to the distortion. A careful summary of the main point and main premises (supporting facts, evidence, or reasons) for an argument may help bring that opponent back on track.

Check back next week for a second intellectual code of conduct.

Subjects: Ethics