No, it’s not by making dry and boring arguments, before anyone makes a smart-aleck comment.
One of the most admirable things about St. Thomas Aquinas’s method of argumentation in the Summa Theologica is his insistence on giving his opponents their best possible case and attacking their strongest arguments. At the beginning of each question or article (sub-question), he summarizes all the arguments advanced against his own position, citing the same authorities his opponents cite, before he states his own conclusion and answers his opponents’ objections point by point.
Why does St. Thomas go to such lengths to state his opponents’ views fairly? The answer (at least in part) is that his goal is the pursuit of Truth, not the winning of a debate.
This practice is in sharp contrast to that of most modern pundits, who (at the risk of mixing my metaphors) routinely and shamelessly resort to the straw-man fallacy and hope that their readership will never bother to get the opposing view from the horses’ mouths. I could name names here, but if you attentively peruse, say, the editorial page of the New York Times, you’ll see what I mean soon enough.
Fortunately, some men of ideas are still concerned with actually discovering the truth of things and will take care to state their opponents’ positions accurately and fairly before arguing against them. This morning I was struck by a great example of this in a contemporary economist.
That economist is Robert P. Murphy, who operates an engaging blog and occasionally posts videos on YouTube. Anyone who visits his blog regularly won’t fail to notice how concerned he is to characterize fairly the arguments of those with whom he disagrees. Not only does he do this in his own original pieces, but he also routinely corrects visitors to his site who, intentionally or not, attack straw men in an attempt to support or agree with him. This practice is all the more remarkable because Murphy’s antagonists frequently distort or pervert his arguments on their websites and in their columns.
I’ve become quite familiar with Murphy’s modus operandi over the years, but this morning it jumped out at me when I watched his most recent YouTube video. Note how Murphy outlines the objections of those who disagree with him on the policy question of the minimum wage, and then how he replies to them. There’s no rancor or cheap attempt to score rhetorical points; there’s simply a plea to his opponents to take certain facts into consideration when they make their arguments.
Would that all debate in our society were conducted on such gentlemanly terms. It’s not time to canonize Murphy, but in this respect at least we should all emulate both him and St. Thomas.