Tag Archives: refuting an argument

Steelmanning: Argumentation for Lazy Intellectuals

I’ve heard it said that the hallmark of argumentation is being able to summarize an opposing viewpoint in a way that the person holding this view would agree with your summary of their position; thereby ensuring that you not only understand the viewpoint you are arguing against, but are also tackling the most robust interpretation of the opposing side.

This principle of charity in arguing has been around debating circles for a long time, but has in the last few years gained traction under the neologism of steelmanning (an obvious negation of its logical antonym of straw-manning, where one argues disingenuously against a position that an opponent never presented, and does not hold).  And on the face of it, this seems like a great development I can entirely get behind.  Who would come out and seriously propose that one should not have a clear understanding of an opposing argument, let alone that one shouldn’t argue against an honest representation of said opposition?  This is simply a case where, in principle (even if not in practice), the majority of reasonable people will be of one mind.

That’s all great so far.  However (don’t look shocked, you knew this was coming when you read the title of the post), while it’s not hard to steelman the argument in favor of steelmanning, the way in which the concept has been thrown around lately leaves much to be desired for me personally.  Whereas it’s meant to stand as an honorable demonstration of mutual respect between intellectual opponents, it’s also taken on the form among some very, very lazy thinkers (who, nonetheless, fancy themselves as stalwart intellects) where they demand for others to strengthen their arguments for them, in ways they never did, and never could have done to begin with.

As a point of principle, if I’m feeling inclined to engage in an argument with others, I will argue against what they say.  Not what I think they should say to make their side more compelling.  Not even what I would say, were I to hypothetical be forced to switch to their side on gunpoint.  But, strictly, what the arguments are that they give to me to support the viewpoints they deem worthy to state aloud for public criticism and/or derision [no, despite what some people say, mockery does not immediately make one guilty of having committed an ad hominem, as long as the mocking follows a salient line of counterarguments; though weak debaters are usually prone to focus in on any well-placed jabs made against them as a clever means to deflect from the fact that they’ve run out of things to say to support their position.]

So when I come out and say…oh, I don’t know…promoting the concept of a white ethnostate is racist and fascistic, and I in turn get emails lecturing me about how I haven’t dealt with the most robust arguments in favor of the alt-right’s ethnostate position, I’m going to call bullshit on claims of my supposed failure to steelman such a clearly racist and fascistic position, because I didn’t pamper it first with a string of dishonest white nationalist euphemisms used to conceal a proposition invoking outright ethnic cleansing.

The fact that I can follow an argument from its premises to its unpalatable logical conclusion–whether or not its proponents have the reasoning capabilities or the guts to follow the same thread of their own argument–does not require me to waste my time to think of ways to make these kind of arguments more pleasant for mass consumption before I attempt to refute them (personally, I find it far more honest to deal with things in their unfiltered form).  Nor am I required to do other people’s intellectual legwork for them, and bend over backwards to make their arguments stronger than they could ever hope to do on their own, so they can feel like they are being given a fair hearing in “the marketplace of ideas” (TM), where apparently every half-baked idea should be allowed to be spouted free of consequences.

Instead, I’d ask the question that if you keep finding yourself in a position in which you have to call on people to give your arguments the most charitable interpretations, you should: 1. Consider the possibility that you are a lousy communicator on behalf of the positions you are looking to promote, and 2. Give some thought to the notion that it’s not really the case that people are misinterpreting your views as absurd, horrendous, or laughable, but that your views actually are exactly that.

If you feel the need to argue a point, go argue it.  If you want to have controversial conversations, then have them.  But if you’re going to spent as much time whining afterwards about how everyone’s just so mean and unfair to you because they won’t paint every inane thing you say in the best possible light–or take every opportunity to fellate your ego about how brave you are to say dumb shit people will take offense to–save us all the trouble (and the bandwidth) and keep your poorly constructed arguments to yourself.

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The Intellectual Laziness of Appealing to Hypocrisy, Sans Argument

To point out a person’s failure to live up to the standards s/he advocates for everybody else is often the go-to retort of anyone looking to counter the nonsense of said person’s particularly insufferable opinions.  The implied reasoning being that if someone is proven a hypocrite on an issue, the substance of their position must also be equally dishonorable by association.  For example, let’s consider a person arguing the point that individuals who have premarital sex are perpetuating a harmful societal norm [a position which, for the record, I happen to personally disagree with].  Let us also further consider that this hypothetical person also happens to be someone who has undoubtedly had premarital sex before (confirmed either through testimonies of past lovers, or the existence of an out of wedlock child, or any other such inarguable proof).  The first instinct for many of us who happen to hold the opposing view on the topic is to point out the blatant hypocrisy of the person in question.

“How on earth can you judge the behavior of others for falling to follow a standard you can’t even abide by yourself?”

“Haven’t you ever heard how people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones?”

“Maybe you should learn to practice what you preach before stating your ideas to others.”

And, generally speaking, none of the above remarks are incorrect, as they pertain to the hypocrisy of the individual advocating the position in question.  However, they are completely immaterial to the merits of the position itself.  If right after lecturing to me about the dangers of smoking, my doctor lit up a cigarette, my correct announcement of his hypocrisy in this situation does nothing to negate the veracity of the stated claim (i.e. smoking is still unhealthy whether stated by a smoking or nonsmoking doctor).  The same would be true for the hypothetical topic and its advocate I conjured up above.

The problem I see is that, while it is a perfectly legitimate move to point out someone’s personal hypocrisy on a matter, all too often I see such a proclamation of hypocrisy serving as a crutch to avoid having to address the content of a proposed claim.  So much so, that many of us seem to immediately search out possible hypocrisy in a person’s character (even when there exists little to no reason to suspect the presence of any such personal failing), simply because s/he proposed as viewpoint we disagree with or dislike. As I already said, I happen to disagree with the position that premarital sex is a harm to society.  It is irrelevant whether I’m arguing with the most sexually promiscuous person on the planet, or a chaste nun, absent of any persuasive argument my stance will still be the same.  Therefore, it would be beyond unreasonable for me to focus the crux of my counterargument on how hypocritical the person I’m arguing with is in terms of her/his adherence to the proposed position, when its completely inconsequential to the underlying reasons for why I’m convinced in the correctness of my own position on the issue.

Now, don’t misunderstand me.  It’s not that I wouldn’t point out someone’s hypocrisy on a subject; I would, and I do (just as I would expect someone not to hesitate to point out my own hypocrisy if its out on obvious display for all to see).  But I take issue when people confuse refuting an argument with the prospect of discrediting the messenger of said argument.  It isn’t that hard to do the latter, but the first usually requires a bit more critical examination (depending on the topic in question, of course).

I recognize that choosing the example of premarital sex to illustrate my point here about hypocrisy is largely a softball option on my part.  In the Western world, the majority of people nowadays see the practice as a norm, where even most of those who choose not to engage in sexual activities prior to marriage (or at all) don’t go around arguing about its wickedness.  But the greater point about how, if one decides to seriously address a proposed claim–and wants her/his contribution to the discussion to be seen as a serious point on the subject matter–concentrating on the personal failings of the opposing side’s advocate should not be acceptable as a valid form of reasoning on the part of the challenger.  Yes, by virtue of their own claimed standards, the people you are arguing with are hypocrites; now, if you want to sway me to your side, explain to me why their viewpoint would be wrong even if they weren’t.

Lastly–keeping in spirit with the general discussion–if in the future I myself fail to abide by the standard I have proposed here (and anywhere else on this blog), readers are more than welcome to point out my shameful hypocrisy on the matter, and than proceed to actually argue against the merits of my position(s).  Fair enough?–I think so.