Rules for Disagreement

The Internet is almost tailor-made for arguments. People disagree all the time, and we almost always think that the other person’s errors absolutely must be corrected.

Setting aside for the nonce the question of whether we really do have to track down and correct the very last wrong man on the Internet, unfortunately it happens all too often that we don’t do a good job of doing much more than just saying “you’re wrong.” Saying that might be true, but it’s insufficient.

In Adler and Van Doren’s How to Read a Book (a sometimes tedious read, but good in places), we find the following criteria for disagreement. I don’t have access to the book anymore, but I wrote them down, and I think they’re very useful. If we are going to disagree with someone, it’s not enough to just say that he’s mistaken. We need to be able to justify that disagreement.

  • We’re justified in disagreeing with a man if he is uninformed, but we need to be able to show that he really is missing some (or all) of the facts.
  • We’re justified in disagreeing with a man if he is misinformed, but we need to be able to show that he really has got the facts wrong.
  • We’re justified in disagreeing with a man if he has been illogical, but we need to be able to show either that one or more of his premises is false, or that his conclusion does not follow from them.
  • We’re justified in disagreeing with a man if his account is incomplete, but we need to be able to show how a more comprehensive presentation of the facts shows that his view is incorrect.

These rules place the burden squarely on us to do more than simply say “You’re wrong, buddy.” We need to be able to give good reasons for disagreeing. If we cannot do so, then as Adler and Van Doren point out, we have a moral obligation to accept what the other man is saying as the truth. If the other fellow can’t be shown to be mistaken, then the only alternative is that he is actually correct. It won’t do for us to suppress the truth just because we don’t like it.

Now that sounds rather drastic, but there is an important qualification that should be added: that is, I may not be able right now to show that he’s mistaken. I might have plausible reasons for supposing that he is probably wrong, but I might lack the resources of time and ability to demonstrate it. We’re not necessarily obliged in such cases to drop everything and go research what the other guy says. In such cases the best thing to do is simply to say “In my opinion he might be mistaken, or he is probably mistaken, but I can’t prove it, so it’s probably best not to just say ‘you are wrong.’”

If you stop and think about it, these are really rules of courtesy. If it’s rude to tell a man to his face that he’s wrong without telling him why, it’s no less rude to do the same to him over the Internet.

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