How to Engage in Constructive Debate

Brian Earp analyzes the efficacy and value of responses to Todd Akin’s incorrect remarks regarding the rate of pregnancies resulting from rape. He particularly focuses on the medical correction issued by the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which labelled Akin’s words “offensive” and “insulting”:

If Akin is mistaken on his facts, then provide evidence of his confusion, so that your audience is equipped to rebut him (and others who make the same false claims) when debating difficult subjects such as rape and abortion. To declare that the man’s remarks are “offensive” and “insulting” detracts from the factual dispute, which is the arena in which ACOG is best poised to make a useful contribution.

Earp then extends this logic to argue that the way forward in this and all debates lies through understanding of the opponent’s premises, flawed though they may be:

Todd Akin is not (simply) an idiot who hates women. I don’t know Todd Akin, so I cannot say what’s in his heart. He clearly does have a motivated moral reasoning system, as each of us does, whose operation extends from certain—arguably objectionable—premises, to mistaken (even dangerous) factual conclusions, through the mechanism of something like Liu and Ditto’s “moral coherence.” My point is that we should try to understand what is going on in his mind, so that we can more effectively combat the garbage that comes out of his mouth.

I couldn’t agree more with this. Or, sadly, with this:

Unfortunately, this sort of fair-minded effort to understand how it is that an otherwise intelligent person could fall so far afield of reality is rare when it comes to political hot-topics involving moral disagreement.