David Hegg | Toward Ethical Arguments

David Hegg

By David Hegg

It is increasingly the case that our society has become a debate club. Every news cycle seems to provide fodder for intramural arguments between those holding opposing views. And what now seems to be the common outcome is the division that has come to define our country. And we even debate just how divided we are!

Much of our rancorous arguing stems from a redefining of the end goal of a point-counterpoint engagement. The most helpful posture is when we argue to persuade, and in the persuading remain open to the possibility of hearing counter-arguments that are sound and deserve consideration. But today, most exchanges are not out to persuade but to pulverize. There is not a hint of honor for those who oppose, and not only is this an improper form of debate but also it rules out the possibility of gaining new insights into the issue. Given that we’ve become addicted to arguing as a means of establishing how everyone should think and live, let me suggest a few principles for ethical arguing.

Evidence: I am amazed at what passes for evidence today. By evidence I mean that which can be verified. If I assert something there should be solid, verifiable data to back it up. For example, if I believe some conspiracy theory, there needs to be reliable proof and not just adamant assertions based on articles in checkstand magazines. Today, too many arguments lack foundation or verifiable basis. Unproven assertions remain unproven no matter how adamantly and loudly they are bandied about. Citing Instagram or Wikipedia really doesn’t count. 

Vocabulary: It is best to use concrete, rational, logical terms rather than emotionally charged words that cause the discussion to get off track. Every debater knows, if your arguments are not strong, you can shift the focus of the dialogue by raising the level of contempt for your opponent’s arguments. You’ll notice this happens often in the national political back-and-forth to which we are being treated these days. If you can’t logically rebut your opponent’s assertions, start calling them names and dishing out platefuls of demeaning comments about them. 

Relationship: Ethical argument first demands you consider your opponent to be a fellow human made, in my view, in the image of God. And even if you do not subscribe to this view of humanity, ethically sound human relationships in America stand on the principle that “all are created equal and endowed … with certain unalienable rights.” Sadly, over the past couple decades we have seen how abandoning appreciation for our fellow man and woman has eroded civility in our society to an unacceptable, dangerous level. Spoiler alert: If your give-and-take with friends or others has you demeaning them as people or their arguments as “idiotic, absurd and unworthy of response,” you’ve lost every opportunity to persuade those who differ. And, on a personal note, you’ve become no fun at all and you’re embarrassing your friends.

Honor: We must return to the days when dialogue over issues having opposing views was for the purpose of discovery as much as discourse. To argue ethically is to appreciate the opportunity to learn from those who oppose. When you throw out your opinions, your beliefs, and they are assessed by those who differ, it will often uncover weak areas or even errors you can then reevaluate. The bottom line: There is no honor in continuing to stand on arguments and evidence you now know have gaping holes. Believing you have “won” a debate with arguments that are arbitrary, full of holes and unsubstantiated doesn’t make you right. Rather, it paints you as an arrogant fool. 

In my field of Christian theology, I have often had to rethink my understanding of some biblical texts based on findings by biblical scholars. I have even learned important things from those with whom I don’t fully agree. As well, I have engaged in dialogue with Christians and non-Christians concerning biblical, theological and ethical issues and have come away better for the experience. I have found that listening to someone who, at least, shares my interests is profitable even if we walk away in disagreement. And, to the extent that there has been a respectful, honorable exchange of ideas, the probability exists of more dialogue in the future.

Years ago, one of my professors observed: “Iron sharpens iron but only if it comes at the right angle.” It is only as we seek to improve ourselves and others that our arguments can unify rather than divide. And I’m all for that.

Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays. 

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