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What Is Your Argument Style?

If you think someone is being infantile, here's a model for testing your hunch.

Key points

  • People employ different styles of advocacy, arrayed here as developmental stages starting with an infant's style.
  • As with other developmental stage models, maturation is the accumulation of new repertoires, not graduation from one level to the next.
  • In a pinch, or when push comes to shove, people will often regress to less mature argument styles.
  • The maturational trend is toward recognizing one's own subjectivity.

No one’s a total pushover. We all have ways of asserting what we want and don’t want. While Kohlberg and others have suggested developmental stages of moral development, there’s little research on how those moral stages are expressed in different styles of advocacy, argumentation, or self-assertion. Here, then, I sketch out a developmental stage model like Kohlberg's, but focused on argument styles, how people advocate on their own behalf.

It’s best to regard the stages not as ones that people graduate out of but as cumulative repertoire. Someone at a later stage could regress to an earlier stage when push comes to shove. Thus, for example, on first dates, someone may seem mature in how they voice their preferences. But in partnership, the stakes go up and the seemingly mature person you were dating might regress to an earlier stage of argument style.

This is a rough sketch of the stages and an invitation for other researchers to come up with alternative developmental-stage models. I am not declaring an empirically tested formal system. My model is loosely based on another informal model I’ve developed for thinking about how people come to recognize their own fallibility.

I divide these stages into two groups on the assumption that we mature “from just to justice.” The word “just,” as in “just do what I say” means ignore all other possibilities. In contrast, justice implies considering alternative possibilities.

Six “Just” stages ("Just" means "ignore all other possibilities").

1. Literal unreasonableness.
“Waaaaa!!!” A preverbal baby’s tantrum.
At birth, we have no reasons. We feel what we feel and demand what we demand. Our perspective is solipsistic. We lack self-awareness.

2. Because I said so.
“I want it!” A minimally verbal toddler’s tantrum.
With the word “I”, we provide our first reason, which is little more than “because I said so,” as if we are the sole voice to be considered in any argument.

3. Because I’ll hurt you.
“You better!”
This stage follows naturally from tantrums. Tantrums are punishing to others, so the threat is implicit: “Give me what I want or my tantrum will continue.” Other ultimatums follow.

4. Because I’m good and you’re bad.
“You’re mean!”
When we learn that there’s good and bad, our first response is to associate ourselves with goodness and associate anyone who thwarts us with badness.

5. Because I’m a member of the good team and you’re a member of the evil team.
“I’m brand X and you’re brand Y. Therefore you must do as I say.”
Proper nouns point to unique and exclusive things, “Chicago” or “Christian,” the Pittsburg Steelers or, for that matter, your name. Brand names are proper nouns for proprietary goods as distinct from commodities. “Apple computer” as compared to “PCs” or tons of apples on the future’s market. With a few selective moralizing moves (e.g. ritual acts like taking communion or wearing a religious or political symbol) one can claim to belong to an exclusive club that is always good and right. Conversely, one can claim that anyone who doesn’t belong to that club belongs to a bad exclusive club that is always bad and wrong. This allows for a kind of shorthand for the prior stages. “I should get my way because I belong to a club that should always get its way.”

6. Because I’m doing the always-good thing and you’re doing the always-bad thing.
“I’m generous with myself, which proves I’m always generous. You’re not generous to me, which proves you're never generous.”
This one’s popular. One selectively interprets conditional moral standards as if they’re unconditional. All it takes is listening for word connotations. If words sound positive, they're about you. If they sound negative, they're about anyone in your way. "Fair" sounds good so it's about you. "Unfair" sounds bad, so it's about your rivals. So, one might say, “Since I’m obsessed with unfairness to me, it proves that I’m universally fair-minded. Since you’re sometimes unfair to me, it proves that you’re unfair always.”

Justice stages (“Justice” means balanced, or counterbalanced, by weighing pros and cons).

7. Weighed fake objectivity
“My way is better than the other ways, so you should do it my way.”
In this stage, counterarguments are considered but one still assumes the role of supreme neutral judge, not merely an advocate among advocates. One still doesn’t recognize that their opinions are subjective. One says, “You’re wrong,” not “I think you’re wrong.”

8. Weighed subjective preferences.
“Having weighed the pros and cons, this option gets my vote. I prefer it while recognizing that others may prefer other options.”
Advocacy is inherently subjective. People have different standards. As they say, “where we stand depends on where we sit.” None of us is the supreme, neutral judge. There are many moral decisions in life, though not as many as we are tempted to claim in order to justify getting what we want. A lot of decisions simply come down to preference. At this stage we honor subjective differences. We constrain our temptation to moralize, advocating instead for what we prefer.

A final note: We all want to get our way and we’d try to, if our consciences didn’t get in the way. During a cult epidemic, people stop being conscientious. For example, during a cult epidemic many people brand themselves as permanently good because they belong to “the good team” (stage 5). Their consciences stop nagging because, looking around, they see other people getting by without one. This is like what sociologists describe as the “broken window” theory: Where civilization is in decline and lawlessness increases (e.g. broken windows everywhere), people join in the lawlessness because they can get away with it.

“Why We Did It” by Tim Miller is an excellent insider’s account on what it was like to be a leader in the movement that culminated in the January 6 insurrection. It illustrates how argument styles regressed within the movement that led to it.

Here are two short videos about the ever-popular stage 6 style of argumentation:


Miller, Tim (2022) Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. NYC: Harper.

More from Jeremy E. Sherman Ph.D.
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