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Public Issues: Debate & Decision-Making

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

There are many issues that affect us all, so how do we decide the best way to deal with them? In this lesson, we'll examine the value of public debates and explore ways to evaluate various perspectives.

Public Policy

You are part of the public. Dating way back to the Roman Republic, this simple realization has been the basis for a radical political idea: maybe the people who are in the public should have a say in public policy. This idea is still at the foundation of modern republics today.

Public policy is a broad set of issues that define how society is run, ranging from social relationships to the fixing of roads. These can be issues that unite us all (everyone wants good roads and schools) or they can be some of the most divisive ideas in society. So, how do we know if a policy that would affect the public is good or not? In any democratic system, it's up to you to make an informed decision for yourself, and that often starts with public debate.

Debate

Why is the freedom of speech the first amendment in the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution? To make informed decisions, people need to be able to discuss their options and opinions, and they need to be able to do so publically without fear of government persecution. So, public debate has been a crucial way for people throughout history to be exposed to various points of views and start weighing their options on public issues.

So, how can public debate actually contribute to this process? The key to effective public debate is to promote a constructive conversation. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of people yelling at each other, and no important issue was ever successfully resolved through that. This is why so many public debates follow strict formats. It's all very civil, and that's because the goal isn't necessarily to win; it's to compare points of view.

Public debates need to be civil in order to be productive
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If you're going to be the one doing the debating, there are a few steps you can consider to ensure that you're presenting the most rational argument possible.

  • State your issues clearly, and stay focused on the issue at hand. Don't stray off topic.
  • Trace the history of the issues to show why your perspective is the most logical conclusion to this debate.
  • Acknowledge various perspectives. By recognizing why your opponents feel the way they do, you can treat their opinions with respect while also showing why those perspectives are not as logical as yours. By evaluating all the possible options, you can clearly demonstrate that you've considered this issue and that your argument is what's best, not just what's convenient or personally appealing.

Making an Informed Decision

So, what comes next? After you've witnessed a public debate, it's up to you to evaluate the opinions and make an informed decision about the issue. This can be a daunting process. Especially if it's a complex issue, there can be a lot of information to process. Where do you start?

A good place to start when analyzing the arguments of other people is to see if they've followed the same steps of a logical debate that we outlined above. Did they state their argument clearly and stay on topic? Did they trace the history of the issue and connect their argument to it? Did they acknowledge various perspectives and other options? If not, that person's argument may contain factual inaccuracies, leaps in logic, or forced conclusions. To ensure that you are basing your opinion on valid information and perspectives, here are a few things to look for when weighing the value of different debaters and commenters:

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