Success, Socratic Style

Convert people and never lose an argument

Libertarians often get caught up in internet debates which test both their knowledge and their rhetoric. An unfortunate truth is that the task of proving liberty is volumetrically larger than that of defend the state – you have to show in-depth knowledge on why all the different government interventions have to be stripped away, while the opponent can wave a magic wand and claim that government will solve a problem. The libertarian, then, has to be well-versed in economics, history, and philosophy, while the opposition can say that we just need to “elect the right people into power.” I’d like to let you in on a public secret: The Socratic Method.

What does a philosopher dead for over 2400 years have to do with anything today? If you want to win debates – everything! Here are two explanations of the Socratic Method:

“Socrates engaged in questioning of his students in an unending search for truth. He sought to get to the foundations of his students’ and colleagues’ views by asking continual questions until a contradiction was exposed, thus proving the fallacy of the initial assumption. This became known as the Socratic Method, and may be Socrates’ most enduring contribution to philosophy.” (Emphasis mine) [1]

No serious article can be published without quoting Wikipedia at least once:

“The Socratic method [...] is a form of inquiry and debate between individuals with opposing viewpoints based on asking and answering questions to stimulate critical thinking and to illuminate ideas. It is a dialectical method, often involving an oppositional discussion in which the defense of one point of view is pitted against the defense of another; one participant may lead another to contradict himself in some way, thus strengthening the inquirer’s own point.

The Socratic Method is a negative method of hypothesis elimination, in that better hypotheses are found by steadily identifying and eliminating those that lead to contradictions. The Socratic method searches for general, commonly held truths that shape opinion, and scrutinizes them to determine their consistency with other beliefs.” (Emphasis mine) [2]

So there you have it, folks – the Socratic Method involves asking and answering questions to probe the opponent’s ideology for contradictions. Since as libertarians we have found our ideology to be fairly sound, we can hope that by exposing contradictions in the beliefs of the opposite party, we either force them into accepting something that appears morally repulsive or they must admit that their beliefs are wrong, which opens them up to the possibility of considering libertarianism.

How I rediscovered it

My experience with policy debate: “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is”

While academics had known of this wonderful tool for millennia, I rediscovered it for myself in high school policy debate. We had to argue for different policy proposals given the resolution for the current year. For example, if the resolution was “The United States federal government should substantially increase alternative energy incentives in the United States,” each team would randomly be assigned to be either Affirmative (supporting the resolution) or Negative (negating the resolution). Each team has relative freedom to argue within their designated side and can offer many arguments. Unfortunately, a certain debate culture had arisen where teams would not actually debate the resolution but would go on wild tangents related to nuclear holocausts, black feminism, and anthropocentrism, and the judges would allow them to do this. One of the most annoying things I had to go up against was teams flat-out arguing that we should turn the US into a communist nation.

Initially, I tried to meet their arguments head-on. I presented evidence that communism doesn’t work and I retold my own parents’ stories from the Soviet Eastern Block to serve as cautionary tales about what could happen if the wrong people took power (the best that could happen, as shown by Mises in his socialist calculation argument, is still pretty unpleasant). These arguments were easily met by the opposition by merely quoting other supposed experts who supported their communist dream. The debates devolved into a match where the person who could dig up the most people to agree with him would win.

I did notice one thing, however. When the other team didn’t have access to specific evidence, they were relatively worthless. For that reason, I decided to turn to another strategy. “Alright,” I said, “they have people on their side who support communism. But that’s as far as they go. What do these kids actually know about how communism would work?” It turns out that they knew relatively little beyond “society would own the means of production.”

How would it work? I don’t know, but let’s build some statues

My new tactic, then, became to explore their understanding of communism. I began by asking them general questions such as “who would own the factors of production in your society?” You would not believe how many supposed communists did not even know the answer to this question (what’s even worse is that some people don’t even know what branch of the federal government houses Congress). Even if they responded in some manner, I decided to continue to probe their understanding – “And how would they decide how to allocate resources?” They might very well say something along the lines of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.” Continue, then, with “how do you measure the needs of people?” “Well, everyone needs food, water, and shelter.” “That sounds good. And how do you ration the goods after you have met the basic needs? After all, food and shelter is not all we produce.” At this point, I cannot really expect the specific answer they will give you, but you will have to make do. The key is to keep asking until you show that they have no idea what they’re talking about. This cannot, however, be confrontational! You have to appear to be genuinely curious – like you’re trying to understand their system. Occasionally, you can sneak in an observation with “I have read some arguments that… what if… I recently met someone who asked…” [3] In this manner, you are not exposing your own ideology to almost any critique. You have nothing to defend! The task of proving the system lies entirely up to the opponent. Eventually, once you spot a contradiction, you can begin carefully laying out your own argument.

This has two main effects – the first is that you find out the exact source of the contradiction in your opponent’s viewpoint. The second is that you appear to be very positive and open to the ideas of your opponent. When you don’t immediately pull out your guns against the opponents, they find that you are trying to construct and build on their understanding rather than trying to belittle and disprove them. You’d be surprised at how most people are stuck in the statist, mainstream-party system. When I’ve proposed the idea of government not being involved in marriage at all, many people have replied with “I’ve never really thought of it that way.” Most people do not spend considerable time looking at alternatives. While I do not wish to remove all blame from them (I mean, we became libertarian somehow, didn’t we?), their mindset is a product of centuries of societal distortion by government.

Application

Again, asking a lot of questions is very important. It’s fascinating how many arguments can be defused in this manner. Take, for example, a person who claims that the repeal of Glass-Steagall caused the Great Recession. First off, have the upper hand by being well-informed and being convinced of your stance. Begin by reading Tom Woods’s great book Meltdown. Then, know that “Steagall” is actually mispronounced by most people. Wikipedia says the following:

“Asked how to say his name, he told The Literary Digest it was stee-gall (like the words tea and gall), with equal stress on each syllable. He added, “This pronunciation is generally used throughout the South, and rarely used in the North. Our friends up there persist in stressing the first syllable and rhyming the name with ‘eagle’.”” [4]

Next, moving onto the actual argument. Someone comes out arguing that banking deregulation caused the crisis. Begin by asking what specific banking regulation. They will likely say G-S. Next, put them on the defensive by asking when it was repealed and under whose administration. I bet that a lot of people will say that Bush repealed it. The truth is that it was repealed under Clinton. This by itself means nothing (I am most certainly not out to defend Bush), but by coming ahead with this key fact, you already have a greater measure of legitimacy. Now WAIT! You do not have to sling this fact at them immediately – again, you do not want to be confrontational! Keep it in store and mention it at the appropriate time.

Greed did us in! How? Well… I…

Next, ask them what the G-S act actually did and how its repeal (actually, partial repeal) led to the crisis. Here is where the opponents might begin to have some difficulty. The most likely reply is something along the lines of increasing risk in the banking sector. Ask how the risk was increased. They might say that banks now had more money to gamble with (due to mergers of investment and commercial banks). Point out, then, that this would imply that any increase in the amount of money banks have raises risk. Ask them whether any increase in their money supplies should be banned. In fact, you could decide to take it one step further and decide to say “if mitigating risk is our task, shouldn’t we consider banning banks from ever taking up any risk?” They will likely retreat from this position. Then, ask them exactly how much risk banks should be willing to take on.

Again, I have no idea what they will reply here. However, at this point you might decide to bring in some free-market principles. For example, say that it is not in the interest of banks to take up more risk than will pay off. Furthermore, point out that the government had a strong hand in forcing the banks to lend to debtors who had a higher risk (I will not provide sources here; the point of the article is to teach about the Socratic Method). Once more, do not do this in a confrontational manner. You could begin with “I’ve read that…” This both distances you from the viewpoint (which allows you to retain your personal credibility) and makes it seem like a suggestion rather than an accusation. You could also here lay out the fundamentals of the Austrian Business Cycle Theory. Because most people don’t really think about the Fed all day (and hence do not connect it with their ever-so-benevolent government), they would not immediately be on the defensive when you criticize the Fed. Another point to bring up is that the current banks are artificially large beyond their free-market size (again, get your own citations! Mises.org is a fantastic source). Make sure to not defend the banks as they are, but rather to defend the free market in general (the free market is not the system that we currently have!). Be cautious, however, about opponents who then say “yes, so we have to use the federal government to cut down the banks!” Make sure to point out that the federal government cannot know the proper size of banks, and that it should instead remove the laws that were at fault for creating the banks that were this large. The market will sort out the proper size in the long run.

With the Socratic Method, a statist is his own worst enemy

This type of argumentation can be applied to an incredible number of topics. Another possible example is gun control. If someone claims that implementing a national ban on guns will decrease crime, use the Socratic Method! “That’s an interesting opinion. What do you think about Switzerland, where men are given guns by their government?” To this, they might say something along the lines of the people there being trained to use them. Ask, then, whether the solution might be to have gun owners be trained rather than banning guns altogether. You will not always be able to have your debate partner jump from statism to libertarianism. The specific question in relation to gun control that I just presented is intended to soften the opponent’s stance. Perhaps you will have him convert after a few conversations. Maybe he will call back in a few years and tell you that he has changed his view completely. The point is to create a chink in his armor and have him doubt his stance. If all else fails, then you will have someone who might be a little less radical on the issue.

There are other lines of questioning that you could pursue. You could say “That’s an interesting idea, and certainly one worth considering. One thing that I worry about is the following: At the moment, you have two groups of gun owners: the good guys and the bad guys. If guns are banned, all the good guys will give up their guns and all the bad guys will still have guns. It seems to me that this would make the situation worse. How would you deal with this?” Even if you are injecting a solid argument of your own, turn your argument into a question. Notice that with that question at the end I am placing the burden of proof on the opponent. How will he deal with the problem?

Maybe your argument is about monopolies instead. Someone walks into your room claiming that we need government regulation because the free market leads to monopolies. Begin by asking him “what makes you think that?” In fact, “what makes you think that?” is a fantastic question to begin almost any debate with. After some time, you will find yourself sounding like the stereotype of a psychiatrist – “and what makes you feel that way?”

It’s true: Monopoly exists in capitalism. Oh, you meant monopoly…

The person will either reply with some vague answer or will try to give an example of a historical monopoly. Both of these can be countered, as there have not been any evil historical monopolies created by the free market. Follow up by mentioning that government is what creates barriers to entry which create monopolies, and that whenever the government has intervened in an antitrust case it has led to an increase in consumer prices. Once again, be careful not to be too confrontational. At one point, you can decide to loosen your Socratic Method a little bit and switch into one of your more normal debate modes, but remember that the Socratic Method is always safe and you likely can’t go wrong using it.

One of the amazing benefits of this method is that you can go into a debate unprepared. If you tried doing this using your normal “offensive, let-me-tell-you-how-it-is” approaches, you will get embarrassed if you are unprepared. However, if you’re just asking questions and it turns out that the opponent has some replies that you are not expecting and cannot combat, you can always bow out of the debate without ever conceding any points. Retreat without seeming like you lost at all, lick your wounds, read up on the matter, change your viewpoint if you must (or, as is usually the case for libertarianism, simply read some more), and then go back some time later and approach the matter Socratically once again. You see, by employing this method, you get your opponent to lay out his entire hand for you. You can research it at your own leisure and come back whenever you are ready. Of course, simply because being unprepared won’t destroy your case in a debate, I do not suggest that you completely neglect actually learning the material before entering the debate. Rather, I mean for the method to supplement your rhetorical abilities – not to substitute existence of an argument.

Words of Caution

There is one problem with the Socratic Method, and this is likely a problem inherent in almost all debate methods – it doesn’t work as well against large groups. When there are many people debating one opponent, it is easy for each one of them to pull in separate directions. You lose focus and you lose the ability to really find that root inconsistency which is the cause of the problem in their ideology [5]. I do not suggest entering a debate where very many people can argue against you in real time.

Relation to Justifications for Libertarianism

The Socratic Method both leads to and can be derived from other approaches like deconstructionism. Deconstructionism is one of my favorite methods for bringing a person into libertarianism. It involves taking different statist beliefs they hold and pitting one against another in order to show an inconsistency. To give a rough example, take theft and taxation. Most people are against theft, yet when the person performing the forceful taking of property (under the threat of being put in a cage) is a government official, theft is perfectly fine. The Socratic Method can be used to deconstruct these opposing beliefs. Jan Helfeld does so in this wonderful video:

Don’t be fooled – they’re deconstruction workers

Another way of thinking of this is to say that in order to deconstruct the taxation/theft divide, a person may use the Socratic Method. Either way, the point is that this method is great for deconstructing the statist inconsistencies of the mainstream. The strength of the deconstructive method lies in that that you do not have to prove libertarianism from the ground up (which is a magnificent task that, depending on your theory of choice, is still up in the air). Rather, you can whittle away at the state. [6]

Second Words of Caution

Simply because the Socratic Method is a powerful tool for libertarianism, it doesn’t mean that it can’t be employed by statists against libertarianism. In fact, some of them are likely reading this article right now! Therefore, your task as a libertarian is to be well-informed and to know your material. Libertarians have a natural advantage when it comes to this, because libertarianism is in no way the default position of Americans that they accept without thinking. Most libertarians come to their beliefs by questioning and searching out truth. This doesn’t, however, mean that you should be overconfident in your knowledge. I implore you to constantly build on your knowledge of libertarianism and be one step ahead of everyone else. There are plenty of arguments against which libertarians have to inoculate themselves. Just a few weeks ago I successfully played the role of a Social Democrat in a debate against a strong supporter of libertarianism. He surrendered after I used some standard mainstream arguments.

Do not wait – inoculate!

The good news is that you can use the Socratic Method on yourself preemptively! Find inconsistencies in your thought and try to iron them out. Seek out topics in which you are not well-versed and try to fill in the gaps in your knowledge. When you find some topic in which you have relatively little interest, at least try to find some general argument or principle which you can apply rather than trying to become an expert in the field. By using the Socratic Method I was able to reinforce my own belief in libertarianism. One of the hurdles I had to overcome was my teaching in Gilded Age history, which seemed to contradict free market theory. After some research, it turned out that the impression we receive in school is in fact the incorrect one and that the libertarian narrative adequately explains the Gilded Age. Seek out the knowledge. Iron out your inconsistencies. Be Socrates-proof. [7]

-Wheylous

——————

[1] You know it’s legit because it comes from the University of Chicago

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratic_method

[3] Another word to purge from your vocabulary, both in you personal and political lives, is the word “but.” This word is a big flashing signal that you’re about to disagree with someone. Replace it with “and.” Experience the difference between these two sentences: “Honey, I love you, but I’d like to discuss something with you.” vs. “Honey, I love you, and I’d like to discuss something with you.” The word “and” is constructive – it agrees with the previous statement and build on it. “But” contradicts it, negates it, and tells your conversational partner that you’re likely to have an argument.

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henry_B._Steagall

[5] This is one of the reasons why I do not like doing mock debates against many people. Whenever I do a mock debate against a libertarian on a forum, I make one of the conditions be that s/he cannot receive help during the debate. First of all, it gives the opponent who is being helped a false sense of superiority just because his friends can support his argument. Second of all, the debate loses focus and deteriorates into tangent after tangent.

[6] The Socratic Method is also related to the reduction ad absurdum – an argument where you take the opponent’s thinking to its logical conclusion and expose its flaws. Using the Socratic Method, you can force an opponent into making his own reductio.

[7] If you’re interested in how to improve your rhetoric overall, I exuberantly recommend How to Win Friends & Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. If this book were worth $100 it would still be one of the best investments you’ve ever made. I cannot stress how important communication is in almost every aspect of life. If you take the advice in this book to heart, you will revolutionize your personal, political, and business relations. I swear no one paid me to say this. I’m just that enthused about it.

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12 thoughts on “Success, Socratic Style

  1. MikeH 12/22/2012 at 08:35 Reply

    I agree with the overall gist of your method. Contradictions are irrational. But, I did not see any information in your article about specific nuances to the method which can really help out in a debate.

    The one I would offer to you, and the notion that I work on most over at my website, is that the key terms of one’s argument must ALWAYS be defined unambiguously in order to be rational. This method actually solves a lot of the problems you mentioned. Such as…

    “When there are many people debating one opponent, it is easy for each one of them to pull in separate directions. You lose focus and you lose the ability to really find that root inconsistency which is the cause of the problem in their ideology [5]. I do not suggest entering a debate where very many people can argue against you in real time.”

    If you’ve got a whole dining table full of people hollering about the State, proposing the challenge, “Then define what you mean by the State. Is it an object or a concept? And also, define what you mean by Authority!”

    Such definitions will stump anybody because they haven’t actually thought about what it is they are talking about. This cannot be “turned back on you” because the onus is on the proponent of the theory involving “authority” or “State” or to define the terms so that we can understand what they are saying.

  2. wheylous 12/22/2012 at 08:42 Reply

    I’m not sure that contradictions are irrational – I’d rather say they’re not logical or logically consistent. It may be very rational to hold two contradicting view at the same time if this serves your purpose.

    But moving on to the main point in your post, I do agree that definitions are important and must be clearly set out. One of the major points I wanted to get across in the article (which I hope was specific enough) is that if you ask questions a few layers deep to get into your opponent’s ideology, you will easily see it shake. If you have done your research correctly, you will be able to present a sound alternative framework. To state that again, ask questions until you destabilize their argument. This is likely not to be too difficult.

    Your point about definitions is well taken, of course.

  3. MikeH 12/22/2012 at 08:57 Reply

    “It may be very rational to hold two contradicting view at the same time if this serves your purpose.”

    Rationality does not simply boil down to self-interest. Rationality, as I define it (please see my site for more info) is any statement that can be resolved to a SINGLE unequivocal meaning. Contradictions are obviously the opposite of that.

    “One of the major points I wanted to get across in the article (which I hope was specific enough) is that if you ask questions a few layers deep to get into your opponent’s ideology, you will easily see it shake.”

    This really was the best part of your article IMO. Shooting them a question that is on topic but deeper than they expect is a great way to get past their subconscious automated defense system. It gets them consciously focused on the actual topic at hand. All in all, though, great article. I hope we can keep in touch.

    • wheylous 12/22/2012 at 12:59 Reply

      The Austrian economic definition of rationality is as follows:

      “The Austrian School’s definition of rationality is different: rationality, it says, is purposive behavior, whether or not the means chosen to attain the purpose are appropriate or not. So, “purposive” and “rational” are essentially synonyms.”

      From http://mises.org/daily/2669

      Of course, when it comes down to definitions, there is no “correct” one – we’re just coming at it from different sides.

      And yes, it would be nice to keep in touch! I have an article out once per week at this wonderful blog (check out the other people on here too! Some of my co-bloggers amaze me with the quality of content they put out!), and I will take a look at your own website :)

      • henrymoore 05/13/2013 at 23:30 Reply

        It looks like Mike was using “rational” the way, say, Joseph Schumpeter or Milton Friedman might have, that is, that only provably logical choices, where the means chosen do in fact result in the ends desired, are rational. And you were using it the way Mises would have, that is, that all choices, by the nature of the fact that they were chosen, and all actions, by nature of the fact that they were acted, are rational. Homo Economicus vs. Human Action.

  4. Shay 12/22/2012 at 09:44 Reply

    I will be thinking about this approach a lot. I think I often do something similar, but without a view of my own to present, and thus I find ways of offering support to a person’s view, though more through acceptance of the weak parts rather than construction of fake beliefs over it.

    I was slightly uneasy with the underlying approach you described of doing whatever was necessary to change a person’s view. I thought more and realized that this is to change the view of a person who supports aggression on people; stopping aggression through talk is a valuable thing. And it’s not deceptive; it’s the kind of approach I use on my own beliefs to find inconsistencies and shake my confidence in things.

    I think my uneasyness partly comes from people who use this approach, but then switch to a condescending, authoritative tone to try to badger me into accepting what they’re saying. “I’ve just shown that your view is inconsistent, so you need to abandon it now.” This sort of thing is repulsive to me and when freedom-supporting people use it, it makes me want nothing to do with it.

    I can picture a different approach where the freedom-supporting person genuinely wants to illuminate the inconsistency *to the statist’s satisfaction*, and won’t try to move on until the statist see it. This way both parties are able to see new things and examine their own views, and aren’t putting them out of reach or assuming they’re perfect and out of question.

    I guess I’m requesting that people arguing for freedom use the Socratic method along with humility, as a way of more effectively helping others see the errors in their views and not triggering defensive responses. This sort of thing is a valuable contribution to everyone.

    Minor comments I had while reading the article:

    * Begin by asking him “what makes you think that?”

    Even less confrontational (to my ear): “Oh, why do you say that?”

    I also noticed a couple of errors:

    * Tom Wood’s great book Meltdown [Tom Woods']

    * This type of argumentation can be applied to an incredible amount of topics. [number of topics]

    • wheylous 12/22/2012 at 12:56 Reply

      Hey, thanks for the edits! Missed those in the review process.

      As to humility – it is definitely necessary! Yes! As I point out in numerous places in the article, you cannot be confrontational. I do not recommend a barrage of questions to smite down your opponent – this, just as with any other tool, must be used with care! Just because a hammer can be used to bang in nails when needed, it doesn’t mean we need to starts flattening all the mountains and valleys in the world :)

  5. Raoul 12/22/2012 at 10:02 Reply

    I didn’t think before reading that I could ever like an article pretending to teach me how to argue, but I like this article.

  6. kelvinsilva69 12/22/2012 at 10:46 Reply

    WHeylous, this is a very nice article! I like it.
    Will spread to some people i know…

  7. claytonkb 12/22/2012 at 14:43 Reply

    Great work, as always…

  8. henrymoore 05/13/2013 at 23:42 Reply

    About Glass-Steagle. I think the defenders of the “deregulation” theory of the economic crisis are actually partly correct on this. It was the partial repeal of Glass-Steagle that was to blame for some of the moral hazard AKA “risk-taking” that contributed to the crisis (the main culprits still being the Federal Reserve System and that portion of the “Housing Industry” that was in bed with the US Government)). If they had left the whole of Glass-Steagle intact, as the anti-deregulators think would have prevented the crisis (here, at least, they are dead-wrong), there would have been problems still, but so long as Congress was not going to repeal the whole thing, economically, it would have been better to not mess with it at all, in that, though crisis probably still would have come, there would have been slightly less moral hazard involved. Here’s what Peter Schiff has to say on it:

    http://notesonliberty.com/2012/08/21/glass-steagall-and-deregulation-what-went-wrong/#comment-1397

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