Debate: Our Ideals & Principles
The following are the ideals we aim to uphold, in general and especially in our Intellectual Forum, when we explore new or controversial ideas. They were originally written by Geoff Brown for his debate group Studio 42, and are shared here with his permission, under a Creative Commons Attribution License, and lightly edited to conform with our house style.
Intellectual courage is part of having an open mind. People who possess intellectual courage are not afraid to hear opposing viewpoints and have their beliefs challenged. If you have intellectual courage, you can listen with an open mind, and you are prepared to change your opinions when new evidence comes to light.
Intellectual humility is also part of having an open mind. People who possess intellectual humility recognize that they don’t know all that there is to know. You recognize at all times that you might be missing critical facts, that you might be missing important context for your facts, or that you might be basing your conclusions on flawed reasoning.
Intellectual humility strikes a balance between the vices of intellectual pride (thinking that you know everything or could not be mistaken) and intellectual diffidence (not caring about a topic). With intellectual humility, you have done your best to inform yourself on a topic and to formulate a strong opinion, but you always recognize the possibility that you might be mistaken.
Skepticism is when you form beliefs based on evidence, and your confidence in those beliefs is proportional to the weight of the evidence. It is in opposition to invalid belief-forming methods such as:
- Assertion (I just know that X is true)
- Faith (I believe X because I have faith that X is true)
- Revelation (I have special knowledge that X is true)
- Tradition (We’ve always believed X)
- Wishful Thinking (I believe X because there would be unpleasant consequences if X were not true)
Principles of Discussion
Principle of Analysis
Criticize how a person thinks, not what he thinks or who he is.
The Principle of Atomicity
Put forth one main argument at a time. Don’t try to make multiple points within the same speech. The audience has a limited attention span; when you say multiple arguments, it becomes more difficult for others to reinforce or counter all of your points after you have spoken.
Principle of Brevity
Brevity is the soul of wit, among other virtues. While humour and rhetorical flourish can help you make your point, you should still try to say your point in as few words as possible, and do not repeat your point.
Principle of Charity
Assume that other participants are well-intentioned and intelligent. Give the best possible interpretation to their arguments.
Principle of Clarity
Clear communication keeps the discussion productive and satisfying. Use the following guide to speak clearly:
- Use plain language that everyone can understand
- Don’t make your arguments more complex than they need to be
- Use concrete examples to illustrate your points
- Immediately state your thesis or main argument when you speak
Principle of Collectivism
We are here to discuss ideas as a group. Questions should not be directed to particular people based on their race, religion, sex, lifestyle choice, or other personal characteristics.
Principle of Continuity
When engaging in spoken conversations, we aim to follow threads in which one person’s contribution is a thoughtful response to the contributions of previous participants. In order to avoid hijacking or derailing the discussion, either respond to a previous speaker or preface your comment with your intent to propose a new direction.
Principle of Curiosity
Questions are more powerful than statements. When you disagree with someone, ask questions to better understand her perspective.
Principle of Comprehension
Make sure you understand what a person means before arguing against them.
Principle of Defeasibility
As a critical thinker, you should be ready to change your opinion, and you should have a clear concept of what evidence would be required to change your mind. If you hold an opinion but do not know what would change your mind—or if there is no evidence that would change your mind—then you are not thinking critically.
Principle of Detachment
We should discuss ideas without discussing whether people live up to those ideas in their personal lives. For instance, if a person claims that it is unethical to eat meat, we should not ask whether he does in fact abstain from eating meat. The discussion should remain philosophical and avoid appeals to hypocrisy.
Principle of Fair Game Critique
All ideas are open to contention and criticism. If you don’t want someone to criticize a belief that you hold, then don’t bring it up. Once you speak, you may be spoken to.
Principle of Literalism
When speaking, you should be aware of whether you are speaking in literal or metaphorical terms. If you are speaking in metaphorical terms, you should be able to rephrase your point in clear, precise and literal terms. If you cannot do this, then you are probably committing a fallacy of misplaced concreteness.
Principle of Objectivity
Arguments and evidence should be objective. They should be based on verifiable facts that anyone can observe and confirm. They should not be based on opinions, feelings, faith, or revealed truth. Analogies and metaphors can be used to illustrate points, but they are not objective and are not valid as evidence.
Principle of Reason
Arguments should be based on reason. They should be epistemologically valid, free of fallacies, and open to scrutiny.