Questioning debate

The recent podcast episode ‘Debatable‘ from WNYC’s Radiolab got me thinking about formal debating and its relationship to the sort of collaborative enquiry we foster at The Philosophy Club. The podcast featured a story about a national contest among US college students who were taking part in policy debate, a particular style of competitive debating in which opposing teams clash over domestic or foreign policy propositions. Listening to the story, it struck me that philosophical enquiry and debating share many of the same objectives, and yet their respective means to these shared ends could not be more different.


Calvin (cartoon)

Adapted, with apologies, from a cartoon by Bill Watterson


Aside from obvious differences in subject matter, philosophical enquiry and policy debate have much in common. Both purport to develop critical and creative thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills – skills that empower students to participate actively as citizens of an open society. “Debate enables students to present their views effectively and respond to the arguments of those who disagree with them … debate teaches students to command attention with words [and] provides students with [a non-violent] outlet for day-to-day conflict,” writes Beth Breger, taking words in support of philosophical enquiry right out of my mouth.

FDA Final 2014 video still #1Still image from a video of the French Debating Association’s final debate, 2014

Similarly, Alfred Snider – in his piece Debate as a method for improving critical thinking and creativity – describes debate as critical advocacy in which “the debater must advocate, propose, and defend ideas…and use the tools of critical thinking to evaluate the ideas of others,” again reflecting my ideal of a competent philosophical enquirer. Snider goes on to enumerate the ways in which debating cultivates qualities of good citizenship: learning and thinking about issues, expressing ideas effectively, listening with understanding, acknowledging the arguments of those who disagree, responding to conflicting ideas, and coming to independent judgements. My colleagues in the Philosophy for Children sphere will recognise each of these activities as foundational to students’ philosophical practice, and I’m sure that at one time or another we’ve all made similar claims about developing students’ civic virtue.

So much for the commonalities. Spend a minute contrasting policy debate with philosophical enquiry, and the differences should be self-evident.

While the stylistic differences are obvious, another important difference is invisible. Across the world, policy debate has attracted colossal funding – including multiple millions of dollars from magnate and philanthropist George Soros, while philosophy education – and collaborative philosophical enquiry in particular – languishes in a chronically underfunded state. This is more than disappointing: it’s egregious, especially because collaborative philosophical enquiry delivers more fully on the shared promise to promote active citizenship.

Six reasons why George Soros backed the wrong horse

Since 2007, Soros’ grantmaking body OSI (Open Society Institute) has seed-funded policy debate in more than 20 American cities, in order to “empower disadvantaged young people to actively participate as citizens of an open society.”

Here are six reasons to believe that, as an educational approach to meeting this goal, policy debate is less effective than philosophical enquiry.

1) Debaters don’t talk to each other. (Philosophical enquirers do.)

In her advice concerning “things adjudicators really hate”, World Universities Debating Champion Cathy Rossouw warns young debaters not to talk to members of the other team. “It’s no use directing your rebuttal at your opposition,” she writes, “because it is their job not to be convinced. You should always be talking to the audience and be trying to convince them.” In many cases, the audience is narrowly taken to be the debate adjudicator. “We’re not debating for stenographers, the general public, or anyone except the person…with the ballot [i.e. the adjudicator’s evaluation form],” one debater explains.

Democracy is all about public deliberation, and its most basic prerequisite is that citizens actually talk to one another. If instead of having a conversation we deliver a performance, as debaters are called on to do, we won’t meaningfully engage with each other about our common problems, and we won’t be able to make collective, or even consultative, decisions. Happily, philosophical enquiry does promote meaningful engagement, beginning with individuals addressing each other directly as they go about their joint deliberations.

2) Debates must have an affirmative and a negative. (Philosophical enquiries are more nuanced.)

Your belief system is shot - Mueller

Adapted, with apologies, from a cartoon by P.S. Mueller.

One of the few fixed rules of debating is that one team must take the affirmative stance and the other the negative. This dichotomous framing of every debate topic tends to oversimplify issues which, due to their high complexity, deserve far more nuanced handling.1 Since most issues worthy of discussion are multi-faceted, a two-sided debate neglects important alternative perspectives – including more moderate positions that bridge the apparent chasm between the affirmative and the negative, or that hold them in balance by qualifying each appropriately.

If we want to foster good citizenship, then rather than pitting two opposing and perhaps extreme views against each other (as formal debate requires), we would do better to engage students in more subtle consideration of the many perspectives that may be adopted, and the relative merits of each. This is precisely what philosophical enquiry encourages with respect to controversial issues.

3) Debate condones sophistry. (Philosophical enquiry demands honesty.)


The structure of formal debate is such that participants, being assigned to affirmative or negative teams, are periodically expected to defend positions they personally believe to be unwarranted – or to undermine positions they personally believe to be sound. In their book Public Speaking and Civic Engagement, Michael Hogan and his colleagues classify such behaviour as civically irresponsible: “Responsible speakers…may compromise on some issues, but they do not abandon their core beliefs to win their audience’s approval.” In a similar vein, they argue that “in a democracy…you have an ethical obligation to speak honestly…and to remain open to changing your own mind. Good citizens…carefully weigh all the arguments before forming their own opinions.”

In formal debate, the requirement to defend an assigned stance makes honesty impossible – or rather, possible only by accident when the assigned position happens to coincide with the debater’s own considered beliefs. What’s more, the structure of formal debate precludes the possibility of speakers expressing deliberate hesitation, much less a genuine change of mind. Prizing persuasive power over sincerity makes a pulpit of the lectern and a sophist of the debater. In philosophical enquiry, by contrast, participants are expected to express their views frankly, to be honest about their uncertainties, and to change their minds (and admit it!) when they find reason to do so.

4) Debates must have a winner and a loser. (Philosophy seeks truth, not victory.)

Barrotti - Victory or Truth

The goal of winning is embedded in the very notion of a debate. According to one Debate League founding director, Les Lynn, the obsessive focus on competitive success is the key failing of intercollegiate debate programs. The more that winning matters – the more gladiatorial the combat – the more likely it is that attitudes of belligerence and scorn will prevail.

Entering a debate with a focus on winning suggests that participants’ minds are already made up. Instead of listening with genuine openness to contrary views, debaters are encouraged to go out guns blazing, their tightly-coiled rebuttals ready to spring at the hint of opposition. But truth and graciousness often suffer in the pursuit of victory.

In philosophical enquiry, there’s no sense in which a participant can ‘win’. Participants aim instead for things like uncovering truths, acquiring a deeper understanding of complex issues, making more reasonable judgements and developing more coherent belief systems. Not being limited by an offence-defence dynamic, philosophical enquirers see conceding a point as equally legitimate – and equally important – as making a point. What’s more, philosophical enquiry promotes genuine questioning and negotiation in a spirit of respectful collaboration. These activities make the practice of philosophical enquiry not merely friendlier than debating, but better at encompassing a broader range of views.

We know that democracy can’t be reduced to trench warfare, and that civic engagement isn’t about point-scoring or tearing down opponents. As a non-adversarial approach to argumentation, philosophical enquiry enables participants to work together to advance a common good, and fosters “responsible citizen-speakers… [who] examine their own motives, and…do not slant the truth just to ‘win’ an argument.” For all these reasons, philosophical enquiry surpasses formal debate as a platform for the democratic exchange of ideas.

5) Debating is a sales pitch. (Philosophical enquiry is a quest.)

XKCD citation neededCartoon by xkcd

“[By] debating… you can learn to be a better persuader,” says Year 5 student Kaitlin, “and it can help you when you’re older, especially if you want to be a lawyer [or] sales person or want to work in politics.” This is true enough, and I think it’s also fair to say that debating is a propagandistic game. In my corner of the world (Victoria, Australia), our regional debating association goes so far as to state that “Adjudicators aren’t necessarily seeking the ‘correct’ [soundest] argument, but are looking for the team who did the best job of ‘selling’ their given point of view to the audience.”

Since debating resembles a ‘hard sell’, participants have to wrestle with questions of how far they’re willing to go to close the deal. For example, will they resort to spin? What about demagoguery? Are appeals to fear beyond the pale? (Not according to Clint Ehrlich’s critique of policy debate: it is dominated by apocalyptic scenarios, justified by absurd claims that improbable chains of events will culminate in world destruction. Ehrlich offers, by way of example, the argument “that reforming prisons will undermine Obama’s political capital and thereby trigger global thermonuclear war”.) In any case, debate certainly permits the appeal to emotions; after all, pathos is one of the classic modes of rhetorical persuasion.

If we look at debate as a sales activity in the metaphorical marketplace of ideas, the debater could be characterised as a hustling vendor spruiking readymade conclusions, while the philosophical enquirer is a thrifty shopper, sizing up all the ideas on offer before deciding whether to buy any. In fact, I see the activity of philosophy as an exploratory quest regulated by a balance of two attitudes: open-mindedness (which initially broadens the search for evidence and arguments) and scepticism (which strategically narrows the available options of what to believe). In the end, there’s a purer focus on finding well-supported logical arguments in philosophical enquiry than there is in debate, and I think this makes philosophical enquiry the better educational approach for developing good citizens.

6) Debates are exclusive. Philosophy is inclusive.

This point relates specifically to policy debate, which – unlike other styles of debating – is characterised by a very high degree of cultural exclusivity and insularity. In policy debate, judging criteria are heavily skewed towards amassed evidence. This means that debates can be won by speakers simply cramming more arguments into their speech than their opponents can possibly rebut in the allotted time. According to the ‘burden of rejoinder’ norm, arguments not rebutted are taken to have been conceded. So the more arguments a speaker presents, the more likely their opponent will ‘miss’ a rebuttal and lose ground. This situation gives rise to policy debaters’ hyperfast “auctioneering style” of speech, which has a rapid-fire intensity and breathlessness that sounds quite bizarre to the uninitiated. A former policy debater recalls:

Everything about debate was speed. speed. speed. I would do nearly anything to get faster… Speed was Everything. The more the better. I…tried to keep up the pace for as long as I could.


Comprehensibility to a general audience is the first thing to be sacrificed at the altar of speed. Clarity gives way to obscurity, and any non-debaters who happen to be listening are thoroughly bamboozled. One critic complains that policy debate is “just a battle [over] who can speak the quickest, logic and rhetoric be damned.”

Communication relies first and foremost on intelligibility, but “the communication taking place in policy debate is entirely in-group,” Debate League director Les Lynn says. Former debater Mark Oppenheimer agrees: it “can be evaluated only by insiders… It is an entirely hermetic world.”

These factors contribute to policy debate being an arcane pursuit, unconcerned with serving the interests of the public at large. By contrast, philosophical enquiry strives for inclusivity. The broader the base of people who can understand a discussion, the more likely it is that a diversity of views will be heard. This point alone should demonstrate that of the two activities, philosophical enquiry is the more useful for democratic deliberation.2

In conclusion…

For the six reasons I’ve outlined here, funding philosophical enquiry rather than policy debate would have been a better investment decision on the part of a philanthropist wishing to promote civic participation.

As one Reddit commentator pointedly quips: “George Soros should ask for a refund.”

Sometimes even the most astute investors back the wrong horse.


1 Have I characterised debate unfairly? Just as I was concluding this post, I came across Neill Harvey-Smith’s Practical Guide to Debating Worlds Style which paints a more sophisticated picture of debating than the one I’ve presented here. Harvey-Smith writes:

Successful debaters require deep understanding of a range of positions, command of nuance, and an intuitive sense of connections between ideas. They are rewarded for taking opposing arguments at their strongest, not their weakest… Anticipating and engaging with a multiplicity of views are required. Speakers who reduce issues to two simple sides or just parrot lists of pros and cons will not excel.

This may be encouraging, but only if the ideals translate into practice. One former high-level policy debater, James Marshall Crotty, reflects on his personal development through years of debating and finds it wanting: “some of the egregious behaviors I sought to prune from my hyper-competitive debate persona, includ[ed]… contentious obstinance, a perverse delight in artful subterfuge, and a boorish win-at-all-costs mindset.”

2 Even if we were to contrast philosophical enquiry only with debating styles (such as Worlds Style) in which debaters speak at ordinary speeds, my arguments in points (1) to (5) ought to leave little doubt that philosophical enquiry far surpasses debating as a mode of enhancing civic understanding and developing constructive solutions to controversial problems.

The Philosophy Club runs co-curricular and extra-curricular workshops for children, professional development for teachers, and training for facilitators in the art of collaborative philosophical enquiry.


3 responses to “Questioning debate

  1. I think your question at the conclusion of your post subtly but powerful demonstrates the value of philosophical inquiry over debate. Debating, as I see it, requires that no one listen to learn, only to refute, to make their own position stronger. Philosophical discussion requires listening to learn and understand. There should definitely be more of it in schools and in community arenas.

    • Thanks, Norah. Your comment reminds me of Francis Bacon’s exhortation: “Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted… but to weigh and consider.” I think this applies just as well to discussing as to reading. Rather than immediately spitting or swallowing, we need to chew things over.

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