Structured debate/rules

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  • claim: Socrates is mortal
    • support: Socrates is mortal because he is a man.
      • requirement: All men are mortal.
      • requirement: Socrates is a man.
    • support: Socrates is dead, therefore he was mortal.
      • requirement: Socrates is dead.
      • requirement: Death is sufficient to demonstrate mortality.
    • counter: Socrates's works have endured for millennia, therefore he is immortal.
      • counter: This is an argument that Socrates's works are immortal, not that he himself is immortal.

Debate Structure

A structured debate starts with a conclusion, then presents supportive and contradictory evidence until it becomes clear whether the initial claim is adequately supported.

Other sets of rules are possible, but they must satisfy the non-negotiable meta-rules of reasoned debate.


In order to be rationally defensible, any claim must be based on one or more premises which are combined into a conclusion via a logical operation (either "if all of X are true, then Y must be true" or "if any of X are true, then Y must be true"). An individual can either agree with the conclusion, or can dispute either the reasoning or the premises. Faulty reasoning is pretty obvious once it's pointed out; faulty evidence is generally based on further evidence-plus-reasoning which may itself be agreeable or not.

Any premise, when disputed, becomes another claim to be examined; this process can be repeated ("drilling down") until a set of claims is reached upon which no further debate seems possible ("drilling down to bedrock").

During the process of drilling down into any given claim, one eventually finds one of the following:

  • bad reasoning: the conclusion is not supported by the premises given
  • lack of evidence: the logic-tree is unsupported at some critical point, invalidating the ultimate claim
  • fundamental agreement: premises that everyone can agree on (plus valid reasoning all the way up) -- the conclusion is valid
  • fundamental disagreement: one or more items of logic remain in dispute, with no apparent way to drill down any further

While sentient beings will inevitably be illogical at times, mapping the debate should make it clear (or at least much clearer) to any reasonable observer – that is, any observer who is honestly attempting to seek the truth – where the illogic lies: which conclusions follows logically, and which do not.


The following lists seem to have grown organically in separate locations, and the divisions between them may need to be rethought.

Debate terminology

  • An argument is a set of assertions that logically draw a conclusion from a set of premises.
  • Any argument is in a false state if either the logic or the premises are disputed.
  • An argument that disputes the conclusion of another argument is also called a counterargument.
  • Any counterargument is itself an argument, and may be further disputed.
  • An argument is in a true state unless it is countered by one or more counterarguments which are themselves in a true state.

Application terminology

  • Every argument starts with a keyclaim which asserts as fact the subject of the debate.
  • Any claim may be answered by zero or more response claims
  • Each response claim must relate to the target claim in one of the following ways:
    • Support: an argument that the parent claim is true
    • Counter: an argument that the parent claim is false
    • Informal (or "informational"): information which neither supports nor contradicts the parent claim but helps narrow or guide the discussion in some way
  • Any response claim may also be viewed as a target claim, and the rules for target claims (given above) apply without modification
  • Any claim may either be standalone or bundled:
    • A standalone claim remains active as long as it has at least one active supporting claim
    • A bundled claim remains active only as long as all of its supporting claims remain active
  • Any claim which has no active counterclaims is described as "active" and possibly true
  • Any claim which has at least one active counterclaim is described as "inactive" and presumed to be false
  • A response claim may require a chain of reasoning in support; in this case:
    • each link of the chain becomes its own claim, subject to the same rules as any other claim
    • failure (deactivation) of any one of the links in the chain invalidates (deactivates) the claim (normal claims remain active as long as any one supporting claim remains active)

For example, a claim may have several counterclaims, but if they have all been countered as well, then the main claim remains active and will be considered true.

Point terminology

  • keyclaim (aka "target claim", "starting claim", "mainpoint") -- the starting point of a debate; the claim that is ultimately under debate within a given scope
  • point: an argument for or against a claim
  • parent: the point which a claim is supporting or countering. Every point has a parent except for the keyclaim.
  • subpoint (aka "response claim")
  • support point: (aka "propoint")
  • counter point: (aka "conpoint")

An example of how to follow these rules without any specialized software (e.g. within a nonthreaded forum or social network) is given here. (It's a lot of work, though; hence the need for software.)

Curatorial notes: Another explanation of the rules, written later than the above was originally written, is archived here. The explanation above is based on an earlier (2009) explanation and should probably be updated to use the 2010 terminology.


  • Since multiple political arguments may hinge on a particular fact, the outcome of any debate may be used as a claim within another debate, in which case the children of that debate's root claim become children of the current claim, and the same rules apply. This lets us reuse already-established truths rather than having to hash them out again each time.
  • In order to make participants more accountable for their decisions, we might require that every issue up for vote be stated as a structured debate claim. If an individual votes against the conclusion reached by the debate, we might require them to sign off on each supporting argument they are thereby disagreeing with, or perhaps display each active counterargument in a publicly visible way. This will put some "peer pressure" on individuals not to simply ignore the results of the debates, require some accountability for those who do, and also give a better idea of which premises are being taken less seriously.
  • There should also be some way for individuals to vote their (dis)approval of any claim in any debate. This would:
    • let us get a very quick and dynamic indication of how much support there is for any given "fact" in our debate database
    • let us provide, as an almost competitive kind of thing, individuals to be notified when claims they have "endorsed" are contradicted, e.g. "Your claim has been challeged! You agreed that (text of claim), but this has been countered with (text of counter). Do you wish to respond? [link]"
  • Some further refinements will probably be necessary when adapting this system for making time-dependent decisions.

Exploratory Option

It may be useful to have an option for a less rigorous but still structured debate, where territory is still being mapped out and participants are not so much disagreeing with each other as engaging in a sort of question-and-answer volley. A good example is here. "Exploratory" seems like a good name for this mode. It would omit the tracking of pro-and-con and focus more on identifying the individual participants, which establishes individual beliefs and positions at various locations in the issue's "terrain" without necessarily inciting conflict.

Later on, we might add categorization-tagging of each point so we could (for example) quickly look up all of a given participant's statements on a given issue, or all participants' statements on that issue. (This would also require the ability for participants to go back and clarify or comment on their positions, especially if they change in the light of later evidence.)

Debate-hostile environments

In theory, a structured debate can be held in an unstructured plaintext discussion environment such as Google+ or Facebook; rules and an example for doing this are here. This format does require significantly more discipline from the participants, however.