Why the Devil's Advocate Doesn't Help Reach the Truth

Playing the devil's advocate means challenging a position by saying what a hypothetical adversary would say. I encounter this frequently in interviews and Q&A sessions, and many people believe that this is a good way to put a controversial position to the test. What it really does is put the controversial position at a disadvantage.

There is an indirect way of playing the devil's advocate: to say, “If I defended your position, how should I respond if someone said XYZ?” This is less unfriendly than the ordinary devil's advocate, who would simply say XYZ, but has the same effect.

Cunning adversaries try intentionally to obstruct thoughtful consideration of a position they oppose. My cunning and unscrupulous adversary (the “devil,” let us say) would not want my views to get a proper hearing, especially if the devil thinks they are valid and people might agree with them. The best way to prevent that is to block me from making them understood.

The devil achieves that by twisting my words: presenting a misleading context in which my words appear to mean something other than what I intended. If this succeeds, it will confuse the audience and distract them from the issue, in effect preventing it from being properly raised. If this makes my words appear to mean something that the audience will condemn, and which nobody present is really in favor of, I may need a long explanation to get back on track. There may not be time for this, or the audience might lose focus.

If I succeed in overcoming the first misunderstanding, the cunning adversary would spring another, and another. If the adversary is better at verbal fencing than I am, I might never get my point across. If the stress makes me heated and I have trouble speaking clearly, the adversary will count that a success. It matters little to the devil whether it is my position that is vanquished or only me personally, as long as the audience rejects my views.

If you are not a real “devil,” only playing the devil's advocate, you would not really wish to prevent me from presenting the intended point. But you may prevent it without intending to. Playing the devil's advocate means you act hostile even though you don't feel hostility. Once you decide to say what an adversary would say, you are likely to do the job as well as you can, by imitating the toughest adversary you can imagine: the cunning and unscrupulous one, whose goal is to oppose rather than to get at the truth.

If you know what such adversaries have said to me, or if you are skilled at imagining them, you would say the same things they do. These statements could distract the audience and block consideration of the issue, just as if a real adversary had said them. But if you are not really my adversary, that result may not be what you really want. If your goal was to shed light on the issue, your approach will have backfired.

What I say on many issues goes against the establishment position, and I don't expect people to agree with me without considering the issue thoroughly, including the counterarguments. Indeed, it would be almost impossible for anyone to avoid considering the establishment's arguments, since everyone knows them by heart. To judge what is right requires getting to the bottom of the issue.

The kind of questions that help get to the bottom of an issue are not those that a cunning and unscrupulous adversary would pose, but rather those of a thoughtful person who has not made up per mind (1). They are questions that prise apart the aspects of the issue, so one can see the various possible positions on each aspect, what they imply, and how they relate. Very different from playing devil's advocate.

Thus, instead of trying to play the devil's advocate, I suggest that you adopt the goal of “probing the issues.” And if you are asked how you would answer if someone else asked a hostile question, perhaps this essay is a good response.


  1. The author uses the gender-neutral third person singular pronouns “person,” “per,” and “pers.”