Why Debate? The Personal Benefits of Intellectual Engagement

Jessie Mannisto / October 11, 2022

In this age of social media, “debate” too often brings to mind trolls on Twitter. But just because it can be hard to find, we shouldn’t forget that there’s a higher form of debate, and that engaging in it can help us harness and channel our intensities.

Debate, it seems, is not very popular these days. Even in a community like this one that’s dedicated to harnessing and channeling intellectual energies, there’s ambivalence about the concept.

This was the impression I took away from our recent inaugural debate in our Members’ Forum, in which we debated debate itself. Our first resolution was that it is beneficial to society for us to defend Kant’s “motto of the Enlightenment,” Sapere aude, or Dare to discern (i.e., with your own reasoning). On one hand, we’ve had robust participation, which in itself could be taken as a vote in favor of the practice. Yet while no one directly came out and said it’s wrong to reason for yourself, the debate brought up a lot of mixed feelings. (This, of course, was its purpose.)

It’s been an interesting exchange so far. I’ve written this piece with the benefit of all of the arguments our members put forward, and I remain strongly in favor of the resolution. I do think it’s beneficial for society if we dare to discern for ourselves, as the alternative seems to be “propositional tyranny,” in which an authority declares what is true and the rest of us shut up and keep our heads down.

What I’m going to talk about here, however, is not the benefits of such discernment for society. Rather, I’m going to explain why I think this practice as carried out through debate benefits us personally, as intellectually excitable people trying to become our best selves. And by “debate,” I mean discussing an idea’s pros and cons with others in a way that prioritizes frankness and rigor, using whatever formal or informal techniques suit the exchange.

Some Criticisms of Debate: Sophists and Debate-Me Bros

Some participants in our debate about debate did raise important criticisms of the way debates are sometimes conducted.

For instance, those who have used debate to develop skill in rhetoric can sway the untrained masses to take up bad ideas. Back in Socrates’ day, there were people known as Sophists, and they argued for pay without caring whether the ideas they used their rhetorical skill for were actually true.

Moreover, even if we’re not sophists, our egos and emotions can get involved. We can be more concerned with being seen as correct than with what is true. A donor to this magazine who scored in the profoundly gifted range on an IQ test once told me that he could always “win” debates—i.e., get everyone listening to believe he was correct—even when he recognized that he was wrong. Well, it’s certainly a virtue to recognize one’s capacity for sophistry.

Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash

Nowadays, the Internet has brought another form of insincere debater to our attention: namely, the “debate-me bro.” He’s little better than a troll, demanding people engage him in debate that, one suspects, just means pulling out factoids with which to smite the normies. He gives us the impression he’s channel his dysregulated emotions through his intellect because that’s the only outlet he knows how to use.

So our question is, really, should a “debate me bro” be our measuring stick for debate? Is there not something higher, to which his behavior fails to measure up despite the word he uses to describe it?

Higher and Lower Forms of Debate

As I thought about these honest criticisms, a core concept from the theory of positive disintegration (TPD) came to my mind: namely, multilevelness, or the discerning of higher and lower paths in life. The psychologist who developed TPD, Dr. Kazimierz Dabrowski, argued that feelings and behaviors like fear, conflict, aggression, politics, and philosophy come in higher and lower forms. In his book Multilevelness of Emotional and Instinctive Functions, published posthumously in 1996, he describes what such things look like at each level of development according to his theory.

In this book, Dabrowski explains that in unilevel disintegration (level II), “[t]here is ambitendency of action, either changing from one direction to another, or being unable to decide which course to take and letting the decision fall to chance, or a whim of like or dislike. Thinking has a circular character of argument for argument’s sake.” (18)

Argument for argument’s sake. That’s part of what I think people are wary of, and I don’t disagree. It’s a waste of time and people’s patience. Even if you’re arguing simply to hone the skill of arguing, that would only be valuable if you’re going to use that skill for something beneficial. But in a world that is (as I believe it to be) generally going through a unilevel disintegration, it makes sense that people would hear “debate” and think of this lower-level form of it.

Another source of the ambivalence to debate, at least in our community, has to do with its combative aspect. We tend to be gentle souls and care about people’s feelings. Properly understood, subjective experiences can give us important information, and working to find agreement and get along is surely admirable. But we don’t want to default to knee-jerk conflict avoidance. Debate, done well, can be a chance to practice this when the stakes are not as high; it’s just a sparring match, though in this context, it’s far from “argument for argument’s sake.”

Still, the question is then how to do it well.

I’ve found Dabrowski’s frame of the higher and lower to be a really useful way to puzzle my way through this problem. In TPD, level III, “spontaneous multilevel disintegration,” is the level at which he says a person perceives the multilevelness of reality—and this affects the way she engages in disagreements. What was aggressive at lower levels evolves at level III into “achieving an attitude of persuasion, gradual loss of impulse to have to win an argument and to impose one’s views on others, gradual understanding and appreciation of the value of concession or defeat.” (Dabrowski 1996, p. 136)

After all, isn’t it possible to engage in debate without approaching it determined to win? Or as I said to myself early in trying to sort out these values: “Yes, I do always want to be right. That’s why, when I realize I’m wrong, I change my view.”

Yes, I do always want to be right. That’s why, when I realize I’m wrong, I change my view.

And hey, at least in our forum, you can do that. You can change your stance mid-stream, having learned something in conversation. Or you can also argue for a side you don’t agree with, putting forward the best arguments in its favor as an exercise in understanding those holding it. In those situations, “winning” isn’t beating your opponents down and gloating over your supreme skills; rather, it’s truly understanding the points your opponent is trying to make in their best possible light. While there are contexts in which winning means acting with the understanding that you can’t please everyone, there’s also a sense in which really winning means your opponent has come to agree with you—or that you have come to agree with her.

Other Thinkers’ Views on Debate

As an advisor of Third Factor once mused to me, when something appears over and over in religions and moral systems around the world, that’s a good sign that it’s something of quality (though you may still dare to question it and determine that for yourself).

So I find it really encouraging that Dabrowski’s language here, about higher and lower versions of debate, seem to be converging on something we’ve explored here before—namely, Socrates’ notion of parrhesia and the Buddhist concept of right speech, which I wrote about a few years back. Socrates argued that to pursue truth, you needed three qualities: eunoia (good will), episteme (knowledge), and parrhesia (fearless speech). And according to the Buddha, Right Speech is that which is true and beneficial, spoken when the circumstances are right, whether it is welcome or not. (Perhaps by “beneficial,” the Buddha means “not just argument for argument’s sake.”)

And so, once again, it seems I’m just encouraging people whom I trust to have good will and knowledge to engage in fearless speech.

Well, yes, that is what I’m trying to do. Here I am, trying to write a thoughtful article to explain why this matters to me, and I find it really does just come down to this! I’m trying to cultivate spaces where the circumstances are more likely to be right—and to make it welcome, because while it need not be welcome to be the right thing to do, it sure doesn’t hurt. (Our other articles in this issue will, I trust, make it clear why I feel the need to stand up for this.)

So, though I acknowledge that debate can be done with ill intent (i.e., lack eunoia) or to self-serving, even nefarious purpose (i.e., not be beneficial), that’s the lower level. And we here at Third Factor are aiming for the higher. We don’t claim to be there, but we know which way we want to go!

Photo by Jerry Zhang on Unsplash

When we actively participate in a debate, we are effectively asking people to do us a great favor: that is, to help us see what we might be missing about an issue of importance. And people so rarely want to do that.

Personal Reasons to Debate

My argument, in case it’s not clear, is not that everyone must engage in debate to be a good person or a smart person, nor that the time is always right for it. There will be times when it’s better to sit one out. You can become a member of the forum and never once participate in it; we offer plenty of other excellent conversations!

When we actively participate in a debate, we are effectively asking people to do us a great favor: that is, to help us see what we might be missing about an issue of importance. And people so rarely want to do that.

Still, I think some of the people who think debate is not for them may not have thought about what they could gain from putting their ideas out there in a spirit of good will, for others to appreciate and to test. So I’ll conclude this piece with what we might gain personally from participating in debate, despite it being increasingly frowned upon by our culture, despite most people not even really liking it, and despite some people engaging in bad faith.

Stop People-Pleasing

Here at Third Factor, we have many members who are high in trait agreeableness. We have many others who may be more naturally disagreeable, but got shamed for this and now suppress their intellectual drive to a fault.

Either way, this can lead to people-pleasing.

I have struggled with this myself. Speaking honestly in the context of a debate, especially with those I trust to engage in good faith, is a way that I’ve practiced stating what I think directly. In fact, that’s one reason I use the word “debate” rather than softer terms like “discussion.” I don’t want to shy away from the fact that sometimes, we see things that others can’t or refuse to see. As Socrates and the Buddha both reminded us, we do have a responsibility to speak up in these cases. People-pleasers often fail to live up to this responsibility.

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Start Making Decisions

Our community also has many members who are so inclined toward intellectual engagement that they are prone to paralysis by analysis or overthinking. We know how much we don’t know, and that makes us hesitant to make a call. We also tend to see both sides.

Those are good things, on balance, but they come with a trade-off. Life, after all, demands that we make choices. President Harry Truman famously demanded that someone find a one-handed economist to advise him, because “[a]ll my economists say, ‘on the one hand…on the other’.” We have something in common with Truman’s economists: sometimes people like us treat making a decision as though it would involve severing one of them. If the solution were obvious, we wouldn’t be debating it, but you’ll face many situations in life when you must make a choice based on imperfect information.

If the solution were obvious, we wouldn’t be debating it, but you’ll face many situations in life when you must make a choice based on imperfect information.

Practicing Courage, Humility, and Forthrightness

Both people-pleasing and paralysis by analysis, in the end, seem to me to boil down to fear of the consequences of making the wrong call.

It comes down to fear. And fear can, of course, be adaptive. We should have some fear of getting things wrong. That’s where humility comes in. Defending or criticizing an argument requires us to be courageous and forthright, facing the risk that we are wrong—as well as the risk that people will be unhappy with us, which is often the bigger fear. We balance that with the intellectual humility that keeps us checking ourselves and listening to the information others are giving us. Debate is a chance to practice that balance.

Defending or criticizing an argument requires us to be courageous and forthright, facing the risk that we are wrong—as well as the risk that people will be unhappy with us, which is often the bigger fear.

This is especially important for abstract intense, intellectually excitable people, as we’re often talented at convincing ourselves that what we want to be true is in fact true, even when we haven’t convinced anyone else. Others who are willing and able to engage with us can do us a great service by helping us see what we are neglecting—though of course, we don’t know in any given exchange who will be the giver and receiver of this gift. It could go both ways in one exchange.

Let me tell you, it’s people who have been willing to tell me I’m wrong about something to whom I owe the most gratitude for my successes. It would be pretty stupid of me to scare those people away.

Observing and Controlling Our Emotions

And what tends to scare them the most are our powerful, negative emotional responses.

Underlying all the above reasons debate can benefit us personally, there’s the fact that debates are likely to activate our emotions at some point. This goes doubly for sensitive, emotionally excitable types. (It might go less for the debate bros and other trolls who just like activating people like you. You also have my blessing to not engage with them.)

There will be things we will not want to debate because of this, though those may be the things we’d benefit most from discussing frankly (when the circumstances are right). There will also be those cases where we really do want to win to appease our own egos. The way to overcome these emotions is to practice. If you’ve opted into a formal conversation about an idea, it’s a chance to observe yourself with honesty.

Photo by Mimi Thian on Unsplash

Personally, I have found debate with partners who are up for it to be an excellent tool of critical self-appraisal. I do like to think of myself as someone who is good at reasoning, but there have been plenty of times when I’ve found myself arguing from emotion instead of using my reasoning skills. Upon reflection, I’ve realized my debate partner was, in fact, correct. And perhaps more importantly: that I was not. This typically made me feel a little grumpy in the moment. That’s my cue to step back and figure out what I’m looking for that I’ll now have to get a different way—some affirmation of my feelings is usually the thing—since debate is obviously not the way to get that. (Could it be that most intellectually and emotionally excitable people still have a little residue of the debate me bro in us?)

There have also been times when, even though I believe I’m reasoning correctly, the work of trying to persuade others forces me to see things from their perspective—that is, to understand their emotions. This is the higher form of debate that Dabrowski was talking about. This does not mean descending back to people-pleasing habits, of course. Having understood someone’s feelings, you do have options other than deferring to them (and I’m not talking about manipulating them).

Sorting Out Our Values

But we do need to acknowledge this: we will not always persuade others, nor will we always be persuaded.

In the end, though all the above reasons will, I think, be important to many Third Factor members, the reason I consider debate to be fundamental to our project here is that it forces you to sort out your values. Dabrowski spoke of the process of hierarchization of values as one of the so-called dynamisms through which the process of positive disintegration unfolds. Sometimes we’ll have two genuine values that suggest different courses of action. In that case, it pays to know which one we should prioritize.

If you’re engaged in debate about something relevant to an action that you might take, then what is true matters a great deal, but your values play a role, too. People may agree on what is true, but not whether it is good or bad. I don’t like the term “my truth”—there is only the truth, which we may see more or less accurately—but people using that phrase are getting at a truth about the person’s chosen values.

What is true matters a great deal, but your values play a role, too. People may agree on what is true, but not whether it is good or bad.

Here’s one last thought about values and debate: it’s easy to tell ourselves we are living up to our values. Others are much better at catching our hypocrisies. Sometimes debating a question comes at values obliquely; other times, they end up being the heart of things.

Aim for the Higher Level

All of that is why I consider member debates a core part of our program here at Third Factor.

I know that if you wanted to engage in lower forms of debate, you could just go on Twitter or Reddit or any number of forums where people vent their dysregulated emotions, bad-mouth and misrepresent each other, assume the worst of motives, and fail to really try to understand what their interlocutors are saying.

But that’s not what debate has to be.

According to Dabrowski, when a person reaches level IV of the positive disintegration process, she replaces her aggressive tendencies with something higher. No longer engaging in any deceit, no longer driven by selfish and egocentric attitudes, she instead harnesses her combative energies toward

a struggle for an ideal, a principle, or a cause, carried out with honest methods. The dominant characteristic of this struggle is persuasion and respect for the opponent. There is not only a tendency to understand his motives but even an attempt to present them in a better light and on a better level than they actually are. This was Abraham Lincoln’s approach. Aggressive opponents are approached empathically through attempts to influence them toward sublimation of their methods of fighting. (136-7)

This is admittedly a high bar. Most of us won’t get there without practice. And though I don’t know what Dabrowski would say (and will dare to discern for myself at any rate), I guess it’s safe to say that not every debate-me bro on the Internet merits the Lincolnian treatment.

But then, I know someone who has made a practice of talking to trolls on Twitter in an honest but empathetic way, and she clearly sees value in doing so. So hey, maybe I’m just letting myself off easy here. Debate-me bros are, after all, also human. And along with the fearless speech I love to tout, we need all the knowledge and good will we can get.

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