Words of Wisdom 3: The Methods on Motivation

We are now over a week out from the end of the TOC. One thing this means, besides a bunch of high schoolers realizing they don’t know what to do with free time, is that for the last week my Facebook thread has been filled with sentimental and moving posts in which debaters attempt to capture what debate has meant to them.

Many common themes permeate these posts, and the same themes show up year after year. In this post, I want to dwell on one of those themes, namely, the idea that the real value that comes from debate does not come from winning debate rounds.

Debaters, when they reflect on debate’s value, emphasize the friends they have made, the skills they have honed, the lessons they have learnt and the passions that they have discovered. Those are the things that seem to make debate worth doing.

And it’s a good thing that debate is about more than winning rounds. After all, winning is fundamentally zero sum. If you win that means someone else loses; it would be a shame if the central value of debate was zero sum in that way.

But this leaves us with a puzzle. If the real value of debate does not come from winning, then why do we focus so much on trying to win? If debate is about the friends you make, then why do debate camps give lectures on building strategies and no lectures on building friendships? If debate is about portable skills, then why do we spend so much time learning to case and no time learning to canvas? Debaters put in an incredible amount of time and energy into winning rounds; doing things, like spreading, preflowing, combing the wiki, and many of these things serve almost no function beyond competitive success.

This is an important puzzle for, not only for individual debaters but for coaches and debate camps to think on. Why do we focus on helping our students win rounds if winning, in the grand scheme of things, does not matter much?

I don’t think there is a single solution to this puzzle, but I want to mention one part of a solution. We care about winning because sometimes we can only get what we really care about indirectly, and by primarily pursuing something else.  This elegant solution is applied to the value of ‘winning’  by my favorite British utilitarian, Henry Sidgwick. In his greatest work, The Methods of Ethics:

It is almost a commonplace to say that such pleasures, which we may call generally the pleasures of Pursuit, are more important than the pleasures of Attainment: and in many cases it is the prospect of the former rather than of the latter that induces us to engage in a pursuit. In such cases it is peculiarly easy to distinguish the desire to attain the object pursued, from a desire of the pleasure of attainment: since the attainment only becomes pleasant in prospect because the pursuit itself stimulates a desire for what is pursued. Take, for example, the case of any game which involves—as most games do—a contest for victory. No ordinary player before entering on such a contest, has any desire for victory in it: indeed he often finds it difficult to imagine himself deriving gratification from such victory, before he has actually engaged in the competition. What he deliberately, before the game begins, desires is not victory, but the pleasant excitement of the struggle for it; only for the full development of this pleasure a transient desire to win the game is generally indispensable. This desire, which does not exist at first, is stimulated to considerable intensity by the competition itself: and in proportion as it is thus stimulated both the mere contest becomes more pleasurable, and the victory, which was originally indifferent, comes to afford a keen enjoyment. (46-7)

I’ve always found Sidgwick’s example of a game quite helpful. I love playing board games, and find it enjoyable even when I lose. However, I can’t stand playing board games with people who are not trying to win (especially in Risk where one player who does not care very much randomly attacks me even though it’s not really in their interest, undoing the entire game balance).

But this is odd. The game is enjoyable even if we do not win. However, if I do not try to win then even that enjoyment (which exists even when I lose) disappears. Even though winning does not matter, I need to care about winning or I won’t get the enjoyment (which is what does matter).  The lesson, while paradoxical, is an important one to learn. Sometimes you can only get what you care about, by first caring about something that does not matter!

And this seems to explain why, even if it does not really matter if we win or lose, it’s reasonable to spend so much time and energy trying to win. Just as you get more enjoyment when you are really trying to win a game, so you learn and develop more when you are really trying to win a tournament.

The picture this leaves us with is straightforward and elegant. We try to win rounds, because in really trying to win we get more out of debate.

But life is rarely so simple and elegant. Just as we can often more effectively get the goods of debate by pursuing them indirectly by aiming at winning, so too we can often get the good of winning by pursuing it indirectly by aiming at something else!

Consider this second passage of Sidgwick’s:

A man who maintains throughout an epicurean mood, keeping his main conscious aim perpetually fixed on his own pleasure, does not catch the full spirit of the chase; his eagerness never gets just the sharpness of edge which imparts to the pleasure its highest zest. Here comes into view what we may call the fundamental paradox of Hedonism, that the impulse towards pleasure, if too predominant, defeats its own aim. This effect is not visible, or at any rate is scarcely visible, in the case of passive sensual pleasures. But of our active enjoyments generally, whether the activities on which they attend are classed as ‘bodily’ or as ‘intellectual’ (as well as of many emotional pleasures), it may certainly be said that we cannot attain them, at least in their highest degree, so long as we keep our main conscious aim concentrated upon them. It is not only that the exercise of our faculties is insufficiently stimulated by the mere desire of the pleasure attending it, and requires the presence of other more objective, ‘extra-regarding,’ impulses, in order to be fully developed: we may go further and say that these other impulses must be temporarily predominant and absorbing, if the exercise and its attendant gratification are to attain their full scope. Many middle-aged Englishmen would maintain the view that business is more agreeable than amusement; but they would hardly find it so if they transacted the business with a perpetual conscious aim at the attendant pleasure. Similarly, the pleasures of thought and study can only be enjoyed in the highest degree by those who have an ardour of curiosity which carries the mind temporarily away from self and its sensations. In all kinds of Art, again, the exercise of the creative faculty is attended by intense and exquisite pleasures: but it would seem that in order to get them, one must forget them: the genuine artist at work seems to have a predominant and temporarily absorbing desire for the realisation of his ideal of beauty. (48-9)

One of Sidgwick’s examples concerns study and research. Ultimately there is a lot of good things we can get out of studying (such as winning debate rounds). However, we are able to get those benefits, to the fullest extent, when we are motivated by a disinterested love of truth. If you are thinking through an issue from the lens of ‘what will help me win’ it will undermine your ability to think deeply and clearly. Bertrand Russell makes this point powerfully:

All acquisition of knowledge is an enlargement of the Self, but this enlargement is best attained when it is not directly sought. It is obtained when the desire for knowledge is alone operative, by a study which does not wish in advance that its objects should have this or that character, but adapts the Self to the characters which it finds in its objects. This enlargement of Self is not obtained when, taking the Self as it is, we try to show that the world is so similar to this Self that knowledge of it is possible without any admission of what seems alien. The desire to prove this is a form of self-assertion and, like all self-assertion, it is an obstacle to the growth of Self which it desires, and of which the Self knows that it is capable. Self-assertion, in philosophic speculation as elsewhere, views the world as a means to its own ends; thus it makes the world of less account than Self, and the Self sets bounds to the greatness of its goods. In contemplation, on the contrary, we start from the not-Self, and through its greatness the boundaries of Self are enlarged; through the infinity of the universe the mind which contemplates it achieves some share in infinity. (Chapter XV of The Problems of Philosophy)

I think this is one of the most important things for debaters to learn.

My specialty is in philosophy debate. And I can attest that deepening your understanding of philosophy will help you win debate rounds. But, if you only pursue philosophy instrumentally, rather than because you are really fascinated by it, your understanding will never get very deep. The best framework debaters are always those whose passion to read philosophy leads them to read philosophy even when it does not apply to debate rounds.

And this generalizes beyond philosophy debate. In any subject, if you are constantly thinking about the debate application you are not really thinking about the subject matter. To really understand any literature base, you must become invested in that literature on its terms, not on your terms. Sometimes it is only by putting aside your desire to win that you can take up a desire to learn.

And so, we return to where we started, and we have vindicated the lesson of my Facebook stream. Debate, in the end, is about more than winning (even if winning is all you care about); and it’s important for debaters to internalize that fact.