One of the most interesting of epistemological arts is the art of debate. While we all like a good fight, we also like a fair fight, and those of us who are more interested in truth than victory like a civil debate rather than a heated, ad hominem attack-fest. Even contentious issues can be calmly and intelligently debated.
The late 1800’s and early 1900’s were a hotbed of public debate, especially on religion, and we can learn a lot about the art of debate from studying that time. One valuable and interesting book from that time period is Levi Hedge’s Elements of Logick: A Summary of the General Principles and Different Modes of Reasoning (1855) in which the author, among other helpful items, includes his rules for debate. This list of rules took on its own life and became Hedge’s Rules of Honorable Controversy. If we followed these rules, epithets like bigot, pig, pervert, and miscreant would be less oft used.
BONUS: You can also find a lot of advice for Christian debaters, including Hedge’s rules, in the booklet Christian Contend for thy Cause.
Hedge’s Rules of Honorable Controversy
1. The terms, in which the question in debate is expressed, and the precise point at issue, should be so clearly defined, that there could be no misunderstanding respecting them.
If this is not done, the dispute is liable to be, in a great degree, verbal. Arguments will be misapplied, and the controversy protracted, because the parties engaged in it have different apprehensions of the question.
2. The parties should mutually consider each other, as standing on a footing of equality in respect to the subject in debate. Each should regard the other as possessing equal talents, knowledge, and desire for truth, with himself; and that it is possible, therefore, that he may be in the wrong, and his adversary in the right.
In the heat of controversy, men are apt to forget the numberless sources of error, which exist in every controverted subject, especially of theology and metaphysics. Hence arise presumptions, confidence, and arrogant language; all which obstruct the discovery of truth.
3. All expressions, which are unmeaning, or without effect in regard to the subject in debate, should be strictly avoided.
All expressions may be considered as unmeaning, which contribute nothing to the proof or the question; such as desultory remarks and declamatory expressions…
4. Personal reflections on an adversary should in no instance be indulged….
Personal reflections are not only destitute of effect, in respect to the question in discussion, but they are productive of real evil… They indicate in him, who uses them, a mind hostile to the truth; for they prevent even solid arguments from receiving the attention to which they are justly entitled.
5. No one has aright to accuse his adversary of indirect motive.
Arguments are to be answered, whether he, who offers them, be sincere or not; especially as his want of sincerity, if real, could not be ascertained. To inquire into his motives, then, is useless. To ascribe indirect ones to him is … hurtful.
6. The consequences of any doctrine are not to be charged on him who maintains it, unless he expressly avows them.
If an absurd consequence be fairly deductible from any doctrine, it is rightly concluded that the doctrine itself is false; but it is not rightly concluded that he who advances it, supports the absurd consequence. The charitable presumption, in such a case, would be, that he had never made the deduction; and that, if he had made it, he would have abandoned the original doctrine.
7. As truth, and not victory, is the professed object of controversy, whatever proofs may be advanced, on either side, should be examined with fairness and candor; and any attempt to ensnare an adversary by the arts of sophistry, or to lessen the force of his reasoning, by wit, caviling, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy.