Debate and Effective Altruism: Friends or Foes?

by TenaThau10th Nov 20187 comments

29

Competitive debatingEpistemic deferenceRationalityDiscussion norms
Frontpage

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.)

Openmindedness

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.

Scepticism

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.

Civility

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.

Clarity

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.)

Maximization

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.)

Impartialism

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.

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:16 AM
New Comment

Thanks for writing this. The suggested criticism of debate is as old as debate itself, and in addition to the reasons you list here, I'd add the *epistemic* benefits of debating.

Competitive debating allows for the exploration of the argumentative landscape of the given topic in all its breath (from the preparation to the debating itself). That means that it allows for the formulation of the best arguments for either side, which (given all the cognitive biases we may have) may be hard to come by in a non-competitive context. As a result, debate is a learning experience, not only because one has to prepare for it, but because the consequences of what we have learned can be examined with the highest rigor possible. The latter is due to the fact that debate allows for critical interaction with `experts' whose views conflict with one's one, which has been considered essential for the justification of our beliefs already with Mill, and all the way to the contemporary social epistemology.

Relatedly, the impromptu nature of some debating formats could also help with getting comfortable formulating answers to nontrivial questions under (time) pressure. Apart from being generally helpful, this might be especially valuable in some types of job interviews.

I've been considering to invest some time into competitive debating, mostly in order to improve that skill, so if someone has data (even anecdotal) on that, pleases share :)

Good post; a lot of the benefits you list are speculative but seem plausible to me.

I also have experience in BP debating (though I've only attended a handful of competitions), and while I can't speak for other debating formats, in BP there is very little scope for awarding people points on the basis of their rhetorical style or how confidently they speak; in theory, debates are judged on the strength of arguments presented. (I know this is a point you were getting at in your post, but I think it's worth stating it explicitly.) In practice, of course, judges have various biases, but then I'm not sure the situation would be much different with the judges of anti-debates.

Personal experience note on formal debate (high school, college): It can really be great. I doubt I'd be an EA if not for it, it's been probably the single most educational thing I've done. If you're reading this post and wondering whether you should participate in your high school or college debate team, I'd give it a pretty strong recommendation.

It's certainly not ideal, it pits you in zero sum competitions where finding truth is always less valuable than winning by any means necessary. And culture-wise, the people who enjoy it most often become more concerned with winning and competition than finding truth. But still, 90% of your time is spent deep in the weeds of difficult substantive questions, where the best arguments are often the true ones. If you enjoy the level of discourse on something like the EA Forum or LessWrong, you'd probably love spending hours highly incentivized to get to the bottom of interesting and difficult questions.

One caveat: if you're someone who personality-wise is conflict-averse or uncomfortable with aggressive disagreement, you might be put off by some debate communities. Norms are very different place to place, but some places have a substantial minority that's pretty aggressive and rude.

I think debate has its problems as well - if a small minority of judges hold certain ideological views very strongly, they can ensure that it is very hard to take the opposite stance.

Also arguments are very heavily weighed towards those which can be made quickly. Even worse, arguments that are made more often can be made more quickly as you don't have to step through the details, so there is a bandwagon effect.

On the second paragraph, making your point succinctly is a valuable skill that is also important for anti-debates. A key part of this skill is understanding which parts of your argument are crucial for your conclusion and which merit less attention. The bias towards quick arguments and the bandwagon effect also exist in natural conversation and I'm not sure if it's any worse in competitive debating. I have little experience with competitive debating so I cannot make the comparison and am just arguing from how this should work in principle.

On the other hand, in natural conversation you want to minimize use both of the audiences' time and cognitive resources, whereas competitive debate weighs more heavily in minimizing time, which distorts how people learn succinctness from it. Also, the time constraint in competitive debate might be much more severe than the mental resource constraint in the most productive natural conversations, and so many important skills that are only applied in long-form conversation are not practiced at all.

[This comment previously consisted of an objection that misunderstood the point of this post, and was mostly deleted]

This is an interesting topic that I hadn't heard discussed before, and I appreciate learning about these benefits!

While I understand that your goal here was to list arguments in favor of competitive debate, and leave any counterarguments out of the scope, I also think that in doing so you might have fallen short of the stated promise to

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.

Overall, I think that this aim is incompatible with your decision that

[the disadvantages of competitive debate] – and therefore any all-things-considered conclusions – fall outside of the scope of this post.

unless you plan to write further posts following up on those disadvantages.

In particular, it seems like this post naturally raises the question "and what are the negative impacts of competitive debate on the debaters, if any?", to which it seems like there are some obvious answers, and probably some less obvious ones.

I think that listing benefits on its own is a fine basis for a post; it just doesn't seem to me like "the spirit of anti-debate".