I don’t like debates. I understand the value of arguing back and forth, and can see how someone listening to a debate might benefit from hearing two reasonable opponents who disagree with each other. But for participants, a debate model fosters intellectual dishonesty. A debater is encouraged to argue in favor of her side regardless of whether her side is correct, or whether she believes her side is correct. This puts the ability to persuade as the main goal in a debate.
Persuasion shouldn’t be the main goal of reasoning. Figuring out the truth is the main goal. Arguments are valuable because they are useful tools for figuring out what is true and what is false.
This can get lost in a debate. Effective debaters can come up with seemingly convincing arguments toward any position at all–even crazy positions. This, in fact, seems to be a popular understanding of what it means to be smart: you are smart if you have the ability to convincingly argue for any opinion, regardless of whether you believe it.
But such indifference toward the truth is backwards. The value of being smart is not simply being able to convince others. Being smart is good because it makes one more likely to be correct. The value of intelligence is grounded in accuracy.
In “Reasonable Religious Disagreements,” Richard Feldman makes this point nicely:
“In my view, to think critically and effectively about hard issues requires reconstructing in clear and precise terms the important arguments on the issue with the aim of discovering whether those arguments succeed in establishing or lending rational support to their conclusions. So conceived, arguments are tools for helping us figure out what it is most reasonable to believe. They are decidedly not tools with which we can clobber our ‘opponents.’
“In fact, the idea that people with different views are opponents gets us off on the wrong foot. It is better to see others, as far as possible, as engaged in a collective search for the truth, with arguments being precise ways of spelling out reasons supporting a particular conclusion.”
I prefer using the model of consensus decision-making. In a consensus session, all participants have the same goal: to reach agreement. This involves carefully listening to dissent and revising or defending one’s stance based on legitimate disagreement. This is a good model for reasoning. We’re all using the same tools, and working together to accomplish the same goal. The consensus decision-making process is intellectually honest.