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Intellectual Honesty

September 13th, 2010 · 59 Comments

Yglesias wonders why “intellectual honesty” is any different from plain-old honesty. Noah Millman gets at the difference as I’d understood it:

“Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make.

Advocates, by contrast, make the best arguments they can think of for the position that they are obliged to take by their position. They are still supposed to be honest – they are not supposed to actually lie. But they are not expected to follow their own consciences with respect to the arguments they make or the positions they advance.

This sounds right. Back when I debated for NYU, I was always honest: I would not knowingly assert factual falsehoods. But I was often intellectually dishonest, because my job in those particular contests was not to engage in an impartial search for Platonic truth; it was to win the damn round. I would happily make arguments I thought were weak if I thought the judges would find them convincing and the weaknesses would be too subtle for the opposition to properly exploit. I would gloss over counterarguments I knew to be potentially devastating if I thought the other side had flubbed the presentation, leaving the audience unaware just how damaging the argument was, and spend more time than was necessary heaping mockery on the weaker arguments, hoping it would make my opponents seem silly and undermine their broader credibility. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer my own doubts about my arguments, or acknowledge responses I thought had hit home—unless strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter.

So “intellectual honesty” is, in a sense, a higher standard than mere honesty.  And while dishonesty in argument is pretty much always a bad thing—you can imagine extreme “murderer at the door” counterexamples, of course—it’s not clear that “intellectual honesty” is necessary in every context. Sometimes—as in a debate round or an adversarial legal proceeding—you want everyone to make the strongest case they can for whatever position they’re assigned to defend, regardless of their own view, to get a clear contrast—or “good clash,” as we used to call it. Sometimes the point is working consensus rather than a search for some ideal.  If I make the case for school vouchers to a religious audience and point out how it would allow them greater freedom to have their kids educated in their own traditions, this might be “intellectually dishonest” in some sense: I think the religious indoctrination of children is a bad thing! And I’d be pretty queasy if the result of a voucher system were a dramatic increase in the number of schools treating “intelligent design” as a serious scientific theory.  I would be giving reasons why they should want to support a policy that I favor for mostly distinct reasons, not sincerely advancing what I think to be the best arguments—and that’s OK sometimes! It’s also a matter of degree rather than kind: I know many people who are at least as smart as I am disagree strongly with lots of my views, so I’m acutely aware that I could be wrong, and that it’s highly probable I’m mistaken about many things.  But instead of constantly hedging and qualifying—though I do plenty of that—I plunge ahead and trust that everything will work out in the Great Wiki.

All that said, what we often want from writers, above and beyond the minimal requirement that they not deliberately mislead or misinform us, is the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position. And since so much of politics is ultimately about winning the round, that kind of honesty is a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy.

Update Andrew Sullivan adds:

Sanchez wants writers to give “the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position.” But in my view, that often is the most vigorous defense. If you can include the obvious counter-points, acknowledge their strengths and still argue forcefully against them, you are much more persuasive.

Absolutely—at least much of the time—which is one of the things I had in mind when I alluded to making concessions “strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter.” We used to say that if you want to be a really good debater, you have to be able to “opp yourself better than your opp.” There are few things more rhetorically effective than being able to restate your opponent’s best arguments more clearly and forcefully than they themselves did—and if you really want to show off, point out how the argument could be developed or improved—before proceeding to blow it out of the water.  If you really wanted to pull the rug from under them, you’d play the Bunny Rabbit gambit and briefly preview the best arguments before your opponents got up, leaving them sounding lamely like they had nothing original to say.

But there are caveats. You’d do this when you knew you could actually answer the argument, or when you were confident enough that the net weight of the arguments was so disproportionately on your side that you could afford a minor concession to seem gracious and reasonable. But it was pretty risky if the round was substantively a close call. It wouldn’t work to be too dismissive, to simply try to ignore a counterargument that clearly raised serious problems—obvious hackery is definitely unpersuasive. But the appearance of confidence and authority really are pretty powerful, and when the balance of arguments is even enough or the issues complex enough, the tiebreaker for judge or audience is often simply who seems most certain. I mean, there is a reason that when it comes to appealing to a broad audience, the standard bearers for political movements tend to deal in sound-bites delivered with an air of uncompromising, apodictic certainty. If intellectual dishonesty were really less persuasive—to the average voter, anyway—it would be a mystery why we see so much of it.  I’d assume it’s less persuasive when the audience recognizes it as such, but most of the audience, having lives and jobs and whatnot, aren’t paying that close attention.

Update 2 One last thing worth adding is that while normally “dishonesty” implies something intentional—the difference between a lie and an error is whether you know what you’re saying is false—I don’t think intellectual dishonesty is necessarily like this, at least as the term seems to be commonly used. You can, I think, be uncharitable to opponents, give their arguments the worst possible interpretation, utterly fail to examine your own biases or assumptions, and dismiss inconvenient facts as presumptively somehow tainted—all while consciously imagining you’re a warrior for unvarnished truth. In that sense, “intellectual honesty” seems a little more like “journalistic responsibility,” say, than plain vanilla honesty: It’s an active and reflective process, as opposed to a mere absence of conscious deception.

Tags: General Philosophy · Journalism & the Media



59 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Tom Sydnor // Sep 19, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Julian, so correct me if I’m wrong, but I think this adequately summarizes where we are.

    For the second or third time, you have assured your readers that were a deadly debate-club alumnus like yourself to debate, substantively, what meanings readers possessing “intellectual honesty” could derive from the two paragraphs of Code that I have already generously quoted for you, your readers could be assured that you would just, like, totally clean my clock and utterly repudiate my interpretation—a claim that I have repeatedly urged you to prove, without result.

    But, alas, you claim that you must deny yourself the pleasure of proving that no reasonable person could think that these two paragraphs actually mean what they actually seem to say because you—famed expositor of the meaning of “intellectual honesty”—are just so self-important that you cannot be bothered to debate whether your attack on someone else’s intellectual honesty actually conforms to your own notions of “intellectual honesty” unless you can still deem your victim to be sufficiently “relevant” to make the effort of dismembering their arguments worth your while.

    In other words, you are trying to claim that if you fully and sincerely engaged your brain, it would just trounce mine, but you won’t, because you can’t be bothered to fully and sincerely engage your brain, though you can be bothered to spout vacuous nonsense like this:

    “What we often want from writers, above and beyond the minimal requirement that they not deliberately mislead or misinform us, is the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position. And since so much of politics is ultimately about winning the round, that kind of honesty is a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy.”

    Am I missing something? Or do we both understand why your substantive defenses of your attack on the “intellectual honesty” of my interpretation of the two quoted paragraphs have so far been not only “a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy” but also entirely lacking?

    And just so we are clear, I don’t really think that you, Julian, are any less possessed of “intellectual honesty” than any of the billions of other humans on this planet who would, just like you, fail far short of your juvenile standard for “intellectual honesty.” Our old debate makes this quite clear. That is why I have resurrected it. And that is why you keep running away from it while concocting increasingly ugly and implausible excuses for doing so.

    Quadruple cheers. –Tom

  • 2 Tom Sydnor // Sep 23, 2010 at 10:54 pm


    To conclude, do let me know if you think that you might someday develop the “intellectual honesty” required to reply (in a non-conclusory fashion) to my arguments.

    If not, this becomes another fine example of just how hypocritical the “Deep Thought” of iPundits like you can become.

    You began by lecturing the unwashed about the meaning of “intellectual honesty.” How odd that you just can’t abide by the standards by which you judge others. And, I know, Julian, you would just kick my butt, were not you just too important to be bothered by something so irrelevant as “intellectual honesty.”

    But have you noticed, Julian, that for some strange reason, I seem to have no fear whatsoever of a head-on confrontation with your vast intellect–even after you have so often and so generously claimed that you are really sparing me the misery of confronting it?

    What would your dear old debate coach think about all of this?

    Quintuple cheers –Tom

  • 3 Julian Sanchez // Sep 24, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Get a hobby, Tom.

  • 4 JasonL // Sep 29, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    Minor additional thought – normal dishonesty is the act of misrepresenting something with a known truth value. In the way that “intellectually dishonest” gets used, the accuser is often making a value judgement concerning excluded arguments. A common version of this, libertarian A makes a series of arguments about how a capitalist system has helped the poor. A dissenter argues that the libertarian is being intellectually dishonest because he fails to note rising material inequality. To the libertarian, the accusation makes no sense because material inequality is a complete non issue. To the accuser, it’s the most important measure of social benefit. That’s just to say that in discussions of intellectual honesty you have to view not only truth values but value hierarchies.

  • 5 Tom Sydnor // Sep 30, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Well, Julian no doubt your latest fallacy of distraction must have been really withering back on the playground….

    But I already have hobbies, Julian. They include hiking, canoeing, and raising children. No doubt you do too. And may I remind you, I was long willing to let this bygone be bygone until your thuggish pals demanded its resolution. So be it.

    Consequently, hobbies aside, I find it funny that your alleged commitment to “intellectual honesty” just cannot compel you to read the following two paragraphs from Code and articulate a non-conclusory answer to the question following them:

    “There are those, especially on the left, who are radically skeptical about a property regime to protect privacy. Property is said to commodify, to marketize, to monetize relations that are valuable on a very different scale. The last thing we need, these skeptics argue, is to have another sphere of our lives ruled by the market.”

    “My impulse is to sympathize with this argument. But I am not convinced that anything is ultimately gained by this insistence on theory. We are not debating whether to move into a world where data are collected, used, and sold. We already live in that world. Given that we are here, how can we insure that at least some control is granted to those whom these data are about? I advocate a property regime not because of the sanctity of property as an ideal, but because of its utility in serving a different but quite important ideal.”

    So why, Julian, did you conclude that a reasonable and intellectually honest person cannot read those two paragraphs and conclude that their author actually meant what he actually said: His “impulse is to sympathize” with leftists who despise private property rights (even in non-market contexts) because their effect is inevitably “to commodify, to marketize, to monetize relations that are valuable on a very different scale. The last thing we need, these skeptics argue, is to have another sphere of our lives ruled by the market.”

    I thus merely observe that if an intellectually honest, reasonable person could so interpret the two quoted paragraphs, then you owe me an apology. And I thus find it quite telling that while you seem to have plenty of time to hurl conclusions or insults, you must simultaneously decree yourself to be just far too self-important to read two paragraphs and provide an non-conclusory answer to a simple question directly relevant to matters of “intellectual honesty.”

    You may consider this debate over–unless you belatedly discover the “intellectual honesty” required to stop hurling conclusions and insults and belatedly end a debate on its merits.

    TTFN –Tom

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