Debate and Effective Altruism: Friends or Foes?

by TenaThau 10th Nov 20187 comments


In a 2017 post, Will MacAskill criticized competitive debating as “antithetical to the EA approach to reasoning,” and proposed an alternative – “anti-debating” – in which the aim of participants is to arrive at the truth, rather than argue for a side.[i] In this post, I will challenge Will’s view that competitive debate and EA are diametrically opposed. But I will do so in the spirit of anti-debate – pointing out the limitations of my arguments where I notice them, and leaving open the possibility that anti-debate could be a superior alternative.

In the sections that follow, I will identify what I think are some important, EA-relevant benefits of participating in competitive debate, drawing on my own experience as a debater in the British Parliamentary format.

The benefits that I identify provide pro tanto support for the following two claims. (That is, they count as reasons in favour of accepting the claims, but they could be outweighed by countervailing reasons.)

(1) The comparative claim: Participation in competitive debate is better than – or, at least, not significantly worse than – anti-debate, from an EA perspective.

This claim is of practical relevance to EAs. If competitive debate is better than anti-debate, or if anti-debate is only better by a small margin, then it would not be a good idea to invest EA resources in developing and promoting anti-debate.

(2) The non-comparative claim: Participation in competitive debate is net-beneficial, from an EA perspective.

This claim is also practically relevant. EAs who are students will probably have the opportunity to participate in competitive debate, but not in anti-debate, because only the former is offered at their university. So even if anti-debating would confer greater benefits, it is still important to know whether competitive debating confers net benefits.

Some of the benefits that I will discuss might be non-unique[ii] to competitive debate; that is, they might equally be gained through participation in anti-debate. If so, then they would provide no support for the comparative claim, but would support the non-comparative claim.

Of course, any decision to accept or reject claims (1) and (2) would need to also take into account, respectively, the disadvantages of competitive debate compared to anti-debate, and competitive debate’s possible harms. These considerations – and therefore any all-things-considered conclusions – fall outside of the scope of this post.

It would be helpful, at the outset, to distinguish between two questions we might ask about competitive debating. First, there is the question of whether competitive debate is useful as a method of arriving at the truth of the matter being debated. Second, there is the question of whether participation in competitive debate promotes skills and moral values that are valuable from an EA point-of-view.

The second question will be the focus of this post, but a brief note about the first. It might seem that, if our goal is to arrive at the truth of the matter, then the anti-debating format – in which participants aim to arrive at the truth – would be best. But I don’t think that this is obviously the case.[iii] Being assigned to a side that you are expected to vigorously defend can force you to think of arguments that might not have occurred to you if you had been considering the issue from a neutral point of view. So it is plausible that participants (and judges and audience members) may leave a competitive debate with a more complete understanding of the issue than they would have had, had the debate occurred in a non-competitive format.

In the remainder of this post, I will consider the second question: does participation in competitive debating confer EA-relevant skills and values? I will argue that competitive debate provides benefits related to (1) rationality, (2) discourse, and (3) morality.

Epistemic Humility

There is a stereotype that competitive debaters are very “opinionated” in real life (in an epistemically overconfident way). In my experience, I have found this stereotype to be false. The experience of debating all sorts of topics – from a side that I am assigned rather than one that I choose – has, I think, made me more modest about my political views, because I can immediately think of both advantages and disadvantages to any policy. I don’t think that this effect is paralyzing – debaters still have opinions, after all – but I do think that I am more careful about forming these opinions, and sensitive to the ways in which I might be wrong. (Perhaps, I am mistaken about this – the effects of competitive debating on epistemic humility could be tested empirically. And plausibly, this could be a harm rather than a benefit, if debaters become more epistemically modest than is warranted.)


Julia Galef recently compiled a list of unpopular ideas, explaining:

“Even though I disagree with many of these ideas, I nevertheless think it’s valuable to practice engaging with ideas that seem weird or bad, for two reasons: First, because such ideas might occasionally be true, and it’s worth sifting through some duds to find a gem. And second, because I think our imaginations tend to be too constrained by conventional ‘common sense,’ and that many ideas we accept as true today were counterintuitive to past generations. Considering weird ideas helps de-anchor us from the status quo, and that’s valuable independently of whether those particular ideas are true or not.”

When I read the list, I was struck by how many of the topics I had previously encountered at debate tournaments. If you agree with Julia’s point that considering unpopular ideas is valuable, then I can think of no better way of doing this than by participating in debate, where you will encounter a very wide range of topics – many of them quite radical – over the course of your debating career. (An anti-debating format with an equally diverse range of topics could also promote open-mindedness, but the feature that is unique to competitive debating – that you sometimes have to defend, not merely consider, positions that you disagree with – promotes deeper engagement with unpopular ideas.)

And among the “weird” ideas that debate gets people to consider are those that are of importance to EA – topics dealing with global poverty, animal welfare, and catastrophic risk. There was even a motion on dead child currency at last year’s Oxford IV.


The EA community has a distinctive, sceptical style of discourse; EAs enthusiastically subject each others’ ideas to questioning and constructive critique.

In many other domains, though, voicing scepticism or disagreement with another person’s idea is viewed negatively. So people will refrain from asking sceptical questions, and from voicing their dissent. As a result, problematic claims go unchallenged.

Debate experience, I think, leads people to adopt, in their everyday conversations, a style of discourse that more closely resembles the EA community’s. Because debaters are so used to disagreeing in debate, they are comfortable vocalizing disagreement in real life. And when their own ideas are challenged, debaters are likely to welcome it, rather than take offense.


While the failure to voice disagreement can be a problem for discourse in some domains, in other cases, there is the opposite problem: discourse is too hostile. This this especially a problem for discourse between members of opposing political groups. There are, of course, many factors that contribute to the hostility that characterizes much of contemporary political discourse. But part of the problem, I think, is people’s tendency to assume that those who disagree with them about certain matters are bad people who hold reprehensible moral values. In some cases, this assumption is warranted – and strident condemnation is appropriate. But, in other cases, one’s opponent may share one’s moral values, and disagree only about a policy’s empirical effects.[iv] Competitive debating really helps you to recognize the difference between empirical and moral disagreement. (A common debating strategy, for instance, is to clearly explain that you agree with your opponent’s underlying moral aim, but show how your side does a better job of advancing this aim.) As a consequence, I suspect that having a background in competitive debating makes people less likely to automatically villainize their political opponents, and more likely to listen to what they have to say.


Being able to communicate one’s position clearly is a skill that is rewarded in debating, and one that spills over into debaters’ everyday conversations. Often this is to humorous effect – as when someone asks an innocuous question and receives a numbered, three-point response. But this kind of clarity and precision is a virtue in serious political discussions, which are hindered when parties do not understand the points being made by the other side.

With respect to clarity, I think that competitive debate has an edge over anti-debate. Will suggested, in his post, that strawmanning was a problem in competitive debate. I think that blatant strawmanning is uncommon – opposing teams would call you out on it, and judges would penalize you for it. But to the extent that debaters characterize their opponents’ arguments a bit less charitably in competitive debate, I think that this could be a good thing, from the perspective of encouraging clarity. Debaters are conscious of how their points could be ‘spun’ by their opponents, and thus have an incentive to be crystal clear in the presentation of their ideas, to pre-empt any such mischaracterizations.

(Some competitive debating formats do a better job of encouraging clarity than others, it should be noted.)


A crucial part of debating is weighing up the ‘impacts’ of arguments, and explaining why, even if your opponent’s arguments are true, your arguments matter more. This does not mean that all debates assume a consequentialist moral framework; debaters – like EAs[v] – can appeal to non-consequentialist principles as well. But it does mean that debaters are very sensitive to considerations about impact and maximization.

An upshot of this is that debate helps introduce people to the concept of existential risk. Since x-risk arguments are extremely high-impact, debaters make them all the time.[vi] (I first heard about existential risk from reading a book on the subject that was recommended to me by my college debate coach.)


In some competitive debate formats, including British Parliamentary, topics are international in scope. That is, some topics will concern issues that primarily affect a country or region of the world that is different from the venue where the debate takes place. If no region is specified, debaters are expected to apply the topic internationally, rather than focusing only on how it would apply to the country they are in, or the country they are from.

In addition, some competitive debate formats are impromptu; the topic is announced just minutes before the debate, and debaters are not permitted to access the internet during this time. A consequence is that debaters need to stay up-to-date on international news, lest they be caught off guard by a topic they know nothing about. When I began competing in British Parliamentary debate tournaments in college, I completely changed my consumption of news – and focused much more heavily on international affairs – for exactly this reason.

Increased awareness of international affairs naturally leads to a more cosmopolitan ethical mindset. (And it is then a small step – as many EAs have discovered – to go from impartiality across distance to impartiality across time.)

Tena Thau

I thank Tom Douglas for his comments on a draft of this post.

[i] I am aware of one existing competition that seems to fit the spirit of anti-debate – ethics bowls – in with teams are given a case and posed a question – but not assigned any particular position to defend. “Deliberative thoughtfulness” is listed as one of the judging criteria.

[ii] “Non-unique” is a term that I borrow from debating. It refers to when one’s opponent claims that a particular policy will have a benefit/harm, but one can show that that benefit/harm will occur even if the policy is not implemented.

[iii] Analogously, many have made the point that it would not follow, from consequentialism being the correct moral theory, that consequentialism is the best decision procedure. For example, see Peter Railton’s 1984 paper, “Alienation, Consequentialism, and the Demands of Morality.

[iv] Amanda Askell makes a similar point on a recent 80,000 Hours podcast (at 57:00).

[v] According Will MacAskill’s (2018) definition, effective altruism “is not a mere restatement of consequentialism: it does not claim that one is always obligated to maximise the good, impartially considered, with no room for one’s personal projects; and it does not claim that one is permitted to violate side-constraints for the greater good.”

[vi] X-risk arguments are less common in British Parliamentary debating, though, than in some other competitive debate formats.