All-or-nothing is All Wrong

Let us imagine an enormous cavern. Two people who are arguing with each other are on two pillars with spotlights above them. The rest is darkness. Their goal is to get the other person to switch columns. Using an all-or-nothing approach is like talking only about the rightness of Column B and the utter uselessness of Column A, and in fact Columns C-Z as well. Nothing but total agreement is acceptable or has any value at all. There’s a lot wrong with this approach.

1. It’s wrong: It is almost never true that only one position in an argument is reasonable or acceptable. A finite amount of evidence (which itself might be reasonably interpretable in multiple ways) usually gives us a range of positions that could be arrived at rationally given different starting positions. Ignoring those multiple pathways is an intellectual mistake, especially if the people are arguing are have different sets of evidence and different approaches to analysis. For example, when arguing about a complicated subject, not first principles, it’s irrational to think that someone should concede on a point that runs counter to their core assumptions. Arguing about environmental policy when disagreeing about global warming rationally shouldn’t lead to agreement without a proper discussion about global warming, and it’s therefore irrational to expect it.


2. It’s unproductive: Even in cases like a (mostly) round earth, evolution and taxes being a necessary part of government, where there really is only one answer, it is hardly ever the case that accepting nothing but full agreement is a helpful approach to getting someone to change their mind. It’s the column situation above, where Person B continues to argue that Column B is *obviously* right and Column A *obviously* wrong, without telling anyone how to get from one to the other. Even if it seems clear that they should switch, without that knowledge, it’s much safer to stay at Column A rather than grope around in the darkness.

This is basically by definition the wrong way to have an argument. It doesn’t acknowledge any possible counterarguments. It’s not at all charitable to Person B’s Column. It’s not nuanced. It’s a dig-your-heels-in, battle-to-the-death kind of argument. Those don’t tend to change people’s minds. That’s why intransigence is far more likely to lead to backfiring, defensiveness and offense than the desired result.

Also, it’s not even a real argument. Ignoring entirely the possibility of being wrong makes arguments farcical. Not taking anything your opponent says seriously if it doesn’t agree with your position takes away the possibility of learning from them. It’s not a true engagement with the ideas, and it essentially ignores the fact that your opponent can think.

3. It’s a win for irrationality: Even if the all-or-nothing approach worked at changing someone’s mind, it seems that would be almost certain to be a result of deference to a more confident opponent rather than a true acknowledgment of the intellectual benefits of the other position.

All of the points I made above about why these arguments probably won’t change anyone’s mind are the same reasons that make the unlikely agreement unlikely to be rational. After all, arguments that only allow for full agreement don’t tend to lead to a sober analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of two or more positions. They don’t involve a proper assessment of the available evidence. They don’t weigh alternative interpretations of the evidence. It’s hard for me to see, then, how that agreement could actually have been arrived at in a rational way.

This is a problem. We don’t want people just to believe one thing over another, but also believe it for the right reasons. We don’t want to bludgeon our opponents into agreement; we want them to actually agree on rational grounds. Besides the obvious reasons, the only way that they could go on to defend that very position to others is if they understood why they agreed with it in the first place. And also, when we allow our opponents to really think about the position, they might even teach us something.

4. It’s mean: Demanding utter concession makes arguments ugly. It’s a shaming, humiliating approach. It means there can be no compromise, and sometimes not even an acceptance that someone might need to think about something for awhile. This creates a punishment for being wrong without any useful way to become more right, other than total, even unthinking (see above), capitulation. Without full agreement, Person A will simply continue on with how wrong Person B is. Even when there’s been some movement towards column A, Person B is still totally wrong about everything they haven’t conceded yet.

There is a true cruelty to that, one which, frankly, disincentivizes thinking. Because if what someone gets for engaging with new ideas, or even trying to see what changing positions would be like, is the same constant pressure, and no acknowledgement of their thinking, they have no reason to do it any more. Mind changing is painful enough as it is; making it harder only makes it less likely to happen.

How to Do It Better
Every argument should be a chance for everyone in it to learn something. That’s why it’s so great when skeptics are fervent about knowing what would convince them they were wrong, which is the equivalent of knowing the series of steps that would take them from their column to someone else’s and the willingness to walk them if there is sufficient evidence. This ensures that every discussion is, to greater and lesser extents, about every participant making sure they believe what is best supported by the evidence. Arguments like these foster a respectful environment of mutual learning, where everyone is, at least a little bit, productively unsure and figuring it out together.

Arguments should also be, as much as possible, imbued with a spirit of good will. When someone makes a good point, praise it, whether or not it helps your position. (Though, tactically, you should certainly praise them when it seems like they’ve understood or agree with one of your points). Make their arguments better. Acknowledge insufficiencies in your own argument. Tell someone when they’ve made an argument you haven’t heard before, or one that taught you something. Admit when they bring up a piece of evidence you hadn’t heard before. Learning is a process, so offer compromises, even if they’re not totally the position you want them to have. In all things, foster an environment of learning rather than battle.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing 

8 thoughts on “All-or-nothing is All Wrong

  1. julian says:

    I’m sorry but just how many situations would any of this be valid in besides a best of l possible worlds type scenario?

    From the get go you’re assuming what the purpose of the exchange is, that the discussion does equal harm to both parties, the psychological make up of both parties…

    I understand it’s important, even if it’s only to better one’s own position, to give favorable readings in academic settings (or anywhere where you can reasonably expect to b talking to someone looking for dialogue) , but I really don’t see the value elsewhere.

    • Chana says:

      Hi julian, thanks for your comment.

      I don’t totally know what you mean when you say, “you’re assuming what the purpose of the exchange is, that the discussion does equal harm to both parties, the psychological make up of both parties” but what I mean by this and the other posts in the series is that there are better ways to argue with people you’re trying to convince, if that’s something that’s important to you. It’s important to me to persuade others to my position, since I think my positions are right, and I think there are good ways to do it, and those are the ones I’ve tried to explore here.

      Does that make sense?

      Also, J below makes a set of very good points.

  2. J. says:

    Julian, if your friends don’t routinely engage in conversations of this caliber, maybe it’s time to expand your social circle. Although the norms of civil discourse may be best established in academia, I have conversations like this literally every day, and not just with academics.

    What’s the value? You learn something. You refine your position. You persuade people. You influence the content of the public debate. You help frame the issues. And you help cement the bonds in your community, which is made up of people exchanging ideas.

  3. daniel messinger says:

    http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/habermas/

    Habermas completed his dissertation in 1954 at the University of Bonn, writing on the conflict between the absolute and history in Schelling’s thought. He first gained serious public attention, at least in Germany, with the 1962 publication of his habilitation, Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit (Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere; English ed., 1989), a detailed social history of the development of the bourgeois public sphere from its origins in the 18th century salons up to its transformation through the influence of capital-driven mass media. In his description of the salons we clearly see his interest in a communicative ideal that later would provide the core normative standard for his moral-political theory: the idea of inclusive critical discussion, free of social and economic pressures, in which interlocutors treat each other as equals in a cooperative attempt to reach an understanding on matters of common concern. As an ideal at the center of bourgeois culture, this kind of interchange was probably never fully realized; nonetheless, it “was not mere ideology” (1989, 160, also 36). As these small discussion societies grew into mass publics in the 19th century, however, ideas became commodities, assimilated to the economics of mass media consumption. Rather than give up on the idea of public reason, Habermas called for a socioinstitutionally feasible concept of public opinion-formation “that is historically meaningful, that normatively meets the requirements of the social-welfare state, and that is theoretically clear and empirically identifiable.” Such a concept “can be grounded only in the structural transformation of the public sphere itself and in the dimension of its development” (ibid., 244). His concluding sketch of such a concept (ibid., 244–48) already contains in outline the two-level model of democratic deliberation he later elaborates in his mature work on law and democracy, Between Facts and Norms (1996b; German ed., 1992b).

  4. [...] All-or-nothing is All Wrong by Chana Messinger [...]

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