Playing Devil's Advocate

In a recent thread about whether or not endangered species should be protected, we had a back and forth going between a few of us on whether species should even be protected, and if so, why – due to moral reasons, or simply practical ones.

Regardless, it eventually became known that one of us was not arguing a point they actually held. senoy, who up to that point was arguing that there was no inherent “right” or “wrong” when it came to destroying nature, said this:

Please note that I’m not accusing senoy or anyone else of trolling in this thread. Trolling, as senoy pointed out in the thread, involves making an argument you do not agree with specifically to provoke an emotional response, and I am frankly not interested in whether his motivations were about provoking an emotional response or simply creating a more interesting debate. For what it’s worth, since senoy “outed” himself with little ado, if he IS a troll, he’s not a very good one :wink:

What I do want to discus is, if you are arguing a position that you do not hold, should you not say so, at least out of common courtesy if nothing else? I enjoyed the debate, but I was invested in it precisely because I believed that the person on the other side of the discussion did hold their stated beliefs, and I wanted to understand why, and at the same time explain my own reasoning. Finding out that senoy actually agreed the whole time makes me feel like I was wasting my time debating him, as I didn’t actually learn what leads people on the other side of this issue to believe what they do. All I learned was what senoy thinks they believe.

At the very least, I think that if you’re going to play devil’s advocate, you should say so.

To reply to senoy’s message in the original thread:

You might be a random guy on the other end of a computer, but I’m debating you not because I want to practice my grammar or give my fingers a workout, but because I am genuinely interested in understanding why you believe whatever it is that you believe. If we disagree, I want to know why, because that understanding will either change my mind if I decide that your arguments make more sense than mine, or it will allow me to explain to you why I disagree with your logic. The problem is, if you are – let’s say – arguing against gay marriage, and I debate you, but later on I learn that you are actually FOR gay marriage, then everything I learned from debating you about the logic of the anti-gay-marriage position is not actually the logic that a gay marriage opponent used to arrive at their position. It is the logic that a gay marriage supporter believes that gay marriage opponents use.

I’m sure you’d agree that a gay marriage opponent most likely disagrees with a gay marriage supporter’s assessment of the opposer’s position. If you have some special insight into the mind of a gay marriage opposer – for example, you used to be one until recently – then SAY SO, because that also effects what arguments you will be making. If you say nothing, then I will have a mistaken impression of what people who oppose gay marriage actually believe, which isn’t fair to them (and yes, despite strongly disagreeing with them, I still want to be FAIR to them), and isn’t helpful to me.

I guess I can get that. I think I come at it from a more philosophical perspective. An argument is an argument and it’s either a good one or a bad one. The source of the argument is irrelevant. It could be from someone that is either pro or con a proposition or for that matter be invented whole cloth by a computer that has no attachment either way. It’s the argument that matters and not the particular medium by which it appears on your screen.

In the case of that thread, I was largely taking umbrage with the word natural and placing humans outside of nature. I didn’t think anyone was actually providing a counterpoint that humans aren’t outside of nature and while I think that we are, I felt that it was turning into a big pat on the back session of us just acknowledging our own cultural bias as the correct one and that didn’t seem fair to the poster or in the spirit of things, so I took the con position and I hope that I argued it well and provided at least a bit of food for thought.

I have played a devil’s advocate in several debates. I feel that you can’t get a real discussion going about a topic unless you have both sides represented. A position needs to be challenged in order to see if it holds up.

That might be true, but we are here on this earth (and here on this message board) for a finite amount of time. I don’t really care to debate against arguments that no one actually believes in. The thing is, not every argument is a good one. If no one is arguing a certain point, maybe it’s because of our bias, and as devil’s advocate you can raise that point, but maybe it’s also because it’s not a very good argument, and everyone recognizes that.

I’m not disagreeing, but when you did this, did you STATE that you were playing devil’s advocate?

Claiming to play devil’s advocate sometime later in the conversation may lead some to suspect that what you were really doing was fishing for supporters of a viewpoint, then claiming not to have really ever had that viewpoint when the expected supporters never show up.

I’m not accusing anyone of doing this in any specific case, but that’s certainly something I could see happening, and believe I have seen before. Again, not in this case, but in general. You can avoid this by stating up front that you’re playing devil’s advocate.

I don’t know that I have a problem with that though. You advanced an argument and it failed spectacularly. Why would distancing yourself from it later be a bad thing? We’re not voting for a legislator. If Bob from the Internet wants to say the Holocaust never happened and when he gets universally shouted down, what’s the problem with him saying “Umm… yeah, I never really thought that anyway.”

That isn’t changing your mind-that is lying.

Yeah, of course not every argument is a good one. But if the argument is horrible, then why are you debating it at all? It’s a self-evident problem. The sincerity of the arguer has no basis on the quality of the argument. In this case, I don’t feel the argument was poorly constructed and arguing it I think brought views to the table that were legitimate and not being discussed. If all that a debate is is a pile-on of why the ‘other’ viewpoint is wrong, then it’s not a debate at all.

Too close to trolling.

It’s also a tacit admission that you’re either outclassed in the debate or such a minority as to be unable to formulate any response other than ‘Just kidding.’ It’s a complete and utter failure of the argument which is the point of debate. If the only response you can formulate to a counter-argument is ‘I was joking.’ then the issue is settled. What does it matter if Joe the Plumber doesn’t really feel contrite for his idiocy or wishes to say he never believed his drivel in the first place. The conclusion has been reached effectively and anyone reading the post knows which side won.

Trolling comes down to intention. Did he advance the viewpoint because he actually is a Holocaust denier or did he do it because he wanted someone to get their panties in a bunch? If the former, it’s not trolling. It’s having an abhorrent viewpoint. There’s a difference.

So of those two, you pretended to not believe in evolution to get people’s panties in a bunch?

I’m not sure what you mean. In the case of the post that this refers to, I took that position that human dominance on the planet was the result of natural process and I implied but did not state that extinction of other species is therefore not unnatural. Any extinctions that we cause are the result of natural selection and causing an animal to go extinct has no moral value in and of itself.

I don’t believe that point, but that’s the point I argued.

The intention of the argument was to counterpoint the seemingly overwhelming viewpoint that human caused extinctions are not natural and a moral ill.

No, your “argument” was:
“if you believe in evolution, ie survival of the fittest (adapt or die), why should we protect endangered species?”
Then you first rebuttal was:

“evolution is a belief system vis-à-vis creation”

Nope, I don’t think that was me. That was ‘fedman.’ I showed up much later in response to extinction not being natural.

Sorry, brain fart–this whole thread I was for some reason confusing you with fedman coming here defending his posts.

No worries. Happens to the best of us.

Sure, you say that NOW…