What’s the Point of Advocacy Skills? by JP Stuckert

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It is common for debaters and coaches to justify or endorse the activity to others by speaking of “advocacy skills.” When I was debating for Strake Jesuit, our head coach, Mr. Jerry Crist, would often make the argument (both to freshmen who might join the team and, casually, to those of us who were already debating) that debate “teaches you to be an advocate.” He was always clear that he did not necessarily mean an “advocate” in the sense of an attorney – Mr. Crist’s feelings about how many of his students went on to be lawyers generally fluctuated – but in the sense of being able to defend a position. We could “sell ourselves” in interviews, he would tell us, or make a strong case for a proposal in a business meeting.

So, when I found myself at a Thanksgiving dinner trying to justify the value of debate (and why I was still teaching at camps during the summer), I naturally turned back to the argument that it is very useful, for both our personal and professional lives, to learn to be an “advocate.” I doubt many people, debaters or otherwise, would deny the instrumental value of these skills – they are indeed quite useful. And I think it’s obvious that debate does increase advocacy skills (though, we can argue about which events and what styles are better suited for this goal).

However, some people have a different concern than the utility of advocacy skills. They worry about the moral implications of this form of training. Their argument takes two forms. First, debate is bad because it teaches us to manipulate other people. Second, debate is bad because it teaches you how to deceive yourself. These objections are literally ancient, in the sense that they are the same objections that Socrates and his followers made against the Sophists who charged students in order to teach them to defend any conceivable position. And I am far from the first to note this connection between contemporary debate and the Greeks.[1]

One way of looking at the problem would be to claim that advocacy skills are good when put to good ends, but are bad when put to bad ends. With this view, they are morally neutral in themselves, and are only technical skills which can be used for good or evil. They would be no different than a knife or hammer.

Within this instrumental conception of advocacy skills, there are two standard responses to moral objections to debate. First, if good people avoid learning how to persuade, then only bad people will be persuasive. And second, learning to persuade others makes you less susceptible to their persuasion. Both arguments assume a pessimistic worldview, wherein everyone is constantly trying to persuade others to agree with their point of view. And if you find these arguments lacking, it is probably because they can be used to defend virtually anything (the first argument is, after all, a fairly standard defense of everything from gun ownership to growing cannabis).

But, these two arguments also fail in another specific way to rebuke the moral objections to debate, especially as they have been most recently articulated by Marshall Thompson. He has articulated the problem in terms of temptations. There is a temptation for those who practice debate to, in his words, “be tempted away from regarding winning arguments as a means to the end of effective and ethical advocacy and begin to see winning arguments as an end in itself.”[2] And even more recently, he has expressed a concern, in a comment about my own most recent article, that debaters learn how to convince themselves that their own conduct is ethical. That is, they are able to retrospectively justify themselves in terms of moral philosophy no matter what they are doing.

Thompson’s comment was in the context of a larger disagreement between us on ways of thinking about moral pedagogy. But I should like to emphasize that I do share in this specific concern. On a personal note, this very worry has been quite important in my own deliberations about whether to pursue a career in academic philosophy. And I should think that this worry extends beyond “personal ethics” into other areas upon which debate touches. If I am biased toward one policy option, the skills I learned in debate will help me to justify that position no matter what it is. Or if I take one side in a cultural issue (e.g., something about race relations in this country), I can articulate that position well even if it is not the true one.

But surely, some may object that polished debate skills make you less vulnerable to faulty arguments and that this is evidence that our training in advocacy skills does, in fact, tend to lead us to advocate for the truth. I have heard a wide variety of anecdotes for many years about how debate has caused people to change their whole outlook on life or to become better people. However, this alone may not be sufficient to prove debate’s worth. It may just be that people who are naturally inclined to thoughtfully analyze and challenge their moral and political worldviews in their teen years are drawn to debate (or, to put it less charitably, argumentative people who are liable to take up contrarian views as teenagers are more likely to debate).

Perhaps, we would have greater justification for the assertion that improving our advocacy skills makes us more likely to believe in and defend truth, if we could demonstrate a sort of “convergence hypothesis.” That is, as arguments get better, they tend to be more likely to be defending truth. Or, simply stated, truth and mastery tend to converge. If this is the case, then rigorous and technical argumentation (though not necessarily persuasively delivered arguments) will tend to move the opinions of debaters toward truth. Thus, if skilled debaters believe true things and are adept at convincing others to agree with them, society in general will benefit.

It is important to understand, however, that this hypothesis on the convergence of truth and good argument is controversial. It is easy to mistakenly think it is a natural consequence of the very nature of argumentation. For instance, if I am presented with an argument for A and an argument for B, and I find the argument for A to be better warranted, it seems reasonable that I should believe A is true and B is not (or at least lean in that direction). Then, retrospectively, I may say, “A is true and this argument which justifies A is better warranted; therefore, as arguments improve, they naturally get closer to Truth.” But, clearly this would be circular reasoning. Moreover, we should be wary of this fallacious reasoning:

P1: If X is a good argument, I should believe A.
P2: I should believe A.
C: X is a good argument.

This is a clear instance of affirming the consequent when formalized (there may be other reasons for believing A even if X is a terrible argument), but it is a typical way of day-to-day thinking.[3]

To believe in the convergence hypothesis, on some level, is to assume that somebody cannot be a “good advocate” without advocating for something true. Or, at the very least, the best advocates will always be those who advocate for true propositions. Here, advocacy skills are different than tools, in the sense that their function goes beyond their utility in satisfying human preferences. But even if one does believe in this non-utilitarian function for advocacy skills, it does not, in turn, follow that the development of advocacy skills in debate will necessarily lead us to truth. Debate itself could be distorted, or, as Thompson’s Platonic allusions suggest, perhaps debaters are simply not mature enough to develop advocacy skills in the right way. And even if the development of advocacy skills points us toward truth, this alone does not assure that it will lead us to the moral use of advocacy skills. I may, for instance, make good arguments for true propositions when it suits my needs and be silent or knowingly make bad arguments when it does not.

However, there may be an alternative way of thinking about advocacy skills that does not focus on the essential features of the skills themselves, nor on the ends to which they are consciously deployed. It is possible to think of advocacy skills in terms of the context in which they are developed. The theoretical work that needs to be done, on this supposition, is to determine what aspects of debate have the potential to produce goods when actualized by the development and deployment of advocacy skills. Advocacy skills, from this perspective, are not good or bad in themselves, but they assume goodness or badness based on the structural features of debate itself. If debate is disordered, then the development of advocacy skills can only be useful (or harmful) in terms of their effects outside of debate. But if the activity is well-ordered, there may be some goods which we only access when we strive in competition toward the improvement of our advocacy skills.

This suggestion implies that competitive advocacy is itself ennobled by a certain context. If LD debate as a practice is structured in a certain way, then the development and deployment of advocacy skills in this competitive environment can be directed toward something beneficial. This does not treat advocacy skills as a value-neutral tool; but it is also not as naively optimistic as the convergence hypothesis.

More generally, this suggests that we should reanalyze the ways in which we think about the impacts of theory arguments. If this way of thinking about the benefits of advocacy skills is the right way, then when a debater writes a theory standard that says, “my interpretation promotes advocacy skills because … and advocacy skills are good because …” she might miss something. A different way to write a theory standard about advocacy skills would be to say, “in this activity where people are constantly improving their advocacy skills, my interpretation would allow us to capture the benefits of this competition in a productive way.” The same revision could be made for a variety of theory impacts.

[1] For just two recent examples see:

Harper, J. (2014, October 9). The Morality of Debating: In Defense of Sophistry. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from http://howtodebate.blogspot.com/2014/10/the-morality-of-debating-in-defense-of.html

Thompson, M. (2017, March 22). Words of Wisdom: Plato Beyond the Platitudes. Retrieved November 29, 2017, from http://www.vbriefly.com/2017/03/22/marshall-thompson-words-of-wisdom/

[2] Thompson (2017).

[3] I have often noticed in myself, for instance, a tendency to commit myself to multiple independent warrants for a position even when only one of them is a good argument. I think that this is largely because the strength of the one argument convinces me of the truth of its conclusion, but then I fallaciously assume that the other arguments which justify the same conclusion must also be good arguments.

Benjamin Koh