The Mistake You Make in Every Political Argument
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
We’ve all been sufficiently frustrated by the gap between the values someone espouses and the policies they support that we’ve gotten into political arguments to help them see their error.
Perhaps, if we’re more honest about our own motivation, we just reacted to get rid of that visceral dissonant feeling that “something that wrong just can’t be allowed to stand”.
And no doubt, whenever you do that, you lay out a clear, fact-based, logically consistent case for the correct view.
You’ve probably done it many times – and, if you’re like most people, you’ve changed next-to-no minds at all.
In fact, you may have often come away even more convinced of your opponent’s wrong-headedness than when you started, and likely gave your opponent the exact same view of you.
But you keep doing it - even though it does very, very little good indeed.
Given all the practice everyone is getting, why are millions of decent arguments made by clearly thinking individuals almost all utterly useless when it comes to enlightening others - let alone changing their minds?
This article will give you the answer. Understanding it may change your life.
That answer is the fallacy of the assumed paradigm, and it is the single logical reason why almost every political argument fails to persuade.
If just ten percent of our nation understood it, our nation’s political discourse would be utterly transformed.
Actually, You Do Get to Choose Your Own Facts
Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts”. That may be true as a statement about the world outside of us (physics and metaphysics), but as a statement about how we actually process information (neurology and epistemology), it isn’t just wrong: it’s non-sensical. Why? Because the physical wiring of our brain and the chemistry of our endocrine and other systems with which it interacts, force us to perceive and select “our own facts”, which may be at odds with the also incomplete perceptions and selections of others.
This is at the root of the failure of nearly all political arguments to change minds, and once we appreciate why, we can have much more persuasive political conversations.
To do that, we need to understand very precisely what is it about almost every political disagreement that makes it impervious to any resolution by almost any well-formed argument. In short, what is the general logical structure, if any exists, of a political disagreement?
If it were the case that we all had access to all the facts that bear on an issue; that we agreed on which facts were actually relevant to the issue, and why; that we articulated those facts using words whose meanings we agreed upon, and that we all accepted logic, then we could surely argue people around to our way of thinking on many issues and policies, as long as we shared some basic moral values. (A preference for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness over their opposites would be enough to get agreement on very many things.)
Our repeated failure to reach agreement in political arguments, though, should tell us that at least one of those assumptions must be wrong. When we fail to win agreement, we subconsciously assume that, since the relevant facts aren’t being denied and the meanings of the words we’re using aren’t in dispute, the disagreement must reflect a moral or ideological difference. And that belief is reinforced by the fact that the issue that began the argument in the first place feels like a moral or ideological one.
In reality, however, the real disagreement is almost never moral per se. Rather, political disagreement arises from a divergence of unstated beliefs about empirical facts (not moral values), which are sometimes hidden in the different meanings that the arguing parties attribute to important words.
Specifically, we may be completely conscious of the facts and logic that lead us to a particular belief, but invariably we are not conscious of all of the assumptions that cause us to hold certain facts (and not others) to be relevant to the point at hand, some of which are “built into” the meanings of the terms we use to think about the issue.
You’re Disagreeing Over Facts – Not Values
I’m going to illustrate using a concrete example – abortion. I choose it because it’s so divisive and, being so morally weighty, reveals the power of a proper understanding of the logical structure of political disagreement to influence an opponent’s position.
Using terms loosely, let’s say Laurie is pro-life. She believes abortion is wrong because an embryo is a human life so aborting it is murder. For her, that is a matter of simple logic, as is the fact that anyone who would have an abortion is a murderer.
The syllogism that captures her conscious and sincere belief (even if she wouldn’t articulate it with this formality) is simple:
Premise (Moral value): The intentional killing of an innocent human being (murder) is evil. Premise (Empirical fact): Abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human being. Conclusion: Abortion is evil.
And that’s a pretty water-tight bit of logic, which explains reasonably why pro-lifers deem those who defend the right to abortion to be complicit in murder. (And to be fair to pro-lifers, why should anyone give a murderer the time of day – let alone the respect of a serious political discussion?)
But how does the issue look to Charlie, who is pro-choice?
His position appears to be just as water-tight.
Premise (Moral value): The use of force to prevent someone from making decisions governing their own body infringes upon their fundamental liberty. Premise (Empirical fact): Criminalizing abortion is the use of physical force (through law) to control someone’s body. Conclusion: Criminalizing abortion is an infringement of a fundamental liberty.
That’s a pretty water-tight bit of logic too, and explains why pro-choicers deem those who would lock them up for an abortion to be aggressing against them. (And to be fair to pro-choicers, why should anyone give someone that would deny your right to your own body the time of day – let alone the respect of a serious political discussion?)
To Laurie, Charlie is a murderer. To Charlie, Laurie is abusing government to infringe upon a fundamental liberty. To each, the other is doing something obviously and clearly wrong.
Each holds his or her view with the clarity that comes with clear facts and simple logic. For each the argument is of the following form.
Premise (Moral value): A is bad (Murder is bad; controlling someone by force is bad). Premise (Empirical fact): B is an instance of A (Abortion is the taking of a human life; preventing abortion is controlling someone by force). Conclusion: B is wrong (Abortion is wrong; preventing abortion is wrong).
The critical point is that even in this massively morally charged discussion, the moral premise is not where the disagreement lies.
And if you look closely at those two syllogisms, you can see that it can’t be - because the moral premises do not overlap. One is about murder; the other is about controlling someone by force.
In fact, Laurie can agree with Charlie’s moral premise, and Charlie can agree with Laurie’s. (Almost everyone agrees with both.) They just disagree on the relevance of the moral premise to the issue, and as we shall see, that is because of something in the empirical premise.
Indeed, the premise where there is any overlap in meaning is the empirical one. Both Laurie’s and Charlie’s empirical claims are about “abortion”, so we know that any conflict between the syllogisms must involve the meaning of that word.
For Laurie, it is the taking of a innocent human life. For Charlie, it is the forceful violation of bodily autonomy.
And there we have it: those two (empirical) beliefs about what abortion is can only be reconciled if, for Charlie, abortion isn’t the taking of an innocent human life, since he would agree with Laurie that the taking of an innocent human life is wrong. It’s just not one of his premises when it comes to assessing the rightness or wrongness of abortion, because for him, that’s not what’s going on here.
Since Charlie can agree that the abortion is the taking of life, the disagreement is in the meaning of the word “human”.
And that is a disagreement about an empirical fact, a thing in the world, or a definition – but not a value.
The Silver Bullet of Any Political Argument
As we’ve stated, and this example illustrates, the root of a political disagreement is invariably in the empirical premise – not the moral one - and it is usually hidden.
It is hidden because in political arguments, the empirical premise is almost never made both explicitly (people can argue for hours about abortion without saying the word “human” or “person”) and precisely (even if they do say the word “human”, it is in passing only and not the focus of the debate), so the root of the disagreement often goes unnoticed.
In many cases, opponents’ empirical premises are actually about completely different things, so even if they were accurately elucidated, it takes work to discover why the empirical fact that matters to one opponent doesn’t matter to the other. For example, many gun rights activists will tell you that the pertinent empirical fact is that the right to bear arms uniquely enables a population to resist the tyranny of a government, while gun control activists will tell you that the pertinent empirical fact is that the bearing of arms is causally connected to murder rates.
Premise (Moral value): Murder must be prevented vs. liberty must be protected. Premise (Empirical fact): The bearing of arms increases murder vs. only an armed population can ultimately protect its liberty against a tyrannical government. Conclusion: The right to bear arms should be limited vs. the right to bear arms must not be infringed.
If you’re for gun control, your opponents’ empirical premise does not bear at all on your pertinent fact about the bearing of arms (that it is causally linked to violence) and so cannot persuade you. If you’re for gun rights, your opponents’ empirical premise does not bear at all on your pertinent fact about bearing arms (that it is the only ultimate defense of freedom against government or, for others, that the right to self-defense is a natural human right) and so it cannot persuade you.
And so the arguments talk past each other.
Each opponent can only persuade the other by engaging directly with the empirical fact that is pertinent to the other. In the case of gun control, the disagreement really hinges on the belief about what government is or what rights are. (It’s true that some gun rights activists deny the causal link between gun prevalence and homicide and so appear at least to be addressing the empirical claim of their opponents, but that per se doesn’t justify an armed population.)
The fact that nearly all political disagreements have a hidden empirical root in this way is why political opponents usually talk past each other, with each side reiterating its moral premise and its conclusion, getting nowhere. If only the two arguers laid out their empirical premises, identified the pertinent concept over which they had a factual disagreement, and then worked out the difference between their respective definitions or meanings of that word/concept, then they would be able to identify the fundamental reason for their disagreement and communicate in a way that actually “lands” in the opponent’s paradigm.
Of course, people don’t usually lay out their conflicting positions in neat little syllogisms where the important word or concept at the root of the disagreement pops out like the intersection of a Venn diagram… so we need a way to elicit and identify it in a conversation.
The best way to elicit an often unarticulated empirical premise in an opponent’s argument is to ask oneself not “what does my opponent believe?” (no doubt he is telling you forcefully) but “why doesn’t my argument convince him?”
The answer is almost always empirical, not moral per se, even thought it has moral implications (since the difference between your conclusions and your opponent’s is moral).
“Fallacy of the Assumed Paradigm”
I call this cause of failure of attempts at political persuasion the “fallacy of the assumed paradigm” because it rests on an unconscious assumption that our opponent’s paradigm (unstated beliefs, meanings of words, facts and their relevance to each other) is the same as ours – except in the few places where she explicitly tells us it isn’t.
A paradigm comprises all of the concepts in terms of which you perceive (let alone understand) the world and the relationships between them. It has a vocabulary that incorporates certain meanings and beliefs about the world, which enable you to turn new data and experiences into new beliefs.
It is never possible to understand fully one paradigm from within a different one, just as you can’t understand the exact meanings of English words if you only speak French. (And no translation between them is direct, because a concept or term in one paradigm is identical to a concept or term in another unless all its relationships with all other concepts or terms in the paradigm are identical. For example, the English word “home” has no exact translation into any other language.)
The interlocutors in a political argument, like Laurie and Charlie here, are always in different paradigms. Since they typically fail to identify the relevant empirical point on which they differ, each argues his or her position by laying out an argument within their own paradigm, which simply doesn’t get traction in the opponent’s paradigm - because they differ on a critical concept that refers to something in the world. (In the example above, what Laurie insists about abortion doesn’t make sense to Charlie, even though he can see it is logically consistent, because unbeknownst to them both, she is talking about a human being and he is not.) If they didn’t assume anything about the other’s paradigm, they’d start a debate not by laying out their own argument, but by trying to find out enough about each other’s paradigm to determine why the argument that convinces each of them (because it works in their own paradigm) hasn’t convinced - and never will convince - the other.
The fact that the paradigm of one side of the abortion argument, for example, does not provide a frame of reference for understanding the other side is obvious from the fact that pro-choicers, whom pro-lifers believe are murderers, do not typically go around murdering babies in the same way they “murder” embryos, and pro-lifers do not generally go around using the law to prevent women making choices about their own bodies or lives, except when there is a fetus inside them.
For a person in the pro-life paradigm, who believes that an embryo is a human being with rights, then aborting it would be murder. But the pro-choice person is not in that paradigm. For the pro-life person to be able to think in the pro-choice paradigm (and thus change the mind of a pro-choice person), she needs to ask the question, “if Charlie is so comfortable with murdering fetuses, why doesn’t he murder non-fetuses?”
Similarly, for a person in the pro-choice paradigm, believing that an embryo is not a human being with rights, preventing an abortion would be a massive infringement on individual rights. But the pro-life person is not in that paradigm. For the pro-choice person to be able to think in the pro-choice paradigm (and thus change the mind of a pro-choice person), he needs to ask the question, “if Laurie is comfortable with massively infringing the individual rights of pregnant women, why doesn’t she infringe anyone else’s?”
(Notice the symmetry in the last two paragraphs.)
Asking each of those questions leads directly to the core of the problem – that one believes an embryo is a person and the other does not, since that is the only explanation that is consistent with all of the opponent’s behaviors and beliefs. And so they can get on and debate that factual point without calling each other’s moral sense into question.
The fact that most moral or political arguments, like this one, hinge on different factual or empirical beliefs (“what is a human being” in this example), means they are really about how things in the real world are categorized, as this determines which moral premises are relevant.
In the abortion example, for Charlie, Laurie’s moral premise “the intentional taking of innocent human life is evil” isn’t wrong, but it is irrelevant, because he (implicitly, perhaps) rejects Laurie’s claim that a fetus is human. For Laurie, Charlie’s moral premise “the use of force to prevent someone from making decisions governing their own body infringes upon their fundamental liberty” isn’t wrong, but it is irrelevant, because she (implicitly, perhaps) believes that the liberty to make any decisions is limited when doing so infringes on the liberty (or life) of another human being.
Once you realize something is irrelevant, you look elsewhere for the point. And in politics, once you realize that your moral premise is irrelevant, then a disagreement on policy will no longer cause you to suspect the morality of your opponent.
This is a very powerful realization, because it provides the key (at best) to winning an argument – or (at worst) to avoid wasting any time ever again arguing in a way that can’t possibly (as a matter of raw, albeit unseen, logic) change your opponent’s mind.
Perhaps more excitingly, it is also the key to the larger-scale political unity of our country.
Never Talk Past Anyone Again
So here it is – a heuristic that will utterly transform every political argument you ever have. Its application is not sufficient for changing minds in politics, but it is close to being necessary.
Find out why the moral premise that is relevant to an issue for you is not relevant for your opponent. To do that, elicit as completely as possible your opponent’s empirical premise(s), and identify the factual disagreements about the nature of the entities in that premise. Sometimes, one word or concept appears in both your premise and his. If so, that’s probably where the factual disagreement lies. Since the disagreement has now been identified and is factual, each person can engage the other’s understanding of the world directly without calling into question his morality or motivation. What was a conflict that threatened two paradigms is now more of a collaborative process of exploration.
This will completely change your experience of politics and potentially, even, human nature. It will also allow you to start winning arguments. If enough people started doing it, the direction of American politics would be changed with our beliefs about each other and the outcomes of our debates.
The heuristic works almost every time but it’s not easy - because you can’t typically ask your opponent for his empirical premise and immediately get a clear answer. Most people haven’t thought this deeply about their own assumptions, or the exact meanings of the words they use in political discussions (such as “human” in the abortion case).
Rather, it involves genuinely exploring your opponent’s paradigm, helping him clarify his own views for himself as well as for you. This makes political argument decidedly collaborative. It is almost impossible to alienate an opponent when you have genuine intent to get to the bottom of a disagreement in this way. Whether you end up resolving the particular disagreement or not, you will have built a bridge of mutual respect that enables you to discuss any issue productively.
Your Political Opponent Is (Probably) as Principled As You Are
The paradigmatic fallacy is to assume that your paradigm is the same as your opponent’s except where the disagreement has been made explicit. When you realize that it isn’t, it becomes easier to judge ideas without judging the people who have them. The moral or intellectual condescension, which often comes with judging someone based on “facts” that they don’t even perceive, disappears, and you can begin to experience the world as your opponent does. You walk a mile in his intellectual and experiential shoes.
Pro-lifers are no more aggressors against a woman’s liberty as is a person who puts themselves between that woman and the child she is about to shoot.
Pro-choicers are no more murderers than is a person who bleaches down his kitchen worktop.
Depending on what side of that particular issue you are on, one of those last two sentences may well sound very offensive to you indeed. If you want to change minds, though, your job is to understand why it was the other sentence that turned the stomach of the people who disagree with you.
In reaching that understanding, remember that the words “aggressors” and “murderers” imply intent. To use them against someone operating in the pro-life and the pro-choice paradigms, respectively, is therefore factually incorrect. It is an error that, as a matter or logic (let alone psychology), prevents persuasion, and serves only to put one’s opponent down while raising oneself.
Charlie, being pro-choice, shouldn’t be outraged by Laurie’s picketing Planned Parenthood Clinics. He should probably be more outraged by the thought that there are people in Laurie’s paradigm who don’t think that mass-murder is important enough to do anything about.
And Laurie, being pro-life, shouldn’t be outraged by Charlie’s fighting for everyone’s access to Planned Parenthood Clinics. She should probably be more outraged by the thought that there are people in Charlie’s paradigm who don’t think that the use of force by the state to control people’s bodies is important enough to do anything about.
Laurie and Charlie, you see, need to work together, because they both care about protecting innocent human life, and they both care about protecting individual rights and they live in the same community.
They just have a factual disagreement that affects the scope of application of their shared principles.
The mutual respect that comes with that perspective has the power to bring people on opposite sides of emotive political issues together in unprecedented ways.
It is the sine qua non of political unity.
To quote John Rogers,
You don’t really understand an antagonist until you understand why he’s a protagonist in his own version of the world.
The key is in the phrase “his own version of the world”.
Until you understand that, you can’t have a meeting of minds – and you’ll never change a mind you’ve not met.