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Arguing Agreeably

When we want to correct someone usefully and show him he is wrong, we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view, and we must admit this, but show him the point of view from which it is wrong. This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question (Blaise Pascal, Pensees, IX).

Once while presenting the G.O.S.P.E.L. at a Catholic parish, one of the ladies in the first couple of pews raised her hand and said, “Why do I have to go to the priest to confess my sins? Can’t I just go directly to God?”

I heard her perspective, agreed (in part) with what she was saying, and added a distinction within her understanding of sin. I responded we can go directly to God as it says in 1 John:

If anyone sees his brother committing what is not a mortal sin, he will ask, and God will give him life for those whose sin is not mortal (1 Jn. 5:16).

However, among sins there is this difference: some are mortal and others are not. For sins that are not mortal we are told that they can be forgiven through our prayers, but for mortal sin (outside of extraordinary circumstances)1 1 John states:

There is sin which is mortal; I do not say that one is to pray for that (Ibid.).

For mortal sins, we do need to go to a priest (cf. Jn. 20:23).

Within this short “argument,” on confession, are the three steps Blaise Pascal (a 16th-century French Catholic and Mathematician) gives, for arguing agreeably.

Here’s a closer look at those steps:

Step 1: Agree

Pascal writes:

…we must see from what point of view he is approaching the matter, for it is usually right from that point of view…(Ibid.)

If we can translate Pascal’s advice into Logic, what he is saying is that an argument can be “valid” while yet “unsound.” In other words, a person’s conclusion may follow from its premises (A+B=C), even when the conclusion is ultimately false. 

For example, the conclusion that “Socrates is still alive” follows logically from the premises: a) Socrates is a man & b) men are not mortal. However, Socrates is not alive because men are mortal. The conclusion that “Socrates is still alive” is false, even though it follows logically from its premises.

For a more relevant example, let us take The Problem of Evil (in brief): a) If God exists, then evil cannot exist & b) evil exists = c) God does not exist. 

The conclusion follows logically from its premises. However, premise a) is false, and therefore so too is its conclusion (see Evil as Proof of God).

The point Pascal is making, in this first step, is that we can agree with a person’s logic without necessarily agreeing with their conclusion. This is possible because our interlocutor’s conclusion is likely to follow from its premises.

Therefore, if we want to argue in an agreeable way, we should begin by understanding and agreeing with the logical validity of our interlocutor’s argument. By doing so, we demonstrate goodwill as well as show that we are earnestly listening. 

The rapport built by this step will also soften any tension which might result from the correction we offer in the next step: making distinctions.

Step 2: Make Distinctions

…show him the point of view from which it (his position) is wrong…(Pascal, Ibid.).

After admitting the logical validity of our interlocutor’s argument, we can then point out how, unfortunately, one of its premises is incorrect. To do so gently, we ought to keep in mind this Thomistic dictum:

Never deny, seldom affirm, always distinguish (St. Thomas Aquinas, as commonly ascribed).

Following St. Thomas, instead of telling our interlocutor, outright, that one of his premises is wrong, we ought to simply point out that one of them is some missing distinction.

In the case of The Problem of Evil, the missing distinction may be between the positive existence of good and the parasitic existence of evil (see Evil as Proof of God), or between those things which God causes and those which he permits (evil being an example of the latter). 

Besides, regarding The Problem of Evil, if God can draw good out of evil then there is no problem reconciling it with His existence. Garrigou-Lagrange makes this point in a short anecdote:

In Spain, in I936, during the Communist persecution, the faithful would come to their priest and say: “How is it that God permits such atrocities?” And the priest would reply: “Without persecution there can be no martyrs, and martyrs are the glory of the Church.” The faithful understood and were comforted (Life Everlasting, Bk. I, Ch. V).

Whatever the error in our interlocutor’s argument, let us attempt to attribute it to some missing distinction. In this way, we avoid giving offense, according to Pascal, since we are not telling him that his argument is completely wrong but merely that he has overlooked some detail. In Pascal’s words:

This will please him, because he will see that he was not wrong but merely failed to see every aspect of the question (Pascal, Ibid.).

To recap what has been said thus far, our first step in arguing agreeably, is to agree with the logic of our interlocutor’s argument. The next step, is to point out the missing distinction within it, and lastly, we need to make a case for the contrary truth.

Step 3: Tell the Truth

After it has been demonstrated that our interlocutor’s argument is false, we need to present an argument for the contrary truth.

For example, after we have shown that The Problem of Evil does not disprove God, we need to provide an argument that proves God (see God as Existence).

And although we sometimes have to tell the truth via dry and drawn-out syllogisms, when we get the chance, let us convey the truth via a story.

Stories are useful for telling the truth because they are both memorable and relatable. They allow for vulnerability (which is conducive to friendship) as well as diffuse an atmosphere of “debate.”

Moreover, a personal story can radically change the heart of another. Take the life of Edith Stein for example:

In 1921 while visiting in the summertime the home of the couple Hedwig Martius and Hans Theodore Conrad, Edith was invited to choose a book from their library to read while the two needed to be absent for a day or so. Picking up a book at random, Edith began to read. It was St. Teresa of Avila’s The Book of Her Life. Edith was so taken by this Spanish marvel of God’s grace that she read through the book, it seems, without a break. On closing the volume, she had to confess to herself: “This is the truth.” The following morning she bought a Catholic catechism and a missal. A short time later, on New Year’s Day, 1922, she was baptized (Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D. Institute of Carmelite Studies, Science of the Cross, I.C.S. Introduction).

From this moment, Edith would go on to become St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a Discalced Carmelite, martyr, and saint; and all this because of the personal story of another. 

Therefore, in taking these three simple steps: 1) Agree 2) Make Distinctions 3) Tell the Truth, let us be:

…prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you (us) for a reason for the hope that is in you (us); (and) yet do it with gentleness and respect (1 Pt. 3:15)(emphasis added). 

1. Post Baptism, the Church teaches that perfect contrition along with a desire for the sacrament of confession can forgive sin even before the sacrament is actually received (cf. Council of Trent, Session XIV, Ch. IV; Dz. #898).

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