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[sticky post] 55 Simple Rules for Debate in the Modern World

It’s my own fault really. Because I like to see different sides to an argument before making up my own mind (see Rule 9 below) then I am unfortunately exposed to comments from people whose opinions are badly argued, uninformed, prejudiced, immature and just plain stupid. And this does annoy me at times.

I like to think that the 55 rules below are ones that I at least try to stick to when commenting online. I wish other people would too, even though a few of my ‘rules’ are actually opinions. Some of the rules are not so much rules for debate, more rules you should live by if you want me to value your opinion. Put it this way, the more of my rules that you break, the less highly will I rate your opinion.





  1. If the person who you are arguing with shows that your argument is faulty in some way, you are not allowed to use that argument with someone else in an attempt to spread your incorrect view.

  2. In fact, unless you are prepared to have your view on an issue changed, or have solid evidence that would change the views of a reasonable person with a different opinion, why the hell are you even in the argument in the first place?

  3. Check the facts before you complain about something.

  4. If you’re going to complain about something, have an alternative ready. If you don’t, then shut up.

  5. And make sure that alternative has a good chance of, you know, actually working. If it doesn’t, then again, shut up.

  6. If you are only "tolerant" of people whose opinions you agree with or whose lifestyles you approve of, then you're not actually tolerant. To be truly tolerant of somebody, there must be some aspect of their opinions or their life that is different from your opinions and life, and you must be able to say to yourself "That's fine. I don't think that way, but they are perfectly entitled to."

  7. Just because you can find someone clever who agrees with you, doesn’t mean you’re right. Clever people don’t all hold the same views.

  8. This is especially true if the clever person is someone who disagrees with most other clever people in his or her field.

  9. If you only read and watch news media from sources with the same politics, then your opinions will be at best weakly argued and at worst simply plain wrong. Even if you have those same politics, you should consider alternative viewpoints.

  10. Be aware of the bias in all information sources you use to form your own opinions.

  11. If you believe that any opinion is completely free from bias, then you are being naive.

  12. There is nothing inherently wrong in a news source being biased, as long as it is up front about its general political views. However, supposedly neutral news sources that hide their bias should not be trusted.

  13. Be especially careful of news sources that like to use the same expert over and over again. Is this because he is the one expert who supports their view?

  14. If you say you’re an anarchist, and you’re arguing for more government, then I’ve got news for you: you ain’t an anarchist.

  15. If you say you’re a liberal and, and you’re arguing for more government, then I’ve got news for you: you ain’t a liberal.

  16. The logical argument ‘Policy A has benefits B and costs C; B > C therefore the government should carry out Policy A’ might look correct, but it isn’t. The correct logical argument is ‘Policy A has benefits B and costs C; B > C, but the government should only carry out Policy A if (B – C) > (B – C) for every other possible policy.

  17. If you are strongly advocating Policy A, the onus is on you to prove benefits B. While you are not expected to quantify costs C, you should nevertheless respect the work of those who do. You should also respect the arguments of those who advocate Policy D, Policy E etc.

  18. Science is never enough to choose between Policy A, D, E etc. Economics is the academic discipline that enables informed choices to be made between different policies, not science.

  19. If you invoke some dead hero with no connection to your cause to make your point, then you’ve lost the argument. This is especially true if the dead hero is Winston Churchill or Dr Martin Luther King.

  20. If you think Che Guevara was a hero, and you don’t know about the firing squads he presided over, the political opponents he had executed or the forced labour camps he founded, then go away and do some growing up (and some research). If you did know about that and you still think he’s a hero, then I don’t want to know you. If you argue that many of the regimes that Guevara fought against were even worse then fair enough. But be aware that this argument is much the same as arguing that “on balance Hitler was ok because he fought Stalin”.

  21. Just because you were offended, or chose to be offended, by something that somebody said, does not mean that what was said was offensive. Quite often the fault is with the listener.

  22. This is especially true if the supposedly offensive person is a celebrity or politician whose views you disagree with and you are choosing to be offended because you don’t like that celebrity or politician.

  23. This is doubly especially true if you are choosing to be offended by a quote that you couldn’t be bothered to listen to in its entirety so that you either heard it out of context or chose to hear only that part that you wanted to be offended by.

  24. In free countries, people are (or should be) free to hold their own moral views (as long as they don’t impinge on the rights and assets of other citizens), regardless of organised religion, politics or political correctness. Governments should have no role in enforcing moral views, even when those are held by the majority.

  25. If the law says you are required to pay tax of x, it is both legally and morally wrong to pay less than x. Paying exactly x is neither legally nor morally wrong. Paying more than x is legally acceptable, but morally only acceptable if the government is capable of doing more good with the excess than you are. And if you think that is the case, then you must either really love the government or think that you are stupid.

  26. The last ‘Tory’ government ended in 1714. I doubt that anyone posting on twitter or livejournal is old enough to remember that and to be confused about the name of the larger party in the coalition currently governing the United Kingdom.

  27. If you use any combination of ‘tory’, ‘scum’, ‘bastards’ and ‘evil’, you have lost the argument. If you plan to ‘celebrate’ when Baroness Thatcher dies, you have lost the right to have your views taken seriously ever again.

  28. If you use any combination of ‘commie’, ‘pinko’, ‘scum’ and ‘bastards’, you have lost the argument. If you plan to celebrate when Neil Kinnock dies, you have lost the right to have your views taken seriously ever again. (Not that I’ve ever seen someone claim online that they will celebrate when Neil Kinnock dies, but I felt I had to be balanced here.)

  29. If you call someone a ‘Nazi’ or a ‘fascist’ or compare them to Hitler, you have lost the argument, unless they are advocating the same policies that the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (see Rule 30 below) or the Italian, Spanish or other Fascist parties advocated. And note that I said “policies” not “policy” or eating habits or other trivial detail. Just because Hitler disapproved of animal by-products in cosmetics, doesn’t mean that anyone who shops at Lush advocates genocide.

  30. The abbreviation ‘Nazi’ is short for ‘Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei’ or ‘National Socialist German Workers’ Party’, but the kind of people who use ‘Nazi’ as a term of abuse either don’t know that or would prefer to ignore the fact that the Nazis were socialists. (It is true though that giving something like a country or a political party a certain name doesn't mean that it lives up to that name - see Deutsche Demokratische Republik - but in the case of the German National Socialists, they were socialists, just not social democrats.)

  31. Discrimination on the grounds of skin colour or gender is wrong.

  32. And discrimination on the grounds of skin colour or gender is still wrong even if it is to offset perceived discrimination elsewhere or in the past, or to offset naturally occurring imbalances in a particular group that are quite possibly the result of factors other than discrimination.

  33. If you decide not to buy a Ferrari next year, you have not cut your expenses. To do that, you would have to stop buying something that you already buy. Similarly, if a government decides not to buy a new hospital next year, it has not cut public expenditure.

  34. Just because someone identifies with a particular group, does not mean that they automatically share all the same views as every other member of that group. So hating someone because they are in a group whose supposedly common views you also hate is irrational.

  35. And in fact hating someone because you disagree on some issue is childish. People hold different views. Live with it. Hate the view not the person holding that view, who may do so for very good reasons.

  36. This is especially true if you have never actually met (in real life) and spent time with, the person you hate.

  37. Free speech is important, but that doesn’t give you the right to say anything you want with no regard for responsibility. Do not, for example, joke about having a bomb when going through airport security checks.

  38. A ‘denier’ is someone who, when shown incontrovertible evidence of something, chooses to deny it. A denier is not ‘someone who disagrees with you’.

  39. 'Fair' is a subjective concept. 'Equal' is not. 'Fair' and 'Equal' are not the same.

  40. Thinking that ‘everyone is equal’ is not the same as thinking that ‘everyone should be equal’.

  41. If you think that everyone is equal, you would appear to be ignoring some pretty compelling empirical evidence.

  42. If you think that everyone should be equal if the world is to be ‘fair’, then ok. That is your opinion. But that is all it is. Be aware that other people will have different opinions on this matter. For example, some people will think that people who deserve more should get more than those who deserve less. That is a different, but equally valid, opinion.

  43. If someone makes a typing mistake or spells something incorrectly or fails to use proper grammar, that does not mean that the point they are making is wrong.

  44. However, many people will instinctively think that someone with poor spelling or grammar is unintelligent, so if you want your opinion to be well-regarded, make an effort.

  45. If you’ve done something to be ashamed of and you keep it quiet until a journalist finds out about it, then don’t make a big fuss just because the journalist used dodgy methods to discover it. The trick is not to do anything to be ashamed of in the first place.

  46. If you consistently buy things simply because they are made by a particular manufacturer without considering alternatives and then argue that the thing you bought is much better than the alternatives that you didn’t research, then you are a fanboy (or fangirl). This means that your opinion is worth much less than someone who does that research and isn’t pointlessly attracted to a particular brand.

  47. If you believe that a society where the richest person A has wealth 100x and the poorest person B has wealth 1x is (everything else being equal) better than a society where the richest person A has wealth 1,000x and the poorest person B has wealth 2x, then ok. That is your opinion. An equally valid opinion is to say that the second society is better than the first. Persons A and B would both probably vote for the second society. People who would vote for the first society are quite possibly people who have 20x in both scenarios.

  48. Anecdotal evidence is very weak evidence.

  49. If you call yourself an environmentalist and you aren’t concerned about population growth, then you’re concentrating on the wrong issue.

  50. People don’t commit crimes because they they are “bored” or have “nothing to do”.  Furthermore, people don’t loot PS3s and trainers because they are making a political protest, they loot them because they want them and they think they can get away with it.

  51. If you base your beliefs on what someone who may or may not have existed is alleged to have said centuries or even millennia ago, then don’t be surprised if people fail to take your views on today’s issues seriously.

  52. If you expect other people to subsidise your lifestyle, then your opinion is worth less than their opinion.

  53. People who are successful in life are often people who are talented, who are clever, who work hard or who possess skills that are in demand. That shouldn’t be a surprise. If you aren’t talented or clever or hard-working or don’t have the right skills, then you have little justification if you complain that those who are have things better than you.

  54. Even if you are talented or clever or hard-working or have the right skills, you still have little justification if you complain that those who are more talented or more clever or more hard-working or who have better or more in-demand skills are better off than you.

  55. If you live in a free society, with freedom of speech, there are a number of legitimate ways for you to make a political point. You could write to a newspaper or to your elected representative. You could form a political party with like-minded individuals. You could vote for a different party at the next election. These are all effective and legitimate ways to make your voice heard. In a free society, there is no need to break the law to protest. Once you do so, you have lost the argument. That applies to rioting, vandalism, trespass, arson and resisting arrest.

    Comments

    ( 26 comments — Leave a comment )
    firin
    Dec. 7th, 2011 12:29 am (UTC)
    Oh very well said!
    bunn
    Dec. 7th, 2011 09:43 am (UTC)
    55! There's no way I can hold 55 rules in my head.

    Can't you boil it down to 7? I like sevens.
    philmophlegm
    Dec. 7th, 2011 09:55 am (UTC)
    OK, the seven most important (in my opinion) would be:

    2. In fact, unless you are prepared to have your view on an issue changed, or have solid evidence that would change the views of a reasonable person with a different opinion, why the hell are you even in the argument in the first place?

    3. Check the facts before you complain about something.

    4. If you’re going to complain about something, have an alternative ready. If you don’t, then shut up.

    10. Be aware of the bias in all information sources you use to form your own opinions.

    16. The logical argument ‘Policy A has benefits B and costs C; B > C therefore the government should carry out Policy A’ might look correct, but it isn’t. The correct logical argument is ‘Policy A has benefits B and costs C; B > C, but the government should only carry out Policy A if (B – C) > (B – C) for every other possible policy.

    21. Just because you were offended, or chose to be offended, by something that somebody said, does not mean that what was said was offensive. Quite often the fault is with the listener.

    35. And in fact hating someone because you disagree on some issue is childish. People hold different views. Live with it. Hate the view not the person holding that view, who may do so for very good reasons.
    gerald_duck
    Jan. 30th, 2012 03:37 pm (UTC)
    (I'm here because you linked from beckyc's posting.)

    I'd take significant issue with rule 4: while solutions are better than problems, an acknowledged and recognised problem is still better than the misapprehension that all is well. Once the problem is recognised, someone else might see a way to fix it.

    On rule 15, have you confused liberalism with libertarianism? I, like many liberals, recognise both the liberal paradox and the fundamental conflict between one person's positive liberty and another person's negative liberty. Personally, I would characterise myself as considerably more pragmatic and realistic than the libertarians, and I recognise that the optimal amount of government is not zero. Therefore, there must be a circumstance under which I'd argue for more government. (-8

    On rule 16, "Policy A has benefits B and costs C; B > C therefore the government should carry out Policy A" is only slightly flawed. That reasoning does robustly demonstrate that it's better to do A than to do nothing and therefore it should be done unless someone else comes up with a better way to get benefit B and/or a more useful way to spend cost C.

    On rule 18, economics is a science, albeit proverbially the dismal one. And it's only a good metric to the extent that monetary worth is correlated with social worth. If money perfectly satisfied all its functions and its distribution was completely fair, then economic arguments would be unassailable. For now, they can be argued against on the basis that they perpetuate or exacerbate flaws in the underlying economic system.

    In rule 25, why is your moral argument against overpaying tax not also a moral argument in favour of tax avoidance?

    Rule 33 appears fallacious: the confusion lies in vehicle purchasing being an infrequent activity relative to your "next year". What if instead of deciding not to buy a Ferrari next year, I decided to spend 20% less on cars next decade? That's every bit as real a saving as spending 20% less on groceries next month. What if I decided not to buy a box of corn flakes tomorrow?

    On rules 40-42, in my experience, most of the confusion arises from differing meanings of "equal". The equality under law of "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" is very different from a Marxist redistributive notion of equality.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:03 pm (UTC)
    Welcome. Always happy to see a new person. Also - I've only just noticed this after linking to this page on another of beckyc's posts!


    4. I can totally see where you are coming from on this, and I may well edit the rule. The example I had in mind was the sort of people who complain in newspapers or on facebook (less so on LJ I find, which might reflect a higher level of debate) when some public service is "cut", but who don't acknowledge that anything should be cut at all (or who don't put forward a positive argument in favour of for example defaulting on national debts or making bigger cuts in future). But...I do agree with you that in general terms, acknowledging that a problem exists is better than pretending it doesn't.

    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:09 pm (UTC)
    15. It's not so much being confused between libertarianism and liberalism as being somewhat annoyed that the term "liberalism" has been hijacked to such an extent (especially in America) that it now encompasses policies and philosophies that to my* mind are very illiberal, such as higher taxes, political correctness, increased government spending, government social engineering etc.

    I do describe myself as a libertarian**, but I'd prefer to call myself a liberal, were it not that some people might think I meant something entirely different.

    * Libertarian, or preferably "classically liberal".
    ** And I think, like most libertarians***, that the optimal level of government is "some, but less than what we have now" rather than "pretty much none whatsoever".
    *** Although there are certainly extremist libertarians out there.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:14 pm (UTC)
    16. True. Your logic is sound. The rule is there because often I find that the debate stops before the person arguing for A* considers possible alternative policies. This kind of thinking is particularly prevalent when it comes to climate change policy I find.


    * Quite possibly because that person has an ulterior motive in favouring A.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:17 pm (UTC)
    18. Not at my university it wasn't. Economics was and is very much a "Social Study", not a science. And economics deals for the most part in non-monetary benefits.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:24 pm (UTC)
    25. This rule _could_ be a moral argument in favour of tax avoidance*. It rather depends upon how moral the taxpayer is. But consider taxpayer A: He has paid all the tax that he must to HMRC, and could now voluntarily pay say £1million more. He could use this £1million to do something 100% moral, for example give it to an especially worthy charity. Or, he could give it to the government and let them do what they want with it. Since many of the government's activities could be considered immoral on some level by most taxpayers, it's more likely that he could achieve greater good (in his eyes) by not paying tax and giving the money to charity.




    * Otherwise known as "paying as much tax as the rules say you should".
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:35 pm (UTC)
    33. Your example works somewhat differently to mine. I was using the Ferrari as an example (for most people at least) of something they will never buy. Deciding not to buy something next year that they weren't going to buy anyway, is not reducing expenditure.

    Furthermore, if I was spending £50,000 this year on all sorts of things, almost all of which are recurring items that I will also be spending next year, and I felt I needed to reduce my expenditure my 10% to £45,000, then if all I do next year is not buy the Ferrari, then I won't have reduced my expenditure from £50,000.

    However, (and this is where your example is a little bit different) if my £50,000pa spending includes the cost of a new Ferrari every ten years, spread over ten years, then I could be said to be cutting spending in future years by stopping buying Ferraris. However, that isn't generally how governments (central or local) work (or businesses for that matter), since capital items and expenditure items would be accounted for differently.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:38 pm (UTC)
    40-42 Agreed. It has occurred to me in the past that perhaps the most basic, most fundamental difference between left-wing morality and right-wing morality is that those on the left believe that everyone should get the same and those on the right believe that everyone should get what they deserve.
    gerald_duck
    Jan. 30th, 2012 03:51 pm (UTC)
    Also, concerning rule 20, I feel it's a mistake to take an un-nuanced stance on pretty much any prominent figure. It's all "better" and "worse", not "good" and "bad".

    I often ask people why we sided with Stalin in WWII. I like the question: it gets interesting answers that reveal a lot about the way people think.

    On point 47, it's really hard to compare your scenarios keeping all other considerations constant. Quite apart from anything else, where are you going to find the "real terms" absolute scale with which to compare wealth in those two societies across time and space? More directly, disparity of wealth does have a social cost. While the person with 1000x might be happy to spend some of that wealth on razor wire and alarm systems, at least to some extent it's better for society as a whole if they're taxed and the money is used to limit social exclusion for those less well off. On this issue as with so many others, I'm a moderate: some redistributive taxation, but certainly nothing even approaching total redistribution.
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:43 pm (UTC)
    20. Good point. (Although Che Guevara posters and t-shirts really get on my nerves...)

    I like your Stalin question. It would make a good LJ poll... (I'm going to go with something along the lines of "The enemy of my enemy is my friend", or, as Churchill put it, "If Hitler invaded Hell, I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons"...)
    philmophlegm
    Apr. 11th, 2012 12:47 pm (UTC)
    47. True, and your point about disparity of wealth having some social cost is valid (personally, I'd argue that that social cost is less than the effects of government policies to remove it have usually been).

    I'm generally not in favour of using taxation to redistribute wealth, or for that matter, the state getting to decide who deserves more and who deserves less. I favour flatter tax regimes too.
    strawberryfrog
    Sep. 22nd, 2012 11:00 pm (UTC)
    According to Rule 55, Rosa Parks "lost the argument" as it states that "there is no need to break the law to protest", which is what she did.

    I therefore disagree with rule 55.

    You could argue that she didn't "live in a free society" but it's never as simple as "free or not". Truly free societies are probably as elusive as true Scotsmen.

    Edited at 2012-09-23 02:23 pm (UTC)
    webgirluk
    Mar. 21st, 2015 07:02 pm (UTC)
    I love this post and agree with a lot of what you said. You seem like a deeper thinker like me and I can get lost for hours discussing some of the deeper subjects above although due to catering for my audience a bit, I probably don't post much on them although should try harder, if there's people who would read.

    I'm probably what could be considered as being towards left wing but I am open minded in sharing ideas and learning from other people. For example, no 53. Not everyone who "works hard" is guaranteed success and also I think being born with a lower IQ/having a disability in some way doesn't give someone equal footing to begin with and hence why some justification for moaning is fair, I think.

    I'm 42, unmarried, no kids and live in North Wales so wondering where you were once living as you posted you were from here originally. I tend to post a lot of thoughts and feelings, more the deeper side of social/interpersonal aspects, rather than global aspects but I'm always on the look out for new friends on here. I guess my lj is a bit of an interaction and bonding place, rather than a lurk to read and say nothing place but if you think we might connect as lj friends, feel free to add and let's give it a go.
    philmophlegm
    Mar. 21st, 2015 08:25 pm (UTC)
    Thanks. I can't really disagree with anything you've said on 53 (see, that's me applying Rules 1 and 2...)

    I was born and grew up in Wrexham, although my parents are both English. Left to go to university, then moved to Chester for a few years. Have been in Cornwall since 2000. Where are you?

    As for being LJ friends, let's, as you say, give it a go.
    webgirluk
    Mar. 21st, 2015 09:26 pm (UTC)
    I'm in Colwyn Bay on the coast, around 50 minutes from Wrexham/Chester although did live in Wrexham as a child for three years.

    lol yes applying 1 and 2 fair enough :p I am not sure if I fit in with 4 as I moan over personal stuff but global stuff, not really. I will add you.

    philmophlegm
    Mar. 21st, 2015 09:30 pm (UTC)
    Did you go to school in Wrexham at all? We're the same age, so we might have been in the same year. I went to Acton infants and juniors, St David's and then Yale.
    webgirluk
    Mar. 21st, 2015 09:45 pm (UTC)
    I was in St Davids for the first two years then moved here. I just turned 42 in February so does that make us the same year? We might be a year out.
    philmophlegm
    Mar. 21st, 2015 10:57 pm (UTC)
    Ah - I turn 43 in May, so that makes you the year below me. Still, it's weird to think that we've probably walked past each other in the playground. What teachers do you remember?
    webgirluk
    Mar. 22nd, 2015 11:22 pm (UTC)
    I know right :p Hopefully, you weren't that scary older boy who whacked me on the head with a football that time. Only kidding. I did get bashed by a football but I don't recall which of the two secondary schools I went to it was now.

    Ok, teachers. My memory isn't so great for this as I was only there two years, I had Mrs Wyn Jones for a form tutor in first year, not sure her subject. Mrs Morris the second year who taught French. Do you remember those or other teachers?

    Edited at 2015-03-22 11:24 pm (UTC)
    philmophlegm
    Mar. 22nd, 2015 11:55 pm (UTC)
    I had 'Winnie the Witch' for form tutor in my first year too! And Mrs Morris taught me French in my fourth and fifth year.
    marycatelli
    Jan. 24th, 2016 03:02 pm (UTC)
    "Anecdotal evidence is very weak evidence."

    That would depend on what you are using it for. To establish a rule, yes. As a counterexample, however, it's very strong.
    wildeabandon
    Jun. 6th, 2016 10:17 pm (UTC)
    Lots of good stuff in there, but I disagree with a few, some nitpicks, some more substantive.

    15 - Disagree (even assuming we are all using UK liberal rather than US liberal). It is clearly possible to simultaneously hold "That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others." and that there are cases in which more government is necessary in order to prevent harm to others.

    24 - I think that the "as long as they don't impinge on the rights and assets of other citizens" renders this fairly meaningless.

    25 - I think that for it to be morally acceptable you only have to think that the government is capable of getting more value from the excess minus the costs of reducing the excess to zero.

    49 - I don't call myself an environmentalist, but I thought that most projections have population growth levelling off at around 11 billion or less somewhere between 2050-2070, so only around a 50% increase. I'd have thought technological improvements to reduce environmental impact by 50% or more is vastly more tractable than trying to stop/slow that growth.

    50 - I imagine people commit crimes for a wide variety of reasons, but I am certain that there's a non-zero number of people who do so because because they are bored and have nothing they would rather have been doing at that point.

    53/54 - Whilst it's not surprising to me that people who are talented/clever/hard-working/appropriately skilled are more successful in life, it doesn't necessarily follow that it's justified.
    nanikore
    Jun. 22nd, 2016 12:05 am (UTC)
    I'm really tired of people who think nothing of making fallacious arguments. Genetic fallacies, argument from authority, and the worst of all, attacks on the person. There are some people who thinks it's perfectly okay to just keep making comments about the person making the argument instead of the arguments themselves. There really should be a general and automatic "argumentum ad hominem and you lose" rule.
    ( 26 comments — Leave a comment )