David R. Henderson  

Thoughts on Debate

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I strongly agree with almost everything that co-blogger Bryan Caplan wrote about debate. I do want to add a couple of things he didn't say. One of them slightly contradicts one of Bryan's pieces of advice.

Here's the one that Bryan didn't address, but I think he would agree with it. It certainly fits his idea that what's important is not winning per se, but deserving to win. In my view, if you're not willing to do this, you don't deserve to win. Are you ready?

Here goes:

Admit when you're wrong. Or, even if the person on the other side hasn't convinced you that you're wrong, but has made you have doubts, admit that you have doubts.

Related to this, how likely is it that your opponent hasn't said anything that makes sense? I think it's not likely. So, if the things that he says both make sense and are relevant, then admit that they make sense. You might have an answer--and, if you prepare the way Bryan suggests, you probably do have an answer--so then admit the point and give your answer.

One thing I hate--and people who know me and pay attention get to know this pretty quickly about me--is debates where people talk past each other. One person will make a point and the other person acts as if he didn't say it. In many cases, it's because if he acknowledged it, he would also have to acknowledge that it's true.

Here's an example of what frustrates me. It's a "debate" I had with a speaker on military manpower who was taking it as given that in a big war, the U.S. government would need to institute the draft. I posted about it last month.

DAVID HENDERSON: Well, can I ask you this question, then? Are you saying that you think it's infeasible, or are you saying that people think it's infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time?

RICHARD HUNTER: I'm only saying that, as I understand the plans of everybody involved in the debate and the Congress and the administration, the assumption is that this is a peacetime program and that normally in peacetime in our nation's history we have worked with volunteers. Congress, in its power to raise armies, and maintain navies, has done it through volunteers. And every time we've gotten involved in a major war, we've moved to some kind of conscription--and some kind of more or less management of the civilian manpower force. As I see history, that's the context of this issue. I think that if a massive war started this morning, none of us would be here. We would all have been called out. We would start immediately figuring out ways to mobilize the entire society. And Bernie's budget would go up faster than the whole rest of the country combined by a hundredfold.


Take a look at the earlier post if you want to see all the back-and-forth that preceded this. Notice that Richard Hunter would not answer me. He wouldn't say whether he thought it was infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time or whether he thought other people thought it infeasible to have a volunteer force during war-time.

Here's the other part that slightly contradicts Bryan's advice. Bryan wrote that you should not use sleazy techniques (I agree). Then, under sleazy techniques, he listed "Appeals to emotion." Appeals to emotion can be sleazy, but they're not necessarily sleazy. Indeed, one of the most effective uses of emotion I ever saw someone use in a debate was Bryan's having his audience imagine what it would be like to be coming home from Haiti and having a U.S. immigration official tell you that you would never be allowed into the country. That was an appeal to emotion--and it was a completely justified and effective appeal to emotion. I can't find the link and it wasn't in a debate. But I certainly can imagine Bryan using it in a debate and it would have been completely legitimate.

Also, and this is an argument around the edges about emotion, but check Bryan's Principle #6:
Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend.

This is an appeal to emotion. It's a completely legitimate appeal to emotion.

It goes along with something I've done when I've given speeches and I have some reason to think that some people in the audience will have heard things about me in advance and will come ready to dislike me. If they dislike me from the outset, it's hard to reach them. So I will always show up early and talk to people in the audience. I like doing this anyway because I like people (as Ruth Gordon, playing Maude, said to Harold, "They're my species.") But it also helps warm things up so people can actually listen. Also, I will often try to think of something I appreciate about them or some team or some famous figure that has some relationship to their geographical area. So, for example, when I spoke in Wisconsin in March, and I knew that the audience would probably be somewhat familiar with Wisconsin political history, I led by saying:

While I'm not a fan of the late Bob La Follette's domestic government interventions, I am a big fan of Fighting Bob's, unfortunately unsuccessful, attempts to keep the U.S. out of World War I. His April 4, 1917 speech to an almost empty U.S. Senate chamber, in which he masterfully demonstrated the flaws in President Woodrow Wilson's case for war, ranks as one of the finest speeches, both emotionally and analytically, in the history of U.S. politics.

I was trying to appeal to, maybe, their sense of pride and, as a bonus, get across my antiwar views.

Bottom line: Appeals to emotion can be legitimate.


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COMMENTS (6 to date)
Conscience of a Citizen writes:
Appeals to emotion can be sleazy, but they're not necessarily sleazy. Indeed, one of the most effective uses of emotion I ever saw someone use in a debate was Bryan's having his audience imagine what it would be like to be coming home from Haiti and having a U.S. immigration official tell you that you would never be allowed into the country. That was an appeal to emotion--and it was a completely justified and effective appeal to emotion.

No, that was sleazy-- because the emotion Bryan appealed to was inapposite. The emotional bias of "loss aversion" is well-known. Naturally people are anxious not to lose their homes, social connections, jobs, etc. Trying to gin up support for illegal immigration, Bryan asks his US audience to imagine being exiled from their homes to Haiti. He tells the audience that the horror that thought provokes is the same as what Haitians feel when they learn the US will not welcome their immigration. But Haitian would-be immigrants are in precisely the opposite situation from US citizens. They wish to leave their homes in Haiti to enter the US. US immigration laws don't inflict exile on Haitians (Haitians wish to inflict a form of exile on themselves). US immigration laws discourage Haitians from leaving their homes. If US immigration laws inflict any dysphoria on Haitians, it is not the emotional agony of exile, but the much lesser pain of frustrating an uncertain hope for gain. Because of the greater emotional salience of loss, the pain of exile which Bryan asks his audience to experience vicariously is in fact much greater than the pain of foregoing an uncertain gain which is what Haitians might actually experience.

A legitimate appeal to emotion might consist of asking the US audience to imagine that they wish to move to Switzerland but are told by Swiss authorities that while they may visit as tourists they can never settle in Switzerland.

Tom Nagle writes:

You have prompted some soul searching on my part because, like Bryan, I HATE appeals to emotion as a way to undermine 3rd party listeners' receptivity to an opponents argument but, like you, I have learned how to use emotion to make people more receptive to my argument. You and Bryan may well be in total agreement because he is thinking about cases of the first type (emotional appeals to make listeners less receptive to others rational arguments) while you are thinking of cases of the second type (emotional appeals to make listeners more receptive to your rational arguments). Where I have come out is that this inconsistency is morally justifiable on the grounds that what is morally "good" and "bad" is not determined by whether or not one uses emotion to win an argument, but by whether or not emotion is used to motivate people to engage rationally or is used to get them to disengage their minds.

Phil writes:

I think you and Bryan are both proposing ways to fight fair. Nothing advances thinking better than a fair fight on the points.

But I am writing primarily to say, "A Harold & Maude" reference? Fabulous!

This "Thoughts on Debate" prompts many responses from me. I will try to keep this shorter than a book.

We muddle the idea of winning a debate by not being clear about who judges our performance. Smith may say I won. Jones may say my opponent won. When I participated in political debate while running for local office, my libertarian friends said I won; the voters said my opponent won. If you want to talk intelligently about winning, you first need to specify in whose eyes you want to win.

The format of a debate has a built-in falsehood, it seems to me. On the surface I am debating my opponent. But everybody knows I am trying mostly to convince undecided listeners (or judges if the debate is judged). I don't particularly care if I sway my nominal opponent. As such I am not speaking to my opponent as I actually see or know him, as if there were no other listeners, but rather I am speaking to him as a stereotype for a class of people — a stereotype which I hope rings true with the actual judges. As such I probably deminish my opponent.

So I see a contradiction in two of Bryan's suggestions:

  • Know who you're really addressing: undecided audience members.
  • Talk to your opponent like he's your best friend.
I cannot do both. I hope I would never talk to my best friend as if he merely represented a stereotype.

About your exchange, David, with Richard Hunter, it sounds to me like he may have been trained for debate as successful politicians or trial lawyers are trained (here is one example book). In such training it is folly to answer any potentially-damaging question directly; rather you should move directly to a positive statement of your view as it relates to both: (1) the issue implied by your opponent; (2) the people you hope to sway. So the training goes. I surmise it is good training for a political world.

I too wish for a warm fuzzy world in which I can always be clear, honest, friendly, and admit when I am wrong. That is, I wish for a world free of political means. Unfortunately the best I have accomplished yet is to limit the number of people to whom I hope to make any sense.

I was probably wrong in my last paragraph above when I concluded that I can not always be honest or admit that I have been wrong — without having developed that point.

A prototypical example is set in Nazi Germany: How do you answer the Nazi at the door who asks the whereabouts of your in-laws who are hiding beneath the floor? Most non-Nazi judges would say you should lie. Even though this example is extreme, I do not think it is singular.

In fact I propose that we experience a continuum of circumstances, favoring all shades of truth-to-lies, with the Nazi example at the unfavorable end of the continuum. At the other, favorable end, we find ourselves debating opponents who actually have our best interest at heart; opponents who are invested with us in the same principles of law. In between we are debating with people who will take something of ours from us if they can, unless I am mistaken.

Peter Gerdes writes:

There are two concepts of winning a debate in play here.

There is the concept of actually persuading your audience. Then there is the concept of establishing that your claim is more likely than not to an ideal dispassionate observer (though actually since such an observer would be logically omniscient it would suffice just to list facts).

We tend to pretend there is some third notion of presenting a compelling argument without resort to trickery/sleaziness. However, this is an illusion created by the fact that debating is a repeated game so `defecting' by resorting to sleazy tactics harms your reputation in the long run.

I mean from a theoretical standpoint being likeable or speaking clearly or anything other than having the better evidence/deductions is equally sleazy. It is a way to increase the chances people believe your claim that doesn't depend on it's correctness or justification. You might try and say you are merely removing impediments to the audience evaluating your claim but such a distinction seems unmotivated.

So to really specify what good rules for a debate are one needs to be clear on the context. If you want to be held in high esteem by academic colleagues avoid socially frowned upon sleaze like pulling on emotions but pile on the approved sleaze like being likeable. If you are trying to convince people to stop an existential threat to life on earth screw your reputation and convince people using any means necessary.

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