Why I loathe the false dichotomy of win the person or win the argument

I’m sure you’ve found yourself in a discussion and, at some point, somebody throws out the line, ‘you’re more concerned about winning the argument.’ It takes several forms. Sometimes it is said that way, other times it is something closer to, ‘you care more about the debate than people’ or ‘you need to win the person more than you need to win the argument.’ I have come to loathe this comment in all its variant forms.

For the record, I do think e need to think carefully about how we discuss with people. Whilst some might be won by the sheer power of our logic alone (such that logic is on our side), despite the claims of most modern people, few of us actually reason exclusively or even primarily logically. I once heard it said, logic is the tool we use to convince others we are right while believing things are true for a whole range of reasons of which logic is just one. So people need to be dealt with holistically, not just as computers that process logical statements. If we do want to win people, we do have to think about how we win them. That much is certainly true.

But the ‘win the person or argument’ dilemma is still an unhelpful one. For one, when I am in an argument, of course I want to win the argument. That is, essentially, why I am arguing with you. Now I want to win the argument for the purpose of persuading you of whatever it is we’re arguing about. That is, presumably, why you are in the same argument with me. I do not see that either of us will win the other by making logically inconsistent arguments. The very fact you are in an argument, putting forward arguments, suggests you feel the same.

Second, the ‘you just want to win the argument’ line is, itself, an argument. It is arguing that facts, or particular points, are not legitimate. It wants to say that the point you are making is so offensive that, even if true, won’t win anybody to your point of view because it is too upsetting. That is essentially to say that an argument should not be won or lost according to facts and logic. Arguments are to be won according to feelings. That undercuts the very ability to hold an argument – that both parties entered into at the beginning of the discussion on those terms – and is making a philosophical case for the ground of winning an argument. It is to say logic does not trump feelings. That may be a legitimate position to hold, unfortunately, you would need to fashion an argument to make the case which necessitates logic.

Third, this is a false dichotomy. The assumption behind the statement is that you either win the person by not confronting their faulty logic or win with logic and the person will reject our case. But that is absurd. If people want to consider themselves logical thinkers, and many do, they claim to want to be held hostage to logical thinking. They can’t claim to want to be held to logic and then reject logical argument when it doesn’t suit them. That is illogical. What is more, if they have entered into a discussion with you and tried to persuade you using logically coherent arguments, it is logically inconsistent to then reject an argument because you don’t like it.

Fourth, and here is the nub of the problem, it is typically something somebody says when they have run out of logical arguments or they want to limit the logically legitimate possibilities. It is, in fact, a cheap trick to try and manipulate the conversation. I can convince you with logic but if you are more logically consistent than me, my best recourse is to feign offence rather than engage with the argument. It is an ironic argument because the person offering the line is as good as admitting the logic is consistent (if it weren’t, they would just address the logical inconsistency). They are effectively admitting that they have lost the argument and, because they want to win the argument, they feign offence and claim you have lost the person.

This means it is a self-defeating line. The only reason it works is because the person saying it wants to win the argument. When they perceive they are losing the argument – a logical argument in which they were happy to engage – they claim you are losing the person because they want to win the argument. The only reason the line is used is because they argument has been lost, they have no logical recourse, and so they try to win the argument by insisting – after the fact – that you must win the person to win the argument. It is a rhetorical device that admits a desire to win the argument and an implicit admission that their side of the argument is not logically coherent.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it is surely right to win people with logical argument. If we love the person, and want to win the person, surely we have to win them with sound logic. If we win them with illogical nonsense, we have won them to a faulty position that will do them no favours at all. Likewise, if we allow people to continue in illogical nonsense, the same applies. The fact is, it is loving people to help them see their logical inconsistencies and seek to bring them to right positions based on, that’s right, logic. If we want people to know truth, it necessitates showing them where (or if) their position is logically inconsistent and offer them a position that is logically more coherent. To win the person, we need to win the argument… logically.