This quote is from a website for an undergraduate law admissions test of 40 minutes:

Don’t sit on the fence. Don’t say that each side in an argument has a point unless you go on to say which point each side has. It is perfectly all right to say that that one side is right about point 1, whereas the other side is right about point 2. It is also all right to say that, on closer inspection, the two sides are at cross-purposes and don’t really disagree. It is fence-sitting only if you say that they do disagree, that there is only one point of disagreement, and yet that they both have a point on that point. That makes no sense.

I'm only an amateur on philosophy, but concerning the italic statement, what if I do express and write valid points of the opposing sides?

Especially because this test is limited at 40 mins, if both sides' arguments are cogent and coherent, and aren't at cross-purposes (in blue), then can one sit on the fence? If not, then what to do?

  • 4
    If you're comfortable sitting on the fence, be a scientist! It's fences all the way down.
    – Rex Kerr
    Aug 31 '14 at 0:58
  • Tim Minchin has a song praising fence-sitting. Not sure if it entirely answers your question or not.
    – Dave B
    Sep 2 '14 at 13:44
  • Emerson said that to truly understand any argument you need to view both sides as equal in value. So, you are in good company sitting on the fence. CMS
    – user37981
    Apr 26 '20 at 15:55

I think you need to be careful here.

In legal practice, at least in the Anglo-American system, "fence-sitting" as in not taking an opinion on the issue is bad. This is because your goal is to plead for your client's case, and that requires navigating a course from arguments from authority and basic reasoning that leads to the conclusion desired. Not moving is not going to make your case for you.

In philosophy proper, it isn't always wrong. Withholding judgment until you are well-informed on a question is usually a good idea. Moreover, it's possible you take both views to be mistaken or inadequate but complementary (this is the center of the Hegelian approach to most debated problems in philosophy).

At the same time, there's a meaningful sense, in which the above expresses something similar to the law of the excluded middle (a fundamental logical law). Meaning either A or not A is true. It's not really possible for it to be both, and not figuring it out can gum up your argument.


The passage you quote explains that if one side is right on point 1 and the other is right on point 2 you can say so. That is not fence sitting, so I will assume that you are not discussing this case.

The passage you quote explains fence sitting:

It is fence-sitting only if you say that they do disagree, that there is only one point of disagreement, and yet that they both have a point on that point. That makes no sense.

This passage is correct. It can't be the case that on a single point the two sides have a substantive disagreement and they are both right.

They can both be wrong, in which case you should say so. This can happen in subtle ways. It could be the case that the facts of the case are compatible with both sides' conclusion being correct. In that case, both sides should be considered wrong. It is a criticism of each side's position that they have not ruled out the opposing side's position.

You can get out of judging the arguments by declining to do the test, or to practise law, or anything else that involves argument (including science). If you do get into judging arguments then you should never fence sit. Fence sitting in the sense described in the passage is just another name for being vague and/or ignoring criticism.


if both sides' arguments are cogent and coherent, and aren't at cross-purposes (in blue), then can one sit on the fence?

Sure; if one is a third-party and have no involvement in the situation. However if one is called to judge the situation, or to act as counsel for one side or the other a position must be taken; as counsel you're assigned a side and must develop the best arguments for defence or plaintiff which will mean exploiting the weaknesses of the other side; as a judge, one is called to judge, to give a decision, one cannot then sit on the fence.

If not, then what to do?

Maxim: don't go to law school - be an novelist.


It is fence-sitting only if you say that they do disagree, that there is only one point of disagreement, and yet that they both have a point on that point. That makes no sense.

It can make sense. If both sides have opposing but valid points and upon careful weighing of the two options you find that neither is better or worse than the other you are found at somewhat of an impasse.

Your choices are to (arbitrarily) pick a winner/loser, or fence sit until one side brings new information that changes your decision. Other options may include choosing which side follows establishes maxims. For example: innocent until proven guilty, integrity of freedoms (choose that which infringes upon no one), the spirit of the law should be maintained over the letter of the law.

When in the position of judgement it is actually your duty to sit on the fence until each party has shown all available evidence and all arguments have been made. If you are then still left with any questions you should make it a point to try to answer them before making a decision. (A time limit would be a hindrance to any effort you make though)


Of course. If you do not have the required background to give an authoritative opinion on a subject, then unless you are in a situation where a judgment call is required, you should refrain from weighing in.

For example: I am not an expert on economics or axiology. So if I heard two people arguing over the labor theory of value, I would refrain from offering my own opinion on the subject, and would simply try to take note of the general ideas discussed by the interlocutors for further personal investigation.

Offering judgment that surpasses your authority is not only bound to get you in trouble with someone who actually does know what they're talking about, it's also just not an intellectually responsible, honest, or self-aware practice in general. Sitting on the fence is not reducible to saying there is no truth to be found in the matter; sitting on the fence happens when you believe you personally have yet to find the truth of the matter.


Read "A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations Chicago style for Students and Researchers by Kate L. Turabian. University of Chicago Press.

You need to read all of Part I. It deals with how to formulate an academic argument, how to present it. Here are the topic headings for section 5 in Part I. 5. Planning your argument ) What a Research argument is and is not ) Build your argument around answers to readers questions ) Turn your working hypothesis into a Claim ) Assemble the elements of your argument ) Distinguish arguments based on evidence from arguments based on warrants ) Assemble an argument

  • 1
    I'm confused as to how "Read Turabian" is an answer to "is fence sitting always wrong?"
    – virmaior
    Sep 2 '14 at 12:05
  • The book is a classic. Being a lawyer is about making arguments. They want him to make an argument. Fence sitting is not taking a stand, making an argument. They want him to stake out a position, a hypothesis, and defend it. All academic discourses including law argumentation is based upon academic argumentation. The book tells how to put together an argument, how to support it, how to present it, etc. At the U of Chicago they don't wait until grad school when you're doing your thesis or dissertation to teach you how to make an argument. They teach it in undergrad right away. Sep 3 '14 at 4:10
  • Yes, I used the same text in my undergraduate writing course. But still not an answer to the question asked -- just general (good) advice. / Law argumentation is not academic argumentation; there are significant and important differences (specifically regarding authorities, i.e. precedent, and purpose)).
    – virmaior
    Sep 3 '14 at 4:13
  • If you are going to fence sit (as a judge might do), then you need to know how to evaluate opposing arguments. Reading Turabian shows you how not only to construct an argument, but also how to evaluate arguments. Sep 3 '14 at 4:14
  • Law argumentation is derived from academic argumentation. Granted, it has evolved from it's roots, but having a grounding in academic argumentation goes a long ways to law argumentation. Sep 3 '14 at 4:18

This particular quote is advice given for a very specific context: writing short essays on a law school admissions test. In that context it makes perfect sense. Law schools look for candidates who show a capacity fo crisp analysis, meaning the ability to dig into the sides of a dispute, pull out the pertinent, operative points from each, and weight them against each other clearly. That's what one needs to be a good lawyer or judge.

No one wants a lawyer who says "My opponent makes some good points. Oh well...". No one wants a judge who says "Hey, both sides are making good point. Gosh, what do we do?" Lawyers have to be able to dismantle or derail their opponents' arguments, no matter how good those arguments are; Judges have to make decisions, even when both sides have reasonable arguments. Sitting on the fence in a courtroom defeats the entire purpose of a courtroom, which is where earnest disputes are meant to be resolved.

Now, in real life, fence sitting — within reason — is both acceptable and useful. One doesn't need to take a side on every dispute. Sometimes the disputes are dumb; sometimes they are about things you care absolutely nothing about; sometimes none of the sides being offered are appealing. It's usually worth the time to sit on the fence looking at the problem analytically before making a commitment to one side or the other, if only because lots of people will try to pressure to jump before you really understand the context. Once you jump, it isn't so easy to get back up on the fence, so it pays to be informed.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.