Arguments and Duels

Why men disagree, from a New Yorker review of duelling history:

It emerged as an institution during the Italian Renaissance, when various aristocrats sought, by affecting an exaggerated sense of honor, to establish themselves as a social, as well as a military, class.  … abstract notions of honor … enabled a man of the upper class to live a more noble life. Such a man would always keep his word, always rush to the aid of a comrade or a woman in distress, and never allow an insult or injury to himself or his family to go unavenged. … From Italy, the duel of honor spread to France and then the rest of Europe. … Although English gentlemen did not duel with the fervor of their French counterparts, duelling remained a good career move in Britain into the early nineteenth century. …

The gentry, however, took honor so seriously that just about every offense became an offense against honor. Two Englishmen duelled because their dogs had fought. Two Italian gentlemen fell out over the respective merits of Tasso and Ariosto, an argument that ended when one combatant, mortally wounded, admitted that he had not read the poet he was championing. And Byron’s great-uncle William, the fifth Baron Byron, killed a man after disagreeing about whose property furnished more game.  … Courtiers … duelled to impress a princess, eliminate a rival, or curry favor with a higher-up. Instead of arguments leading to a duel, the duel became a reason to have an argument.

Even today, men argue to show their dominance, and their willingness and ability to resist domination.  That strong feeling "but I’m right" may really be "I’ll be damned if I let him win." 

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  • Matthew C

    A quite excellent point to keep in mind. . .

  • Do we have any data on whether women disagree less on theoretical matters with other women than men with men?

    Women, I think, overestimate their own positive attributes and prospects less than do men, especially young men. One might expect that this would extend into generally greater epistemic modesty among women, but it would be interesting to see evidence. Even more generally: Are women less biased?

  • According to Katy Fox’s “Watching the English. The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour” the British male pub disagreement is another (less risky) case of “I’ll be damned if I let him win”. So people argue forever about trivialities they do not really care about just to avoid losing. According to Fox’s observations women are unlikely to join this status game. But that doesn’t tell us anything about the epistemic modesty of women.

  • Carl Shulman

    This study of currency traders ( ) found that the market estimates of male traders were better calibrated than those of women, but that the men showed stronger self-serving bias in evaluating their performance (they gave higher estimates of their performance relative to 3rd parties).

  • Stuart Armstrong

    There’s a converse here – often when people have argued their “opponent” round to their position, they ruin it all by insisting that he admit that he was wrong. That’s pure ego on their part (they’ve already convinced him; no need for him to have to admit it, or even realise it), and often causes their opponent to retreat back to his starting position.

    found that the market estimates of male traders were better calibrated than those of women, but that the men showed stronger self-serving bias in evaluating their performance

    Might it be that women are less biased overall, but men maybe less biased in specific domains?

  • Carl Shulman

    “There’s a converse here – often when people have argued their “opponent” round to their position, they ruin it all by insisting that he admit that he was wrong.”

    In my experience, letting one’s interlocutor claim to have thought of an idea himself or herself (given the occasion) is one of the most effective ways to stabilize a view established by argument.

  • alexis gallagher

    Let us begin with some useful distinctions:
    – a duel, a contest to show personal dominance
    – a debate, a contest to discover truth

    The ambiguity here is that when you say that a duel (for instance) is a contest “to show dominance” it ignores *for whom* that is the purpose of a duel. I think much is clarified by recognizing that a practice serves one purpose personally, to the participants, and another purpose socially, to the auditors.

    For example, the naive view of debates is that they are simply and only truth-discovery mechanisms, where one party persuades the other of the truth, or where the process of debate results in mutual truth discovery and agreement. The concern presented above, which is clear to anyone with a feeling for human nature, is that most “debates” are in fact duels. Pride personalizes the subject matter and prevents people from admitting error or modifying their positions. This undermines the prospects of truth-discovery by persuasion or by mutual agreement.

    Here is a more hopeful view. A debate is a dual to the participants but it is a truth-discovery procedure for the auditors. Debates inevitably require contradiction, a kind of aggression. This makes it foolish to expect debaters to modify their positions, except as a rhetorical tactic. However, it is reasonable to hope that this spectacle may sway unbiased auditors closer to the true position. This is in fact why arguments in the “debate style” are normally public events (jury trials, political campaign debates, etc.) and why individuals who use a debating style in private discussions are usually undersocialized. There is also an echo with the point about actual physical duels — they exist as social spectacles, in order to create an impression on all the non-duellists.

    So “debating” is not an exercise in direct persuasion; it is an exercise in winning debates. “Persuasion” is a subtler art, more like a seduction, where a key challenge is always to overcome the emotional resistance of your counterpart. This may require concealing your goals by feigning a rational neutrality, by tricking your counterpart to ‘discover’ your argument, by leading his attention through artful questions, by offering comforting rationalizations to ease his change of heart, etc.. These practices are fundamentally deceptive; yet they must be, since they must cater to the natural appetites of the human mind, which is corrupt. Unfortunately, these rhetorical corruptions are also likely to corrupt the integrity of the exchange as a truth discovery mechanism, since truth is only one asset in making a proposing convincing. Many truths are unconvnincing, and many convincing things are not true.

    So the key question still standing is this: how do we talk in order to discover truth together? How do we talk in a way that is spoiled neither by the intransigent aggresion of debate, nor by the mercenary indifference of persuasion? How do we have, not a debate, not a persuasion, but a conversation? This is the problem of civilized argument, one of the hardest things. It requires a trust in the good faith efforts of your counterpart — trust that he will judge your claims fairly and resist the cheap shots that would win a debate. I suspect this trust must in fact be a faith, because there is no way to coerce someone into making these good faith efforts, to verify that they are making them, or even to prove that you are making those efforts yourself. It also requires a good-humored relaxation of your own assumptions.

    These requirements are all so hard to meet, that in practice they are impossible outside the context of a pre-existing social relationship and all its attendant benefits of personal warmth and humor. I think this is why David Hume says that truth springs from argument amongst friends.

    Phew… I feel like I have just produced an extremely longwinded rendition of the blindingly obvious. But I remember a time when this was not all so obvious to me (hello, high school), so maybe this perspective will be interesting to someone out there…

  • Alexis, you propose debate is a “truth-discovery procedure for the auditors” while I suggest debate is a “spectacle of combat is intended more to reveal relative mental abilities than to illuminate which conclusion is right.” The lack of pre-debate talk weakly supports my suggestion – what evidence goes the other way?

  • Robin,

    I think the main reason to believe debate is a “truth-discovery procedure for the auditors” is that, in many contexts, the auditors themselves believe that’s what is. The obvious example is jury trials. Political debates, such as during the presidential campaign, are a weaker example, since every candidate stands for not only his point-of-view but also his own mental abilities. Voters could take a legitimate issue in both matters. But insofar as the candidates are tokens for their points-of-view, watching them debate is a way to decide which point-of-view is more convincing.

    Remember I concede that debaters themselves may be personally motivated by a rather unthoughtful competitiveness. I suppose it’s a bit of a mug’s game saying what some practice “is”, when there’s no author to consult, when participants disagree, and when depth psychology and sociological points of view might impute all sorts of hidden meanings.

    I agree that pre-debate talk would improve their quality. I think it’s a good idea. But I’d worry it would be hard to cleanly demarcate pre-debate issues (of terminology and scope) from the debate issues themselves. Those issues can themselves be subtle, and and there’s a competitive advantage to bias matters your way. Maybe there’s room for a trusted third party or some more structured procedure to mitigate that risk.

    By the way, great blog!