Rules of Controversy

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Hedge’s Elements of Logic has a section on the “rules of controversy” that has served as the standard for hundreds of debates throughout the history of America. They served as the undisputed standard for many religious and political debates. The fact that logic has disappeared from the syllabus for our high schools is most telling concerning the decline of intellectual disciplines in American schools.

Don Potter

Taken from Elements of Logic; or, A Summary of the General Principles and Different Modes of Reasoning by Levi Hedge, Professor of Natural Religion, Moral Philosophy, and Civil Polity in Harvard University (1861)

Rules of Controversy

209. From the limited extent of human knowledge, and the different points of view, in which the same subjects maybe contemplated by different minds, it follows of necessity, that a diversity of opinions must be entertained on many subjects of speculation. In whatever manner people are first led to form their opinions, they are usually disposed to defend them afterwards with zeal and pertinacity. Hence arise controversies and disputes, which are oftentimes conducted with such intemperate and misguided zeal, as to inflame animosities, by which the comfort and harmony of society are impaired.

210. These are the worst fruits of controversy. They are, however, merely incidental effects; and are counterbalanced by others of an opposite character, and of high importance to the interests of truth and virtue. The advantages of controversy consist in having questions of difficulty and moment settled in a satisfactory manner. The principles of government and law have been immovably fixed by the debates, which have passed in deliberative assemblies and in courts of justice.

211. All questions, not susceptible of rigorous demonstration, can be correctly settled only by a full and impartial comparison of the reasons on both sides. This is seldom done, with sufficient exactness, by the solitary investigation of an individual. Men rarely enter on the examination of a question wholly free from the bias of a previous opinion respecting it, which makes them more solicitous to find arguments for one side than for the other. It is only when the talents of different persons are enlisted, and opposite opinions are contended for, that questions are traced in all their bearings, and the grounds of an equitable decision are fully exhibited.

212. The importance of controversy maybe inferred from the use, which has been made of it, in every period of the world. It has been adopted, as the principal mode of transacting business, in the halls of legislation and in courts of justice, where questions of the deepest concern to individuals and communities are decided. The minds of youth have been trained to it in seminaries of education, where the practice of disputation, in various forms, has been preserved, as a salutary discipline of the mental powers.

213. As controversy, especially when carried on from motives of victory or reputation, is liable to be productive of evil rather than of good, it is incumbent on all, who engage in it, from whatever motives, to observe rigorously those laws and principles, by which the former may be avoided and the latter secured. The following rules, sometimes called canons of controversy, have been highly approved by writers of learning and discernment.

214. Rule 1st. 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 be 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.

215. Rule 2d. 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 presumption, confidence, and arrogant language; all which obstruct the discovery of truth.

216. Rule 3d. 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 of the question; such as desultory remarks and declamatory expressions. To these may be added all technical, ambiguous, and equivocal expressions. These have a tendency to dazzle and bewilder the mind, and to hinder its clear perception of the truth.

217. Rule 4th. Personal reflections on an adversary should in no instance be indulged. Whatever be his private character, his foibles are not to be named nor alluded to in a controversy. Personal reflections are not only destitute of effect, in respect to the question in discussion, but they are productive of real evil. They obstruct mental improvement, and are prejudicial to public morals. 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.

218. Rule 5th. No one has a right to accuse his adversary of indirect motives. 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 worse than useless; it is hurtful.

219. Rule 6th. 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 deducible 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 case, would be, that he had never made the deduction; and that, if he had made it, he would have abandoned the original doctrine.

220. Rule 7th. 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, cavilling, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy.


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