In an October 12, 2019 New York Times op-ed, philosophy professor Jonathan Ellis and law student Francesca Hovagimian lodged a one-sided critique of competitive high school and college debate on grounds that it teaches students to make one-sided arguments, which, they assert, helps create our current, unproductive political discourse where the goal is to win at any cost, to successfully persuade and not to seek the truth.
The column invokes an ad hominem approach by linking debate to conservatives Ted Cruz, Steve Bannon, Karl Rove and Richard Nixon and liberals Elizabeth Warren, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, and Bill Clinton, thereby guaranteeing that any reader of any political persuasion will find a former debater to dislike. Ellis and Hovagimian omit other less polarizing debaters, including law dean Erwin Chemerinsky, economist Larry Summers, correspondent David Bloom, First Amendment scholar Floyd Abrams, and even Oprah Winfrey.
The authors’ point is that teams of debaters are given one side of a topic to debate and the job of making the best arguments that they can to support their assigned position. This, they believe “is an exercise not in deliberation but in reasoning with an agenda.” This is fair as far as it goes, but they later admit that in the next round, the debaters will have to defend the other side of the issue. By supporting one side and then the other in turns, debaters learn the intricacies of all arguments for and against the proposition they are assigned and soon know as well as anyone can that usually there are two sides to every argument and that it pays to be open-minded.
Ellis and Hovagimian argue that “debaters don’t deliberate about what they themselves believe, or should believe.” But a season of defending every argument on both sides of an issue leaves debaters knowing exactly what they believe and what they don’t, and knowing that few arguments are bullet-proof. That does not mean that a different form of competition that the authors favor, such as the Ethics Bowl which asks students to reach and defend their own conclusions as to a contentious issue, is not valuable. It is. But so is traditional debate.
The authors’ bottom line message is correct. Disagreeing constructively is a skill and perhaps the most important intellectual virtue is openness to changing your mind. They are, however, wrong in believing that competitive debate does not teach those things. It does. In spades.
The authors provide no evidence that debaters Cruz, Bannon, Clinton, Warren, and the others are more motivated in their reasoning than nondebaters Donald Trump, Lindsey Graham, Sean Hannity, Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, or Rachel Maddow. We doubt there is such evidence, because what causes the one-sided overtly partisan political “conversations” we see these days has nothing to do with debate training and everything to do with the self-serving bias.
Debaters and non-debaters alike are strongly affected, consciously or otherwise, by the self-serving bias. As political stakes rise, so does the impact of the self-serving bias. Because of it, we tend to collect, process, and even remember information in a self-serving way.
Gather. Because of the self-serving bias, Democrats want to investigate Russia and Ukraine while Republicans want to investigate Benghazi and Biden. Democrats poured over the Mueller report with a fine-toothed comb. Republicans mostly didn’t get around to even reading it.
Process. Because of the self-serving bias, it was easily predictable how most Democrats and Republicans would react to the release of the Mueller report. Studies show that Democrats and Republicans (as well as Israelis and Palestinians) tend to support a policy if told that their side proposed it, but to oppose the very same policy if told that the other side proposed it. (Cohen, 2003; Maoz et al., 2002)
Worse yet, according to Hanno Sauer:
In one study, subjects were given statements by politicians (here: an excerpt from a speech by then-President George W. Bush on the presence of weapons of mass destruction in post 9/11 Iraq). In the experimental condition, they subsequently received corrective information from the Duelfer Report, clarifying that this statement was, in fact, incorrect. It is one thing to find that participants identified as conservative were more likely to agree with Bush’s statement. However, conservatives who received corrective information from the report were actually more likely to believe in the existence of WMDs in Iraq before US invasion.
Remember. No one has studied this that we know of, but we know from past experiments that it is likely that if we were to quiz Democrats and Republicans, the former would remember parts of the Mueller report that made Trump look bad and the latter would remember parts that seemed to exonerate him.
When politicians engage in excessively partisan wrangling, it is not because of the debate training that some small number of them may have had. It is because of the self-serving bias. Debaters, more than others, know that there are at least two sides to every argument because they’ve practiced arguing for both sides. They know better than others that they should be open minded, though the self-serving bias may cause them to ignore than knowledge.
Because of their training, debaters also know better than most, that some arguments are better than others, that real facts should be more persuasive than “alternative facts,” and that calling something “fake news” just because you wish it were fake new does not make it fake news.
Those of us who wish to be moral actors must realize that (a) in the political arena, we must fight against the undue impact of the self-serving bias, and (b) the self-serving bias undermines the integrity of our moral judgments just as it does our political judgments. But you can let your kids go out for the debate team, we promise.
Geoffrey L. Cohen, “Party Over Policy: The Dominating Impact of Group Influence on Political Beliefs,” 85 Journal of Personality & Social Psychology 808 (2003).
Jonathan Ellis & Francesca Hovagiminian, “Are School Debate Competitions Bad for Our Political Discourse?” New York Times, Oct. 12, 2019, available at https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/12/opinion/sunday/school-debate-politics.html?searchResultPosition=1.
Ifat Maoz et al., “Reactive Devaluation of an ‘Israeli’ vs. ‘Palestinian’ Peace Proposal,” 46 Journal of Conflict Resolution 515 (2002).
Brendan Nyhan & Jason Reifler, “When Corrections Fail: The Persistence of Political Misperceptions,” 32 Political Behavior 303 (2010).
Hanno Sauer, Moral Thinking, Fast and Slow (2019).
Concepts Unwrapped: Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/self-serving-bias
Ethics Defined: Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/glossary/self-serving-bias
In It to Win: Jack & the Self-Serving Bias: https://ethicsunwrapped.utexas.edu/video/jack-self-serving-bias