How to have an argument with someone you just don’t get


James Maclaurin, from the Philosophy Department at the University of Otago, has offered ‘eight tips for having successful arguments with someone whose opinions are radically different from your own’. They are:


1. Keep a cool head
Even if you are passionate about what you are arguing for, nothing will be served if the other person thinks you are trying to intimidate them.

2. Make the debate rational
Even if you are not sure whether the other person is being honest and serious, take them seriously. Reason the way you think we should, when arguing about important issues. (Hint: when you argue with someone, you should be trying to learn from them, not prove that they or their friends or their compatriots are less smart than you).

3. Work out what you disagree about
Is it the facts or is it the values you hold? State your reasoning. Ask for theirs. Tell them why you think your argument is convincing. Ask them why they think theirs is. Keep going until you both understand how each other’s arguments work and what assumptions they rest on.

4. If you disagree on the facts, visit 
I recommend their article on “How to Spot Fake News”. Talk about evidence. Tell them what sort of evidence would make you change your mind. Ask them what would change theirs. If you can’t agree on the facts and it really matters to both of you, consider taking a course. Physics, History, Chemistry, Criminology, Genetics… You’ve come to the right place.

5. If you disagree about values, work out what values are doing the work
I value my sleep because I value my health, because I value happiness. So happiness is the fundamental value here. The others are just instrumental. Fundamental disagreements about values are common and they can be managed. Politics, Philosophy, Sociology, Anthropology, History and many other departments are full of expertise about making diversity a fuel for success, not a recipe for disaster.

6. See the other person’s point of view
If you find this hard, try writing down your arguments and then reading out each other’s. Tell them what you think they think. Ask them what they think you think.

7. Acknowledge bias
Human beings have built-in cognitive biases. Amongst other things, we are much more likely to be persuaded by arguments and evidence that support the beliefs we currently hold. Check out the Wall Street Journal’s red and blue feed experiment to see just how polarised social media is making public debate. So ask yourself “how might people disagree with me?” Try out your argument on people you don’t know so well or you think of as holding different opinions to yours.

8. Be practical
Acknowledging the differences between you, how do you think we should best live together? What concessions should we make to one another?

Some good advice I reckon.

[Image: Bill Waterson, 15 November 1993]


  1. He’ not wrong. Still, for a title, how about “Mary Poppins’ Eight-Point Guide for Arguments with Happy Outcomes”?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “Is it the facts or is it the values you hold? State your reasoning. Ask for theirs.” It’s strange, the long shadow that positivism has cast on philosophy. You think it died in the fifties and then you keep coming across remnants of it that have almost become common-sense in certain academic disciplines, even though they don’t help us at all when it comes to our actual lives, which seem to resist the positivist instinct to tidy everything up. Maclaurin’s advice sounds great until you find yourself in a lover’s quarrel, and then it just seems unhelpful and irrelevant. Imagine what Hamann, in the middle of his quarrel with Kant, would have said if you had handed him these rules! Or Socrates. Or, pretty much any philosopher who believes that the work of philosophy (metaphysical, political, moral) is the difficult work of love, in which we only discover who we are, and what our position and reasoning is, only by engaging in a lover’s quarrel, which never finishes, and in which our own complicity to falsehood is continually brought to light.


Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.