“The beginning of thought is in disagreement – not only with others but also with ourselves.” – Eric Hoffer
You know when someone makes an argument, and you know you can get away with making it seem like they made a much worse one, so you attack that argument for points? That’s strawmanning. Lots of us have done it, even though we shouldn’t. But what if we went one step beyond just not doing that? What if we went one better? Then we would be steelmanning, the art of addressing the best form of the other person’s argument, even if it’s not the one they presented. Mackenzie McHale, from the Newsroom, puts it on her list of Very Important Things for journalists (#2), and it would serve us well, too.
Why should we do this? Three reasons: It makes us better rationalists, better arguers, and better people.
1. Better rationalists: I, and all of you, I think, care a great deal about what is true. One of the ways we find out what is true is to smash our arguments against each other and see what comes out, abandoning the invalid arguments and unsound conclusions for better and brighter ideas as we march towards Truth. Perhaps the greatest limitation on this method is the finitude of the arguments we can possibly encounter. By chance, we may never be exposed to good arguments for other positions or against our own, in which case we may wrongly but reasonably discount other positions as unsupported and incorrect, and we would never know.
So we need to find better arguments. Where? Well, aside from sitting in rooms alone arguing with ourselves (guilty), we have the opportunity to construct these better arguments every time we are arguing with someone. We probably know best which arguments are most difficult for our position, because we know our belief’s real weak points and what kind of evidence we tend to find compelling. So I challenge you, when arguing with someone, to use that information to look for ways to make their arguments better, more difficult for you to counter. This is the highest form of disagreement.
If you know of a better counter to your own argument than the one they’re giving, say so. If you know of evidence that supports their side, bring it up. If their argument rests on an untrue piece of evidence, talk about the hypothetical case in which they were right. Take their arguments seriously, and make them as good as possible. Because if you can’t respond to that better version, you’ve got some thinking to do, even if you are more right than the person you’re arguing with. Think more deeply than you’re being asked to.
Do what fictional Justice Mulready does here (relevant part starts at 7:18 and ends at 7:47):
In this way, you both learn, and you’re having discussions of the highest level you’re capable of, really grappling with the ideas instead of bringing up rehearsed points and counterpoints. It is a difficult task, but it forces us to face those arguments that might actually pose problems for us, instead of just what we happen to see around us. This ensures that we have the right answer, not just a successful answer.
2. Better arguers: But Chana, you might say, I’m actually trying to get something done around here, not just cultivate my rationalist virtue or whatever nonsense you’re peddling. I want to convince people they’re wrong and get them to change their minds.
Well, you, too, have something to gain from steelmanning.
First, people like having their arguments approached with care and serious consideration. Steelmanning requires that we think deeply about what’s being presented to us and find ways to improve it. By addressing the improved version, we show respect and honest engagement to our interlocutor. People who like the way you approach their arguments are much more likely to care about what you have to say about those arguments. This, by the way, also makes arguments way more productive, since no one’s looking for easy rebuttals or cheap outs.
Second, people are more convinced by arguments which address the real reason they reject your ideas rather than those which address those aspects less important to their beliefs. If nothing else, steelmanning is a fence around accidental strawmanning, which may happen when you misunderstand their argument, or they don’t express it as well as they could have. Remember that you are arguing against someone’s ideas and beliefs, and the arguments they present are merely imperfect expressions of those ideas and beliefs and why they hold them. To attack the inner workings rather than only the outward manifestation, you must understand them, and address them properly.
3. Better people: I’m serious. I think steelmanning makes you a better person. It makes you more charitable, forcing you to assume, at least for a moment, that the people you’re arguing with, much as you ferociously disagree with them or even actively dislike them, are people who might have something to teach you. It makes you more compassionate, learning to treat those you argue with as true opponents, not merely obstacles. It broadens your mind, preventing us from making easy dismissals or declaring preemptive victory, pushing us to imagine all the things that could and might be true in this beautiful, strange world of ours. And it keeps us rational, reminding us that we’re arguing against ideas, not people, and that our goal is to take down these bad ideas, not to revel in the defeat of incorrect people.
Try it. It might just be more challenging, rewarding and mind-expanding than you expect.