Playing Devil’s Advocate

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

One thing that baffles me is the frequent confusion between 1. making an argument and 2. holding the underlying position.

I think it’s an invaluable skill to be able to play devil’s advocate, and to endure a devil’s advocate — or rather, the arguments counter to your position. If done well, it tests the strength of your position, sometimes improves it, and sometimes even makes you change your mind.

Thinking back, I guess I have to thank Star Trek TNG for this view on arguing (so much for childhood influences, I probably couldn’t watch it today).

In one episode (“The Measure of a Man“), a scientist wants to disassemble Lieutenant Commander Data. Data is an android and member of the crew. Given that Data does not consent to the procedure, the scientist makes a court case out of it. He argues that Data is a machine and thus property of Starfleet with no right to refuse participation in the procedure.

What makes the episode interesting is that one of Data’s friends, Commander Riker, is drafted into leading the argument before the court. Riker has to argue that Data is not a sentient, self-determined being but merely a machine. And he has to do it convincingly to the best of his abilities, otherwise the summary ruling is that Data is a machine.

There’s a beautiful scene where Riker finds the on/off-switch in Data’s schematics. When you realize, yup, Riker has him. He has everything he needs to make his case and win. And he has to decide whether to present the argument or keep it for himself, despite the threat of a summary ruling.

It’s a beautiful conflict, and Riker decides to go with the argument and not to hide it.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen the episode, but I think, among others, his decision was influenced by personal integrity and by the knowledge that he can only support his friend in this way: To make the best case possible against him. In the end, it turns out well. The argument forces the opposition (that Data is sentient and has the right of self-determination) to find better arguments. It’s a fictional but — I think — instructive case.

And I think discussions would be much more productive, if more people would be able to make the distinction that presenting an argument and supporting an underlying cause. After all, it is the argument that counts, not who makes it. That there is no sense in killing the messenger. And the arguments do not go away just because people don’t like them. They have to be addressed. And yep, it sometimes leads people to reconsider their positions.