Five Steps To Arguing On The Internet, According To Philosophy

5. Don't. That is always a good option.

Philosophy has a PR problem. There aren’t really any famous philosophers, and those that are famous write books most people own just so they can show other people they own them. The sciences, on the other hand, have Science Communicators; loveable kooks like Dr Karl, suave intellectuals like Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson, and heartthrobs like Professor Brian Cox.

I get it. It took a lot of hard work to get the scientific method this established. Now it’s so ubiquitous we’re not even shocked to hear an ad promote “a fabric scientifically proven to be three times more comfortable than cotton”. What does that even mean?

Brian Cox, can you or your beautiful mane please explain this?

Scientific thinking has managed to usurp philosophical thinking in most people, which is ironic, because if you’ve ever thought “philosophy is useless compared to science and I’d never use it”, then came up with a bunch of reasons why that’s the case, then congrats, you just did yourself some philosophising!

Philosophy is intuitive. We do it all the time, it’s just that most of us don’t have training in it. Usain Bolt and I may have different motivations, but when he’s trying to win gold or I’m about to miss my fucking train again, we’re both ‘running’. Likewise, when you construct an argument, reasoning out your premises and advocating your conclusions, you’re doing philosophy. You know when you weigh up whether or not to eat your co-workers lunch? That’s philosophy. Ever wondered if my blue is the same as your blue, and why people think you’re insufferable for bringing it up? Philosophy.

Philosophy is so ubiquitous in our day-to-day lives that it’s frankly baffling we don’t have any Rockstar Philosophers, making clear thinking exciting and sexy for the masses. (If that position is still vacant by the time this piece is published I am willing to get a haircut). But philosophy can be practical.

You’re online right now; chances are you’ve gone blue in the face sometime this week typing furiously at a moron who Just. Doesn’t. Get. It. Here’s one way philosophy can help: by teaching you how to argue on the internet.

1. Be Fair And Charitable

This is, without a doubt, is the hardest point to implement. After all, the only reason you’re arguing is because you feel the stodgy fuck on the other side is clearly wrong, and an idiot, and probably homophobic, and you’re righteous and correct. But, even those people can get some things right.

Being fair is about sticking as close as possible to your opponent’s actual intent. Even though Uncle Richard was waxing lyrical about terrorist refugees, ruining the baby shower photos your aunt just posted, you know he was being hyperbolic with the “kill ‘em all” bit. His argument about border control along economic lines might be a good one. But arguing about anything else will likely just have Uncle Richard girding his loins and doubling down (a truly horrific thing to picture), and will have you wasting time disproving an argument no one really made.

Charity, on the other hand, is when you assume the best of an argument. There are a bunch of philosophical terms that can apply here, like validity (a well-structured deductive argument that preserves the truth of its conclusion) and cogency (an inductive argument with a very probable conclusion),  but basically: if someone is being vague in their argument and you want to engage with them, the first step is on you to ensure you’re making their argument the strongest it can be.

Fill in the gaps, and work as hard as you need to make it as logical and rational as possible. Trust me, it’s worth it; the only thing better than smashing apart a shit argument is smashing apart a reasonable one (and also, you know, intellectual rigour and honesty, or whatever).

2. Reconstruct Their Argument

Repeating someone’s argument back to them not only makes them more receptive to whatever you’re going to say, but it’s also a useful thing for you to do. Have you understood what your opponent is trying to say, or are you still high on indignation, like the regional manager on coke at the office party?

Argument reconstruction — in a technical sense — probably requires a semester in logic (which is great, though probably not for everyone!) but there are a few small things you can start to do today.

The most important thing is to identify the argument’s conclusion and premises. The conclusion is the “point”, and the premises are the statements that support it. Figuring out what these are helps you see exactly how your opponent is thinking. Do they think female athletes should be paid less because they perform more poorly, or do they think female athletes perform more poorly because they’re paid less? Always be on the lookout for ‘premise indicators; (words like “because”, “since”, “for”, “as”) and ‘conclusion indicators’ (“so”, “hence”, “thus”, “therefore”). Some blowhards put their conclusions before their premises, because they want to sound heaps smart. It can be a bit of a task to work out.

Once you’ve done that, you can start clearing away all the verbiage (discounting statements, hedging, repetition, and all the other rhetorical devices that don’t support the argument itself), and start raking for fallacies. There are a bunch of different informal fallacies to watch out for, but as a good rule of thumb, if a premise seems unnecessarily rude, exaggerated or irrelevant, there’s a good chance it is.

But a quick word on fallacies: they only count against an argument if they’re being used to support it. For instance, the ad hominem fallacy is where someone attacks the person making an argument, instead of that person’s argument. This is quite literally the adult version of saying “you think climate change is real? Well you’re an ugly loser with no friends!” The fact that I may or may not be a lonely troglodyte has no bearing on the truth of my premises about global warming.

If, however, they’re bringing up my weird face and social ineptitude just to have an extra laugh at my expense, they’re not committing a fallacy. They’re just jerks. But you probably won’t need to worry about this because I don’t think there are many jerks to be found on the internet.

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So while it may seem powerful to smash the caps key, blasting out phrases like “FALSE EQUIVALENCE!” at a climate change denier, and then whisking their profile off to the blocked list, just be sure they’re making an argument, and not a bad joke. If you confuse the two, you’ll likely commit The Fallacy fallacy, and boy would your face be red.

3. Deduce Before You Induce

Logic is like maths; there can be right or wrong answers. Once you’ve cleared away all the clutter of your opponent’s argument, and really come to grips with whatever point they’re making, you can scan across it quickly and do some deductive reasoning.

Logic is where philosophers start using those cheeky letter abstracts, as stand-ins for real terms. If someone has a logically valid argument, then it doesn’t matter what terms you substitute in for A or B — if the premises are true, you can deduce that the conclusion must be true. Counter-examples are useful for helping to prove or disprove the validity of arguments.

Here’s an example of an argument with substitute terms: A is C, B is C, so A must be B.

That might seem valid, but a counter-example proves it isn’t: One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts (A) is a man (C). Socrates (B) is a man (C). So, One Nation Senator Malcolm Roberts (A) is Socrates (B).

See, that doesn’t make sense, because despite claims to the contrary, Malcolm Roberts isn’t Socrates! And he never fucking will be!


Question Time, 2016.

There are hundreds of ways arguments can be invalid, and sometimes invalid arguments are still strong logistically speaking. Strong arguments rely on ‘inductive reasoning’; the premises may not logically entail a true conclusion, but they may support it based on how probable the premises are. This is where you need to know the truth of the claims (though there is even a whole body of literature called The Problem Of Induction. Don’t get philosophers started.)

But whenever someone makes an argument as confusing as Malcolm Roberts’, before you go chasing for the truth of the premises, just substitute in some terms and see if the foundation of the argument is strong. It’s surprising how often media pundits and politicians put forth truly shit arguments, and I have a strong suspicion they’d stop if more people had the tools to very quickly parse a paragraph or speech and say “yeah nah, Andrew Bolt is bloody Denying The Antecedent again!” (which is the logical equivalent of denying Indigenous peoples’ recognition in the constitution).

Once you have these tools locked up in the shed of your mind (what a tortured metaphor) it’s a very easy and hugely satisfying to do.

4. Make Your Counter-Argument

Now, and only now, can you make your argument against your opponent. And given that you’ve just gone through and tidied up the dickhead’s scrawl for them, it will be a piece of cake! Just remember; you want your version of their argument to be as good as it can be. It’s pristine; it’s perfect; it’s a thing of reasoned beauty. And it’s wrong, motherfucker!

Here’s a quick mental checklist of things to ask yourself to see if their argument is wrong, instead of just poorly worded or grossly offensive. Is the overall argument valid? If not, is it cogent? Do any of the premises rely on fallacies to make their points? Are the premises untrue? Can their conclusion follow from the premises? If not, why not?

Feel free to point out wherever they’ve gone wrong using facts, figures, relevant rhetoric, passion and zazz, just so long as you follow steps 1 to 3 yourself.

  1. Make your points clearly.
  2. Make sure they’re free from verbose crap and logical fallacies.
  3. Make sure they follow a logical form as best they can.

Congratulations, you won! You’re a hero.

5. Just Don’t

Seriously, this is a good option. If you can have a discussion then by all means… But there is no moral theory anywhere that proposes making yourself and everyone around you miserable. The term “argument” is one that means something very different for philosophers than it does for the general public (especially online). I’ve seen professors argue publicly with so much jargon, rigour and ferocity that it looks like a freestyle rap battle. But I’ve also seen those very same philosophers shake hands and laugh together once they’re finished.

Arguing without emotion is a great way to figure out or tighten up any thoughts you’ve been having. Arguing with emotion is a great way to end up angry-gorging on Ben & Jerry’s before ditching the online fight to mainline a Marvel series on Netflix.

Just don’t post that comment. Delete it. At the very least, pick your battles. If something is important to you, then go through steps 1 to 4 and make the world a better place. If something is relatively inconsequential, maybe instead just have a chuckle at how people can become emotionally invested when debating which was the best cartoon aired on Cheez TV (it was Dragon Ball Z, FYI).

Remember; you don’t have to argue with obnoxious dickheads at every turn. You can always go about your day happy in the knowledge that on the very, very small chance that they actually exist (and are not a product of your mind, or a simulation), they’ll be dead one day anyway, and so will you.

Feature image via Frederick Rubinson/Creative Commons.

Mitch is a 27-year-old vocalist, comedian, philosopher, part-time radio host, vegan, socialist, utilitarian, reductionist who hates labels. He considers it a life well lead that all his projects somehow involve shouting at strangers. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.