Logic 101 · Philosophy · Series

Logic 101: A Code of Intellectual Conduct

In the previous post in this series on logic I discussed the R.E.A.D. Method. This is the procedure for finding and evaluating arguments that I will continue to fill out during this series. But before I jump into an exploration of topics under each acronym of the R.E.A.D. Method, I think it’s important to lay out some ground rules for all intellectual discussions.

T. Edward Damer has written an excellent introduction to argumentation called Attacking Faulty Reasoning. I would recommend this book to everybody. This post is an adaptation of his first chapter which, to no surprise, is called “A Code of Intellectual Conduct.”[1]

Games and Rules

Human beings love to create games. And games, by definition, have rules that need to be followed so that the particular goal of that game can be achieved. Usually that goal is to declare a single winner and a single loser—otherwise games would go on forever.

Winning is the main goal for most games. But even more than that, games are created so that human beings can enjoy themselves and learn. Human beings love fun, which is why they create games in the first place.

Before any game can begin, there are certain procedures that the participants must perform to even begin. To begin a board game, the board obviously needs to be set up. In sports, there is usually some way to determine who has the first turn.

The same goes for logical reasoning. There are certain procedural standards that the participants in a discussion should recognize in order to begin. If they don’t, then the entire process can fail to achieve its goal. I think that the main goal of logical reasoning is to learn. This involves at least two things: (1) Learning the truth about the subject under consideration, so far as there is one that can be determined; (2) Teaching others the truth about the same subject. Either way, one of the participants is learning.

Accepting each principle in Damer’s Code of Intellectual Conduct prepares us to be willing to learn what we don’t know, and to be willing to properly teach others what we know. It is in this sense that they are procedural standards.

Reasoning to the Glory of God

Even more than this, each of the principles in the Code of Intellectual Conduct keeps us accountable to one another. When one (or both) of us violates these principles, we show that we are either arguing unfairly or that we aren’t interested in learning or teaching at all (or both). In this sense, it is an ethical standard as well.

Damer says this: “While it may seem a bit odd to suggest that failure to carry on a discussion in accordance with the principles outlined here is immoral, it is surely not strange to suggest that one ought to argue fairly. . . . We clearly expect fair play on the part of others and we obviously should expect no less of ourselves.”[2]

Since Christians are told to do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Colossians 3:23), I think we are held to a very high standard when it comes to reasoning. I think the Code of Intellectual Conduct (and any corollaries) is not only fair, but required by disciples of Jesus. We are to honor God with our minds. God isn’t glorified by bad arguments.

I don’t mean to suggest that every time we violate the Code we are being immoral. After all, one of the principles involves constructing logically valid arguments (if the argument is deductive). If you accidentally fail to provide a valid argument, you haven’t done anything wrong.

Code of Intellectual Conduct

Here are each of the twelve principles in Damer’s Code of Intellectual Conduct, with my own summary of each of them:

1. The Fallibility Principle: Nearly everything we can discuss is disputable, and very smart, respectable people believe the opposite of what you do on just about any given claim. For that reason, we should admit at the outset that it’s possible that we have bad reasons for thinking what we do. That’s what it means to be fallible.

I don’t think that this means we should admit from the outset that we could be wrong about our beliefs about any given topic. Based on the way that Damer words this principle and explains this, I don’t think he means this either. I think what he is getting at is something like what I explained about the “circle of judgment” for the R.E.A.D. Method.

In other words, I think this principle means we start off by admitting we could have bad reasons for accepting/denying a particular view. Only after we have found good reasons for thinking our arguments are flawed should we be open to the idea we could be wrong altogether.

2. The Truth-Seeking Principle: For any given topic that we can consider, we should be committed to seeking the truth about that topic. If it’s difficult to tell exactly what the truth is, then we should find the most defensible position we can. This means considering possibilities other than the one we started with, and allowing others to point out how we might be wrong.

3. The Clarity Principle: When we state what we believe and why, we should use the clearest language that we can. We should also make it clear exactly where our position stands in relation to others. (I’ll discuss in a later post how there are only four defensible positions one can take for any given topic.)

Using language clearly is a skill. Unclear language is typically an indication of unclarity in the mind. I would recommend that anybody interested in improving in these areas take a course of public speaking and go through a writing style guide like Joseph Williams’ Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace.

4. The Burden-of-Proof Principle: When we put forward our claims, we should be willing to defend them if we are asked to do so. If we don’t, we have only offered mere opinions.

5. The Principle of Charity: Provide the strongest possible reformulation of an argument that is consistent with the original author’s intent. If an argument has implicit premises that make it seem obviously flawed, the original author should be given the benefit of the doubt. Try and reformulate the argument again if you have to.

6. The Structural Principle: Adhere to the rules of argumentation that produce valid, sound deductive arguments and strong inductive arguments. We will discuss these rules as we go along in this series.

7. The Relevance Principle: Don’t bring up arguments or counter-arguments that are tangential to what’s being discussed.

8. The Acceptability Principle: When we provide arguments for what we believe, the premises we use should be ones that any rational, mature person could accept. In other words, don’t provide premises that are unique (idiosyncratic) unless there’s a really good reason for doing so.[3]

9. The Sufficiency Principle: When providing premises in an argument, make sure that those premises actually prove what you claim they do. This is especially important for inductive arguments.

The best example I can give for this principle is a common response to arguments for the existence of God. Each particular argument for God’s existence (except for one type) only prove that there is some being or other with certain attributes. For example, a moral argument for God’s existence might show that there is a perfectly good being, but not that this being is all-powerful. When people object in this way, they are claiming that the argument for God violates the sufficiency principle.

As Damer notes, only practice will make us better at determining whether arguments violate the sufficiency principle.[4] “Sufficiency” is a vague term that doesn’t apply the same way to every circumstance. So evaluate arguments often!

10. The Rebuttal Principle: Evidence and counter-arguments that pose a serious threat to your position should receive a response. I’ve explained this as doing your due diligence when raising an argument.

11. The Suspension-of-Judgment Principle: Unless there is some reason to act right now, we should suspend our judgment on a topic if there are no defensible positions or if there are several positions defended with equal strength.

This is precisely what I’ve done when it comes to the subject of God’s nature and the reason why this blog exists.

12. The Resolution Principle: If an argument follows principles (6) through (10) above, and unless we can show one of these principles has been violated, then we should accept the conclusion of the argument. We should consider the matter resolved unless we have some good reason to revisit the argument.

With these principles in place, I think I can go on to clearly discuss what qualities makes an argument a good one and how to have fruitful conversations.



[1] T. Edward Damer, Attacking Faulty Reasoning, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009), 5-12.
[2] Ibid., 6.
[3] Refer to pages 34-36 for some reasons for thinking a premise is acceptable or not.
[4] Damer, 37.

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