Thursday 9 October 2014

The morality of Debating - In Defense of Sophistry

Many people, both inside and outside the debating community feel a sort of moral unease about debating. People have remarked this when I tell them I debate, and I know debaters who are worried it has made them worse people.

This obviously doesn't come from a utilitarian judgement of the consequences of debating, but a gut feeling that there is something wrong or dishonest about arguing for things that you don't believe in and trying to make yourself as good at that as possible.

This feeling isn't confined to debating. Society feels uncomfortable about lawyers, for their willingness to manipulate facts and defend the guilty, and sales jobs are generally considered slightly sleazy.

Plato offers a POI
And this discomfort isn’t restricted to our current time and culture, it stretches back to the origins of the western intellectual tradition in ancient Greece. Plato’s dialogues[1] tell the story of our hero Socrates, the bringer of truth and logical thinking, father of Philosophy, and his greatest enemies the Sophists.

The Sophists would teach young Athenian gentlemen the dark arts of argument and rhetoric, with the intention of letting them do better in Politics and society at large (in Athens all important decisions were made by popular assembly of the citizens, so being able to speak well literally gave you the power to kill your enemies). And worst of all, for Socrates, the Sophists charged for their teaching.[2]

Socrates decried sophism as the art of making the lesser argument seem the stronger,[3] by deliberately using fallacious reasoning and rhetorical trickery, and believed it to be the enemy of truth (and therefore morality and all other nice things). To Socrates a true Philosopher (a literal lover of wisdom) should use rational argument as a method for seeking the truth of things.

In a weird way I’ve ended up being the modern equivalent of a Sophist. I teach young people how to argue for a living, seeking to make them more persuasive with no regard to truth. I even sell it to them on the basis it will allow them to bluff their way through interviews and meetings. Competitive debating makes people better and better at manipulating the truth to whatever end they are assigned. We train people to never compromise on a position, to treat an argument as about winning and losing, not the pursuit of truth.

So am I a bad person? Is everyone who engages in debating?

A defense of sophistry
An old adage goes, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.” I don’t think it works as an argument against gun control, as there are ways of preventing the bad people having guns. But every person is born with the ability to reason and argue, indeed some biologists believe argument and convincing people to do what you want is the origin of human intelligence (the ape who can convince others to help her hunt gets more food, can attract better mates, and reproduces more).

The world we live in is a constant war of persuasion, there’s the obvious things like advertising, people trying to convert you on street corners, or politicians who want your votes. Even everyday interactions with friends and family can be viewed this way. It is more subtle than “This House Believes it’s your turn to do the dishes,” but the underlying pattern is similar.[4]

Given that this is the case, if we refuse to train ourselves in persuasion we are leaving ourselves undefended. You need to be able to notice the tricks being played on you, and deploy your own tricks in self defence, or to do good instead of evil.

There’s an analogy with martial arts here. A martial arts instructor will teach you the skills necessary to break someone’s arm, but its up to you whether you use that on a mugger or a random civilian.

There’s also an arms race analogy. Most people who do well in business or politics will be ruthlessly trying to exploit every advantage to get their way, and that includes using all the dark arts of persuasion available to them. It would be nice if we lived in a world where everyone was arguing logically in pure good faith, but we don’t. As such those who refrain from persuasion due to moral qualms will be at a competitive disadvantage, and the bad people who don’t care will get their way more often (and probably do bad things as a result).

So morally, if you think the things you want to persuade people of are good things, you need to take every step to be as persuasive as possible. Or just if you want to keep the inside of your own mind safe from the persuasion of everyone you come across.

If good people don’t learn to persuade, only the bad people will be persuasive.

Ways debating isn’t like sophistry

In the section above I was conceding that debating is pretty much like sophistry, making bad arguments seem better regardless of their content, but I’m now going to argue that’s not the case. (The debating nerds in the audience would call this an “even if” case.)

I think here are several things in competitive debating that make it more than just sophistry and have positive effects on you as a person and your ability to seek truth overall.

Firstly, what did Socrates actually mean when he said Sophists to make the lesser argument seem the stronger, and why was that bad?

Sophists boasted of being able to argue for and prove any position, however absurd, using their verbal skills (a famous Sophist wrote a book where he proved nothing existed to demonstrate this point). This appalled Socrates who worried they could cause people to believe absolutely absurd things, undermine the pursuit of truth and cause people to do evil while thinking it was good.

Rhetoric in the classical sense includes stylistic elements entirely separate from the content of a speech. Speaking in the right tone and rhythm, clever turns of phrase, being charismatic, being funny, stirring up the anger of a crowd, etc. Using which one could make a bad argument, delivered well, seem better than a good argument delivered badly.

The other thing that the sophists were infamous for was making things that weren’t really arguments sound like arguments. Such as using clever wordplay and logical fallacies to convince without really imparting any real content. For more modern examples we can look to advertising, where pretty happy people tell you to buy stuff but give you no information about it.

But successful competitive debaters are rarely making deep emotional appeals or rhetorical flourishes. I’m sure they could if they wanted to, but the people who they are trying to persuade are other debaters who are mostly immune to cheap tricks. Instead the best debating speeches are extremely concise and structured arguments, delivered clearly and in detail. Obviously the same speech can be made well and badly, but past a certain point of basic competence style doesn’t make that much of a difference in how convincing you are.

There are trends and fashions in debating as in any other hobby. In the past rhetoric used to be valued more, and styles vary between different formats and countries, but I think the general point still holds. This emphasis on content is part of why I think competitive debating is so valuable, as opposed to just learning acting or public speaking skills.

Perhaps it makes more sense to say that what debaters do is not really about making lesser arguments seem greater, but replacing weak arguments with better ones.

Is there a difference? Even the best debater couldn’t make you believe an entirely absurd claim, and they generally don’t try to, instead they tend to select the best possible arguments for a particular position, and make those as well as possible.

Past the initial point of being able to fill up a speech, most of the differences between debaters seem to be in which arguments they strategically choose to make in a particular debate. Part of that is about knowing what is persuasive, what they can convince people is plausible and important. Also having access to a wide variety of concepts and arguments that can be deployed in many contexts, e.g. knowing basic feminist or game theoretic analysis which can be applied to many topics.

Choosing to make good arguments rather than bad ones doesn’t seem like it is as morally questionable as making an argument that is logically false seem persuasive via trickery. The ability to structure an argument in a logical and clear way will also make the conclusion more likely to be true. We don’t go as far as formal logic or analytic philosophy with its very explicit A&B therefore C arguments. But when you present an argument in a logical way its flaws become obvious, and you can't simply assert something is true because the gap in the reasoning becomes obvious, to you and the audience.

Once you’ve practiced these techniques you internalise them, and your arguments in real life and your ways of forming your own beliefs start to pick up this pattern. The gaps in logic become obvious as you have trained yourself to be aware of them. This means its much harder for you to come to believe false things and you subject your beliefs to more scrutiny.

Debating also develops the skill of seeing an argument from multiple points of view. You almost never get to choose your side in a debate and argue for what you really believe in. You learn to be able to find good reasons for something you think is wrong. Also, in order to do well in a debate you need to think about what the opposite side is likely to say.

Coming up with arguments for things doesn’t seem that big a deal, but it’s amazing, and worrying, how often people are completely unable to do that. One of the flaws in human psychology is that once something feels obviously true to us we find it very difficult to imagine someone else could disagree. A lot of political disagreements are marked by a complete failure to understand the other side’s point of view, so people end up talking past each other, or simply declaring their enemies to be irredeemably evil.

This ties into all our tribal emotional instincts, as we identify ourselves with the group of people who share our beliefs and evaluate them charitably, but we do the opposite for out-group members, who we are more likely to assume are motivated by self interest or malice. In the past the apes who empathised with the rival tribe tended to be killed, or get less stuff than the ones who could convince themselves to kill without remorse.

In the modern world, however, things are a little less brutal. Our conflicts consist mainly of words and ideas, not fists and rocks. Most of our interactions these days aren’t zero sum, and both sides can benefit from cooperation rather than fighting for resources. In order to cooperate with someone you need to understand what they want and the reasons they think certain things are true and false. This requires treating them as a person like yourself and understanding that they have reasons for what they believe which seem as sensible and moral to them as ours do to you.

Alternatively, if you wish to demolish an opponent’s argument and convert them (or an audience) to your side you need to be able to fully understand it from the inside. Once you can see the structure you can see the weaknesses and points of pressure. There is nothing stronger than being able to find the best possible argument for the other side, and defeat it anyway.

Or you might just end up changing your mind. For a Philosopher, or indeed any human being who cares about truth and making good decisions, you should be able to change our mind to fit reality. By suspending disbelief long enough to construct an argument you don’t agree with you might realise it is actually quite persuasive.

Even if your mind isn’t changed being able to understand an opposing point of view will allow you to more explicitly lay out your own thoughts and better understand your own views. Particularly where they come from and the areas that are disputed by your opponent. You might be assuming an empirical claim they don’t share that needs explained (e.g. people generally act like this when given money). Or you may realise you don’t disagree on a particular thing (e.g. poverty is bad) but how to fix it. Or you can narrow the discussion to a moral disagreement while agreeing on empirical matters.

The skill and habit of looking at things from your opponents point of view helps you to question your own position, remember the shared humanity between you, and I think overall makes you a better and more moral person more likely to discover the truth. Which is something Plato would approve of.

As always I appreciate comments and feedback. Either here or you can

I am aware I have grossly simplified several complex areas of ancient philosophy and modern psychology, but while I personally might have enjoyed those tangents I suspect my audience would not. My main purpose was to talk about the morality of debating, and other, far better qualified, people have written on those topics.

I’d like to thank my beta readers team for the excellent and challenging comments they gave, as well as correcting my frankly abysmal spelling and punctuation.


[1] I considered writing this article in dialogue form, but it would only be a true homage if the interlocutor kept saying "You're so right John" "I agree John" "Obviously it must be true John"

[2] Technically he said the weaker “logos” which can mean logic, argument, claim, or position, I’ll discuss this ambiguity a bit later when I talk about what the claim to make weaker arguments the stronger means. Logos is often used in rhetoric in contrast to pathos (loosely emotional appeals) and ethos (reputation, character, authority). The original quote is in Plato’s Apology, 18a - 20c if anyone who actually knows ancient greek wants to correct me.

[3] For a more detailed look at the Sophists I recommend the excellent History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps Episode on them. The author has also recently released a book on Classical Philosophy.

[4] Jay Heinrichs talks about the prevalence of persuasion in his excellent book “Thank you for arguing.”

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