The Hostile Arguer

“Your in­stinct is to talk your way out of the situ­a­tion, but that is an in­stinct born of prior in­ter­ac­tions with rea­son­able peo­ple of good faith, and in­ap­pli­ca­ble to this in­ter­ac­tion…” Ken White

One of the Less Wrong Study Hall denizens has been hav­ing a bit of an is­sue re­cently. He be­came an athe­ist some time ago. His fam­ily was in de­nial about it for a while, but in re­cent days they have 1. stopped with the de­nial bit, and 2. been less than un­der­stand­ing about it. In the course of dis­cussing the is­sue dur­ing break, this line jumped out at me:

“I can defend my views fine enough, just not to my par­ents.”

And I thought: Well, of course you can’t, be­cause they’re not in­ter­ested in your views. At all.

I never had to deal with the Reli­gion Ar­gu­ment with my par­ents, but I did spend my fair share of time failing to ar­gu­men­ta­tively defend my­self. I think I have some use­ful things to say to those younger and less the-hell-out-of-the-house than me.

A clever ar­guer is some­one that has already de­cided on their con­clu­sion and is mak­ing the best case they pos­si­bly can for it. A clever ar­guer is not nec­es­sar­ily in­ter­ested in what you cur­rently be­lieve; they are ar­gu­ing for propo­si­tion A and against propo­si­tion B. But there is a spe­cific sort of clever ar­guer, one that I have difficulty defin­ing ex­plic­itly but can char­ac­ter­ize fairly eas­ily. I call it, as of to­day, the Hos­tile Ar­guer.

It looks some­thing like this:

When your the­ist par­ents ask you, “What? Why would you be­lieve that?! We should talk about this,” they do not ac­tu­ally want to know why you be­lieve any­thing, de­spite the form of the ques­tion. There is no gen­uine cu­ri­os­ity there. They are in­stead look­ing for am­mu­ni­tion. Which, if they are clev­erer ar­guers than you, you are likely to provide. Un­less you are epistem­i­cally perfect, you be­lieve things that you can­not, on de­mand, come up with an ex­plicit defense for. Even im­por­tant things.

In ac­cept­ing that the onus is solely on you to defend your po­si­tion – which is what you are im­plic­itly do­ing, in en­gag­ing the ques­tion – you are putting your­self at a dis­ad­van­tage. That is the real point of the ques­tion: to bait you into an ar­gu­ment that your in­ter­locu­tor knows you will lose, where­upon they will ex­pect you to ac­knowl­edge defeat and toe the line they define.

Some­one in the chat com­pared this to poli­tics, which makes sense, but I don’t think it’s the best com­par­i­son. Poli­ti­ci­ans usu­ally meet each other as equals. So do de­bate teams. This is more like a cop ask­ing a sus­pect where they were on the night of X, or an em­ployer ask­ing a job can­di­date how much they made at their last job. An­swer­ing can hurt you, but can never help you. The ques­tion is in­her­ently a trap.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter­is­tic of a hos­tile ar­guer is the in­sincere ques­tion. “Why do you be­lieve there is/​isn’t a God?” may be gen­uine cu­ri­os­ity from an im­par­tial friend, or righ­teous fury from a zeal­ous au­thor­ity, even though the words them­selves are the same. What sep­a­rates them is the re­sponse to an­swers. The cu­ri­ous friend up­dates their model of you with your an­swers; the Hos­tile Ar­guer in­stead up­dates their bat­tle plan.[1]

So, what do you do about it?

Ad­vice of­ten fails to gen­er­al­ize, so take this with a grain of salt. It seems to me that ar­gu­ment in this sense has at least some of the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the Pri­soner’s Dilemma. Co­op­er­a­tion rep­re­sents the pur­suit of mu­tual un­der­stand­ing; defec­tion rep­re­sents the pur­suit of vic­tory in de­bate. Once you are aware that they are defect­ing, co­op­er­at­ing in re­turn is highly non-op­ti­mal. On the other hand, mu­tual defec­tion – a flame­war on­line, per­haps, or a big fight in real life in which nei­ther party learns much of any­thing ex­cept how to be pissed off – kind of sucks, too. Espe­cially if you have rea­son to care, on a per­sonal level, about your op­po­nent. If they’re fam­ily, you prob­a­bly do.

It seems to me that get­ting out of the game is the way to go, if you can do it.

Never try to defend a propo­si­tion against a hos­tile ar­guer.[2] They do not care. Your best ar­gu­ments will fall on deaf ears. Your worst will be picked apart by peo­ple who are much bet­ter at this than you. Your in­se­cu­ri­ties will be ex­ploited. If they have di­rect power over you, it will be abused.

This is es­pe­cially true for par­ents, where ob­sti­nate dis­agree­ment can be viewed as dis­re­spect, and where their power over you is close to ab­solute. I’m sort of of the opinion that all par­ents should be con­sid­ered epistem­i­cally hos­tile un­til one moves out, as a prac­ti­cal ap­pli­ca­tion of the SNAFU Prin­ci­ple. If you find your­self want­ing to ac­knowl­edge defeat in or­der to avoid im­mi­nent pun­ish­ment, this is what is go­ing on.

If you have some dis­agree­ment im­por­tant enough for this ad­vice to be rele­vant, you prob­a­bly gen­uinely care about what you be­lieve, and you prob­a­bly gen­uinely want to be un­der­stood. On some level, you want the other party to “see things your way.” So my sec­ond piece of ad­vice is this: Ac­cept that they won’t, and es­pe­cially ac­cept that it will not hap­pen as a re­sult of any­thing you say in an ar­gu­ment. If you must ex­plain your­self, write a blog or some­thing and point them to it a few years later. If it’s a re­li­gious ar­gu­ment, maybe write the Athe­ist Se­quences. Or the Theist Se­quences, if that’s your bent. But don’t let them make you defend your­self on the spot.

The pre­vi­ous point, in­ci­den­tally, was my per­sonal failure through most of my teenage years (al­though my difficul­ties stemmed from school, not re­li­gion). I re­ally want to be un­der­stood, and I re­ally ap­proach dis­cus­sion as a search for mu­tual un­der­stand­ing rather than an at­tempt at per­sua­sion, by de­fault. I ex­pect most here do the same, which is one rea­son I feel so at home here. The failure mode I’m warn­ing against is adopt­ing this ap­proach with peo­ple who will not re­spect it and will, in fact, pun­ish your use of it.[3]

It takes two to have an ar­gu­ment, so don’t be the sec­ond party, ever, and they will even­tu­ally get tired of talk­ing to a wall. You are not morally obliged to jus­tify your­self to peo­ple who have pre-judged your jus­tifi­ca­tions. You are not morally obliged to con­vince the un­con­vince­able. Silence is always an op­tion. “No com­ment” also works well, if re­peated enough times.

There is the pos­si­bil­ity that the other party is able and will­ing to pun­ish you for re­fus­ing to en­gage. Aside from pro­mot­ing them from “treat as Hos­tile Ar­guer” to “treat as hos­tile, pe­riod”, I’m not sure what to do about this. Some­one in the Hall sug­gested sup­ply­ing ran­dom, ir­rele­vant jus­tifi­ca­tions, as re­quiring min­i­mal cog­ni­tive load while still sub­vert­ing the ar­gu­ment. I’m not cer­tain how well that will work. It sounds plau­si­ble, but I sus­pect that if some­one is run­ning the al­gorithm “pun­ish all re­sponses that are not ‘yes, I agree and I am sorry and I will do or be­lieve as you say’”, then you’re prob­a­bly screwed (and should get out sooner rather than later if at all pos­si­ble).

None of the above ad­vice im­plies that you are right and they are wrong. You may still be in­cor­rect on what­ever fac­tual mat­ter the ar­gu­ment is about. The point I’m try­ing to make is that, in ar­gu­ments of this form, the ar­gu­ment is not re­ally about cor­rect­ness. So if you care about cor­rect­ness, don’t have it.

Above all, re­mem­ber this: Tap­ping out is not just for Less Wrong.

(thanks to all LWSH peo­ple who offered sug­ges­tions on this post)


After read­ing the com­ments and think­ing some more about this, I think I need to re­vise my po­si­tion a bit. I’m re­ally talk­ing about three differ­ent char­ac­ter­is­tics here:

  1. Peo­ple who have already made up their mind.

  2. Peo­ple who are per­son­ally in­vested in mak­ing you be­lieve as they do.

  3. Peo­ple who have power over you.

For all three to­gether, I think my ad­vice still holds. MrMind puts it very con­cisely in the com­ments. In the ab­sence of 3, though, JoshuaZ notes some good rea­sons one might ar­gue any­way; to which I think one ought to add ev­ery­thing men­tioned un­der the Fifth Virtue of Ar­gu­ment.

But one thing that ought not to be added to it is the hope of con­vinc­ing the other party – ei­ther of your po­si­tion, or of the propo­si­tion that you are not stupid or in­sane for hold­ing it. Th­ese are cases where you are per­son­ally in­vested in what they be­lieve, and all I can re­ally say is “don’t do that; it will hurt.” Even if you are cor­rect, you will fail for the rea­sons given above and more be­sides. It’s very much a case of Just Lose Hope Already.


  1. I’m us­ing re­li­gious au­thor­i­ties harsh­ing on athe­ists as the ex­am­ple here be­cause that was the im­me­di­ate cause of this post, but athe­ists take cau­tion: If you’re ask­ing some­one “why do you be­lieve in God?” with the pri­mary in­tent of cut­ting their an­swer down, you’re guilty of this, too.

  2. Some­one com­ment­ing on a draft of this post asked how to tell when you’re deal­ing with a Hos­tile Ar­guer. This is the sort of micro-so­cial ques­tion that I’m not very good at and prob­a­bly shouldn’t opine on. Sugges­tions re­quested in the com­ments.

  3. It oc­curs to me that the Gay Talk might have a lot in com­mon with this as well. For those who’ve been on the wrong side of that: Did that also feel like a mis­matched bat­tle, with you try­ing to be un­der­stood, and them try­ing to break you down?