Exchanging arguments – offering each other reasons to believe a particular claim or to act in a certain way – is how we think together. Even the most independent thinkers must learn from others and put their ideas to the test. Ideally then our experience of disagreement would be one of collaboration rather than conflict. All too often however our arguments turn into quarrels; what should be a constructive exercise breaks down into acrimony and accusation. In the worst cases the ties of community are strained to breaking point.
This talk identifies ways in which arguments can go wrong and techniques we can use to make them go better. I draw upon recent work in social psychology, but I also seek to show that many of the features of human psychology that pose the greatest challenges to having constructive argument were recognized by our most insightful thinkers long before they become an object of scientific study. To that end I use illustrations drawn from classic texts, including Plato’s dialogues, Adam Smith’s The Theory of the Moral Sentiments, the Federalist Papers, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty.