I am a devil’s advocate by profession. Some articles I sell ask hard questions. Many anticipate the responses to the opinions they express so I can answer them and strengthen the opinion. So when I hear people banning devil’s advocacy, I find their attitude short-sighted and have to struggle not to be offended personally.
The concept of devil’s advocate originates in the canonization process of the Catholic church. In the debates about whether someone should be recognized as a saint, the devil’s advocate was tasked with asking the hard questions. Is the candidate’s behavior always of the highest? Did the miracles claimed for the candidate really occur? In the struggle to answer such questions, the decision was improved, and the final verdict could be given more confidently.
Never mind that, from my agnostic’s position, the fact that the process involved accepting miracles suggests that it was not applied strictly enough. The decisions were undoubtedly less credulous because a skeptical position was considered and answered. It seems no accident that, when Pope John Paul II wanted to create hundreds of modern saints, he weakened the role of the devil’s advocate so he could hurry the process.
I like to think that the position of devil’s advocate contains a sense of justice, implying that even the devil deserves representation in an inquiry into the truth. Playing devil’s advocate is such a useful exercise that I practice it as regularly in my personal life, as in my profession, deliberately imagining the worst that could be said or happen before making major decisions. From experience, I know that, by challenging my opinions, I round them out, modify them, and, in the end, hold them more thoughtfully and with more confidence because I have freely entertained doubts. I rarely finish playing my own devil’s advocate without being convinced that my opinion is the better for the exercise, and I can only conclude that those who would outlaw it have values very different from mine.
At the very least, those who make the ban appear to value self-esteem over intellectual rigor. Perhaps they believe they already have the truth, so an investigation into it is unnecessary. At the very least, they appear to value personal comfort over truth – which is understandable, because even when devil’s advocacy is an internal debate in someone’s mind, it can be disturbing and unpleasant.
Admittedly, some people have been known to claim they are playing devil’s advocate as an excuse for expressing unpopular opinions. When their opinions are questioned, they retreat by saying they are playing devil’s advocate. In this way, they evade responsibility for their opinions while sniping at other people’s. Still others claim to be playing devil’s advocate when what they really want is to have an argument, and care nothing for the topic. Both these behaviors are disgusting bits of dishonesty which only make me impatient.
However, banning devil’s advocacy because the concept is sometimes abused makes no more sense than banning cars because some drivers have accidents in them. Almost any claim of intellectual effort is open to abuse. An argument, which should be based on logic, can be debased by a couple of dozen fallacies, including appeals to authority, either-or propositions, non sequiturs, and post hoc arguments. A claim to logic can also be a way to avoid examining personal biases and prejudices, especially when made by someone in a position of power. Yet very few would suggest throwing out logic altogether. After all, much of the technology that shapes our lives is based on the application of logic – and part of that application of logic is the consideration and rejection of alternatives such as the ones that devil’s advocacy is designed to eliminate.
Frankly, I am shocked and saddened that anyone would discard devil’s advocacy so lightly. It is such a useful way of arriving at a better approximation of the truth that I am unable to view its outlawing as anything less than anti-intellectualism of the most distorted sort. The fact that idea can be entertained by people whom might otherwise be considered intellectuals only makes it even more tragic.