Lat. “devil’s advocate”. A legitimate rhetorical technique in which a discussant takes an opposing position in order to test and sharpen arguments in debate.
Unlike the straw man argument, the advocatus diaboli does not take a weaker or easily attackable position, but on the contrary, argues as solidly as possible.
Origin of the name
The term “advocatus diaboli ” originally comes from ecclesiastical law and refers to a party in a process for canonization whose task is to argue against the evidence presented by the Church (whose representative is the “advocatus dei ”).
It is an experience that everybody must have made at some point, that an argument, which seemed to be completely clear and plausible to oneself or to peers who were of the same opinion anyway, suddenly becomes much less convincing when one is actually confronted with counter-arguments.
It therefore helps to sharpen the argument if someone takes on the role of the opponent in a (friendly) argument and helps to question one’s own position – for example, to prepare answers to expected counter-arguments and possibly also to modify one’s position to one that is easier to defend.
For this type of role-playing, it is important that the advocatus diaboli argues proverbially “tough but fair“, i.e., does not spare the opponents, but also does not use unfair tricks (unless one wants to practice precisely how to respond to unfair rhetorical tricks).
In many groups of people, some form of consensus is established about certain ways of thinking and basic assumptions that can no longer be questioned (☞ groupthink). In this situation, an “advocatus diaboli ” can help to question these basic assumptions and ensure that they remain grounded in reality.
A kind of “inner” advocatus diaboli, i.e. a self-critical reflection on possible counterarguments, can help to avoid certain forms of fallacious thinking and cognitive biasses (e.g. confirmation or overconfidence biasses).
- Devil’s advocate on Wikipedia