VBI Family: Interview with Ryan Davis

Ryan Davis is currently studying philosophy at Harvard University. He received a B.A. in Political Science from Arizona State University in 2005, an M.A. in Politics from Princeton University in 2007, and a Ph.D. in Political Philosophy from Princeton in 2011. He began debating LD and policy in 1996, and dabbled in parliamentary debate as a grad student.  He is currently a coach for the Bronx HIgh School of Science, and has coached multiple TOC qualifers and tournament champions. He was an instructor at VBI during the summers of 2010 and 2011.   

You’re currently pursuing a degree in philosophy at Harvard University, and you have a PhD from Princeton in Political Philosophy. What shaped your interest in philosophy? Was it sparked by debate? 

Absolutely it was sparked by debate.  Philosophers are (often, literally) just debaters who got old.  My senior year I started running Kantian ethics in many rounds.  I am still in that business.

You have participated in LD, policy, and parliamentary debate. Which event was your favorite, and why? 

LD is my favorite.  In LD and in policy, the players of the game also control the rules of the game at the same time they areplaying, and so debate is as good or as bad as we together make it.  I think that is part of what makes our activity special.  LD is sometimes limited by the smaller number of speeches (relative to policy), but I like the old-fashioned philosophical subject matter of LD better.

You recently co-wrote an article titled “Teaching Philosophy through Lincoln-Douglas Debate” with Jake Nebel, Peter Van Elswyk, and Ben Holguin. How do you think that LD debaters can get the most philosophical education out of their debate experience? 

As judges and coaches, we like to complain about how debate has changed.  But the truth is that LD today is better than ever.  Part of the reason is that debaters have started taking contemporary philosophy very seriously.  Not just moral philosophy, but other parts of the discipline that bear on how we think about and answer resolution-type questions.  But that is not the answer to your question.  The answer to your question is: By reading the literature.  If you don’t read the literature yourself, you will not be getting the most philosophical education out of debate.  ReadPhilosophy & Public Affairs.  Read Ethics.  Keep reading Ripstein’s book.  Whatever you want, but read some literature.  

Entering the world of philosophy can seem intimidating to younger debaters- the required reading list to do well in LD seems impossible at times. How would you recommend one begin? 

As a community, we have an incredible resource in that there are many coaches and judges who know a lot about philosophy.  I think debaters should not just think about the round they are in (“What is your threshold on theory?”); they should ask judges if they have any advice about what to read that would be relevant to positions they are already running, or what their favorite general pieces are.  I think most judges would be happy to field those questions.  My own favorite-ever articles include Korsgaard’s “Reasons We Can Share,” Velleman’s “Love as a Moral Emotion,” and Rae Langton’s “Duty and Desolation.”  If you haven’t read those yet, I envy you because reading them for the first time blew me away.

How do you think the study of philosophy interacts with empirical questions of social justice? 

Like all debaters, I have acquired lots of opinions about what empirical changes need to be made to make the world more just.  But I think the most important ones are about the social justice of debate itself.  We can’t do much to change the moral problems in the world, but we can do a great deal to change moral problems in debate.  We should actively think about how to treat each other with kindness.  I am not always the best at this, but I have learned from observing and listening to many coaches in our community, and I also (and here I sound old, but this is true) am really impressed by the debaters who have graduated but stayed for a few years after to teach others, help coach their own students and competing students, and make debate a more welcoming place for everybody.  I think that lots of people who  continue to make high school debate a priority while in college deserve our collective thanks.

What is your favorite memory from VBI? 

I don’t think I’ve ever worked crazier, more intense hours then at VBI.  But I loved being there, and I learned a lot about debate.  The article you mentioned above, or at least a distant ancestor of it, started as a conversation between us and Neil Conrad at In-N-Out. I also had a long conversation in which I learned about why the Sith were not originally supposed to use light sabers. I have always wanted to write about Star Wars, so maybe I’ll try that as well.

If you could say anything to your high school self, what would it be? 

There is nothing like debate.  Just like debaters go to a lot of tournaments, philosophers go to a lot of talks.  I’ve given talks at ivy league schools, state schools, conferences, at Oxford and the LSE.  From what I can tell so far, my guess is that there is no experience in academic philosophy as exhilarating winning–say–Glenbrooks (which I’ve never done; but I bet it’s awesome).  It is easy to think that debate is preparation for something else.  But I don’t think debate matters for the sake of something in the future.  Debate matters because we care about it.  It matters now.