: Arguing Ethically
When one of the authors was a college student, he got clobbered by a professor he barely knew. The professor seemed amicable enough, but you know what they say about judging a book by its cover. While usually an easygoing fellow, once this professor stepped on a basketball court, an unsettling Jekyll-n-Hyde transformation took place. His “win-at-all costs” attitude turned what was intended to be a friendly Saturday morning game into an ugly spectacle. Your author, the unfortunate target of the professor’s ire, got knocked for a loop when attempting an easy shot. As the author watched little birdies circling his head, the professor yelled “offensive foul” and a dispute ensued. When other players—even some from the professor’s team—took the author’s side, the professor hurled profanities, then insults, then threats, and finally the basketball itself at the author’s face. Fortunately he missed, but the author was stunned nonetheless. Sure, he’d experienced hostility before, but this case seemed too trivial to provoke such an extreme reaction. You might expect such a lack of decorum from professional wrestlers or bridezillas, the author figured, but why would a professor stoop so low? Of course, the author was being naive. Professors are not above behaving badly and, unfortunately, they are not alone.
To be sure, there is a lot of anger out there. As Amy Alkin observes in her book, I See Rude People, “Rudeness isn’t just contagious; it’s epidemic” (2010, pp. 18—19). Try Googling “little league fights,” for example, and you’ll find a wide selection of videos featuring players, coaches, and parents “getting in each other’s grill.” And, if that’s not enough, you can almost always find television reality or talk shows (e.g., Mob Wives, Real Housewives, Hell’s Kitchen') that have managed to market tantrums as entertainment. Politicians, of course, are not above the fray, and who hasn’t heard of internet trolling, flaming, and cyberbullying? We could go on, but you get the point—incivility is not in short supply.
With that in mind, this chapter is devoted to examining how to argue ethically, with civility and decorum. In addition to discussing the different goals you should consider when engaging in an argument, we examine a number of perspectives on cooperative and constructive argumentation. First, however, we turn to a discussion of some principles related to the topic at hand.
Argument Is Not a Dirty Word
One of the authors once had a conversation with a couple that went like this:
Husband: (proudly) “We’ve been married for two years and never had a fight.”
Author: “What do you mean by fight?”
Wife: “An argument.”
Author: “You’re telling me that in two years you’ve never once argued?”
Husband and wife: (in unison) “Nope!”
Upon hearing this, the author’s first thought was “Uh Oh.” An absence of argument in a relationship isn’t necessarily something to be proud of. In fact, compared with couples that argue effectively, those that avoid arguments are 10 times more likely to have unhappy relationships (see Hill, 2018). An absence of argument might, for instance, signal relational inequality. One partner might be more emotionally or financially dependent on the other and dare not disagree. When our relationships are rooted in equality, we feel free to argue because we are confident enough in the relationship to do so. Don’t get us wrong. We’re not endorsing constant bickering and endless sniping. We are recommending that couples argue about important issues, those that affect their relationships. Regrettably, the “happy” couple in this story divorced within a few years.
When it comes to connotations associated with the word “argument,” the couple in this story is not alone. Unfortunately, the word “argument” often carries with it a pejorative connotation. In one study by Benoit (1982, cited in Hampie, 2003), for example, undergraduate students were asked to recall and describe an argument in which they had recently been involved. Results indicated that the students’ view of an argument was largely negative, involving “overt disagreement, loud and negative voices, irrational emotional displays, closed-mindedness by both parties, and negative relational consequences” (Hampie, 2003, p. 447).
Viewing Argument Positively
Do you also view argument negatively? After reading this chapter, we hope not. If you do, however, you may be selling yourself short. Indeed, according to argumentation scholar Dale Hampie (2003), the ability to understand and reframe arguing as a positive process is essential to becoming a skillful arguer. We couldn’t agree more. In fact, one of our main objectives in this book is to dispel negative attitudes about what argument is and does. We encourage you to think of argument in a positive light. Arguing about things that matter is an asset, not a liability, to a relationship.
That said, a willingness to argue, while necessary, is not sufficient to make you a competent arguer. You also need to argue ethically. How you argue has the potential to affect your relationships, the way in which you perceive yourself and others, and the effectiveness of what you say. Accordingly, in this chapter we offer some basic principles and practical skills that should help you argue more appropriately. Beforehand, however, we’d like to add a disclaimer. While we encourage you to consider our guidelines, we do not believe we have a corner on the ethics market. Although we try to practice what we preach, we’ve committed our fair share of blunders during arguments. Our views, and those of others that we examine, are not sacrosanct. Moreover, some of our guidelines do not apply in every situation. That said, we hope our guidelines are helpful as you begin to think through the bases for your own ethical standards and come to terms with what you consider to be good and bad behavior when arguing. With this in mind, we begin by examining some traits and behaviors related to competent argumentation.