Wed | Oct 28, 2020

Peter Espeut | Poor debating technique

Published:Friday | February 22, 2019 | 12:00 AM

In a debating competition, each team takes a side of the moot, and then tries their best to argue that position, whether they agree with it or not. One team wins, not necessarily because their position is valid, but because of their eloquence, the quality of the argument they present, and their success in rebutting the arguments of their opponents.

In philosophy, there is a principle that “an argument from authority is the weakest argument”; such an argument will only be as valid as the authority quoted, and if the audience does not accept the authority as authentic, then the argument will be disregarded.

I have a hard time convincing my fundamentalist friends that when debating with atheists and secularists, quoting the Bible is pointless; my readers will have observed that I never quote sacred scripture to defend my point (even though I believe it to be the inspired word of God), but use logic, which can only be refuted by higher logic.

Every argument begins with a premise (an initial key statement), and develops according to the rules of logic. The premise must be proved for the argument to stand, and it is easy rebuttal to show that a premise is unproved, or to actually disprove it (if you can).

In the abortion debate, an important premise is that the foetus is human from conception, because if it is, then it has human rights, including the right to life. The pro-abortionists know this, and have advanced fanciful theories why the scientific evidence of the humanity of the foetus must be discounted. It is not yet human (they argue), but only potentially human (the old ‘being’ and ‘becoming’ argument in metaphysics that has raged for 3,000 years).

But I assert that it IS what it is becoming. It is a young human being with rights, becoming a mature human being with rights. It does not begin as non-human, and then evolve into a human being.

All human beings have rights, not just those we love, or want around. Human-rights advocates – if they are honest – have to defend the human rights of the unborn child, even if the pregnancy is inconvenient.



Another argument for supporting abortion is that since a foetus cannot survive outside the womb (that is, it is not viable), then it has no right to life. The logic behind this argument escapes me.


Babies, once born, cannot survive without their mother’s help; persons on life support cannot survive without the machines to which they are attached; many elderly persons cannot help themselves. Are these human lives to be terminated (if they are inconvenient) because they are not viable? Is vulnerability, and the need for help to stay alive, grounds to kill human beings? Such an argument would be absurd, as Socrates and Plato would say.


Unable to refute the arguments of the anti-abortionists, pro-abortionists often descend to abuse their opponents, and to disqualify men from the debate “since they have no wombs”. The implication is that only women should have a voice in the abortion debate, since only women can get pregnant.


This position is fraught with problems, since it implies that neither men, but especially women, can be objective about the issue.


To avoid corruption, persons with conflicts of interest must recuse themselves from situations in which they have a direct interest. This anti-corruption golden rule would exclude women from the abortion debate. Trying to exclude men will only backfire.


We have to presume that all parties are trying to be objective when they advance arguments – for or against – and not seek to exclude them from the debate before they even open their mouths (the right to free speech extends even to men).


I get the impression that many pro-abortionists are not interested in rational debate; they have decided on their position, and will not be swayed, even by logical argument.


Public law, however, must be guided by right reason, not by special interest groups seeking to avoid responsibility for the unintended consequences of their actions.


Peter Espeut is a philosopher and theologian, and is dean of studies at St Michael’s Theological College. Email feedback to