On Steelmanning Arguments and Personally Customizing Them

When you straw man someone’s argument you present an easy-to-refute misrepresentation of their reasoning rather than countering what they actually think or the actual reasons that they have for thinking it. Rob Talisse coined the term “weak man” to refer to a related but distinguishable tactic of focusing on someone’s weakest arguments for their position while avoiding their strongest ones. Unlike in the case of a straw man, this involves addressing arguments actually advanced by one’s opponent, but like strawmanning weakmanning fails to overcome our opponent’s strongest case and so fails to show our own position to be actually the best.

By contrast with such intellectually vicious practices, philosophers have long been interested in what’s known as “the principle of charity“. According to the principle of charity, if you see ways to fix apparent weaknesses in your opponents’ arguments or to interpret ambiguities in ways that make them more, rather than less, likely to be true you should always give your opponents this help when reconstructing their arguments. In this way you will indeed be engaging with the worthiest version of their argument.

Those who aim to steelman their opponents arguments attempt to go even further than the principle of charity. They aim to not only address the strongest versions of the arguments that their opponents actually make but to figure out whether even stronger arguments could be made for their positions and attempt to address those as well. Inspired by a post by Chana Messinger on the topic, four years ago I called steelmanning a “virtue” and revisited a few arguments I had made previously for steelmanning religious people’s arguments in disagreements with them.

Ozymandias has a new article up this week criticizing uses of steelmanning that they see. First they criticize cases where people will actually be guilty of first strawmanning their opponents before trying to steelman them. This leads to the cringeworthy and insulting case of addressing people’s strongest arguments as though you actually made them for them, when they had actually already made them themselves but you were too dismissive and condescending to even recognize that and give them credit for it. That’s, indeed, a pretty bad thing to do.

On two separate occasions when I had to give responses to other people’s papers at conferences while still a graduate student, I finished my first reading the paper at hand and fired off a quick first draft criticizing it. Both times I then went back to reread the original paper to see if I missed anything. Both times I discovered that the papers had actually anticipated my objections and made several moves to get beyond them. Only then did I understand the papers well enough to formulate thoughtful criticisms of what they actually said. What I realized had happened was that as I initially read the papers, I was more focused on my own preconceived ideas of what was at stake with the topics at hand than really paying attention to what they were saying about them. And the result was that after the first read I came away only with my biases reinforced.

I have found this too when giving talks or watching others give them. You will spend a half an hour or an hour laying out a position and accounting for all sorts of standard objections and saying something creative that attempts to move past them all and advance the discussion to a more nuanced place. Then when the Q&A portion starts a good number of questions don’t address the novel solution that you offered but instead ask the kinds of questions that the talk itself already addressed. It was as though the talk just put the topic into most of the audience members’ heads and indicated roughly your side of the issue. From there much of the audience members started thinking of what they thought about the topic and decided that you must mean to be saying a number of familiar things that are wrong in the familiar ways, and didn’t really grasp or engage much at all with what you were saying. So then the Q&A starts, the audience gets to tell you you’re wrong and you finally get to explain what the initial talk had already said in a way that they will hopefully now see actually addressed their concerns. Then the conversation can move forward.

So, my takeaway from these experiences has been that after getting my knee jerk response to someone that I disagree with out of my system, I always have to carefully reread what they said and drastically nuance or altogether rewrite any initial response drafts. If it’s a conversation it means inevitably, expressing my knee jerk response to them so that they can restate their position with my concerns aired and in mind. And only then can we make progress. If people write articles only after that first blush of disagreement and without first trying to charitably reconstruct their argument and instead skip to “steelmanning” then they will wind up doing the bad work Ozymandias is describing. So, a takeaway from that is, first employ the principle of charity before even trying to steelman. That is, first represent your opponent’s actual presentation in its strongest form, crediting them with as much insight as you can, before presuming to try to improve their arguments for them.

Ozymandias next criticizes attempts at steelmanning where the would-be steelmanner seems to miss the fact that there is a “fundamental worldview difference” between themselves and their opponents. So the steelmanner winds up not actually creating an “improved” argument for the opponent but one with that has premises the opponent would not have accepted. Ozymandias sees this as the most obnoxious case of steelmanning because the self-appointed steelmanner does not even understand their opponent before presuming to improve their position, fails even to grasp that other people see things differently from themselves, and instead “transform[s] everyone into stupider versions of [themselves] that don’t notice the implications of their own beliefs”.

Ozymandias then acknowledges that the real steelmanning would not make these mistakes but notes that while this is “certainly a nice ideal which people might want to approach”, “it’s a bit arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it. Even when you think you are, you usually aren’t.” Finally Ozymandias presents the following three fine pieces of advice as alternatives to steelmanning:

First, seek to understand the actual viewpoints people you disagree with are actually advocating.

Second, seek out intelligent and well-informed advocates of viewpoints you disagree with. You don’t have to make up what your opponents believe! As it happens, you have many smart opponents!

Third, whenever possible, try to switch conversations from a debate focus to a collaborative truth-seeking focus.

I found Ozymandias’s article insightful, but I have a few disagreements.

First, even if you have differing fundamental positions on issues that account for your disagreement, it’s still worthwhile to come up with the strongest versions of their argument that would fit within your own worldview. It’s a valuable exercise to figure out whether their argument can be made stronger on the terms you actually find persuasive. In fact that’s probably your best hope of being persuaded to some of their fundamental premises. You likely can only get there via routes that start with appeals to the premises that you currently accept. This is not only important for making the argument plausible for yourself, but it also helps the opponent’s argument potentially reach others who share your own views. When you make an argument from another worldview on terms that people with your worldview can find plausible, you do your opponent a favor that they might not have easily been able to do themselves—not because they aren’t intelligent, but because of the inherent difficulties involved in really thinking and arguing in an in-depth way within a perspective that one fundamentally disagrees with.

Someone might object here that this wouldn’t be steelmanning in the sense of improving upon the way your opponent made their argument. The opponent may have made perfectly fine arguments for people who share the right premises with them. This activity is really just a matter of providing alternative arguments for people with different perspectives and in this case is supplemental, rather than remedial.

And that gets to the core, I think, of Ozymandias’s fundamental problem with the practice of “steelmanning”. We all too often are all too easily inclined to think the worst of those who disagree with us. Setting ourselves up as “steelmanners” implicitly involves looking down on the actual arguments of our opponents, congratulating ourselves for not dismissing them outright, and seeing ourselves as not only refuting people’s arguments but doing the legwork to make up for their presumed inadequacies. Not only can we beat them with our own arguments, we can even beat them at formulating their own! Aren’t we just awesome?

Insofar as Ozymandias’s target is that kind of arrogant attitude, they’re being extremely helpful.

There is at least one place, though, where trying to steelman can be less than arrogant. While Ozymandias is right that ideally you should go find the very best defenders of your opponents’ views when considering them in general, we often find ourselves in actual arguments with particular interlocutors who are not elite advocates for their positions. Sometimes they may in fact be less knowledgable about, or skillful at developing, the best arguments for their own position than we are. In such cases, to raise on their behalf arguments that they are overlooking is the honest thing to do.

It’s also beneficial to one’s real life interlocutors to show them what kinds of arguments for their positions you find most promising. Again, this might not be steelmanning in the abstract sense of giving them arguments that are better in principle than the ones they are using. They could even be using the best and judiciously standardized arguments for their position.

But offering them the supplemental strategies for having the best chance of persuading you may effectively amount to steelmanning their arguments insofar as it gives them the clues about how they can customize their case going forward in order to more successfully get through to you in particular. Because once you’ve shown them what you find to be the most plausible version of their argument and how you think you can refute it, they now know what you see as the most plausible route to convincing you. They can focus on overturning the arguments you raised to refute their argument. By addressing what you see as the strongest case for their position and the objection you think is able to beat that strongest case, they now can get to the crux of the issue for you. Now you’ve found common ground and you’ve moved the argument to where you think it ends. You now have the best odds of being surprised and unsettled and having an illuminating debate from that point.

This may be a helpful routine exercise we should cultivate in our arguments. We should let our opponents know what arguments for their position we find the most plausible and that can serve as the fast track to finding common ground and making ourselves more likely to be challenged in ways that have some hope of changing our minds.

Finally, I have several times found that waiting for my opponents to articulate their positions in terms that resonate with what I think and answer all my concerns is complacent. I have sometimes had to be the one to change my own mind by asking what it would take for me to find a particular contrary position plausible. Again, this is not because there are not many able defenders of the position out there or because I am smarter than them. They just really do have fundamentally different perspectives than mine. They often have very different animating concerns and fundamental assumptions than I do and frame things in ways that I find fundamentally false. Accordingly, they wind up systematically failing to address my concerns and they elicit many of my frustrations and most cherished objections before I can even begin to think about how I might agree with them.

I do sit up straight and take notice and engage eagerly when I actually read an opponent nuanced enough to convince me that they really do understand and appreciate my position well enough to actually speak to me. But I cannot always count on just stumbling across those particularly deft thinkers who are also simpatico enough with me to get through to me. If I’m going to get versions of positions I disagree with that are most likely to persuade me, I’m often going to have to strengthen them in ways that make them work for me. I am going to have to reframe things in a way that does not immediately shut me down. I am going to have to, at least for the time being, throw out whatever I find distractingly uncompelling or think is unsalvageably false or wicked. And I am going to have to seek out connections between the alternative positions and the things I already think are true and important that my typical opponents, who are not exactly writing their arguments based on an intimate knowledge of my philosophy or my psychology, just don’t know to focus enough on.

But it is probably prejudicial and arrogant to assume that in every case in which I am doing that that I am actually steelmanning others’ arguments as opposed to, say, personally customizing them to myself.

So, I think I agree with Ozymandias more than I expected to when I set out to write this. Rather than tempt ourselves to presumptuousness by conceiving of ourselves as steelmanners’ of others’ inadequate arguments, we should think of our efforts to reimagine others’ arguments’ maximally persuasively as about personally customizing the arguments to our own minds so that they have the best odds of persuading ourselves before we attempt to refute them to ourselves. And if we formulate some versions of the argument aimed at strengthening it for other people whose perspectives we have in mind, we can think of that as customizing arguments for them. 

And if we are going to go about trying to steelman positions by imaginatively adopting others’ perspectives and thinking within them, rather than our own, we need to first charitably interpret their own arguments as being as strong as plausible before presuming to improve them. And we need to be really honest with ourselves about just how hard it is to genuinely think within an entire perspective that we don’t really believe before assuming we have dispatched with every good line of argument that might be generated within it. And we have to remind ourselves that even when adopting others’ perspectives to understand and strengthen them, what we will find strongest within them will to a significant extent be what we find consonant with our own real perspective. And some of what we take to be weak in their perspective and in need of improving very well might be much stronger than we realize if only we could internalize more of their perspective and see the scope of explanatory power that adopting it gives. Arguments that seem weak on first blush might be much stronger than you realize if only you could work more deeply with the structures that they assume and are a part of.

And all those caveats mean that even if we want to be steelmanners, Ozymandias is correct that we cannot presume to be sure that’s what we’re doing in many cases and we’d best err on the side of humility in thinking about what we’re doing instead.

Your Thoughts?

To see a post where I took a position other people held which I found baffling and made sense of it for myself in real time as I wrote a blog post and then published it right away, check out my post called “True Religion?

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