Our First Steelmen

4 minute read

This post is a bit academic, and will be unlike most other posts, but it seems fitting that our first steelmanning exercise should be to consider potential problems with steelmanning itself.

Steelmanning

As a refresher of our first post defining steelmanning, it is another name for the principle of charity in argumentation that tries to make the strongest possible argument for someone by empathizing with their positive intentions. Steelmanning gets its name as the opposite of strawmanning. Strawmanning is an argumentation fallacy in which a person’s argument is made into a man of straw – easy to knock down – and then this strawman is argued against instead of what the person really meant.

Tinmanning

Before we begin, let’s define another term: Tinmanning.

Tinmanning is a fallacy when someone declares that they’re steelmanning but they’re actually strawmanning.

Summarizing the terms

  • Strawmanning: Making a reasonable argument unreasonable.
  • Steelmanning: Making an argument stronger.
  • Tinmanning: Someone saying they’re steelmanning when they’re actually strawmanning.

Steelmanning may be condescending, harmful, or arrogant

Ozy Brennan writes that when someone declares that they’re steelmanning, they’re usually tinmanning and the declaration of steelmanning may be condescending, harmful, or arrogant:

In the least obnoxious case […] not only is this person strawmanning you, but they’re also acting like you’re an idiot and they’re so much better than you for being able to think of the argument you actually made.

[…]

In the most obnoxious case, Alice doesn’t actually understand Bob’s argument at all. Often, there are fundamental worldview differences. […] Instead of understanding that people believe things differently from you, you’re transforming everyone into stupider versions of yourself that don’t notice the implications of their own beliefs.

[…]

You can say “but neither of those are actually steelmanning! Real steelmanning is being able to put other people’s viewpoints in words they themselves find more compelling than their own arguments!” However, that is an extraordinarily rare and difficult skill; even most people who do it once can’t do it consistently. Saying “to steelman position X…” should be interpreted the same way as saying “to express perfect loving kindness for all beings…” It’s certainly a nice ideal which people might want to approach, and some people even manage to pull it off sometimes, but it’s a bit arrogant to declare that you’re definitely doing it. Even when you think you are, you usually aren’t.

Steelmanning Brennan: Even if a person is well-intentioned, steelmanning is very hard to do and thus often leads to tinmanning. Tinmanning may be condescending, harmful, or arrogant. Therefore, declaring that one is steelmanning usually fails and causes unnecessary damage. A better approach is to switch from the debating approach of steelmanning to a collaborative truth-seeking approach, understanding actual viewpoints, and seeking out well-informed advocates.

Response: All forms of truth-seeking are hard and may lead to strawmanning which may lead to being condescending, harmful, or arrogant. The benefit of steelmanning is that it explicitly tries to avoid strawmanning through a foundation of empathy. By analogy, science is very hard, but it’s better than the alternatives. The proposed alternative (truth-seeking collaboration, understand actual viewpoints, seek out well-informed advocates, and finding common ground) seems to be part of proper steelmanning.

For more details of this argument, see the Steelman Anything topic.

Steelmanning one argument may strawman another

Dr. Gelman argues that steelmanning one argument may strawman another:

[Steelmanning] can lead to being uncharitable or “strawmanning” of other positions that are being opposed or caricatured by the people you are steelmanning.

Dr. Gelman’s proposed alternative is:

to try to address the arguments as [they] arise.

Steelmanning Dr. Gelman: If person A is steelmanning an argument of person B, person A might accept one of person B’s premises as part of steelmanning (i.e. empathizing “for the sake of argument”). If person A didn’t otherwise believe this premise and another person C considers this premise a strawman, then steelmanning introduced a strawman that Person A wouldn’t have otherwise done if they were just “addressing the argument as it was”.

Response: Accepting any strawman while steelmanning – even of someone who’s not necessarily involved in the argument – is a failure of steelmanning; instead, it’s tinmanning. Person A should have also steelmanned Premise P1. In contrast, “addressing an argument as it is” is not necessarily designed to reduce strawmen. Even if such an approach did not include Premise P1, it may have strawmanned other premises.

In response to the above argument: Steelmanning an argument so that all people do not consider that it contains any strawmen may be impossible due to peoples’ contradictory premises. Even if we grant in the above example that, theoretically, Person A should have steelmanned Premise P1, there may be no way to steelman it in such a way that both Person B and Person C are happy.

Response: While it may be impossible to steelman some arguments in a way that everyone accepts, if the goal is to empathize with other people for the purpose of improving relations between all people and helping achieve the best possible world for everyone, then there is no better method than steelmanning (see the all truth-seeking is hard response), and we should try our best to steelman as much as possible.

For more details of this argument, see the Steelman Anything topic.

Ironmanning: Making an unreasonable argument reasonable

For completeness, ironmanning is when someone makes another person’s “unreasonable” argument reasonable. This is the converse of strawmanning. What makes something “unreasonable” on its face is a subjective judgment, so this is not necessarily a fallacy like strawmanning or tinmanning.

In our opinion, accusations of ironmanning aren’t very useful unless the accuser is willing to debate what is “unreasonable” and why they judge the subject so.

References

6 references
  1. (Aikin & Casey, 2011):

    Aikin, S. F., & Casey, J. (2011). Straw men, weak men, and hollow men. Argumentation, 25(1), 87-105. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10503-010-9199-y

  2. (Empathy):

    Empathy. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 30 May. 2022, from https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095750102

  3. (Hansen & Zalta, 2020):

    Hansen, H., & Zalta, E. (Ed.) (2020). Fallacies. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2020 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/fallacies/

  4. (Nye, 2004):

    Nye, D. (2004). Regulatory myopia and public health: ‘tough’ tobacco control?. Competition & Change, 8(3), 305-321. https://doi.org/10.1080/1024529042000301971

  5. (Stevens, 2021):

    Stevens, K. (2021). Charity for moral reasons?–A defense of the principle of charity in argumentation. Argumentation and Advocacy, 57(2), 67-84. https://doi.org/10.1080/10511431.2021.1897327

  6. (Stueber & Zalta, 2019):

    Stueber, K., & Zalta, E. (Ed.) (2019). Empathy. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition). https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/empathy/