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Hedge’s Modernized Rules of Honorable Controversy

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Hedge’s Modernized Rules of Honorable Controversy

arrogant /ˈerəɡənt/ having an exaggerated sense of one’s own importance or ability

controversy /ˈkäntrəˌvərsē/ disagreement

debate /dəˈbāt/ argue about a subject

honorable /ˈänərəb(ə)l/ bringing or worth high respect and great esteem

proof /pro͞of/ evidence or agument establishing or helping to establish a fact or the truth of a statement

Rule 1st:

Agree on the subject in controversy and the definitions of the terms used during the debate.

There should never be any misunderstanding about the subject in controversy. If misunderstanding arises, the debate will likely be less respectful and take a much longer time to resolve – this is because both parties will be on different pages, thinking they are on the same page.1

Rule 2nd:

Each party should assume that the other parties in the debate stand on equal footing with respect to the subject in controversy. Assume that all parties possess equal talents, knowledge, and desire for truth and that it is possible, therefore, that each party, even themselves, may be in the wrong, and their adversaries in the right.

In the heat of controversy, people often forget how often they have been wrong in the past. Consider that there have been major developments in almost every subject that revealed that long-held beliefs were error. Holding onto those beliefs results in presumptions, confidence, and arrogant language; all of which obstruct the discovery of truth.

Rule 3rd:

All expressions not directly related to the subject in controversy should be strictly avoided

Debate one subject in controversy at a time. Expressions that contribute nothing to the proof or the question; or jump from one subject to another; or impassioned expressions are other subjects not directly related to the subject in controversy.

Rule 4th:

Avoid commenting on the personal character of an adversary.

Good people can do bad and bad people can do good. Personal character comments are not only useless with respect to the subject in controversy but can produce real evil… They indicate in the person who uses them a mind hostile to the truth; for they prevent even solid arguments from receiving the attention to which they are justly entitled. 

Rule 5th:

No one has a right to accuse their adversary of hidden motives.

Arguments are to be answered, whether the person who offers them is sincere or not; especially as their insincerity, if real, could not be ascertained. To inquire into their motives, then, is useless. To accuse them of indirect motives is … wounding.

Rule 6th:

The results of any debate are not to be awarded to the person who maintains it unless they expressly own them.

If an absurd consequence is fairly deductible from any proof, it is rightly concluded that the proof itself is false; but it is not rightly concluded that the person who advances it, supports the absurd consequence. The charitable presumption, in such a case, would be that the person had never made the deduction. Assume that if the opponent had considered this result they would not have argued for it in the first place.2

Rule 7th:

As truth, and not victory, is the professed object of controversy, whatever proofs may be advanced, on either side, should be examined with fairness and candor; and any attempt to ensnare an adversary with false proofs, or to lessen the force of his reasoning, by wit, petty or unnecessary objections, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy.

Neighbor, can we live with these rules?


Hedge’s Rules of Honorable Controversy (Original)

1. The terms, in which the question in debate is expressed, and the precise point at issue, should be so clearly defined, that there could be no misunderstanding respecting them.

If this is not done, the dispute is liable to be, in a great degree, verbal. Arguments will be misapplied, and the controversy protracted, because the parties engaged in it have different apprehensions of the question.

2. The parties should mutually consider each other, as standing on a footing of equality in respect to the subject in debate. Each should regard the other as possessing equal talents, knowledge, and desire for truth, with himself; and that it is possible, therefore, that he may be in the wrong, and his adversary in the right.

In the heat of controversy, men are apt to forget the numberless sources of error, which exist in every controverted subject, especially of theology and metaphysics. Hence arise presumptions, confidence, and arrogant language; all which obstruct the discovery of truth.

3. All expressions, which are unmeaning, or without effect in regard to the subject in debate, should be strictly avoided.

All expressions may be considered as unmeaning, which contribute nothing to the proof or the question; such as desultory remarks and declamatory expressions…

4. Personal reflections on an adversary should in no instance be indulged….

Personal reflections are not only destitute of effect, in respect to the question in discussion, but they are productive of real evil… They indicate in him, who uses them, a mind hostile to the truth; for they prevent even solid arguments from receiving the attention to which they are justly entitled.

5. No one has aright to accuse his adversary of indirect motive.

Arguments are to be answered, whether he, who offers them, be sincere or not; especially as his want of sincerity, if real, could not be ascertained. To inquire into his motives, then, is useless. To ascribe indirect ones to him is … hurtful.

6. The consequences of any doctrine are not to be charged on him who maintains it, unless he expressly avows them.

If an absurd consequence be fairly deductible from any doctrine, it is rightly concluded that the doctrine itself is false; but it is not rightly concluded that he who advances it, supports the absurd consequence. The charitable presumption, in such a case, would be, that he had never made the deduction; and that, if he had made it, he would have abandoned the original doctrine.

7. As truth, and not victory, is the professed object of controversy, whatever proofs may be advanced, on either side, should be examined with fairness and candor; and any attempt to ensnare an adversary by the arts of sophistry, or to lessen the force of his reasoning, by wit, caviling, or ridicule, is a violation of the rules of honorable controversy.

Brethren, can we live with the rules?

Brandon Blankenship
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  1. Thanks to Aleena Khan for her contribution to modernizing this rule.
  2. Thanks to Billy Hill for his contribution to modernizing this rule.