Strawmen, Steelmen, and Bad Faith
By David Henderson
Bryan Caplan makes a number of good points about straw manning and steel manning in his critique of philosopher Mike Huemer and in his 2015 post on the same issue. One of the major, and obvious points he makes is that you’re not arguing against a straw man if an actual person you’re arguing with is making the argument you’re arguing against.
I would put his overall point even more strongly. I’ll do it with an example.
Imagine that I’m arguing with someone on the minimum wage. The person claims that increases in the minimum wage will benefit people who are working at below the proposed minimum and will have no downsides for them. I point out that some of the least skilled workers will lose their jobs and even some or many of those who keep their jobs will lose other non-pecuniary benefits of the job.
I could go on to then make a more sophisticated argument, for example the monopsony argument, that the person “should have made.”
I don’t. Here’s why.
First, I’m trying to deal with people as they are. The person I’m arguing with has made presumably a good-faith argument for his position. If I then substitute another argument that he hasn’t made, it is, to some extent, a way of dismissing the idea that his argument is the one he really believes. It borders on bad faith on my part.
Second, arguments are ideally conversations. If I substitute a stronger argument for his bottom line–the minimum wage should be raised–I’m jumping ahead in the conversation without giving him a chance. I’ve short-circuited a conversation. I should instead let my argument sink in and see where he goes from there.
Third, by steel manning, I’m implicitly attributing bad faith to him. In raising the stronger argument for his bottom line, I’m implicitly assuming that he wanted an increase in the minimum wage regardless of the argument for it. I’m essentially saying, “Here’s a stronger argument for increasing the minimum wage because I know you want the government to do so and you are looking for arguments to justify its doing so.”
Fourth, people have a great ability to rationalize. It’s possible that the person I’m arguing with really does want the increase in the minimum wage and is trying out his best argument for it. If I give him a better argument for it, he might glom on to it. But I’m not inside his brain. I don’t know why he glommed on to it. Maybe the new argument makes sense to him or maybe he’s saying to himself, “Ah, good, I now have a better argument for the position I always wanted to believe in.” It’s better to let him sit with my original argument against his policy proposal and let him come up with a better argument. This reduces the likelihood of quick rationalization and helps him build his intellectual firepower. This actually dovetails with my second point above.
I vaguely recall a talk I gave about 20 years ago in which someone in the audience made an easy-to-refute argument against a deregulation proposal I had made. Unfortunately I don’t remember the venue, the topic, or the person’s argument. I started pointing out what was wrong with the argument. I saw the person obviously listening to me, even nodding his head as he was grokking what I was saying. It looked to be the start of a good conversation.
Unfortunately, a friend of mine was in the audience and he knew almost as well as I did what other arguments the audience member could have made. I say “unfortunately” because this friend was a strong believer in steel manning. He interrupted my conversation with the audience member and said words to the effect, “No, David, that guy’s argument is a weak one but there are better arguments. Why not deal with the strong ones?”
I usually read audiences well. I saw the original questioner kind of turn off and exit the conversation. My friend had interrupted what could have been a good conversation between the audience member and me. I can’t prove it, but I think that hurt the questioner’s intellectual growth.