“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.