How to make a successful argument

Your partner in an argument has said or written something with which you disagree.

  1. Attempt to re-express your partner’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your partner says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. List any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. 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 are known as Rapoport’s Rules (or also as Dennett’s Rules). Daniel Dennett is an influential American philosopher whose interests strongly intersect ours. Anatol Rapoport is the game theorist who found the winning strategy for the Prisoner’s Dilemma, which opened the way for productive investigations into the evolution of cooperation.

Rule 1 is also known as a Steel Man argument.

“Success” here means benefit to science, rather than merely winning a debate.

The distinction is analogous to that between two views of evolutionary ‘survival of the fittest’. A popularization that was convenient for 19th-century robber baron political discourse (social darwinism) evokes Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw” with (male) animals dueling to the death for mating privileges. But in evolution, survival is understood as bringing offspring to reproductive maturity (who then have offspring), and that requires much more than begetting.