Arguing Well Isn’t Charity, It’s Due Diligence

I think I’ve done a bad job so far of explaining what I actually mean by being charitable in argument. Several people have pointed out to me that charitability, as I’ve described it, seems to have some pretty severe limitations. What if someone’s being an asshole? What if you’re being personally attacked, or it feels incredibly personal, and you don’t have the energy or distance to be perfectly detached and rational about everything?

raisevoiceI think this can be explained if I dump, at least for the moment, the term “charity.” Charity is what you do if you’re feeling extra virtuous that day. Charity is what you do it’s convenient and you have some extra money in your wallet. That’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m asking all of us to work on doing when we argue with people is practicing due diligence.

It is our due diligence as people who argue to think about the most productive and effective way to get our ideas across.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to make sure to address the arguments that someone is actually making.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to focus more on the core of someone’s argument than on peripherals that aren’t as relevant.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to try to understand where people are coming from, so we can understand what lies behind their arguments.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not strawman.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to ask ourselves what we think we know about the topic and the person we’re arguing with and how we think we know it.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to acknowledge counterarguments to our position, and any other weaknesses besides.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to consider the possibility that we are wrong
It is our due diligence as people who argue to be clear about what we’re arguing
It is our due diligence as people who argue to explain and justify our reasoning.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to only make claims about the world or other people that are justified with the evidence
It is our due diligence as people who argue to not automatically assume the worst of people
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that people are going to disagree with us and be wrong who aren’t bad people.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to realize that our words and actions can have effects far beyond this particular argument, especially if the argument is public.
It is our due diligence as people who argue to treat our opponents like human beings.

This due diligence is what gets us productive arguments that help us learn. They’re also the kind of arguments that I think are most likely to persuade someone, if that’s what you’re interested in. All else equal, practicing due diligence is an intellectual and a moral duty to others.

But there’s a lot due diligence doesn’t mean.

It doesn’t mean, for instance, that you always have to be “nice” to people. Sometimes arguments are more heated. Sometimes you really don’t like someone. Sometimes you’re going to really bring it to demolish someone else’s argument, marshalling all of your available evidence and refuting them point by point. Nothing in due diligence prevents that.
Example: This wonderful takedown of a misleading National Organization for Marriage ad against Prop 8 back in 2008.

Similarly, due diligence doesn’t mean you can’t get angry. Anger can fuel and inspire us. It can push us to do our absolute best to make the world a better place. None of that is wrong. As long as the arguments are thoughtful, well-supported and true, it’s fine to get angry sometimes. There are costs of course, and times when it’s less productive to seem angry. But nothing about due diligence abolishes it altogether.
Example: Greta’s classic piece on why atheists are so angry, which is also a talk and a book, is angry but accurate, incensed while remaining judicious.

It also doesn’t mean you have to like people. There are a lot of people I really don’t like. There are people I think are mean, hurtful, irrational, stubborn, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, closed-minded, hateful. Sometimes I argue with those people. It doesn’t mean I have to forget that they are these things. It doesn’t mean I have to pretend that they’re actually fantastic people. It doesn’t even mean I can’t point it out, if I think it’s appropriate. But it does mean I have to be judicious in my arguing and have some respect for them while I’m arguing with them.
Example: Nate Phelps’ talk at Reason Rally about his family, pretty much the worst people ever, was thoughtful, sincere and totally damning.

Due diligence doesn’t mean you have to make excuses for someone saying something wrong or awful. By all means, call people out. Tell them what they’re saying isn’t true, that they aren’t facing the evidence. Tell them they’re wrong. Tell them they’ve said something that causes harm. Tell them they’re perpetuating stereotypes, making lives harder, hurting a movement. Just be clear about what you’re actually saying, and then be diligent about the argument you’re making. Don’t always assume they meant to cause harm (both because it isn’t always true and because it will make you less persuasive). Don’t immediately label them the enemy.
Example: Laci Green, a fantastic sex vlogger, thought what Jenna Marbles said in one of her videos was slut shaming, but she didn’t make Jenna the problem, she just called out the general issue, clearly and forcefully.

Due diligence also doesn’t mean you can’t argue that a public figure or institution shouldn’t have our respect or shouldn’t be taken seriously. If someone has a strong history of harmful conduct or unacceptable speech, please give a highly critical rundown of all the bad things they’ve done and what that should mean for us so that we don’t honor bad people or groups. Just stick to the facts, make sure you’re never making claims that the evidence doesn’t support and keep in mind that you may not know their true motivations.
Examples: This open letter to the Richard Dawkins Foundation about what they do (or don’t do) with their money and this piece by Andrew Tripp about Ayaan Hirsi Ali and her bad politics.

Finally, and this one’s important, due diligence doesn’t mean there aren’t exceptions to due diligence. I fully admit that there are cases, some I’ve thought of and some I haven’t, where this style of argumentation isn’t ideal. If you’re in a debate, for example, it might be more important to win than to be all proper. If someone is hurting you or someone you care about, it might be more important to get them to stop then to convince them that one or more of their ideologies is wrong. If someone’s trolling (i.e. arguing in bad faith and they’re unreachable by argument) then it might be reasonable to ignore them, delete their comment (if this is taking place online), Snark Attack them or troll them right back. The best course of action is always going to depend on what your goals are.
Example: Eliezer Yudkowsky at probably any dinner party. In particular,

“I was once at a dinner party, trying to explain to a man what I did for a living, when he said: “I don’t believe Artificial Intelligence is possible because only God can make a soul.”

At this point I must have been divinely inspired, because I instantly responded: “You mean if I can make an Artificial Intelligence, it proves your religion is false?””

Full article, in which there is a great discussion in the comments about this very topic.

Due diligence in argumentation is hard. Doing anything properly is hard. There are going to be all kinds of times when you can’t argue at your highest level, just as at many times we fail to be our best selves in other ways. I certainly don’t argue perfectly charitably or thoughtfully all the time, especially when the person I’m arguing with is being stubborn or thoughtless or ignorant. And as I said above, there are exceptions to this practice, times when it doesn’t apply, which I hope to talk about in the future.

But none of that means that we shouldn’t do our level best to have the kinds of arguments that we should be having, the ones that force us to see things in a new light, or get someone thinking about something we said. I want us all to have the kinds of arguments that make us realize that the truth resists simplicity, even as they help us discard falsehood and error. I want our arguments to teach, to challenge, inform, convince and win. I want us to get more right (or, if you will, less wrong), by arguing right, and I want us to do it together.

Previous Posts About Better Arguing/Charity/Diligence

  • Steelmanning
  • Being Charitable
  • Acknowledging Counterarguments
  • About Nuance (not part of this series, but still relevant)
  • And watch out for future posts that will expand the notion of due diligence and what it entails. Potential examples: When smart people disagree with you, reevaluate; Justify *all* claims, not just the obvious ones; Be clear about how you arrived at your position; and more!

3 thoughts on “Arguing Well Isn’t Charity, It’s Due Diligence

  1. […] is a good reminder that constructive and honest criticism of vocabulary, tone, and content help us make our arguments better, and provide us with opportunities to be more rational […]

  2. […] When I Say Charity, I Really Mean Due Diligence by Chana Messinger […]

  3. […] other people might mean something different from Russell (Chana Messinger maybe), but Russell’s definition is pretty close to how I usually hear it defined, […]

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