Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Debater's code of ethics

I have been thinking that Christians should adopt a higher standard of morals when it comes to debate.

Consider the typical debate. There are carelessly-researched items reported as facts, distortions in how information is presented, selective use of evidence. There are questionable techniques such as character attacks, or conveniently placed displays of anger or shock that may be used tactically. Regardless of how common these things are, should a Christian engage in them?

I think Christians would do well to develop a full-fledged ethics code covering conduct during a debate. It would make debates more productive. It would lead to deepening mutual respect among Christians rather than deepening divisions and hostilities. It would also - let's not forget the big picture - keep us from sinning quite so often. We do want to behave ethically, don't we?

Here is a first shot at a debater's code of ethics.

Debater's Code of Ethics

Preface: The goal of a debate is to firmly establish which position has the most merit. Any conduct that does not live up to Christlike standards weakens the position of Christianity, regardless of which side wins the particular debate in question.

  1. Nothing should be presented as fact unless the debater has personally checked the original source material and verified its accuracy.
  2. The debater should present facts accurately, without stretching or distorting the information.
  3. The debater should never present facts in a way different than how they appear to him, or deny the reality of his own hesitations in order make his position seem stronger than he himself feels it to be.
  4. The debater should honestly review all evidence and arguments, being more willing to change his views, acknowledge a mistake, or even lose a debate than to engage in dishonesty.
  5. The debater should not smear, mock, belittle, or otherwise disparage the character of his opponent, or engage in any form of character attack.
  6. The debater should be familiar with logical fallacies and should completely reject their use, regardless of any tactical advantage that might be gained by them.
  7. The debater should not engage in tactical displays of anger, outrage, shock, or sorrow, or make other theatrical displays intended to play the emotions of the onlookers or distract from the lack of an adequate response.
  8. The debater should assume the honesty, integrity, and good faith of the opponent.
  9. If the opponent makes a mistake of fact or logic, or engages in unethical debating tactics, these are to be answered with honesty and good faith, leaving a clear conscience.
  10. The debater should give a fair hearing to his opponent and should be willing to change his views, not allowing himself to become blinded by partisanship or ego, or prevented from taking the best course by fear of embarrassment.
  11. The debater should develop his skills and knowledge so that he can support his position solidly, state his position clearly, and defend his position honestly.
  12. The debater should always be civil and respectful: in victory, gracious and free of arrogance; in defeat, showing good sportsmanship and holding steadfastly to the truth.

What have I forgotten? Or what changes does that need?


Anonymous said...

I've had this posted for a while - the Harris twins

Expectation in Debate

Weekend Fisher said...

I like that. Thanks for posting the link. It's more conversational there. While I'm more angled on just the ethics, they actually go into debate details. (Leave it to people who spend that much time debating!) The insights were great.

And I love the names they gave to some of the underhanded tactics. (So a "question avalanche" is what you call it when people do that? I never knew ... )

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Martin LaBar said...

Good list. I didn't miss anything, except the question of why the debate took place. What purpose will it serve?

Aron said...

Add "These rules apply even when the other person disregards them"?

While #8 is a good rule of thumb and a necessary default starting position, I don't think it's universally applicable.

Sometimes the lack of good faith on the part of the opponent is so pronounced that no meaningful debate can occur without removing this obstacle. Even then, in the majority of cases, no good can come even of graciously pointing out the fault of ones opponents.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that in a minority of situations, calling people out on bad behaviour is precisely the loving, truthful, and Christian response, i.e. the one most likely to build up the other person. Some people use this tactic much too often, but that does not mean it is always unhelpful.

I would rephrase #8 to say something like "start by assuming...and be reluctant to conclude otherwise." or equivalently, "Give the opponent the benefit of the doubt with respect to their intentions". Perhaps one could add "Do not accuse other people of dishonesty unless it is likely to benefit the other participants (and usually it doesn't)."

Weekend Fisher said...

Hey, thanks for the thoughts there.

Martin - Since you can debate about anything, I left that part fairly broad: to establish which position has the most merit. How would you see the point of a debate, as debate? (Often conversations are more productive than debates, but this post is based on the premise that someone has already accepted a challenge to debate and now needs to do so in a Christian manner.)

Aron - LOL, definitely ("even if the other person does not"), "return good for evil" as The Man says. And I think that's a useful addition, about when the other side has given every reason to believe they care nothing about ethics in the debate, how you handle that.

Btw you all might be interested in the link the first commenter left. It's to some posting rules developed by people who were national-level champion debaters, and identify themselves as Christians. It's from a debater's eye view, and has some interesting material.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF

Russell Purvis said...

You should add this link for common fallacies committed on arguments.

Russell Purvis said...

You should add this link for common fallacies committed on arguments.

Weekend Fisher said...

There's a lot of good material there. People who intend to debate should definitely become familiar with logical fallacies. It would be great if every debater knew how to recognize them, how to avoid them, and how to respond to them.

I'm hoping for a more complete list somewhere before I post a link, though ...

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF