Six Rules for Having a Good Argument


From time to time someone tries to pick an argument with me about religion. On the whole, I try to avoid anything I think will generate more heat than light, especially if I’m not feeling well or haven’t time to give the matter my full attention. I particularly dislike the kind of argument that is loaded with cheap gibes, unsubstantiated allegations, or tries to wrong-foot one by beginning ‘you should . . .’ (which usually means, you shouldn’t say/do anything I dislike, certainly not argue back). Part of my reluctance stems from self-knowledge: I don’t want to use such intelligence as I have to crush or belittle another, and that is always a temptation when someone is being annoying. But there is a more important reason. No one I know has ever been argued into virtue, still less, holiness; and being dismissive or supercilious or condescending merely reinforces the idea that Christians in general, and Catholics in particular, can be very unpleasant. It is even worse when we quarrel among ourselves. Feathers fly, and onlookers draw their own conclusions.

Of course, we may see ourselves as valiant for truth. We argue with every ounce of our being for something we believe in and do not always recognize that we have undermined our case by our manner of arguing. When I was active in the pro-life movement, I was sometimes dismayed by the anger and hatred some displayed. It left me wondering what was going on inside. Was being pro-life really just an excuse to vent a lot of negative feelings? I hope not, but it did seem like that occasionally. I still believe that it is possible to have a good argument, but there are a few ground rules which I try, with varying success, to observe myself. See if you agree with mine.

Six Rules for Having a Good Argument

  1. The subject of the argument must matter. Life is too short, and people are too important, to waste time on trivialities that will leave a trail of wounded feelings and misunderstandings in their train. Not everyone is naturally combative!
  2. One must respect the person with whom one is arguing — so no insults or crudely mocking remarks, and be very careful about using humour. What is wit to one is devastating sarcasm to another. Most people are sincere in what they believe or don’t believe: we should respect their honesty and treat them courteously.
  3. One must be prepared to accept that another may not wish to respond. Not everyone is confident that they know enough or can argue well enough to explain why they think or believe as they do. They have a right to be silent; and just because we want to argue now, that is no reason for assuming that the other person does.
  4. One must know when to stop.
  5. Both before we begin, and, above all, afterwards, we should ask the Holy Spirit not only to enlighten us but also to put right anything we may have got wrong, to calm any disturbance we may have caused and — unless you are very unlike me — to pacify any angry or hostile feelings we may have ourselves.
  6. An argument does not have to be won in order to be good.

You will notice that my ground rules are mainly about how we argue, rather than how we respond to those who want to argue with us; but I think that if we keep the general principles in mind, they are helpful when someone wants to take us to task. My sixth rule is the hardest of all to practise, but I suspect it is the most valuable. We do not need to have the last word to make our point.