Why anyone who cares about truth or justice needs to resist the strange new rules of public discourse.
There is a category confusion in this essay. While it is certainly the case that all “classic game[s] of debate” are also arguments, it is most definitely not the case that all arguments are also debates, classic or otherwise. Most arguments are not debates at all, but a kind of low-grade, managed conflict whose purpose has little or nothing to do with “the agonistic search for truth.” People who have children will recognize the difference instantly, as will people with parents, people with siblings, people who are married, people with coworkers, people with friends, people whose name has a vowel in it somewhere, etc.
The difference between debate - and all of the other forms that argument takes - matters a lot. For people engaged in rational debate the pursuit of “winning” makes a kind of interim sense. The antagonistic scheme enforces a rigor that practically no one can bring to bear on him or herself. Rational debate stress tests the structural integrity of our thought. For the serious person “losing” a real debate is the greatest victory of all. Truth itself will have won out, and its devotee rewarded, however uncomfortable the journey. Serious people can remember times when they discovered errors in their thinking and their convictions then shifted. Ideologues cannot.
In any case what most of us are dealing with in our day to day lives is not the challenge and opportunity of rational debate. Matt Lutz’s piece acknowledges as much. The ancient admonition about where not to cast your pearls applies.
Still, the swollen river of irrationality rolls on. Many of us – more and more urgently - can’t help feeling the need to take some kind of stand if liberal culture itself is not to be washed out to sea. My experience has been that arguing to win makes everything worse, poisons personal relationships, and provides at best a sullen acquiescence in the “defeated” and at worst a resentful truce. But what is to be done? These times seem different, when “this too shall pass” sounds anemic, timid, irresponsible. One possibility is that we exchange the rhetoric of debate with something like the rhetoric of inquiry, where the aim of our speech becomes the asking of questions rather than the discovery of conclusions . Can we, by example, show people how to actually think? Can we make it our objective to have people think who are only accustomed to having thoughts? To do so we will have to think ourselves. We can begin by asking, “what is the nature of conversations that induce actual thinking?” It is unlikely that the answer will be, “By winning arguments.”
I'm sympathetic with the spirit of this argument, but I think the issue of ad hominem argument is trickier than you suggest. You write, "If you offer an argument that x is true, and I respond by attacking you, I’m not actually addressing the argument that x is true. If I question your motives, I’m just changing the subject from the truth of x to an unrelated question about your personality. But even if you are a bad person, you might have given a good argument for x. And if you’ve given a good argument for x, this gives me a compelling reason to believe your proposition."
But what if I offer an argument in support of free speech, arguing that it's both a human right and an important element of democratic culture. You then respond by pointing to the way in which powerful elites (including courts) have invoked "free speech" in order insulate those with economic power from regulation or redistributive measures (or those with social power to dominate the voices of those without it), thereby increasing inequality in a way that is bad for democracy. Is that an "ad hominem" argument? It's not in the sense that it's not attacking the motives of the person making the argument, but it is in the sense that it's not directly attacking my argument "on the merits" but instead pointing to the function that my argument as served (which is what "motivation" arguments are usually trying to do).
Is that a legitimate argument or Calvinball? This is not a rhetorical question--I think it's a hard question. The point is just to complicate the idea of what ad hominem argument consists in. Anyway, thanks for your very interesting essay.
At heart Calvinball seems based on a conflict v mistake theory distinction (credit to the dearly missed slatestarcodex). For people who think disagreement arises primarily from mistakes - that one or both sides are in some way making a logical error and if we dig deep enough we can spot it and thereafter agree - the rules of logical engagement are crucial. They provide a framework for finding the mistake that lets people arguing work through issues quickly using known logical principles.
For someone who thinks rivalrous power dynamics in a zero sum game are the root of argument, as both populist trolls and left wing activists fairly expressly do, this sort of carefully curtailed logical game is not desirable at all. They want to win, not find an answer, so pursue winning strategies that are non-collaborative (whereas even a heated argument on common framework is collaborative to an extent). Essentially, they defect on the prisoner's dilemma. Their tactic is not to show logical superiority but social - a better ratio, more biting meme, a more unfavorable casting of your position, a better grasp of irony and ability to "read the room".
The collaborative intellectual pose is a crucial legacy of the enlightenment. We need it. We must cultivate it. But i also worry that it performs poorly in direct confrontation with the confrontational pose seeking merely to exert power. And that's not a problem I know how to solve.
The main critique that I saw of the Harpers Letter for Open Debate was an ad hominem reaction against the signatories, who some felt weren't sufficiently radical for their concern about open debate and intellectual freedom to be genuine. It was pretty jarring to watch so many nodding along to the (obviously false) notion that the content of the letter meant nothing in the shadow of the perceived hypocrisy of the signatories. It actually got me thinking a lot about how the ad hominem fallacy doesn't seem to mean anything anymore to the partisans of the left (I still consider myself one of them, though). My personal theory as to why is that too many leftists have come to adore analyses of power without knowing how to properly apply them. So the truth or falsity of proposition x coming from individual y will mean much less than y's broader "agenda," their position within the power structure of our society, and x's relation to various systems, such as capitalism of racism. So an activist on the left likely won't care if x is a true proposition, as long as it is seen as supporting a harmful system of ideas and y is seen as a person who on the whole advances these sorts of dangerous ideas.
This is unfortunate for me, as someone who enjoys intellectual debate. But to be honest, I struggle to think of a reason why leftists shouldn't just continue to badger and shame their worst enemies, because when has having a good argument ever been enough in real life? Sound and valid arguments against racism have existed for years, but to little effect. There were very smart and very persuasive arguments against invading Vietnam, but it didn't matter. I think the occasions when a good argument won out over power must be truly very rare (I'll welcome counter examples). So why should people fighting for life and death issues (racism, imperialism, environmentalism) play by the rules? Lutz seems to suggest that playing by the rules can be equally, if not more, effective. But is there actually historical evidence of this?
Appreciate the article and the arguments put forth. It can be useful to consider Calvinball as a tool of analysis. And, as others have insightfully responded already, I think there is more going on among the authoritarian-left (AL) than simply playing or not playing by the rules of reasoned debate and truth-seeking. The AL are in no way seeking to uncover truth, or seeking to bring about reasoned consensus, imho. They are focused on tracking power, most especially epistemic power (knowledge production) and by extension, their tactics revolve around acquiring that same power and consolidating cultural territory. Educational institutions are their primary battleground. Indoctrination, most especially of the young, is the weapon of choice. For older demographics, shame and guilt aimed towards conversion is the weapon of choice. I’m personally fascinated by how tightly these methods adhere to colonial Jesuit methods of conversion and indoctrination of both ‘pagan’ Europeans and Native Americans. Fundamentalist projects of assimilation have similarly always been the religious bread and butter or Puritanism and progressive politics in general in western countries. While arguments that frame these issues as a matter of logic and rational debate are interesting, I think they are missing the larger undercurrent of religiosity at play, and the deeper levels of negotiations of power and territory and control that are exerted between spiritual communities. It’s not left vs right - it’s Christian theists vs secular theists.
Thanks, great article! I agree, but there is one grey area I keep coming back to with respect to ad hominem arguments. When debating some topic, what might seem (to me) like an ad hominem attack might be reframed like this in the mind of my interlocutor: "I would like to point out a relevant conflict of interest in this argument which you have failed to disclose. You get a penalty for not being honest and forthright". This seems like it could be legitimate in certain contexts. Does anyone else struggle with distinguishing between these two ways of viewing a potentially ad hominem line of reasoning, and how do you deal with that?
Outstanding article. The problem is how do you get Calvin to play Chess!
Some people have better skills than others in composing logical arguments. Lawyers, for example, learn in law school how to argue both sides of a case. This skill can be used to beat down someone who hasn't had an opportunity to learn the skill but nevertheless feels deeply about her position. Out-arguing someone doesn't necessarily make you right. And lo and behold, it turns out that the people best skilled in logical argument have tended to be white males and the less skilled people have been women and racial minorities. This is the sense in which I agree with the critique of objectivity and rationality.
I agree with this, you have to keep putting quality arguments out if you're capable of doing so. If you find that the person your debating isn't doing so in good faith then I make my points, note that I don't think this is a good faith debate and move on.
I suspect that a not insignificant %, tough to know exactly, of the leading woke activists who are pushing the illiberal arguments are doing so in bad faith as an attempt to increase their personal power and status. If benefits accrue to those they supposedly speak for actually happen, great, but that's not their main purpose.
Most of the followers of these leaders seem to be cowed by fear, well-intentioned but uneducated on the details or true believers. They are the ones who really need to see the arguments being made because many more ppl fall in the first two categories than do in the latter.
Is it possible that an even bigger issue than making sure people are able to see through weak logic like ad hominem attacks, is doing a better job of persuading people of the value of debate, and of being open minded? Which may not be best accomplished by debate.
Confusion arises because so much "argument" nowadays is really just a variety of advertising, of campaigning for or cheering on a particular point of view. It's not that people don't realize ad hominem attacks are bad logic. It's that they aren't really trying to convince anyone on the other side, they are just preaching to the cheering choir. And the choir really likes ad hominem attacks! It is like cheering for a sports team.
So sure, keep arguing, and argue well. But also stop talking so much, listen more. After all, on issues you are sure about, don't kid yourself - you're really advertising or campaigning, and debate isn't always the most effective way to campaign.
Excellent article. A timely and good reminder for things to watch out for in Friday's debate between Niall Ferguson and Yascha Mounk.
Enjoyed reading the article and the comments. I can't recall, did Hobbs ever win a game?
There are many good points in the article and the framing I think is brilliant. In the concluding remarks it's stated that likely, good arguments will eventually win. "Calvinists" will turn into good "Catholics" as the years go by. If it's likely that good arguments will eventually prevail then it means that it's likely that some good arguments will eventually lose, since we are not certain all good arguments will inevitably persuade 100 % of the human population from a certain point in time and then ad aeternum.
What do we mean by "good arguments will likely eventually win"? Does it mean it's uncertain how long it will take for a good argument to win, but given infinite time it will likely win if there is someone using those arguments at any given point in time? And by winning do we mean a narrow majority that's persuaded and will remain so forever? Do we have an example of such an argument that has already won?
It seems that we can't persuade people on all issues, but will have too lose some of the debates. Perhaps then we should focus our truthing on the most important issues and lose the less important ones. It also seems that we will have to keep making good arguments forever, while risking short-term loses that might make life miserable for an indefinite period. Perhaps when the earth has become uninhabitable the last people to perish will have been persuaded by the good arguments albeit too late. A noble goal has been reached, but the spoils of victory will not be enjoyed for long.
How can we end the Rhetorical Calvinball short and long term?
Senior golfers (like me) bend the rules. We give each other 5 foot putts, tee the ball up in the grass and, generally, cheat according to our age. But on a professional level the rules of golf are applied religiously, and they work universally well on courses that vary in myriad ways. There is no profound truth here. Simply, pros don’t play against each other. They play against the course, just as a good debater plays against the argument. And this you can only do only if you listen carefully, and respect, your opponent. But that is so, so hard to do when human nature is the playing field we walk out onto day by day. This view leads me to wondering at times what good debaters might do with the question: “ Was the philosophy of Jesus basically flawed?”
There is one thought I would like to offer... and can perhaps usefully frame why this current climate is so difficult to navigate. Calvin and Hobbes can at least agree that they are playing Calvinball...
Perhaps the problem is that the debate game is often the wrong game to play. I prefer the constructive dialogue game. Debate is a zero sum game in many cases. It ensures entrenched conflict. Constructive dialogue is positive sum. If I’m 70% right and you’re 20% right, debate might let me “win”, but I’m still left with just 70%. With constructive dialogue, we might both get to 90%. More importantly, if we can add players and build on the 90%, even if they have less than 90% to add. With debate, the maximum outcome is merely the maximum that any one player might already possess.