How the Concept of “Devil’s Advocate” Became Toxic to Productive Conversation

What does it mean to play “Devil’s Advocate”?

According to Wikipedia, devil’s advocate – or advocatus diaboli – was a real role created by the Catholic Church in the 16th-century as part of its canonization process. In order to be considered a saint, a person’s life must check off a number of boxes; so to test a prospective saint’s worthiness, the Church would hold a trial of sorts. The “Devil’s Advocate” was meant to investigate the saintly claims from a skeptical perspective, while an advocate for God would make the positive case. In this way no one could later doubt the validity of the sainthood, since the case had passed the smell test of the Devil himself.

It is interesting to note the bias that is baked into the Devil’s Advocate origin story. For clearly the Devil’s intentions must be base and unholy – and ultimately wrong – when it comes to doubting that which is good and godly.

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Later, the title became more of a rhetorical device in debate. When someone plays Devil’s Advocate, he or she takes an opposing or skeptical view to an idea in order to test its validity. Similar to the Catholic Church’s purported intentions, it’s an exercise used to shore up the strength of an idea. If one can think of all the opposition to an idea and have a satisfactory answer to that opposition, it must mean the idea is sound and true.

Later still, the idea seeped into our everyday speech as a kind of playful label for anyone arguing against a commonly held belief. This person often is not committed to the opposing view, but instead just likes to stretch his rhetorical muscles for sport.

As an apostate Catholic myself, I often relished the application of the label to my sallies against theistic beliefs. I enjoy irony as much as the next guy. But lately I’ve noticed the label has become a kind of shield used by the faithful to deflect criticism – whatever their faith happens to be – and I’ve come to realize that the label has lost some of its playfulness. After numerous conversations – some in person, but more so online – I’ve witnessed a term I saw as a complimentary label become a kind of insult.

“You’re just a Devil’s Advocate.” My God. The horror.

WHY ADVOCATE FOR THE DEVIL?

Have you ever heard someone make a statement with certainty, but you perceived the rationale for that certainty was lacking, or at least opaque? What was your reaction? Did you attempt to direct the speaker’s attention to the lack of credible foundation for his stated belief?

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I have, and often. Admittedly I’ve developed a bit of a reputation because of the behavior. And I’m not the only one. “Contrarians” they’re often called. Again, for someone with the temperament and perspective that produces the reputation and label, “contrarian” can sound complimentary. But when used as a categorizing label by your conversation partner, it becomes an obstacle to rewarding communication.

Take my wife. (Insert classic comedy quip here.) We fail to agree on many things. Many of the things we fail to agree on, she is on the side of the majority – or at least, what she perceives as the majority. Now, at first she may have found my distinctive perspective cute or interesting or even a bit exciting; but after several years of an inability to agree on sometimes the most basic of things, it has become frustrating for her.

Frustration is one thing. But her feeling of frustration has transformed into a belief about intentions. She believes not just that we fail to agree, but that I consciously and purposefully disagree simply for the act of disagreement. She believes I wish to hurt her through the act of argument.

That’s a pretty shocking belief for one spouse to have about another. It’s probably less shocking when it happens among strangers, and so we should expect it to be more common.

Do YOU disagree with people just because you like the feeling of disagreement? If not, then is it rational to believe that others do? Let’s explore the possible reasons you might have for expressing disagreement about an idea:

  1. You believe premise X is wrong or false
  2. You’re not certain whether premise X is right or wrong, true or false
  3. You’re a nihilist who enjoys chaos and destruction
  4. You get pleasure from making other people look foolish – even when there is no audience other than you and that person
  5. You want to bask in the glory of your own wit – you experience the pleasure of feeling a kind of power
  6. You’re paid by a lobby group or an antagonistic country to spread disinformation
  7. You despise yourself, and you subconsciously want others to despise you, so you manufacture a set of confrontational behaviors to achieve this goal
  8. You are an asshole
  9. You are an agent of the Devil sent to sow discord among your brothers

Ok. I think I’ve exhausted my imagination. I can’t think of any other potential reasons to express disagreement with an idea. I expect that most readers would restrict their rationale to numbers one and two, though numbers four and five may hold a certain amount of allure. It’s hard for me to see the latter as a primary motivation though – rather, it may sometimes just be the icing on the cake.

Of course, that’s you. You’re a good and decent person. You’re honest and sincere, and you have the best intentions. But what about the billions of other people out there? Clearly they are not so good and well-intentioned, otherwise there wouldn’t be so much tragedy and suffering in the world. Surely some of those billions will disagree with good and true ideas for reasons other than a simple lack of belief.

But if you think that about others, shouldn’t they think that about you?

INTO THE ABYSS

What truth is there that inspires more passion than “moral truth”? To hear someone declare that the capital of France is Calais rather than Paris, you will likely laugh under your breath, or perhaps pity the poor deluded soul. But to hear someone declare that eating hamburgers is virtuous when you are a vegetarian and you know that the slaughter of animals is evil – well, this inspires a different response entirely. Such displays of ignorance move one to anger rather than to pity. They are signals of danger – of the Devil – not holes of ignorance that simply need filling.

This kind of passionate reaction relies on the feeling of certainty. And perhaps it is valuable to highlight this point –> certainty is a feeling and not a process of the intellect.

2 + 2 = 4

Are you certain that this is correct? Yes. But why? Because it is true by definition. In philosophical terms, it is analytically true. As long as one knows the meanings that are attached to the symbols “2” and “4”, “+” and “=”, there is no uncertainty baked into the belief or proposition.

You will wake up some time after you next sleep.

Are you certain that this is correct? If you’re extraordinarily careful and honest, you will reply in the negative. This is a question about the future; and while you likely have numerous clues and reasons to believe that you WILL wake up, you have no definitive information to justify certainty.

But do you feel certain? Does it ever enter your mind that it will not be so? It’s funny: I was raised to say prayers each night before bed, and while it was usually an “Our Father” or a “Hail Mary,” part of me imagines that for a time I said that old kids’ prayer that includes, “if I die before I wake.” But though the uncertainty is stated right there in the prayer, does anyone in the present actually take it literally? Does any kid take seriously the possibility that she won’t wake the next morning?

The fact is, even the most literal and intellectually careful of us who would deny certainty here still feel it, since we do and think nothing about the possibility of never waking the next morning as our heads hit our pillows. We don’t write goodbye letters, we don’t get our affairs in order, we don’t toss and turn worrying about our consciousness being snuffed before we know it. Protests of intellectual tidiness aside, we act in the same manner as if we were certain about it, because certainty is exactly what we feel.

And what would life be like without such a feeling? How miserable would we be if every night we stressed about whether we’d survive the morning? How could one make plans and grow in a state of uncertainty? In fact, there are such people in the world, and we view them as sick and debilitated. We prescribe them anti-anxiety medication.

Murder is immoral or bad or evil. / Capitalism is immoral or bad or evil. / Socialism is immoral or bad or evil.

Are you certain of the truth of any of these statements? These are the truths that are the most interesting. These are statements of moral truth.

What sets such statements apart from others is that they tell a person how he or she should behave. They are mini maps of the world. “If you want X, you must travel two steps north and three steps east.” Moral behaviors are actions that lead to value, and value is that which we seek to attain or keep.

If value is the why of your existence, then virtue – the how to get it – is supremely important. Moral truths are descriptors of virtue.

It’s interesting to see that moral truths combine characteristics of analytical truths and truths about the future. First, they rely on an agreement of definitions for the symbols used. And second, they rely on an agreement about the resulting consequence of the behavior. Finally, they rely on an agreement of the underlying value that prompts the virtue in the first place.

I find that it is in discussions about moral truths where the term “Devil’s Advocate” is most used as an insult.

“Murder is bad.” Sounds pretty straightforward. But what is murder? At the very least, the meaning of that symbol must be agreed upon for reasonable communication to occur.

“Thou shalt not kill” is the sixth of the Ten Commandments. Sometimes it is translated as, “Thou shalt not murder.” Assuming you believe in a monotheistic god who sets the rules, this may at first seem a simple map to live by. Yet a few chapters later, this same god orders the Hebrews to commit genocide against the peoples populating Canaan; and he also instructs them to stone to death people who break numerous rules. Surely these are instances of murder and/or killing?

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Evidently the Hebrew god had some nuance in mind when he wrote that particular commandment…

But we don’t have to go all the way back to a Bronze Age tribe to find difficult contradictions in how moral truths are understood and applied. Murder is illegal in 21st-century America. Murder is bad, and I’m sure everyone would agree on that point. The problem is, some people disagree on where to apply that symbol.

If someone breaks into your house and you shoot him, is it murder? If someone rapes and kills 20 women over ten years, is caught, and then the State executes him, is it murder? If you’re hungry, and the industrial farmer back in Colorado shoots a bolt into the brain of a bull to supply your burger meat, is it murder? If your genetic material has joined with your ex-boyfriend’s genetic material, and it’s been doubling in size in your uterus for the last ten weeks, and you decide to have the growth removed, is it murder? Ask a hundred people these questions, and you’re going to get a variety of answers. And the reasons for this variety come down to a conflict of definitions, a conflict of values, and/or a conflict of belief about future results.

Now if something so seemingly simple as “murder” can lead to intellectual conflict and confusion, how much more likely will dense and abstract concepts like “capitalism” and “socialism” result in the same or worse?

For anyone objecting to a comparison between politics and morality, let me say that politics is simply morality on a societal scale. That which is “good” or “moral” in politics is again a prescriptive map of behavior that points to the valuable. To what works. And while political power should not be applied in all moral realms, it is still an extension of it.

If you follow me this far, then you must admit that to apply certainty in such situations is utter madness. Socialism – assuming one knows what that actually means – applied to the lives and actions of millions or billions of conscious agents in a world of near infinite possibilities – how could it be reasonable to be certain about its goodness or badness? Its effectiveness or impotence?

And yet it is regarding these large abstractions where we often find the most passionate displays of certainty. People who know next to nothing about politics, or economics, or finance, or history – they somehow possess the answers society has been looking for since its inception. And the people who do know something about these things – well, often they’re even worse. For a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, and full knowledge about politics or economy is impossible for any individual.

Yet it is not true to say that all political and moral commandments are equal. We live in reality, and in reality actions have consequences. Some moral behaviors lead to better consequences, there can be no doubt. (Certainty at last?)

And so we are stuck in a quandary: we are unjustified in believing the feeling of certainty regarding moral truths, and yet we know that moral truth exists. Many people rely on a god to help them out of this dilemma, yet we saw above that gods themselves fail to satisfactorily communicate meaning.

Gods don’t supply truth; gods provide rationales for certainty. They are crutches that help us limp across the shrouded landscape of existence. But gods aren’t always bearded old men frolicking through the clouds – sometimes they’re ideologies.

Gods don’t supply truth; gods provide rationales for certainty. They are crutches that help us limp across the shrouded landscape of existence.

— Me

And so it is rather fitting that those of us who so regularly question the certainty of others be viewed as advocates for the Devil. Uncertainty is frightening and confusing. Perhaps worse, uncertainty leads to inaction. Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, we are paralyzed from making forward movement without a map; or we are left to wander through a meaningless existence without any compass, and so, inevitably, we fall into the Abyss.

Or so the promoters of faith would have you believe.

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ESCAPING THE ABYSS

We are built for certainty. Lions would have eaten the hominid Hamlets of hundreds of thousands of years ago while their more definitive brothers quickly ran away and inseminated the women folk. So it should be no surprise that certainty comes fast and easy. It has been a valuable evolutionary tool – not only to flee monsters without hesitation, but also to forge tribal unity. It allowed for group collaboration to accomplish things no individual could do on his own. [See Haidt, The Righteous Mind, and Christakis, Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society for recent scholarship.]

But your appendix was also evolutionarily valuable, and yet sometimes it needs to be removed in order for you to survive.

While fast certainty avoids indecisive hesitation, it also leads to tragedy and destruction. When millions of people are wrong, they can do a hell of a lot of damage: just look at the slave trade, Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, etc.

And so, while uncertainty may lead one to the Abyss, certainty can toss one over the edge just the same.

Ask yourself: “Are you a god?” Despite Bill Murray’s plea in Ghostbusters to the contrary, I hope you do not say, “Yes!”

We are all finite beings, with finite perspectives, and so to believe that any one of us has perfect knowledge is silly. All beliefs are hypotheses that must be tested. But rather than drag your beliefs into the harsh realm of consequence and reality, what if you had a tool to test it beforehand without much risk apart from a bruised ego?

Your first tool in this regard is your own brain or mind, as you examine your ideas and beliefs and try to fit them into the reality around you. But, as your perspective is finite, you may not see all that is needed to decide if the hypothesis is accurate or not. This is where science leads to experiment – certainly an invaluable tool. But sometimes, beliefs are so large or abstract that experiment is not possible.

Enter the Devil’s Advocate. Because when you present your beliefs to others around you, they will likely see things that you were unable to see.

Granted, it is easier to discover chinks in armor than it is to create a suit of armor without chinks. (Why does this sound like a pun from a Mel Brooks movie that was never made?) But if the purpose of the armor is to achieve some value, is it not good and valuable to have those chinks discovered? Reality does not care that you made the armor, or that it was handed down from your parents, or your tribe, or your country. Reality will find the weakness and pierce your heart no matter how cherished the belief. Better to discover and fill the holes at the forge, rather than in the midst of battle. 

And so, it turns out that a devil’s advocate does not advocate for the Devil at all, but instead is a searcher for truth. Don’t get me wrong: such a one has as finite a perspective as anyone, so he may turn out to be mistaken about the mistakes he highlights. But when she’s right, she brings you closer to the value you seek.

There’s a man from history who springs to mind – a kind of patron saint of advocates for the devil everywhere: Socrates of ancient Athens. And if you want to read more about his story in graphic novel form, you can find it HERE.

Socrates converses with Critias in POLIS: The Trial of Socrates

Socrates – like many of the sophists of the era – approached commonly held beliefs with a skeptical air. In particular, he focused on the definition of concepts, and the fact that his fellow citizens lacked a clear and distinct understanding for many of the virtues they proclaimed. Athens, of course, executed him for his trouble. But one hopes that we have made some progress in the last 2400 years.

So it is in his honor that I make a small request of you, dear reader. Going forward, rather than refer to these non-contradiction warriors as advocates for the devil, let us instead call them Socratic Advocates. For, while Socrates could sometimes be wrong and a real pain in the ass, he always had the best intentions. On the other hand, the Devil is your enemy, and has the worst of intentions by definition. For your own sake, you must avoid such assumptions about your intellectual opponent’s intentionality.

It is only when we welcome the criticism of our ideas, that our beliefs are more likely to take a shape that more closely resembles reality. And that is the only way that we as a culture, and as individuals, will escape the Abyss.

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