by Bradley Doucet*
Debates Challenge Us To Think Critically (Print Version)
Le Québécois Libre, May
15, 2011, No 289.
It is natural to want to be right; it takes effort to find out
if we are. And how can we find out? As John Stuart Mill, one of the
great English philosophers, put it, “He who knows only his own side of
the case knows little of that.” Only by engaging with intelligent people
who hold divergent views can we acquaint ourselves with the various
sides of an issue and arrive at an informed opinion.
Debates, by bringing together world-class thinkers who hold
divergent views on the issues of the day and pitting them against one
another in an intellectual arena, provide us with some of the raw
material we need in order to arrive at an informed opinion. As Peter
Munk points out at the start of one of the debates, it takes real
courage to step out of one’s comfort zone behind a lectern and engage
with others every bit as intelligent and every bit as informed as
oneself. As these mental gladiators clash before a flesh and blood
audience of thousands and a virtual audience of many more, they
challenge our preconceptions. At worst, they leave us a little less
ignorant; at best, we are enlightened.
Held twice a year in Toronto, the first six debates—all of which are
available in book form, as PDF files, as audio podcasts, and as video
streams—feature a range of topics and high-calibre speakers:
- Global Security: Be it resolved the world is a safer place
with a Republican in the White House.
(Charles Krauthammer & Niall Ferguson vs. Samantha Power & Richard
- Humanitarian Intervention: Be it resolved that if countries
like Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Burma will not end their man-made
humanitarian crises, the international community should.
(Gareth Evans & Mia Farrow vs. John Bolton & Rick Hillier)
- Foreign Aid: Be it resolved foreign aid does more harm than
(Hernando de Soto & Dambisa Moyo vs. Stephen Lewis & Paul Collier)
- Climate Change: Be it resolved climate change is mankind’s
defining crisis and demands a commensurate response.
(George Monbiot & Elizabeth May vs. Bjørn Lomborg & Lord Nigel
- Health Care: Be it resolved that I would rather get sick in
the United States than in Canada.
(Dr. William Frist & Dr. David Gratzer vs. Dr. Howard Dean & Dr.
- Religion: Be it resolved religion is a force for good in the
(Tony Blair vs. Christopher Hitchens)
The next debate, which is already sold out but can be streamed live
over the Internet, is to be held on June 17, 2011:
- China: Be it resolved the 21st century will belong to China.
(Niall Ferguson & David Daokui Li vs. Henry Kissinger & Fareed
Testing Their Mettle
Ask the next person you meet on the street, and chances are, he or she
will have an opinion on the effectiveness of foreign aid. But is it an
informed opinion if it fails to take into account the millions of people
alive today who would be dead, Stephen Lewis points out, if not for
donated AIDS drugs and insecticide-treated bed-nets? Is it an informed
opinion if it is ignorant of Lewis’s condemnation of American and
European agricultural subsidies that make it impossible for African
farmers to work their way out of poverty by exporting their products, or
of Hernando de Soto’s point that despite higher rates of return on
capital, investment actually flees the developing world because of a
lack of secure property rights there? What about Paul Collier’s
acknowledgement that yes, trade and governance and security are
important, but aid remains an integral part of the equation because
people living at the margin of subsistence cannot reduce their
consumption any further in order to accumulate capital? And what of the
accusations levelled by Dambisa Moyo, that aid fuels corruption,
encourages inflation, leaves developing nations saddled with debt, kills
off the export sector, induces social unrest, kills entrepreneurship,
and disenfranchises the citizens of the countries that receive it?
No one can have an informed opinion on the issue of foreign aid without
at least having done the equivalent of reading or watching this
excellent debate. Likewise when it comes to the issue of climate change,
although with this debate, one of the participants, Canadian Green Party
Leader Elizabeth May, is less than stellar. Her participation is replete
with appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks on one of her opponents,
Bjørn Lomborg, for whom she feels obvious disdain. Perhaps partly as a
result of her subpar performance, support among audience members for her
side of the debate (arguing that climate change is mankind’s defining
crisis) fell from 61 percent before the contest began to 53 percent
after it was over.
There are moments here and there, too, when debaters fail to respond to
an argument made by their opponents, preferring to talk past one another.
For instance, during the debate on healthcare, Dr. William Frist points
out that comparisons of life expectancy, which make Canadian healthcare
look good because Canadians live longer than Americans, are not all
they’re cracked up to be. This is because behaviour (think homicide and
obesity rates) and genetics are far more important factors than
healthcare in determining life expectancy. Control for those variables,
and Americans live longer, says Dr. Frist. Neither of his opponents made
any substantive response.
The Window of Acceptable Debate
I heartily recommend reading, listening to, or watching this debate
series, and tuning in live online for the upcoming debate on China. The
series as a whole is as entertaining as it is informative and thought-provoking.
Watching the debates, especially, gives one a real sense of who these
eminent debaters are, and allows one to sense the passion they feel for
these important topics.
That being said, in addition to the caveats mentioned above, regular
readers of Le Québécois Libre should not expect any of the
debaters to express outright libertarian views. None of the participants
in the Global Security or Humanitarian Intervention debates expresses
the kind of non-interventionism borne of a deep distrust in the
intentions and efficiencies of government actors as such, for instance.
Nor does anyone in the Climate Change debate even bring up the idea that
governments tend to make environmental problems worse, not better. None
of those who face off in the Healthcare debate argue for the benefits
that would accrue to patients in a completely unrestricted market, which
Americans most definitely do not enjoy. Even Hernando de Soto, a staunch
defender of property rights for the developing world, is quick to reject
the label of “freewheeling neoliberal” when it is hurled at him by
Clearly, there is still work to do before really radical capitalism has
a voice in prominent debates of this kind. Notwithstanding this, these
debates expose us to many of the arguments being made on several sides
of some of the biggest issues of our day. As such, they provide a
valuable service to a world filled with too many people who know they’re
right without ever having seriously challenged themselves to think
critically. And the rest of us can learn a thing or two as well.
Doucet is a writer living in Montreal. He has studied
philosophy and economics, and is currently completing a novel on
the pursuit of happiness. He also is QL's English Editor.