AR; Why we need the devil’s advocate

“An argument is a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition.”

“No, it isn’t.”

Earlier I posted a review of Luigi Bobbio’s article Types of deliberation, and enthused about the so-called oratory model of deliberation. In this model, one stage of deliberation comprises of a debate of skilled debaters in front of the audience. Just like in the anglo-saxon legal system, where two parties are trying to prove their case in front of the jury, so do the debaters try to convince the audience – who then proceed to deliberate among themselves – that their point of view is worthiest of support. The point of debate is not to reach consensus but to find all the arguments that might be relevant, and prompt their evaluation. Watching this debate is also beneficial for the audience, insofar as it supposedly lessens the communicative (or maybe “argumentative”) inequalities between them, while at the same time gives everyone a chance to evaluate the arguments in the light of their own personal background and experience.

Bobbio’s article relies heavily on a piece by Bernard Manin, titled Déliberation et discussion. It is a great article, and I’d like to write here briefly about the most interesting point it raises: the necessity of contradiction in a debate;

and the difference between “difference” and “contradiction.”


It has been a standard claim that deliberation should  rely on the largest possible number of diverse views, in order to make it open and inclusive, and to prevent the polarization of participants’ opinion (as described e.g. by Sunstein).

But, says Manin:

In fact, the diversity of points of view does not necessarily imply contradiction. Two contradicting points of view are inevitably different (and thus, diverse), but the opposite is not true. Two individuals can have different perspectives about the same subject, understand each other about it, and lead a fruitful discussion about it […], without a single instance of contradiction between the positions, either in factual or in normative terms. (My translation.)

Why is that a problem? Because if such a case presents itself, then the deliberation is going to be biased. It will be based on shared views and assumptions which will remain unquestioned, and thus it might, without the intent or knowledge of the participants, exclude contradicting but equally valid potential solutions from the debate.

But if the presence of diverse points of view in a debate does not guarantee its “critical character,” then deliberation must be organized in such a way that contradicting arguments are also involved, so that the pros and cons of every possible solution can be adequately measured.

There is always a need for contradiction; always a need for the devil’s advocate.

Of course that doesn’t mean that no holds barred, critical debate should replace consensus-seeking deliberation; rather, it could be one of its constituent parts.

…and to finish off – a Monty Python sketch, on which whole new light is cast.

Manin, Bernard (2004): “Déliberation et discussion”, in Swiss Political Science Review 10(4), 180-192.

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