How to Not Lose an Argument

Re­lated to: Leave a Line of Retreat

Fol­lowup to: Talk­ing Snakes: A Cau­tion­ary Tale, The Skep­tic’s Trilemma

“I ar­gue very well. Ask any of my re­main­ing friends. I can win an ar­gu­ment on any topic, against any op­po­nent. Peo­ple know this, and steer clear of me at par­ties. Often, as a sign of their great re­spect, they don’t even in­vite me.”

--Dave Barry

The sci­ence of win­ning ar­gu­ments is called Rhetoric, and it is one of the Dark Arts. Its study is for­bid­den to ra­tio­nal­ists, and its tomes and trea­tises are kept un­der lock and key in a par­tic­u­larly dark cor­ner of the Miska­tonic Univer­sity library. More than this it is not lawful to speak.

But I do want to talk about a very closely re­lated skill: not los­ing ar­gu­ments.

Ra­tion­al­ists prob­a­bly find them­selves in more ar­gu­ments than the av­er­age per­son. And if we’re do­ing it right, the truth is hope­fully on our side and the ar­gu­ment is ours to lose. And far too of­ten, we do lose ar­gu­ments, even when we’re right. Some­times it’s be­cause of bi­ases or in­fer­en­tial dis­tances or other things that can’t be helped. But all too of­ten it’s be­cause we’re shoot­ing our­selves in the foot.

How does one avoid shoot­ing one’s self in the foot? In ra­tio­nal­ist lan­guage, the tech­nique is called Leav­ing a So­cial Line of Re­treat. In nor­mal lan­guage, it’s called be­ing nice.

First, what does it mean to win or lose an ar­gu­ment? There is an un­spo­ken be­lief in some quar­ters that the point of an ar­gu­ment is to gain so­cial sta­tus by ut­terly de­mol­ish­ing your op­po­nent’s po­si­tion, thus prov­ing your­self the bet­ter thinker. That can be fun some­times, and if it’s re­ally all you want, go for it.

But the most im­por­tant rea­son to ar­gue with some­one is to change his mind. If you want a world with­out fun­da­men­tal­ist re­li­gion, you’re never go­ing to get there just by mak­ing cut­ting and in­ci­sive cri­tiques of fun­da­men­tal­ism that all your friends agree sound re­ally smart. You’ve got to de­con­vert some ac­tual fun­da­men­tal­ists. In the ab­sence of chang­ing some­one’s mind, you can at least get them to see your point of view. Get­ting fun­da­men­tal­ists to un­der­stand the real rea­sons peo­ple find athe­ism at­trac­tive is a nice con­so­la­tion prize.

I make the anec­do­tal ob­ser­va­tion that a lot of smart peo­ple are very good at win­ning ar­gu­ments in the first sense, and very bad at win­ning ar­gu­ments in the sec­ond sense. Does that cor­re­spond to your ex­pe­rience?

Back in 2008, Eliezer de­scribed how to Leave a Line of Re­treat. If you be­lieve moral­ity is im­pos­si­ble with­out God, you have a strong dis­in­cen­tive to be­come an athe­ist. Even af­ter you’ve re­al­ized which way the ev­i­dence points, you’ll ac­ti­vate ev­ery pos­si­ble defense mechanism for your re­li­gious be­liefs. If all the defense mechanisms fail, you’ll take God on ut­ter faith or just be­lieve in be­lief, rather than sur­ren­der to the un­bear­able po­si­tion of an im­moral uni­verse.

The cor­rect pro­ce­dure for deal­ing with such a per­son, Eliezer sug­gests, isn’t to show them yet an­other rea­son why God doesn’t ex­ist. They’ll just re­ject it along with all the oth­ers. The cor­rect pro­ce­dure is to con­vince them, on a gut level, that moral­ity is pos­si­ble even in a god­less uni­verse. When dis­be­lief in God is no longer so ter­rify­ing, peo­ple won’t fight it quite so hard and may even de­con­vert them­selves.

But there’s an­other line of re­treat to worry about, one I ex­pe­rienced first­hand in a very strange way. I had a dream once where God came down to Earth; I can’t re­mem­ber ex­actly why. In the bor­der­lands be­tween wak­ing and sleep, I re­mem­ber think­ing: I feel like a to­tal mo­ron. Here I am, some­one who goes to athe­ist groups and posts on athe­ist blogs and has told all his friends they should be athe­ists and so on, and now it turns out God ex­ists. All of my re­li­gious friends whom I won all those ar­gu­ments against are go­ing to be se­cretly look­ing at me, try­ing as hard as they can to be nice and un­der­stand­ing, but se­cretly laugh­ing about how I got my come­up­pance. I can never show my face in pub­lic again. Wouldn’t you feel the same?

And then I woke up, and shook it off. I am an as­piring ra­tio­nal­ist: if God ex­isted, I would de­sire to be­lieve that God ex­isted. But I re­al­ized at that point the im­por­tance of the so­cial line of re­treat. The psy­cholog­i­cal re­sis­tance I felt to ad­mit­ting God’s ex­is­tence, even af­ter hav­ing seen Him de­scend to Earth, was im­mense. And, I re­al­ized, it was ex­actly the amount of re­sis­tance that ev­ery vo­cally re­li­gious per­son must ex­pe­rience to­wards God’s non-ex­is­tence.

There’s not much we can do about this sort of high-grade long-term re­sis­tance. Either a per­son has enough of the ra­tio­nal­ist virtues to over­come it, or he doesn’t. But there is a less in­grained, more im­me­di­ate form of so­cial re­sis­tance gen­er­ated with ev­ery heated dis­cus­sion.

Let’s say you ap­proach a the­ist (let’s call him Theo) and say “How can you, a grown man, still be­lieve in some­thing stupid like talk­ing snakes and magic sky kings? Don’t you know you peo­ple are re­spon­si­ble for the Cru­sades and the Thirty Years’ War and the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion? You should be ashamed of your­self!”

This sug­gests the fol­low­ing di­chotomy in Theo’s mind: EITHER God ex­ists, OR I am an idiot who be­lieves in stupid childish things and am in some way partly re­spon­si­ble for mil­lions of deaths and I should have lower sta­tus and this ar­ro­gant per­son who’s just ac­costed me and whom I already hate should have higher sta­tus at my ex­pense.

Un­less Theo has at­tained a level of ra­tio­nal­ity far be­yond any of us, guess which side of that di­chotomy he’s go­ing to choose? In fact, guess which side of that di­chotomy he’s now go­ing to sup­port with re­newed vi­gor, even if he was only a luke­warm the­ist be­fore? His so­cial line of re­treat has been com­pletely closed off, and it’s your fault.

Here the two defi­ni­tions of “win­ning an ar­gu­ment” I sug­gested be­fore come into con­flict. If your goal is to ab­solutely de­mol­ish the other per­son’s po­si­tion, to make him feel awful and worth­less—then you are also very un­likely to change his mind or win his un­der­stand­ing. And be­cause our cul­ture of de­bates and mock tri­als and real tri­als and flam­ing peo­ple on Usenet en­courages the first type of “win­ning an ar­gu­ment”, there’s pre­cious lit­tle gen­uine mind-chang­ing go­ing on.

Really ad­just­ing to the sec­ond type of ar­gu­ment, where you try to con­vince peo­ple, takes a lot more than just not in­sult­ing peo­ple out­right1. You’ve got to com­pletely re­think your en­tire strat­egy. For ex­am­ple, any­one used to the Stan­dard De­bates may already have a cached pat­tern of how they work. Ac­ti­vate the whole Stan­dard De­bate con­cept, and you ac­ti­vate a whole bunch of re­lated thoughts like Athe­ists As The Enemy, Defend­ing The Faith, and even in some cases (I’ve seen it hap­pen) per­se­cu­tion of Chris­ti­ans by athe­ists in Com­mu­nist Rus­sia. To such a per­son, ced­ing an inch of ground in a Stan­dard De­bate may well be equiv­a­lent to say­ing all the Chris­ti­ans mar­tyred by the Com­mu­nists died in vain, or some­thing similarly dread­ful.

So try to show you’re not just start­ing Stan­dard De­bate #4457. I re­mem­ber once, dur­ing the mid­dle of a dis­cus­sion with a Chris­tian, when I ad­mit­ted I re­ally didn’t like Christo­pher Hitchens. Richard Dawk­ins, brilli­ant. Daniel Den­nett, brilli­ant. But Christo­pher Hitchens always struck me as too black-and-white and just plain ir­ri­tat­ing. This one lit­tle rev­e­la­tion com­pletely changed the en­tire tone of the con­ver­sa­tion. I was no longer An­gry Non­be­liever #116. I was no longer the liv­ing in­car­na­tion of All Things Athe­ist. I was just a per­son who hap­pened to have a whole bunch of athe­ist ideas, along with a cou­ple of ideas that weren’t typ­i­cal of athe­ists. I got the same sort of re­sponse by ad­mit­ting I loved re­li­gious mu­sic. All of a sud­den my friend was fal­ling over him­self to men­tion some sci­en­tific the­ory he found es­pe­cially el­e­gant in or­der to re­cip­ro­cate2. I didn’t end up de­con­vert­ing him on the spot, but think he left with a much bet­ter ap­pre­ci­a­tion of my po­si­tion.

All of these tech­niques fall dan­ger­ously close to the Dark Arts, so let me be clear: I’m not sug­gest­ing you mis­rep­re­sent your­self just to win ar­gu­ments. I don’t think mis­rep­re­sent­ing your­self would even work; evolu­tion­ary psy­chol­ogy tells us hu­mans are no­to­ri­ously bad liars. Don’t fake an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the other per­son’s point of view, ac­tu­ally de­velop an ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the other per­son’s point of view. Real­ize that your points prob­a­bly seem as ab­surd to oth­ers as their points seem to you. Un­der­stand that many false be­liefs don’t come from sim­ple ly­ing or stu­pidity, but from com­plex mix­tures of truth and false­hood filtered by com­plex cog­ni­tive bi­ases. Don’t stop be­liev­ing that you are right and they are wrong, un­less the ev­i­dence points that way. But leave it at them be­ing wrong, not them be­ing wrong and stupid and evil.

I think most peo­ple in­tu­itively un­der­stand this. But con­sid­er­ing how many smart peo­ple I see shoot­ing their own foot off when they’re try­ing to con­vince some­one3, some of them clearly need a re­minder.


1: An ex­cel­lent col­lec­tion of the deeper and most sub­tle forms of this prac­tice of this sort can be found in Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and In­fluence Peo­ple, one of the only self-help books I’ve read that was truly use­ful and not a re­gur­gi­ta­tion of cliches and ap­plause lights. Carnegie’s the­sis is ba­si­cally that be­ing nice is the most pow­er­ful of the Dark Arts, and that a mas­ter of the Art of Nice­ness can use it to take over the world. It works bet­ter than you’d think.

2: The fol­low­ing tech­nique is definitely one of the Dark Arts, but I men­tion it be­cause it re­veals a lot about the way we think: when en­gaged in a re­ally heated, an­gry de­bate, one where the in­sults are fly­ing, sud­denly stop and ad­mit the other per­son is one hun­dred per­cent right and you’re sorry for not re­al­iz­ing it ear­lier. Do it prop­erly, and the other per­son will be flab­ber­gasted, and feel deeply guilty at all the names and bad feel­ings they piled on top of you. Not only will you ruin their whole day, but for the rest of time, this per­son will se­cretly feel in­debted to you, and you will be able to play with their mind in all sorts of lit­tle ways.

3: Liber­tar­i­ans, you have a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem with this. If I wanted to know why I’m a Stalin-wor­ship­per who has be­trayed the Found­ing Fathers for per­sonal gain and is con­trol­led by his base emo­tions and wants to dom­i­nate oth­ers by force to hide his own worth­less­ness et cetera, I’d ask Ann Coulter. You’re bet­ter than that. Come on. And then you won­der why peo­ple never vote for you.