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From Dictionary:Devils+Advocate
  1. One who argues against a cause or position, not as a committed opponent but simply for the sake of argument or to determine the validity of the cause or position.
  2. Roman Catholic Church. An official appointed to present arguments against a proposed canonization or beatification.

A sometimes important role to be played, because CriticismIsFeedback. Sometimes its deliberately imposed into a situation so as to cause conflict (eg. Roman Catholic Church, or defense attorney for some heinous criminal).

Sometimes used as an escape plan by trollers and flamers, who when cornered claim they were only playing DevilsAdvocate. Problem is, unlike institutionalised examples, this sounds opportunistic and weasely on their part.

I think that there is an unwritten social rule that says you should declare your position as DevilsAdvocate before launching your negative attack.

See also [Truth, Trolls, and Big Lies] on KuroShin

CategoryConflict CategoryRole


stating your bias as a form of conflict avoidance.

If you have some conflict of interest, then state it. If you are acting as DevilsAdvocate, then state it. Don't express opinions which are not your own ...

Another example would be SoapBoxing -- if you are taking a flamboyant grandstanding approach, then have the humility to admit that it's only for the sake of energising the debate, and not an attempt at DemaGoguery.


I once heard RichardStallman explain convincingly why he thinks DevilsAdvocate is bad. Even assuming the above advice to declare ahead of time that one is playing that role, it's still harmful in most contexts. There are some cases where DevilsAdvocate is indeed a useful role (including its original and still-functioning job over at the Vatican) but in most contexts it is harmful and not beneficial. Most frequently, people play DevilsAdvocate because they want to trot out weak arguments but not be held to account for holding bogus opinions.

society has mechanisms for punishing those that waste other's time with bogus distractions, and often the insincerity of the position will also be seen through, and the DA shield is no more.

I would invite people to list some reasons they think DevilsAdvocate is helpful, and I'll do my best to back up the claim that it is in general actually harmful. (Assuming in all cases that advance statement of being a DevilsAdvocate has taken place and that all participarts are being honest. We already know that misleading people is wrong.)

A defense attorney, even for a defendant whom everyone else believes guilty – or whom the attorney himself believes guilty – or who has confessed himself guilty – still serves the good, beneficial, helpful purpose of trying to keep the power of the state from being used recklessly against that defendant, beyond the facts that can be proven (= can survive rigorous challenge and testing) and the laws that can be shown pertinent and just.

That this is done even for those we consider most certainly guilty gives us some assurance that it will be done when we ourselves (whom we know to be innocent) are accused and considered by others to be most certainly guilty.

Two quotations illustrate this, the second literally explaining why one should advocate for the devil:

"An avidity to punish is always dangerous to liberty.   It leads men to stretch, to misinterpret, and to misapply even the best of laws.   He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression; for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself."

— Thomas Paine, Dissertation on First Principles of Government (1795)

William Roper:   So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

Sir Thomas More:   Yes!   What would you do?   Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

William Roper:   Yes, I'd cut down every law in England to do that!

Sir Thomas More:   Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned 'round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat?   This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's!   And if you cut them down, and you're just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then?   Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!

— Robert Bolt, A Man For All Seasons (1960)

Count me with these doubting Thomases.   By arguing against our eager beliefs, by demanding every assumption undergo testing, the DevilsAdvocate helps keep us from going wrong, and doing wrong, through being too sure we're right.   That's as important in science and politics as in canonization or court.   — JohnSLSingleton

Suppose we have a speaker giving a political talk. Someone stands up and raises a DevilsAdvocate point. That means they don't agree with the words coming out of their own mouth. Simply disagreeing with the speaker is not playing DevilsAdvocate. So this person who is challenging assumptions: do they think the assumptions are correct or incorrect, or are they unsure? If they think they are correct, why are they challenging them? If they think they are incorrect, then they should have the courage to say "your assumptions are wrong" rather than hiding noncomittally behind a DevilsAdvocate shield.

When one plays DevilsAdvocate, one is either a) advancing arguments one thinks are fallacious, or b) advancing arguments when one is unsure. (a) is bad, and (b) is inferior to just saying "I'm unsure".

If they are uncommitted, they should say "I'm uncommitted." They could say "I think you're assuming that P, but I'm not so sure about P". Challenging assumptions is fine, but exactly how does playing DevilsAdvocate help do so? Why not just challenge? So that answers, I think, the first two points. The third confuses me. It's often good to shift to concrete analysis (though not always), but how does DevilsAdvocate make that easier?

Ignoring the fact the above argument is a potentially a DevilsAdvocate position, there are the twin points of Wiki:SixThinkingHats and HealthyConflict in favour of Devil's advocates.

I'm in danger of repeating myself. Indeed, some refactoring is ultimately going to be necessary, obviously. But I'll try to pin down why I think Wiki:SixThinkingHats and HealthyConflict are good, but DevilsAdvocate is (normally) not good.

Specifically, DevilsAdvocate involves promoting arguments that one fundamentally thinks are invalid arguments. (If one thought they were valid, it would simply be disagreement, but not DevilsAdvocate.) If I propose an argument that I think is invalid, I'm either trying to score points by winning arguments for their own sake, or it seems I'm hiding crucial information from others. If I'm really just unsure (I don't know if the argument is valid or not), then DevilsAdvocate is a poor way of expressing unsureness. Better is to just say "I want to agree with you, but I'm worried about argument P which seems to suggest you're wrong."

Specifically, DevilsAdvocate involves promoting arguments that one fundamentally thinks are invalid arguments.

Not necessarily. It could be that the position being argued for is counter to the value system assumed. It's not about pushing fallacious arguments at all - it's pushing [valid] arguments from a position which has a different set of values/goals, and hence a different point of view. Consider an argument put forward by a spokesman for the workers, railing against the tyranny of the bosses. If the boss were there, they could explain things from their point of view (they too have children to feed, etc) ... but if the boss were not there, who would? With no defense, all manner of fallacious arguments and assumptions would be left untouched (the boss is evil and only wants to put everyone out of work). The DevilsAdvocate, in this situation, simply says: hey waitaminit, consider it from the other perspective ... -- EricScheid

[The last text was from one of the "italic" people, more or less. The present text is from the "anti-DevilsAdvocate" guy. (That said in the hopes of keeping clear, more or less, who is who.)] I think we are happily reaching some agreement here. I agree with all of the last paragraph, except one single point: I don't think that the situation described is one of DevilsAdvocate. (See the defn at the top of this page.) One doesn't have to be the boss to say "The boss has children to feed too", and doing so isn't doing it "just for the sake of the argument". Basically, the speaker needs to ask himself "does it change my mind that the boss has children to feed"? If the answer is "yes", then he should say "I'm against this because the boss also has children to feed" (not DevilsAdvocate). If the answer is "no", then why is he bringing it up? To try and change other peoples' minds to something he thinks is wrong? If he is undecided, he should say so. So basically I agree completely with all that has been said about being a SqueakyWheel?, and QuestioningAssumptions? and raising AlternativePointsOfView?: I just don't think that fits the notion of DevilsAdvocate. (Though I grant that the term is often [incorrectly] used for such.) Well, my name has landed quite enough in RecentChanges on this topic, and for a newbie at that! So I'll not say more on the subject here (though I'll happilly continue to discuss in my home page if you like), and maybe after a few weeks, come back and attempt to refactor this very interesting exchange.

I agree with all of the last paragraph, except one single point: I don't think that the situation described is one of DevilsAdvocate
Think carefully ... what would you call the person that speaks, pleads, or argues *in favor* of the despised but absent evil power? (See Dictionary:advocate)

I just don't think that fits the notion of DevilsAdvocate.

This page has become a dispute about the meaning of the term Devil's Advocate, which is funny because the page starts with a definition which we supposedly agree on. Everyone agrees that questioning assumptions is valuable as well as raising alternative points of view. The questions are

  1. are these functions served by playing devil's advocate?
  2. is there a better term than Devil's advocate to use?

I think the answers are yes and no, that is i disagree with anti devil's advocate guy. Arguments are supported by beliefs, facts and suppositions, and using a device like devil's advocate uncovers these crucial bases which form our makeup. Even if you do not believe that the argument you are advancing undermines your opponents claim, it is extremely important that that argument be advanced. So the following characterization is incomplete:

When one plays DevilsAdvocate, one is either a) advancing arguments one thinks are fallacious, or b) advancing arguments when one is unsure.

The point is not that the arguments advanced are fallacious, rather that they are illuminating. So I claim that by definition Devil's advocate serves the functions of 1, since playing devil's advocate honestly causes clarification and the uncovering of bias, "the sake of argument" is clarification and uncovering foundations "determines the validity of the cause or position."

As for 2 I don't know of a better term, perhaps there is one.

Finally, I believe that the objection to devil's advocate is really a result of people using the term contrary to its spirit, which is clarification, instead using it to avoid blame or losing face. This is simply dishonest and we should not allow the very important and legitimate use of devil's advocacy to be undermined by it.

-- LynHeadley

Maybe a beter term would be MetaAdvocate? Stepping back and overviewing all posible points of view and not the limited narrow view, which is the current subject of discussion? At least for the positive aspect it would be a better term I think.

My general experience is that it depends very much on the community: People who see the wider picture find playing Devils Advocate, or seeing others play DA amusing, the people who don't or can't see the wider picture will decide that the DA is not playing fair and is cheating them out of a clear victory. The problem there is the fact that these people do not want to find the truth; they want, and mostly need, to win the argument. I really never understood that. A completely other problem is insecurity: people who feel insecure will have to believe very hard in their point of view. They can not even consider any alternative view not even as a remotely possibility. To them the DA is just a heretic and nothing more then that. Sometimes you have both kind of people and then it can become very ugly very quick.

My first hypotheses is that only in psychological very healthy communities there will be support for DA's. My second hypotheses is that you can't have a psychological very healthy community without a lot of DA's. (I have no proof, nor test case, to back this up).

-- gmlk


Contrary to popular belief, the DevilsAdvocate is not committed to contrarianism. Rather, he or she proceeds upon the presumption that there is no one right position, that there are many valid viewpoints, each of which deserves to be explored, and that the best way to temper GroupThink is by presenting a principled, albeit biased opposition in favor of the leading minority position. -- DavidPrenatt

That is a fine and interesting claim. Can you substantiate it from somewhere or do you just mean thats how you behave as a DevilsAdvocate? -- AndrewCates


See also CourtJester


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