Many lawyers started on their path toward law in high school and college — as members of an organized debate team, arguing one side and then the other of the annual national resolution. For me it was an all-consuming affair in high school, with travel most weekends to debate tournaments across the country. Exhilarating and formative, debate taught me many of the analytical and research skills I have needed since — as a lawyer and now a teacher. So, I was very happy to see Robert Prentice’s excellent response to the recent NYT op-ed critique of organized debate. Professor Prentice is correct that, if we are looking to understand our wayward political discourse, the explanation is not to be found in the tools taught by organized debate, but rather in the psychological processes that produce self-serving and related psychological biases. These are useful lessons for all lawyers, especially those interested in the psychology of ethical decision-making.
As Professor Prentice notes:
When politicians engage in excessively partisan wrangling, it is not because of the debate training that some small number of them may have had. It is because of the self-serving bias. Debaters, more than others, know that there are at least two sides to every argument because they’ve practiced arguing for both sides. They know better than others that they should be open minded, though the self-serving bias may cause them to ignore than knowledge.
Because of their training, debaters also know better than most, that some arguments are better than others, that real facts should be more persuasive than “alternative facts,” and that calling something “fake news” just because you wish it were fake new does not make it fake news.
Those of us who wish to be moral actors must realize that (a) in the political arena, we must fight against the undue impact of the self-serving bias, and (b) the self-serving bias undermines the integrity of our moral judgments just as it does our political judgments. But you can let your kids go out for the debate team, we promise.
Professor Prentice’s full response is available here.