The Virtue of Steelmanning

One of my new best friends on Facebook, Chana Messinger has written a very good post about the reasons to “steelman” others’ arguments. I had never heard this word before but I love it. It means to figure out even better arguments for your opponents’ positions while arguing with them and to beat those arguments rather than only their actual arguments or their weakest arguments (weak-manning) or caricatures of their arguments (straw-manning). And I am especially pleased to read her mention this reason to give our opponents the benefit of a best formulation of their position:

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.

I couldn’t agree more. Read More.

For posts where I argue that it is more important that rationalists focus on embodying rationalist virtues than winning arguments at any costs, see posts like I’m a Rationalist, Not a Tribalist, No Hate, and Stop Calling People Stupid. For a post where I explain my own take on the virtues of “steelmanning” see this post where I wrote specifically about how to apply the tactic in debates with religious believers:

I want to add to this a call to specifically figure out the best possible cases for their views and target them. Even where believers themselves are so ignorant or incoherent that they cannot present their religions’ positions with any rigor or plausibility, we should be willing and able to engage the best possible arguments. So, sometimes this means we might have to provide them ourselves. This is because even though the believer may not know how to formulate a better articulation of his beliefs than our gestalt-shifting offering of what they entail, he will usually be unwilling to take a caricature as a decisive refutation of his positions.

But if we reach out and work with him and help him think through the best possible defenses of his position, we get his hopes up that maybe he can salvage his views and we impress him with how thoroughly we are able to think through his own position even though we do not accept it. When we can help him build a seemingly impressive defense for his own views and then take that apart, we demonstrate in a powerful way that we are not just attacking his views out of ignorance or shallow understanding. We show instead that we understand his position better than he does and still can systematically dismantle it because it is so weak. This is very psychologically powerful and has the benefit of being fair, gracious, and a model of ideal rationality. We should do this simply as an expression of our commitment to rationalism and our love of truth, even were it not so useful for persuasion.

If all we ever do is cast their views in ways that do not really capture the essence of what they really mean, believers can reflexively dismiss us as unserious or uncomprehending. When we show that we can engage the most sophisticated versions of their views and show that we can explore a dozen of the most seemingly promising avenues to cogently develop their own positions for them or with them, and yet still refute them point by point, we limit their ability to feel like they have rational options left we have not touched.

Again, as I have stressed before, when I say we should address the most sophisticated versions of believers’ positions, I do not mean that we should ignore fundamentalists’ views as beneath refutation for their lack of sophistication. We just should address the most sophisticated possibilities for interpreting and defending fundamentalists too as part of addressing their views systematically. With fundamentalists and non-fundamentalists alike our focus should be on gestalt shifts, positive alternative accounts of philosophy which answer their theologies, refutations according to reason and evidence, and considerations and refutations of their best hopes of defending their own positions against our refutations.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • trucreep

    “…I argue that it is more important that rationalists focus on embodying rationalist virtues than winning arguments at any costs…”

    That’s a great way to put it, and unfortunately a lot of bloggers and their commenters could use taking this to heart.

  • http://www.darwinharmless.com darwinharmless

    Dan, my problem with this idea is that I can’t think of any arguments for believing in God that have any credibility at all. So for your average run of the mill Christian, what defence of religion to you take as their strongest position?

    • RobMcCune

      Certainly you’ve heard variations of the same arguments that are better than others but still false. The idea is to respond to not just the believers argument, but also explain why their argument would be false even if they used a better version, more sophisticated responses to your counter argument, etc.

    • Jordan B

      Besides the point that God and religion are different, I would say by far it is that God is such a thing which is beyond being. That is, asking if God exists is much the same thing as asking the color of wisdom. This ultimately isn’t far off from the ontological argument of Anselm. But everything that exists in a bucket – does the bucket exist? Of course not – because then it would be inside the bucket!
      Unforunately, you may find it a bit of a non-starter, as it leaves off the question of whether God is exists – becuase it defines God in such a way that God is not the sort of the thing which would exist or not exist.
      However, it might start some other conversations. Which is never a bad thing.

    • Jordan B

      “for your average run of the mill Christian,what defence of religion do you take as their strongest position?”
      Don’t know which is the strongest, but here’s a list that comes to mind right off the bat:
      -Celebration of the wonder and mystery of the universe.
      -Joy of participating with other people in song and thankgiving.
      -Honoring the sanctity of life.
      -Something to give thanks to.
      -Accountability. Keeps you from getting too comfortable.
      -Being loved when you can’t love yourself.
      -Identification and paticipation in the Absolute (this might be less ‘run of the mill,’ but I find it especially among the mystics)

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/camelswithhammers/ Daniel Fincke

      Don’t know which is the strongest, but here’s a list that comes to mind right off the bat:
      -Celebration of the wonder and mystery of the universe.
      -Joy of participating with other people in song and thankgiving.
      -Honoring the sanctity of life.
      -Something to give thanks to.
      -Accountability. Keeps you from getting too comfortable.
      -Being loved when you can’t love yourself.
      -Identification and paticipation in the Absolute (this might be less ‘run of the mill,’ but I find it especially among the mystics)

      Ha, none of that is particularly strong. Can do way better than those irrelevancies.

    • Jordan B

      Dan – Thank you for your thoughtful reply. It is always nice to meet bloggers that welcome conversation. I’m wondering if you could explain what you mean by ‘irrelevancies.’ You are obviously someone of great intellectual ability, and the last thing I would want to do would be to waste your time with irrelevant comments.

  • smrnda

    I actually have done this, but I heard that doing this was called “building pyramids” in Austria (no source I can find verifies that, I obtained that term word of mouth.) Something that I learned doing this was that a lot of making a point sound strong is choosing language that better expresses the strengths rather than the weaknesses of a point. The language and terms used are often ways of sneaking assumptions into a discussion without openly admitting it.

  • Jordan B

    It is, as you say, a virtue – because it is really difficult to do. It is so much more satisfying to be right. We love to have our own beliefs confirmed – you are suggesting that we should actually have enough faith in the truth that we willingly subject our beliefs to the toughest opponents.
    I have found that atheists and theists often collude in painting a rather paltry picture of God. They both borrow from the language of classic theism – a perfection of a being who is unlimited in power, knowledge, etc. The alternatively would be to seriously engage in quest to understand what would possibly be meant by an Absolute – that is, not a great big being, but being itself. I’ve found that the problem with a lot of theists (and athiests) I’ve known is that they sell God short, imagining him as really just another dude – just with superpowers. And that’s a straw man if I’ve ever seen one.


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