Steel that Argument You Encounter

This post is by Scott Brummel:




The straw-man argument is familiar to many visiting this site. For some reason a person royally skewers an argument that was never made by the person who is being criticized. Doing so is both annoying and irrelevant.


But consider the benefit of substituting “steel” for “straw”; a “steel argument” can fertilize a conversation. I first encountered this idea while visiting Less Wrong* a curated forum where users exchange and critique philosophical tools to enhance a rational understanding of the world and to be a little less wrong in the process.


What is the steel man and how does it compare to the straw man?

The straw man argument disrupts the flow of conversation; one person points out the irrelevance of the argument in light of what she or he had originally said.  To “steel” an argument, however, is to show respect for the other person by assuming a strengthened form of an opponent’s reasoning (that is, the best form of the argument that your opponent would agree to). Identifying a steel argument, as a version of what the other person said, creates is a more formidable challenge to our personal beliefs.


There are at least two reasons for adopting the idea of forming steel arguments:


More charitable discussion: Often words can fail to express what one intends. Perhaps someone with a strong argument may not have the training or eloquence to produce an argument that on its face would otherwise be revered. By forming a steel argument from what we hear or read, we can thoughtfully respond to and learn from someone’s conclusions even if their presentation or reasoning is inadequate.


More rational beliefs: Assume the quality of our beliefs or ideas is proportional to the amount of rigor we put them through. Relying only on the counterarguments of others is no guarantee that our beliefs will necessarily receive the challenges that they should experience.


*Though I first came across the steel man argument or “steel-manning” on Less Wrong, a more concise overview of the idea is described here.

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