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  • Writer's pictureRicky

Debate Mode

philosophy is not just about questions, concepts, and arguments, but is also about idioms
—Raymond Geuss

I’ve been meaning to write some version of this blog for a while, but I’ve struggled to figure it out.

Last year I wrote a short piece on how Arguments are Powerful Tools for self-reflection:

  • Making ourselves sit down long enough to actually write a step-by-step argument for a conclusion we believe in can help us get much clearer on what we think as well as why.

  • Scrutinizing someone else’s argument can help us get much clearer on where we agree and disagree as well as how.

For example, we love to throw trolley problems at students in Intro Ethics. Here comes one now, choo choo:

Case 1: You can’t stop this runaway trolley hurtling down the track. It’s gonna kill 5 people. But if you pull this lever, the runaway trolley will switch to the other track and kill just 1 person. Should you pull the lever?

Most students wanna pull the lever, but even though they agree, they cite surprisingly different reasons. Some students say you should always save more lives. Others say you should always produce more happiness. But those aren’t the same!

What if the 1 person on the other track is Beyoncé? Her artistry produces a ton of happiness. So if we want to produce the most happiness, the other 5 may have to go.

Trolley problems are weird. If you change the problem even slightly, people’s intuitions can shift wildly.

Case 2: You can’t save 5 patients in this hospital who are each missing a different organ. They’re gonna die. But if you kill this 1 healthy patient with a cough, you can use their organs to save the other five patients. Should you kill the healthy patient?

Most people say, leave the healthy patient alone. But why?!

Earlier you said that we should always save more lives, or produce more happiness. But now we can save more lives and produce more happiness by killing the 1 to save the 5!

Are you just feeling squeamish now that you’d have to get your hands dirty?

(Or maybe you’ve misdescribed your underlying view of what’s really morally important?)

Okay look, trolley problems are blunt instruments that are artificial and misleading and not very useful for much beyond maybe getting Intro Ethics students talking.

Coldish take: I think this highly theoretical armchair method of philosophy by thought-experiment alone is misguided at a really deep level.

Hotter take: I worry this way of doing philosophy massively overrates the value of winning arguments.

If you’ve been paying attention to politics…at all…you might have noticed that in the absence of good faith, we can’t have productive or worthwhile conversations. We just can’t get anywhere.

We can still argue and crown winners and losers in a horrible race to the bottom. But in debates, it actually looks like bad faith can be a perverse advantage.

If I’m just a bullshitter who’s willing to say anything and everything to win, I can keep you on the defensive trying to clean up the mess I’m spewing. Even if my arguments are really, really bad, it still feels like I’m attacking and you’re scrambling to play defense.

I call this Debate Mode:

  • Try to score as many points as you can.

  • Always stay on offense.

  • Go for Zingers and sound bites.

  • Ignore or reframe inconvenient things your opponent says.

  • It’s better to make ten bad arguments than concede one good point to your opponent.

It’s a classic case of value capture: In Debate Mode, we value scoring points over learning anything.

But in philosophy, we’re (theoretically) much more interested in deepening our understanding. And trying to win arguments at any cost is not a great way to do that.

Listing out 7 half-assed arguments in a row without considering any objections is a great way to earn a C- (at best), because Debate Mode makes for really bad philosophy. You’re not learning anything by writing that!

Why are you so afraid of discovering you were wrong?

Finding that out and correcting it would be great philosophical progress!

But surprise surprise, Debate Mode is a really powerful strategy in, drumroll please…debate!

Wanna score points? Launch a wild barrage your opponent can’t possibly refute point-by-point in the allotted time!

I find that arguments aren’t very good at changing people’s minds when they’re used as hand-to-hand weapons instead of collaborative tools. In fact, It's usually the exact moment when I score a devastating critical hit in a debate that our larger conversation takes a nosedive.

But arguments are a great way for us to inhabit different positions thoughtfully and understand them from the inside, to help us figure out what we believe and why, to try to articulate how our commitments hang together and relate to one another a bit more sharply than we had appreciated before.

But Debate Mode is so busy chasing points it loses sight of all that.

There’s something poisonous about the combative gladiatorial spirit of debate when it’s taken so cynically far. And if your goal is to score points at any cost, congratulations! You’re getting the presidential debates you deserve...again!

So what else can we do?

Well, when I try to guide students who are writing their very first philosophy papers, I give them a pretty simple set of training wheels I call The PORE Method.

It’s basically a simple way to get a back-and-forth going between two sides:

  1. Position: Introduce a philosophical position as clearly and charitably as you can. (e.g. “Here’s what utilitarianism is.”) Write for your roommate who’s never taken the class before and doesn’t know any of the jargon, so you have to explain any technical terms in plain English.

  2. Objection: Present the most serious objection you can think of. (e.g. “Utilitarianism doesn’t care who’s happy.”) Work hard to motivate this concern charitably, too, and try to show why Position should be worried.

  3. Response: Give the strongest response you can muster on Position’s behalf. (e.g. “In morality, we should take an impartial point of view where who’s happy isn’t relevant.”) Try to answer Objection thoroughly and thoughtfully and use this as an opportunity to speak to the deeper issues it’s raising.

  4. Evaluation: Just tell me what YOU think and why. Use first person.

    • So you think one side clearly wins this exchange—great, why?

    • So you switched your mind about who wins halfway through writing this paper—great, why?

    • So you aren’t sure who, if anyone, has an advantage at the end of the day—great! Why?

I don’t really care what answer you land on, I just want to see you weigh in on the key issues you think your own back-and-forth draws out.

Here’s what I hope my students take away:

If we care less about who wins and more about the quality of discussion we’re able to have, we might even make a little progress once in a while.

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