The gift my weirdo debate friends gave me

Tonight is the summer alumni debate of my philosophical debating group, and I’ve had an awkward time every time someone has asked me what we’re planning to debate. You see, our topic for the night is “R: Heighten the Contradictions,” which tends to throw people for a loop if they were expecting “R: Elect Obama” “R: Repeal the Death Penalty” or something like that.

By the end of rationality camp, one of the things that stuck with me was how grateful I am to have been part of this debating circle, and the bizarre resolutions are a big part of it. Different parties in the Yale Political Union have different debate formats. Some have two hour debates on much more conventional topic. Not everyone speaks, question time is limited, and you’re certainly not going to give more than one speech in a night.

My party starts debates at 7:45 and ends them around one or two in the morning (I should say that’s allegedly when they end; I haven’t made it to the end of all alumni debates). It’s hard to find a conventional topic that will sustain that much discussion without getting boring. Plus, when the topic is narrowly defined, the alliances are much clearer, and it’s easier to end up treating arguments like soldiers. After all, you want to win the vote at the end.

My party’s debates tend to look more like variations on a theme. At one particularly successful debate (R: The Guillotine is the greatest Thing since Sliced Bread), there were arguments on vigilantism, forgiveness, vengeance, and justice. (Oh yeah, and also on the death penalty). To keep the discussion from getting unmoored, movements in the debate usually end up centered on vivid thought examples. That night, we kept returning to a person who had run the killer/rapist of their spouse to ground, subdued him or her, and now had a gun to his or her head with the option to shoot.

Speech after speech returned to that image. Would you pull the trigger? What could I change about the hypothetical to get you to change your mind? Are there people who shouldn’t do what you prescribed or were you making a universal recommendation? Maybe you did right, but would we be right to praise you, or is the price of stepping outside of the law submitting to it?

We treated ethics and meta-ethics like engineers. Reach in and hold this part of the machine still and what happens to all the other moving pieces? Can you rebuild this without that part? What are you using to check your outputs anyway?

There’s a bit of a danger of slipping into high energy theoretical ethics here, where you spend all your time on extremely rare edge cases, but, since we all went to school with each other, we were usually pretty good on pulling the philosophy back to the concrete with an “Oh, yeah? Well if that’s how you approach these questions, how come the other day in our suite you…” Plus we had a strong community norm that you should be comfortable moving either way on the ladder of abstraction.

I ended up thinking about this at rationality camp, because the instructors hightlighted the importance of using thought examples as a way to: make a plan (mostly) failure proof, check how specific your expectations of future events are, decide if you want to substitute one option for another, evaluate why someone is behaving the way they are, etc. And when we were doing this, I felt myself slipping back into debate mode. (I had a similar experience in college when the theatre department had a speech coach come in for a workshop. After she adjusted my posture, corrected my breath, and had me connect to my diaphragm, I heard my “YPU-voice” coming out of my mouth).  Thinking in my debate group habits is how I came up with the Monday-Tuesday game.

In competitive debate, your primary goal is probably to rule a thought example irrelevant, but in our group, it was one of our best tools for spelunking around in our own philosophies and sometimes being surprised by what we turned out to believe. And the diversity of the group guaranteed I had to acclimate myself to a lot of different perspectives and ways of spotting weak points. I’m extremely grateful for the intensive weekly training in treating our philosophies and beliefs as puzzles to be picked apart, not standards to die for. In fact, it’s the second greatest gift my debate group gave me. (I’ll tell you the best one tomorrow).