There is an interesting term floating around the web at the moment, steelmanning. This is the opposite of strawmanning, which would involve misrepresenting your opponent’s argument so as to make it weaker. In steelmanning, the purpose is to make the opponent’s argument as strong as possible and then attempt to target/refute that argument.
There is a really good post at The merely real on steelmanning. Messinger actually hasn’t left a lot for anyone else to say on the subject, so give her link a look. I’ll just give a few notes on what she said.
She makes three very clear points about what steelmanning does for us:
- It makes us better rationalists
- It makes us better arguers, and
- it makes us better people
Point one seems unproblematic, considering the best possible moves in chess makes you a better chess player, even if your opponent doesn’t actually choose the best moves. Likewise, considering the best possible arguments against will improve your ability to reason about the subject, and perhaps lead to more areas of thinking. The only thing is, many people may be willing to argue with themselves (she does, and so do I), but may not be willing to actually gift those arguments over to the opposition, which leads me to her second point.
This may seem odd, how could handing better arguments over to your opponents actually make you better at arguing? Surely it’s easier to “beat” them if you don’t. Messinger addresses this:
“[P]eople 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.
“[P]eople 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.”
So it actually can make you a better arguer, since it improves your ethos, which immediately makes people listen more to the actual content of what you are saying.
Her third point is just as important as, if not more than, the other two. Being a good person is really important. I’m just not sure that steelmanning can make you a better person. Sure, you may be more aware of other peoples beliefs and of the fact that they may know stuff you don’t, and might be able to teach you something. But, it is possible that you’ve read point 2 and realise the effectiveness of steelmanning someone’s ideas only to bring them down. In this case, are you really trying to be a better person, or have you just found a better way to argue, and you’ll use it even if you, as a personality, don’t change at all?
I’m not going to elaborate much on that, but will continue on the better person vein. I’ve often seen, particularly with atheists in South Africa who haven’t read many of the New Atheist literature, and have rather ill formed arguments against religion. I find myself thinking, “you’re an idiot, you’re an atheist but haven’t got any arguments that should compel you to be one, you’re like most Christians, who’ve never really thought about the Bible (or even read it) who believe it to be inerrant.” I ask myself, should I improve their arguments, the answer often comes back a resounding “no!” Why? You may ask, it’s simple, I may be a better person, but I don’t feel they would extend the same courtesy. They’ll take my arguments to the next Christian and use them, without giving a second thought to the counter-arguments I have given against the steelmanned version of their argument. Maybe I’m wrong, but when their arguments are largely insincere, I don’t expect them to suddenly change because I was nice. Secondly, I’m not sure that they actually care enough about truth for me to make the effort, or they would make the effort. Let me just point out that if I was an atheist arguing with Kent Hovind or William Lane Craig, I probably wouldn’t steelman their arguments either, because you wouldn’t expect them to extend the same courtesy while using your improved version of their arguments. Maybe this shows I’m not the better person, but it also shows the need for sincere; safe and trustworthy discussion forums.
What are your thoughts?