My friends often get themselves into situations of the following form:

  1. Person A states a sentence.
  2. Person B reads and interprets A's sentence. B states that the sentence has conveyed a meaning which both A and B would disapprove of. Based on this shared disapproval of the conveyed message, B requests that A apologize and admit that A should not have said the sentence.
  3. Person A states their own interpretation of the sentence. Neither A nor B disapprove of the content of A's stated interpretation. Based on this shared lack of disapproval, A feels that it was not wrong to say the original sentence.
  4. Person B responds: "You intended to convey a certain meaning, but your intent doesn't matter, only the outcome matters. In actual fact, you conveyed to me a meaning that we both disapprove of. Since doing that is not something you would approve of, you should still admit you shouldn't have said the sentence."
  5. Person A still doesn't agree, but usually stops responding at this point.

How should I evaluate this argument? Can we determine who is in the right from only the information provided, or is outside information required to resolve it?

  • 1
    In any human interaction, intention matters. This isn't a philosophical point, just good manners in showing rpeople enough respect to try to understand them fully. Every message has a context. Apr 14, 2015 at 8:56

4 Answers 4


The original sentence was "wasteful." Both parties agree that it would have been better if A had said the correct meaning in the first place. However, resources were expended in the confusion.

If one values those resources, one must value not saying sentences which are likely to be misinterpreted. If one considers such things ephemeral, and is only concerned with eternal things like truths, then they are not important.

Given that the human condition seems to be sandwiched between finite resources and the search for the eternal, I would generally expect the answer to be somewhere in between the two extremes.

However, the final argument "... you should still admit you shouldn't have said the sentence" uses "should," which is a really tricky word in philosophy. Ignoring all of the rest of the details, much of the answer as to whether person A or person B is right will stem from your preferred philosophy regarding the word "should."


For me the missing information is whether there is an objective or obvious reason to prefer one interpretation over the other, absent knowledge of intent.

If B's interpretation has the stronger claim, then A needs to have considered his words more carefully, and an apology is in order. If A's interpretation is more likely, then B is in the wrong for having interpreted the statement uncharitably. If it isn't clear which interpretation is more likely, then both A and B are in the wrong, and should mutually apologize, for the same reasons mentioned above.

This isn't actually a question of logic, but of communication and social mores. As to whether intent or reception should be the primary way of evaluating a statement, there is no definitive answer, but in the interest of supporting communication, Person A should focus on clarity of reception, Person B should focus on discerning intent. If A is only interested in intent, and B only interested in reception, then the chances of successful communication are low.


Short Answer: There is no argument there for you to evaluate.

Long Answer:

The problem here is with arguments in natural language. Natural language is a poor medium for precision, logical clarity and argumentation. This is so pronounced that you can easily spend most of the argument trying to resolve semantic issues -- and that's if you're lucky. If you're not lucky, you'll end up talking about two different things.

This gels with my experience. When I encounter apparent arguments, I don't pursue them, but instead continually ask for clarification. Most of the time, I realize there was never an argument there, but a different use of terminology.

Ok, so how do you make any use of this information? Simple; don't consider what you witnessed to be an argument. Rather, consider it the PRE-ARGUMENT. This is the point where people are clarifying terms. It may have the superficial structure of an argument, but it isn't, so don't let that fool you. So seek clarification of the terms, to understand what each party really means (as opposed to what they seem to be saying). Once this has been completed, then the argument can begin -- although there's a good chance it will have died by then.


British politician Norman Tebbit was quite good at this. His most famous: "I grew up in the '30s with an unemployed father. He didn't riot. He got on his bike and looked for work, and he kept looking till he found it".

This was misinterpreted by the masses as him telling the unemployed to go "on your bike" which, for those who may not know, is an impolite British colloquealism meaning -er - "go away".

There was a political and media uproar and a misquote of "on your bike Tebbit" was the slogan of anti-Tebbit campaigns.

So what's going on there ? He didn't say what many misinterpreted. It seems the agenda of the political parties opposed to Tebbit was to find something by which to be offended- so they leapt on that and perhaps deliberately misquoted him, to suit themselves.

That raises the question of person B's agenda: Are they offended by A's sentence even though they KNOW that really A wouldn't have meant what B thought? Is there an advantage for B to be 'looking to be offended' ?

Also how open to misinterpretation was A's sentence ? Is there a chance it was deliberately contrived to be ambiguous so as to slyly offend while retaining ability to claim that wasn't the intention ?

Tebbit's other fabulous one is incredibly offensive if taken the wrong way - and I mean 'wrong'. He reportedly said "I'm not a racist, I just believe in calling a spade a spade". You'd have thought the same backlash would have hit but in fact I suspect that's SO offensive if taken a racist way, he couldn't possibly have meant it like that. And he didn't (even though he was pretty right wing).

So if you're looking to find criteria for evaluating the argument, perhaps looking at the potential advantage on each side of being sly (in case of A) or being offended (in case of B).

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