Smith discusses some elements of credibility and offers advice on how to engage in arguments.

George H. Smith was formerly Senior Research Fellow for the Institute for Humane Studies, a lecturer on American History for Cato Summer Seminars, and Executive Editor of Knowledge Products. Smith’s fourth and most recent book, The System of Liberty, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2013.

My last essay, “How to Argue for Libertarianism,” ended with a brief treatment of personal credibility. I quoted Aristotle: “Persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. His character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.” I also noted that although credibility will not win an argument, “it will at least get your argument into court for a hearing. You will be unable to convince anyone of anything in a face‐​to‐​face encounter if you are not taken seriously to begin with.”

Intellectual credibility is an exceedingly complex character trait with countless nuances, subtleties, and variations. Knowledge, reasonableness, communication skills, maturity, sincerity, honesty, integrity—all these contribute to one’s credibility. If you wish to establish credibility during an argument, you will need to fulfill three minimal requirements: First, you must know what you’re talking about. Second, your opponent must perceive that you know what you’re talking about. Third, you should not pretend to know more than you actually do.

The following tactics may also enhance your credibility:

  1. Express your doubts when appropriate. If you present an argument but are uncertain of it, say so. This way, when you do profess certainty you will command more respect.
  2. When discussing factual matters, such as historical controversies, discriminate among your sources of information—e.g., “I got this information from so-and-so’s book”; or, “I haven’t given this subject much thought lately, but I did investigate it some years ago. Here’s the conclusion I reached then.”
  3. Show interest in what your opponents have to say. If they know something about the topic, ask them questions. Assume you may learn something from them, even if you disagree with their conclusions. If they make a good point, acknowledge it—e.g., “That’s an interesting point; I’ll have to think about it.”
  4. Don’t hammer your adversaries when they slip up and say something inane. Let them off gracefully. There is a good reason for this: Silly arguments are given undeserved respect when you devote excessive time and energy to refuting them. To direct your sharpest weapons against a silly argument is like attempting to cut through a cushion with a sword. In addition, if you insist on grinding your opponents under foot, you will be perceived (rightly) as more interested in humiliation than in truth. And that will establish your immaturity, not your credibility.
  5. When you say something stupid—and you will, sooner or later—admit it. When you commit a blunder, acknowledge it. Then move on. If you refuse to admit an obvious error, your opponent may focus the rest of the argument on that error, the argument will bog down, and your major points will be lost in a morass of your own making. This is one of the most needless and costly errors that occurs during arguments.

If you fail to convince people with valid arguments, the fault may lie not with them but with you and your method of presentation. Before engaging in an argument, I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions:

  1. What purpose do I want to achieve in this argument?
  2. Can I realistically hope to achieve this goal?
  3. Is it worth my time and effort to engage in this argument?

When I recommend asking yourself these questions, I mean it literally. Before you engage in an argument, pause for a moment and review these questions in your mind explicitly. This technique can improve your communication skills dramatically.

1. What purpose do I want to achieve in this argument? Suppose you are about to argue for libertarianism, so you ask yourself: “What is my purpose? What do I hope to achieve in this argument?” Then comes your answer: “I will show my opponents the light of reason, cause them to abandon some of their most cherished beliefs, and convert them to libertarianism—all within twenty minutes.”

As absurd as this goal appears when stated openly, libertarians sometimes rush headlong into arguments as if this were their goal. So what happens when you seek an unattainable goal? You leave the argument unsatisfied because you haven’t achieved anything. True, you may have dazzled, confused, or even humiliated your adversaries. You may rejoice in the feeling, “Well I showed them.” But if your goal was to communicate and persuade, then you failed, pure and simple.

Unrealistic goals are a major reason why libertarians leave arguments feeling unsatisfied and frustrated. Satisfaction flows from success, and to succeed means to achieve what you set out to do. If you set wildly improbable goals in arguments, you will fail time and again, regardless of the merit of your ideas.

2. Can I realistically hope to achieve this goal? Trim your purpose until it is attainable. A modest goal will make your argument more directed and less frustrating. For example, you might focus on the proper role of coercion in human relationships, or you might convince an adversary to read an introductory book on libertarianism. If you cast doubt on one major tenet of your adversaries, this might—and I stress might—cause them to reexamine some of their beliefs. But even if you are able to accomplish this, don’t expect them to change their minds on the spot. Give them something to think about and time to mull over your remarks. Above all, don’t humiliate or embarrass; these tactics are far more likely to hurt rather than help your cause. If your opponent concedes a point, then give credit where credit is due, for this person has displayed some measure of intellectual honesty and integrity.

3. Is it worth my time and effort to engage in this argument? If you answer yes to this question, then you enter an argument consciously and deliberately, rather than allowing yourself to be pulled in unawares. How often have you left an argument with something akin to a headache, feeling that nothing was accomplished and being unsure how or why you ever got into that argument in the first place? Such “headache arguments” can often be avoided by deciding beforehand whether an argument is worthwhile.

Of course, whether or not to engage in an argument is a personal judgment call, but a word of caution is in order: Don’t debase your intellectual currency. Many libertarians have invested considerable time and effort in their ideas, reasoning ability, and communication skills. Never squander this intellectual capital by arguing with fools. Only fools argue with fools.

The art of persuasion is closely related to the virtue of reasonableness, as illustrated in the points I have made thus far. The virtue of reasonableness has internal and external features. By “internal,” I mean the skill of reasoning—the ability to use the rules of logic, standards of evidence, and so forth. By “external,” I mean how people present themselves and their ideas to others.

Some libertarians, even those proficient in the internal aspects of reasoning, are deficient in its external aspects. Libertarians may reason well, but they often fail to persuade. Let’s consider this problem in a bit more detail.

An argument, ideally considered, is not a zero‐​sum game like chess in which one person wins only if another person loses. An argument—again, ideally speaking—should be cooperative, not competitive; it should be a common venture in pursuit of truth. If anything, a person who “loses” an argument stands to benefit more than the person who “wins,” for the loser acquires new knowledge or a fresh perspective on an old problem. The winner, on the other hand, leaves the argument as he entered it. It can be boring and unproductive to win all of one’s arguments hands down.

Few persons know how to argue well. Persuasion is an art; it requires thought and practice. Having a thought firmly planted in your own mind is no guarantee that you can communicate that thought effectively to other people. Communication skills need to be learned. The libertarian must master the external aspects of reasonableness. Clear thinking is necessary but not sufficient for this. You may have an irrefutable argument, but if you broadcast it with a bullhorn to your adversary three feet away, you display a notable lack of reasonableness.