Guidelines for respectful, constructive, and inclusive philosophical discussion

Compiled by David Chalmers

The guidelines below are intended primarily for oral philosophical discussion in formal settings: colloquia, conferences, seminars, classes, and so on. Many of them have some application to informal philosophical discussion and to nonphilosophical discussion as well.

The specific norms are intended as means of facilitating more general norms of being respectful, constructive, and inclusive. These probably aren't exceptionless categorical norms (there are situations in which it is appropriate to be disrespectful, destructive, and exclusive). But in many philosophical contexts, they are useful norms to have in place. Groups are encouraged to adapt and modify these guidelines for their purposes as they see fit.

All this is a highly tentative work in progress. Suggestions for addition, subtraction, and change are more than welcome. Thanks to many philosophers for their suggestions so far.

I. Norms of respect

1. Be nice

2. Don't interrupt.

3. Don't present objections as flat dismissals (leave open the possibility that there's a response).

4. Don't be incredulous.

5. Don't roll your eyes, make faces, laugh at a participant, etc, especially to others on the side. (Partial exception for signalling norm violations to the chair.)

6. Don't start side conversations parallel to the main discussion.

7. Acknowledge your interlocutor's insights.

8. Object to theses, don't object to people.

II. Norms of constructiveness

1. Objections are fine, but it's also always OK to be constructive, building on a speaker's project or strengthening their position. Even objections can often be cast in a constructive way.

2. Even when an objection is destructive with respect to a position, it often helps to find a positive insight suggested by the objection.

3. If you find yourself thinking that the project is worthless and there is nothing to be learned from it, think twice before asking your question.

4. It's OK to question the presuppositions of a project or an area, but discussions in which these questions dominate can be unhelpful.

5. You don't need to keep pressing the same objection (individually or collectively) until the speaker says uncle.

6. Remember that philosophy isn't a zero-sum game. (Related version: philosophy isn't Fight Club.)

III. Norms of inclusiveness:

1. Don't dominate the discussion (partial exception for the speaker here!).

2. Raise one question per question (follow-ups are OK, but questions on different topics go to the back of the queue).

3. Try not to let your question (or your answer) run on forever.

4. Acknowledge points made by previous questioners.

5. It's OK to ask a question that you think may be unsophisticated or uninformed.

6. Don't use unnecessarily offensive examples.

IV. Procedural norms (for Q&A after talks; some are specific to the hand/finger system)

1. If there's time, take a 3-5 minute break before Q&A (for resting, leaving, and formulating questions). Hold back questions until after the break.

2. The chair rather than the speaker should field questions (to avoid various biases). The chair should keep a list of questioners rather than making people raise their hands repeatedly.

3. Unless you're speaker, existing questioner, or chair, don't speak without being called on (limited exceptions for occasional jokes and other very brief interjections, not to be abused).

4. Following up your own question is usually fine (unless time is short), but follow-up rounds should usually be increasingly brief, and think twice about whether third and later rounds are really needed.

5. Hand/finger system [optional]: To raise a new question at any point, raise your hand until the chair acknowledges you and adds you to the list. To follow up on an existing question by someone else, raise your finger.

6. Follow-ups should pick up directly on the existing discussion, rather than being tangentially or distantly related (for follow-ups of that sort, raise your hand).

7. The chair should attempt to balance the discussion among participants, prioritizing those who have not spoken before (it isn't mandatory to call on people in the order of seeing them).

8. The chair should try to pace things so that everyone who has a question can ask a question. In short discussion periods, or with a short time remaining, this may be difficult; disallowing fingers helps.

9. The chair should keep in mind the likelihood of various biases (e.g. implicit gender biases) when calling on questioners and applying these norms.

V. Metanorms

1. When norms are violated, the chair is encouraged to gently point this out, and others should feel free to say something or to signal the chair.

2. If it's more comfortable to do so, it's also fine to quietly point out violations after the seminar (or to tell the chair who can talk to the offender).

3. If the chair violates the norms, feel free to say so then or afterwards.

4. Try not to be defensive when a violation is pointed out.

5. Remember that it's quite possible to violate these norms without being a bad person. (I've certainly violated most of them myself.)

6. Respect the chair's enforcement of these norms.

7. Policing usually works better with a light touch.

8. It's reasonable for chairs to apply the norms flexibly and context-sensitively, but watch out for reintroducing biases in doing so.

9. It's fine to negotiate these norms as a group in advance. In a talk, the speaker can ask the chair to suspend some norms (especially norms of constructiveness), though the chair needn't agree.

VI. Potential additional norms (mostly suggested by others; for various reasons I haven't included them on the canonical list, but I'm sympathetic with many of them, and they're certainly worth considering)

1. Maximum two minutes per question (modified version: after two minutes, interruptions are OK).

2. Prioritize junior people in calling on questions (modified version: don't prioritize senior people).

3. Ask permission to follow up your own question (modified version: ask permission for any follow-up after the first).

4. Don't worry about impressing people.

5. Be cautious about pestering the speaker during the break or after the talk (they may need to rest).

Related resources (and sources)