Hypotheticals in debate about views and positions - where is the line between inquiry and trap?

I’ve been wrestling with thoughts about the utility and validity of using hypotheticals in debates…

On the one hand, they can be useful in refining the borders of a debater’s position - i.e. “you have a firm stance that you would do X in situation Y, but what about situation Z, which is similar to Y in some ways, but different in others?”

On the other hand, they sometimes seem like a dishonest trap - i.e. “you have demonstrated that you would (and actually did) reasonable action P in situation Q, but I want to present you with carefully-defined situation R, where no matter which way you answer, we will hate you”

  • or in other words, “you say you’re not a killer, but your answer to the Trolley Problem clearly demonstrates the contrary.”

Where is the line? How, in an honest debate, do you recognise and deal with these traps? Does this even make sense or am I imagining a difference?

It’s a bit like the Obscenity Test: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it.

Okay, that’s not very useful, even if true.

I suspect a big part of it is how inflexible the original poster is in trying to apply the hypothetical. If they keep tossing in new twists to force everyone back to their original Bad Choice, without actually addressing the objections, then we’re pretty safe in assuming they’re just looking for an answer they can leap on for some weird political reason.

Yeah, I guess it comes down to intent, but that’s the thing that is invisible

For context, this was provoked by a real world situation I encountered where I refused to do a thing that was requested of me, and my shorthand answer for refusing was ‘Because I’m not a racist’.

This sparked a huge amount of misunderstanding - was I saying that doing things like the requested action makes someone a racist? (no, because that’s a fallacy of induction; I merely mentioned my own motivation for refusal)… was I saying that all actions in the same category as the one I refused are inherently racist? (no, because see above)… would I please pass judgment on some real world example of someone doing a thing that seemed a bit similar to the thing I refused? (no, because all I ever spoke about was a standard I applied to my own decision, in this very specific real-world case)… etc.

Which led on to this other thing where someone presented me with a very sparse hypothetical, which it was actually impossible for me to judge - I can know my motivation for having done a thing, that I faced in full technicolor real life very much better than trying to predict my action in a hypothetical situation defined by a couple of vague brushstrokes; I refused to answer because it felt like a trap, but with a debating opponent who is already on the offensive, that’s not acceptable either.

Not acceptable to whom? If you mean the opponent is going to claim victory if you refuse to answer, so what? Every reader or listener has to make up their own mind, and claiming victory isn’t the same as actually persuading people.

In the specific situation you describe, I might say something like “I can’t answer that, there are too many unspecified variables, and every one can make a difference.” (Which I probably would not have been able to come up with on the spur of the moment, so if it was a spoken discussion I would have been more clumsy.)

If you want debating tactics I can’t help you much, I tend to be very straightforward and linear: this is what I think, this is why I think it. It doesn’t “win” a lot of debates but it gets my viewpoint out.

Set up the rules for debate. Argument by analogy is invalid and you are talking about Y not Z. Just reject the hypothetical.

I mean, not accepted by the opponent - I refused to predict how I would behave in a vaguely-parameterised situation; the opponent declared my philosophy ‘full of holes’* - it was never an honest debate anyway, as the opponent kept trying to have the last word by telling me ‘don’t answer this’, followed by wrong assumptions about me.

In all honesty, I’m not into debating to ‘win’, unless winning is defined as getting to the right answer, which might not be my answer at all.

*Spoiler: of course my philosophy is full of holes, that’s the only type of philosophy that exists. A string vest is full of holes, but better than no vest.

I’ll admit that I’m guilty at times of the behavior described by the OP. That being said, I think it’s not so much that people are generally trying to “trap” others, so to speak, as it is that some people will simply try to worm their way out of a hypothetical as much as they can and the only way you can get an answer out of them is to insist on holding to the hypothetical as firmly and unyieldingly as possible.

Suppose you’re trying to see which disease people consider worse: AIDS or cancer:

*Would you rather get AIDS or cancer? *

*Neither. Both are bad. *

Well of course both are bad. But I’m asking which you find worse. You have to choose one, you can’t say “neither.”


I think there’s a big difference between when people fight a hypothetical that they have been invited to answer, as in a thread game or something, vs a hypothetical that is thrust at them as a dishonest challenge.

People who don’t want to play your AIDS vs cancer thread game should just sit out. If they play, and try to fight, you’re right to push back.
People who find you pushing an AIDS vs cancer hypothetical in their face in a debate, are probably quite right to say ‘I choose neither, thank you’

Then I really don’t understand what you’re trying to learn here. If you believe you were in a dishonest debate or discussion, perhaps you should have just said that, and then stopped. If your opponent is not using honest tactics, it seems unlikely they are willing to accept anything you say that doesn’t agree with them.

Sometimes you just have to let someone else have the last word, and let it go.

To me, the dividing line is openness.

“You have a firm stance that you would do X in situation Y, but what about situation Z, which is similar to Y in some ways, but different in others?” is fine. It’s a question that openly brings up the possible contradiction in the person’s views and invites them to address the issue.

“What would you do in situation Z?”
“I would do A.”
“Ah hah! Last week, you said that you would do X in situation Y! But now you’re saying you would do A in situation Z despite the similarities in Y and Z! Your hypocrisy stands revealed to the world!”

This is a gotcha trap.

I can see the two extremes, I’m trying to figure out the point (or more likely zone) where one turns into the other

If you make an argument, and the other party responds with a (non-clarifying) question, then they have declined to counter your argument. I recommend you invite them to either do so or JAQ off elsewhere, perhaps reminding them that you’re not going to do their work for them.

Yeah, I guess that’s the thing I wanted to unpack and get some other people’s views on; for extreme ‘trap’ hypotheticals, it’s easy to just say “That’s a trap - piss off, I’m not playing”; somewhere below that level, there is probably a point where you have to say “Refine your vague-ass hypothetical and come back, then I’ll see if I can make sense of it”, and further below that, I guess there could be cases where the hypothetical is nearly OK and you might respond to it, but have to impose your own additional qualifiers - i.e. “in that case, and assuming also conditions A, B and C were all true, then…”

But the thing people really seem to dislike, is the notion that: maybe I can’t actually answer your hypothetical until I face it in reality. Maybe there is no practical way to specify all the small variables that might affect my judgment on the day.

Perhaps the dividing line is how willing they are to accept your modifications to the hypothetical, vs how rigid they are in insisting you accept their modifications to the hypothetical.

I can’t find it now, but I was thinking of that thread from several weeks back about what people would do if China used Magic Space Lasers to conquer the US, wherein the OP insisted that any act of defiance against the oppressors would be automatically met by massive, unavoidable retaliation, no matter what other posters suggested might be more reasonable scenarios. The OP could add any twists they wanted to justify forcing people towards their “gotcha”, but rejected every other twist suggested by others.

True. Perhaps another factor is: what are the stakes? Is it a discussion of a purely hypothetical situation, or is it a hypothetical thrown at a person to try to divine something about their character (blurred line between those, I’m sure)

Yes, absolutely, context matters. I’m a lot less paranoid about hypotheticals discussed while drunk with friends than I am about some random Internet Guy I suspect might be a Hidden Nazi.

Sometimes, to find out how seriously someone takes something, or how far would go, you have no choice but to press a hypothetical as deeply as possible until there’s a make-or-break point.

Suppose someone says: “The rule of law must always be obeyed. Governmental authority is always to be obeyed.” Then it’s perfectly reasonable to ask, “Suppose you were a German during World War II and the Nazis ordered you to turn in Jews you know to be hiding nearby, do you comply?” or “do you shoot your friends because it’s the law” or something of that sort.

Hypotheticals are a form of “what aboutism”. which i think is a perfectly valid rhetorical device.

In situation A you claim to hold view X. But in situation B, which is quite similar, you hold view Y.

Some hypotheticals/what abouts are lazy and invalid, but some can expose people’s hypocrisy.

It is when they expose our hypocrisy that we don’t like them.

Hmmm, not sure that’s the only reason people might not like them - that sounds a bit like ‘touched a nerve eh? I must be right after all’