Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Honesty vs Intellectual Honesty

I often use the term “intellectual honesty” and sometimes people wonder if there is a difference between being honest and being intellectually honest. Matthew Yglesias is one who does not see the difference:

I’m provided with yet another opportunity to marvel at the frequency with which the term “intellectually honest” is bandied about in punditry circles. I feel like I’ve been somehow held back in my career by confusion about what this phrase means. Does it just mean “honest”? And if the phrase “intellectually honest” is synonymous with “honest” then why are so many professional writers using it?


Noah Millman does a fair job of explaining the difference:

“Intellectually honest” means you make arguments you think are true, as opposed to making the arguments you are “supposed” to make and/or avoiding making arguments that you think are true that you aren’t “supposed” to make.

Advocates, by contrast, make the best arguments they can think of for the position that they are obliged to take by their position. They are still supposed to be honest – they are not supposed to actually lie. But they are not expected to follow their own consciences with respect to the arguments they make or the positions they advance.

And Julian Sanchez expands on this definition:

Back when I debated for NYU, I was always honest: I would not knowingly assert factual falsehoods. But I was often intellectually dishonest, because my job in those particular contests was not to engage in an impartial search for Platonic truth; it was to win the damn round. I would happily make arguments I thought were weak if I thought the judges would find them convincing and the weaknesses would be too subtle for the opposition to properly exploit. I would gloss over counterarguments I knew to be potentially devastating if I thought the other side had flubbed the presentation, leaving the audience unaware just how damaging the argument was, and spend more time than was necessary heaping mockery on the weaker arguments, hoping it would make my opponents seem silly and undermine their broader credibility. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer my own doubts about my arguments, or acknowledge responses I thought had hit home–unless strategically, as a prelude to a stronger counter…

All that said, what we often want from writers, above and beyond the minimal requirement that they not deliberately mislead or misinform us, is the full and sincere engagement of their brains, including all the doubts and reservations, rather than the most vigorous defense they can offer of a position. And since so much of politics is ultimately about winning the round, that kind of honesty is a good deal rarer than I think would be healthy.

I think Sanchez is very close, and his use of competitive debate as a reference point is quite similar to my own. I spent about 10 years in that world of competitive debate, where it is required that you argue a position even if you don’t believe it. Dishonesty of the regular type is still a very bad thing in that world — if you were to make up a piece of evidence, falsify a credential or a statistic, that was a serious violation of ethics.

But intellectual dishonesty is a requirement of the game. You cannot argue opposite sides of an issue and genuinely believe them both to be true, which means that when you make an argument you do not actually believe you have to commit logical fallacies — often quite intentionally — in order to do your job well. At the very least, you have to present a case you do not believe in.

But in every day discourse, few are aware of the logical fallacies they commit and even fewer are committed to discovering them and rethinking their position when they do realize it was based on a fallacy. And that is where intellectual honesty comes in. The most common form, in my experience, is a refusal to follow one’s own logic to its obvious conclusion.

I’ll give you an example. The other day I got an email from a Democratic party official in Oakland County, Michigan. The Republican county clerk there is running for Secretary of State and this Democratic official was demanding that she resign her position because she cannot do her job and campaign for office at the same time.

I emailed him back and asked if he would make the same argument about Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a Democrat who is running for governor while also doing his job as mayor, or of David Leyton, the Democratic prosecutor from Genessee County who is running for Attorney General while still doing his job.

His response, in brief: “That’s outside of Oakland County so that doesn’t matter to me.” But if his logic applies in Oakland County then it applies in every other county as well. Why wasn’t he calling for all current officeholders, regardless of party, to resign while they campaign? Because he wasn’t making an intellectually honest argument, he was making an argument of political convenience and refusing to apply the reasoning of that argument in a coherent and consistent manner.

We see this kind of partisan thinking all the time. Republicans bash Obama for taking vacations and playing golf when they never bashed Bush for the same thing (and vice versa, of course). This is the nature of partisan argument, which is why it is so irritating to those of us who care more about principles than partisanship.

It’s a version of sports fan politics, where your side has never ever committed a foul in the entire history of the program, while the other side has never scored a point without cheating.