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A Helpful Guide for Argument: Rapoport’s Rules

Posted in Writing

Recently, while listening to Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, I happened upon a guide to engaging another person in debate. It comes up when he introduces his interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett. Whether you are a lawyer preparing a brief or courtroom argument or a layperson engaged in a political discussion with a friend, it is worth taking a moment to understand and give the rules a shot. The podcast episode is worth a listen. Or for a quick read, check out Maria Popova’s post on Mr. Dennett over at Brain Pickings. Also, here they are:

1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.
2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

These rules have incredible value in any critical discourse. The most important reason is that your opponent or judge will be more likely to listen to what you have to say and be persuaded when you have disarmed them. Secondly, the rules encourage collegial and professional discourse (very lacking in the American political climate right now). Third, you will sound reasonable and potentially way more credible than an opponent who goes on the attack or reconstructs your opponent in a straw man form (inexperienced advocates often cannot resist). Finally, the argument you construct after articulating your opponent’s position fairly is likely to be a better one than the one you may have made out of emotion or in the form of an attack.

I hope that you will check out the rules. And when you finish with them, check out Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett.