Debate, Dissent, and Dishonesty: What Makes a Good Argument, and What’s Just Embarrassing?

Debate, Dissent, and Dishonesty: What Makes a Good Argument, and What’s Just Embarrassing? December 10, 2014

In discussions surrounding Notre Dame’s staffing problem, a question was posed: When is an argument part of an honest debate, and when is it more like the intellectual equivalent of something stuck to the bottom of your shoe? Here’s a tutorial.  It’s not a philosophical treatise, it’s written for ordinary arguers.


We can say that we are debating a question when two criteria are met:

  1. We are discussing a matter that is open to discussion.
  2. We are in fact trying to arrive at an improved understanding of the truth.

Let’s consider the second item first.  If we are discussing whether to invade Iraq, and my argument consists of, “I hate Greek food and you look funny,” we aren’t debating.  A debate requires a serious attempt to grapple with the facts at hand, consider the various viewpoints and possibilities, and draw closer to a definitive answer.

We will, in that process, sometimes determine that there can be no answer. We might realize, for example, that the question is, ultimately, merely one of taste or preference, and that there is no objective right answer.  We cease, at that point, to be able to debate, because our subject is not up for debate.

There’s another reason a subject might not be up for debate, though, and it is the more serious reason: The case might be closed.

It could be closed because the question has been resolved definitively.  For example, if Jane is trying to decide whether to marry Bill or Bob, once she marries Bill, there’s no further debate.  It was open until she said “I do.”  Now it’s closed.  (At least, it’s closed until Bill meets his untimely demise and Jane has to decide whether Bob had anything to do with it.  Or some other circumstance re-opens the question.)

It could also be closed within a certain context.  So, for example, in nearly all mathematics departments, if you try to argue against the existence of fractions, or in favor of abolishing the number seven, you’ll be shown to the door.  These questions are not up for debate.  They have been settled.  There are circles in which you might find an audience for your alternative viewpoint, but good luck getting that teaching job.

Some questions are closed only because the local authority has decreed it so, and some questions that are generally considered closed might be open to debate in certain circles.  We could imagine, thus, a martial arts school that sets a very rigid doctrine concerning karate styles, but is entirely indifferent to the fate of the prime numbers.

Therefore, when asking, “Is this question open to debate?” we have to first determine within what set we find ourselves.


If we argue against a position that has been settled, we are no longer debating, we are dissenting. Bob’s persistent arguments in favor of Jane marrying him cease to be debate, and become dissent, the moment she marries Bill.  In the mathematics department, to argue against the existence of 57 is dissent; in the literature department such assertions are merely poetry, and late in the evening at the holiday party you might find takers for the argument.

Thus, in questions of religion, we can have debate among Catholics and Protestants about the Immaculate Conception of Mary, because in the wider set of “Christians who don’t all recognize the authority of the Catholic Church,” the matter isn’t settled.  Whereas among Catholics themselves, Mary’s Immaculate Conception is firmly fixed as fact, and we have to move onto the not-entirely-settled question of, “What about everyone else?

Nearly all social circles recognize a “hierarchy of truth.”  This is a spectrum, ranging from matters that are entirely settled on one extreme, to matters that are completely open to conjecture on the other.

When we describe someone as dissenting, therefore, we are always speaking with respect to a particular social set, even regarding matters that are firmly established questions of objective truth.  The set of “People who know what I had for dinner yesterday” will regard the question of what I ate as firmly established and not open for debate.  They know the truth, and because they are sane, they will insist upon it.  The set of “People who can only guess,” will consider the matter open to conjecture until some information comes along that establishes the facts.

Thus when we speak of dissent as being relative to a particular social set, we are not therefore implying that the topic of the dissent is a subjective question.  If it were a subjective question, there could be neither debate nor dissent.


Good debate is the mark of intellectual rigor; earnest dissent may or may not be.  (Sometimes, after all, the social set is indeed wrong.  Humans err.)  But recall that debate is always ordered towards an improved understanding of the truth. Thus an essential element of all debate, and of all earnest dissent, is a rigorous adherence to the truth.  One element of truth-telling is stating the opponent’s case as accurately as one is able.

We evaluate the honesty of an argument in part by asking ourselves, “Is this person likely to know better?” Thus a four-year old can be excused for skipping eleven when trying to count to twenty; it happens.  We gently correct and move on.  A math teacher who does the same is either senile, distracted, or dishonest.

A mark of honesty in debate is that someone who is corrected on a fact will acknowledge the error.  A mark of honesty in dissent is that the dissenters will openly acknowledge they are opposing an established position.

Notre Dame’s Thinking Problems

Thus in the recent Notre Dame Theology scandals, the problem is not that Joel Baden, who makes no claim of being Catholic, and does not work for a Catholic institution, disagrees with the Catholic Church. We should hope as much: If he thought the Church were correct, he’d be Catholic.  The problems are of another order:

1. Notre Dame, a Catholic university, has granted professorship in the Theology department to someone who openly dissents with the plain teaching of the Catholic faith.  We are not speaking here of nuanced explorations among academics.  We are speaking of outright dissent on clearly-established moral questions, which dissent Candida Moss published in the popular national press.  Just as it is reasonable for students to expect all math professors to believe in mathematics, it is reasonable for students at a Catholic college to expect all professors in the theology department to believe in Catholic theology.

2. Baden and Moss both are guilty of outright dishonesty in their arguments.  They represent their opponents’ positions using false definitions and characterizations.  We cannot presume “honest error” on these matters, because we are speaking of two experts in religious studies, who are debating topics that are easily understood by a cursory review of readily-available documents written for laymen.

It is embarrassing. Pathetic.

The sad part is that they actually do have something important to say, hidden among all the nonsense.  Bad arguments don’t just make you look ridiculous, they hurt the cause you are trying to promote.

Don’t do this.

Argue all you like. Argue vigorously, argue colorfully; but always argue honestly.


Links for review on the Notre Dame case, if you are not aware of the situation:

File:Chucho Valdés & The Afro-Cuban Messengers - 29.jpg



Image by Carlos Delgado [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

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