008 – WANTED: Mixed Martial Arts for Argument Ninjas

If we think of rational persuasion as a martial art, what kind of martial art should it be? In this episode I argue that a mixed martial arts approach is the only one that makes sense.

But there’s a problem. Philosophical principles play an obvious and important role in traditional martial arts practices. They don’t seem to play an important role in mixed martial arts (or if they do, it’s not obvious.) An MMA program for Argument Ninjas needs a philosophy grounded in core critical thinking principles.

In This Episode:

  • The clash of martial arts styles and the emergence of mixed martial arts
  • Taekwondo as an example of a traditional martial art
  • Rules of Taekwondo sparring
  • Why would anyone choose to train in a single martial art style?
  • Lessons learned from sparring and competition
  • Examples of Taekwondo philosophy
  • What would a philosophy of mixed martial arts (MMA) look like?
  • Bruce Lee’s influence on MMA
  • Bruce Lee’s philosophy of martial arts
  • Persuasion Ninja vs Argument Ninja


“When you train in a martial art you will face opponents who are more skilled than you in every way, and you will lose to them, over and over and over. The only way to continue, and improve, is to get over yourself. Let go of your ego, let go of your fear of failure, and learn to see things as they really are. Learn how to be okay with failure and to learn from failure. Because when you interpret failure in this way, it’s not really failure anymore. It’s just learning.”

“There’s nothing preventing a martial art from having both a strong emphasis on effectiveness as a combat art, and a guiding philosophy that transcends the goals of combat.”

“If your focus isn’t solely on persuasion, but also on persuasion for good reasons — actually having good reasons for the beliefs you have, and the decisions you make — then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal isn’t just to become a better fighter. You’re also committed to something else, something that transcends combat, and even the physicality of training. Something that aims at truth and wisdom.”

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This is the Argument Ninja podcast, episode 8!

Hi everyone this is Kevin deLaplante and you’re listening to the Argument Ninja podcast. I’m a philosopher and critical thinking educator, and on this show I talk about argumentation and what it means to become an independent critical thinker, filtered through our growing knowledge of the psychology of belief and persuasion.

I’m interested in developing a program of instruction in critical thinking that is grounded in the study of rational persuasion. This is the main point of this podcast, to provide a forum for me to work out the elements of such a program.

Whenever I try to explain what I mean by a theory of rational persuasion, I find myself falling back on analogies with traditional martial arts practices.

In these martial arts disciplines there’s often a dual emphasis: there’s an emphasis on combat techniques and other physical aspects of the martial art, and there’s an emphasis on ethical or philosophical principles that serve as governing ideals for the practice. I’m interested in how these two dimensions of martial arts practice interact with each other.

For me this is helpful to explore, because I see parallels in the relationship between methods of persuasion, on the one hand, and principles of rational argumentation on the other. I’m interested in how persuasion and argumentation interact in the practice of rational argumentation, and I’m looking to the philosophy of the martial arts as a resource for insights and ideas that I can apply to this other case.

On this episode I want to talk about the differences between traditional martial arts disciplines, which have a particular style and focus, and what we now call “mixed martial arts”, which combines techniques from a variety of martial arts styles.

I like the idea of a mixed martial arts approach to rational persuasion. I think this is how a program of instruction ultimately has to be structured.

But there’s a problem that faces any attempt to model a theory of rational persuasion on mixed martial arts. Philosophical principles play an obvious and important role in traditional martial arts practices. They don’t seem to play an important role in mixed martial arts; or if they do, it’s not obvious. The program that I’m developing needs a philosophical dimension

So in this episode I’m going to explore this question, and see if I can’t resolve this problem in a satisfying way, for myself if not for everyone.

The episode is longer than usual so I hope you’ll bear with me. Get yourself a drink, clear some time in your schedule, and let me share some time with you.

I’m going to start out with a little history on the comparison of different martial arts styles, the emergence of mixed martial arts in the 20th century, and raise the question of why anyone trains in a traditional martial art anymore.

I use taekwondo as a case study to explore this question. I talk about what people can learn from practicing a martial art, even if it’s a restrictive and stylized martial art like taekwondo.

We get into the philosophy of taekwondo, and then I raise the question of what a philosophy of mixed martial arts would look like.

I talk a bit about Bruce Lee and his influence on mixed martial arts, and Bruce’s Lee’s philosophy of martial arts.

And then I bring the discussion back to persuasion and argumentation. I define what I call a “persuasion ninja”, and how I distinguish that from an “argument ninja”.

And finally I describe an MMA approach to learning the art of rational persuasion — MMA for the Argument Ninja — and how this approach solves the problem that I just raised.

Okay, let’s begin.

You know there are traditional martial arts styles like shotokan karate, taekwando, judo, wing chun kung fu, Brazilian jiu-jitsu, and so on, that each have their particular style and training methods.

One of the oldest pastimes of martial arts enthusiasts is to argue over which style is better or more effective against which other style. If you can take a person to the ground, a style that emphasizes grappling is going to have a huge advantage over one that doesn’t. If you’re forced to stay on your feet and slug it out, a trained boxer has some real advantages over some other styles.

In the history of martial arts competition, the idea of pitting one style against another isn’t anything new. You see French savate fighters squaring off against English bare knuckle fighters in the late 19th century. You’d see wrestling against boxing, boxing against karate, and so on.

In these match-ups there was a lot invested in being a representative of your style, so if the boxer started throwing kicks, that wasn’t something that was encouraged in these matches.

But over time this philosophy started to shift, and the idea of combining elements of different styles became more acceptable.

Bruce Lee was one of a number of people who were instrumental in introducing this idea into the West. He famously said that “the best fighter is not a Boxer, Karate or Judo man. The best fighter is someone who can adapt to any style, to be formless, to adopt an individual’s own style and not follow the system of styles”.

In this respect, Bruce Lee anticipated what has now become the standard training regimen for mixed martial artists. Fighters tend to start out in one field, like boxing or judo or jiu-jitsu, and they may end up favoring that style of fighting, but they all train to be able to strike from a standing position, they all train to do takedowns and throws from a clinching position, and they all train in submission holds in a ground position.

It makes you wonder why anyone still trains in a single school or style. I remember having this conversation with a student of mine in one of my office hours, back in the day when I had office hours. He was an MMA fan and thought it was just obvious that training in taekwondo or judo all by itself was a mistake, that the only training that made any sense was training that made you an effective fighter in a standing position, in the clinch and on the ground, in realistic fighting situations.

In his view, spending all that time in taekwondo learning a specific set of forms and how to do absurd spinning kicks was not only time wasted; it left you systematically weak and vulnerable in other areas.

And so I asked him, if it’s so obviously wrong-headed to train this way — why do you think people do it? Why do people train for years to get their second and third and fourth degree black belt in specific style like taekwondo?

And he paused, and he said, “I guess they just enjoy the challenge of mastering the techniques. Their goal isn’t to be good at fighting, their goal is to be good at taekwondo”.

And I replied that I think there’s some truth to that. But it would be odd to say that they don’t care about getting better at fighting, when, as it is in some schools, a certain portion of every training session is dedicated to sparring, and they often compete in sparring tournaments. It’s clear that fighting is an integral part of what they do.

Here’s how I would describe this situation now, and see if you can anticipate how I’m going to frame the analogy with argumentation and persuasion and critical thinking.

When you train in a martial art, you’re entering a ritualized space where certain rules are imposed, and in choosing to train in that martial art, you agree to abide by those rules.

The training you do is simultaneously constrained by those rules, and an expression of respect for those rules, because the rules are intended to help you achieve certain higher goals. These goals are the primary purpose for studying the martial art. And this primary purpose is almost never about winning fights.

So, when you’re sparring in taekwondo, for example, you wear a full set of protective sparring gear, and the rules are very restrictive.

You can punch, with a clenched fist, and you can kick, with any part of your foot below the ankle. That’s it. No other techniques are allowed except punches and kicks.

You can kick to two places. Your opponent’s chest protector or their head. You can punch the chest protector but you can’t punch the face or the head.

You can’t kick or punch your opponent’s spine or below their chest protector.  You can’t grab, hold or push your opponent. You can’t attack below the waist. You can’t strike with your elbows or knees.

You get one point for a basic hit to the chest protector. You get two points for a kick to the chest protector if the kick involves a spinning technique. And you get three points for a kick to your opponent’s head.

Now, it’s easy to see why someone who is really interested in fighting might dismiss this kind of combat as so restrictive and ritualized that it has almost nothing to do with a realistic self-defense or street fighting situation.

There’s obviously some truth to this. But it’s also clear that this kind of practice does develop some important combat-related skills.

You’re facing a real opponent after all, you’re not shadow-boxing. You’re trying to physically hit someone while avoiding being hit by them, and vice versa. To do this well you have to learn how to assess an opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, how to read their strategy, how to conceal your own strategy, how to control the distance between you and your opponent, how to time your attacks, how to throw combinations, how to respond in the moment to changes in the combat situation.

You also learn how to discipline your emotions, how to conserve energy, how to implement a long term strategy.

These skills apply to any martial sport, from boxing to fencing to MMA sparring. And learning these skills can be exciting and fun.

But we can push this a little further. For those who train in a martial sport for any length of time, you know that there are deeper psychological lessons that can be learned, about yourself, your identity, through sparring and competition.

Let’s admit that we spend much of our lives inhabiting different personas and playing different roles, and it’s easy to get caught up in the fictions we tell ourselves and the games we have to play. We’re afraid to acknowledge our fears and our insecurities. Many of us live our lives behind walls of inauthentic bullshit that we present to the world, and that we come to believe ourselves. We walk around with egos that are simultaneously inflated and fragile.

But in the ring, on the mat, when you’re squaring off against an opponent, none of your bullshit matters. You can tell people outside the dojo what a skilled martial artist you are, but inside the ring, or on the mat, the truth will be revealed, one way or another.

I call sparring a bullshit eraser, and it can be very liberating. It has the power to destroy an ego, but it also has the power to free us from fear and build a stronger, healthier sense of who we are and what we’re capable of.

When you train in a martial art you will face opponents who are more skilled than you in every way, and you will lose to them, over and over and over.

The only way to continue, and improve, is to get over yourself. Let go of your ego, let go of your fear of failure, and learn to see things as they really are. Learn how to be okay with failure and to learn from failure.

Because when you interpret failure in this way, it’s not really failure anymore. It’s just learning.

So, let me get back to what inspired this digression. We’re talking about why anyone would choose to devote themselves to training in a particular martial art, in a particular style, when it’s clear that you would become a more effective and well-rounded fighter by training in a variety of different styles.

And my answer so far is two-fold. The first part is to say that, even if the combat styles are highly ritualized, they still teach skills that are essential to combat. The second part is to show that, for many people, training in ritualized combat of any kind can be both fun and psychologically transformative. And that’s one of the reasons why people become dedicated to training even in highly ritualized and artificial combat styles. They enjoy the challenge, they enjoy mastering new skills, and they see it as a continuing opportunity for growth and self-improvement.

But there’s more to say than just this, and it’s the part that I really want to get to.

I’ve said it before in previous episodes, and it’s important for the analogy that I’m trying to develop here.

When we’re talking about a traditional martial art, there’s always an associated philosophy that is part of its origin story. Another reason why people devote themselves to a particular martial art is that they identify with the philosophy, and they view their training as part of, and a means toward, a broader philosophical practice.

And that philosophy rarely has anything to with fighting per se.

Since we’ve been talking about taekwondo, let’s use that as an example.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art. Modern taekwondo was developed in the 1940s and 50s by martial artists who incorporated elements of karate and Chinese martial arts with indigenous Korean martial arts traditions. These were styles that were adopted by the South Korean military, and that led to a national effort to create a unified style of Korean martial art.

The modern history has as much to do with Cold War politics as anything else, but by the late 60s there was an International Taekwondo Federation that was responsible for institutionalizing a common style of taekwondo, and by the early 70s there was a World Taekwondo Federation, which institutionalized the sport aspects and promoted the sport around the world.

Today, in every taekwondo school, the first thing that is taught to students is a set of virtues that are known as the Five Tenets of Taekwondo. At the school where my daughter earned her Black Belt, they were listed as courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit. Part of class time, especially at the younger ages, was devoted to talking about how these virtues are expressed in the dojang and in one’s training, and in everyday life.

Look a little deeper you see that the various taekwondo federations and associations promote a variety of ethical principles. There are common themes among these principles, and historically they have roots in what is known as the code of the Hwarang, which was a class of warrior-scholars in middle-ages Korea. This was a protector class that had a close association with martial oriented Buddhist monks who lived in the area.

So in the resulting philosophy you see a combination of self-development virtues and social justice virtues, and this combination has carried through to the present day.

For example, let me read you a statement of the philosophy of taekwondo, as expressed by the founder of the International Taekwondo Association, Grandmaster James Benko. Pay attention to the different types of value commitments that are expressed in this statement.

“The philosophy of Tae Kwon Do is to build a more peaceful world. To accomplish this goal Tae Kwon Do begins with the foundation, the individual. The Art strives to develop the character, personality, and positive moral and ethical traits in each practitioner. It is upon this “foundation” of individuals possessing positive attitudes and characteristics that the “end goal” may be achieved.

Tae Kwon Do strives to develop the positive aspects of an individual’s personality: Respect, Courtesy, Goodness, Trustworthiness, Loyalty, Humility, Courage, Patience, Integrity, Perseverance, Self-control, an Indomitable Spirit and a sense of responsibility to help and respect all forms of life. This takes a great deal of hard training and many do not reach far enough to achieve perfection in all of these aspects. However, it is the physical, mental, and spiritual effort which the individual puts forth that develops the positive attributes and image of both the individual and how he or she perceives others.

In order to help build a more peaceful world, Tae Kwon Do starts with one person at a time. Gradually groups form, dojangs (schools) emerge, organizations develop, until Tae Kwon Do’s philosophy has influenced, in a positive way, enough persons, families, communities, and nations, to someday bring about, or at least help bring about, the unification of nations dedicated to helping each other.

The task is not easy. Just like the metamorphosis an individual goes through from white belt to black belt and eventually Master, so the transition of the unification of nations united by laws of peace, is a long and hard task. Tae Kwon Do strives for this unification. Race, creed, and nationality have nothing to do with Tae Kwon Do. They are all one in the same. Tae Kwon Do reaches toward the total development of the individual and the founding of a peaceful world.

The physical aspects of Tae Kwon Do are merely a by-product of Tae Kwon Do. It is the mental and spiritual development of a person which Tae Kwon Do nurtures and helps give birth to.”

So, here we see a martial arts philosophy where the “martial” part — the physical training and combat part — is treated not as an end in itself, but as a means to other ends, which are spiritual, ethical and sometimes even political in character.

Historically, one of the important influences on taekwondo was Buddhism, and some instructors emphasize this aspect as part of their philosophy of taekwondo. Here’s how one modern school master, Yeon Hee Park, expresses it:

“Tae Kwon Do is not just training in kicking, punching and self defense. It is far more even than training in mental and physical coordination. A major feature of the art is the development of a certain spirit which carries over into all aspects of life. If there exists a means through which one could secure a stable, peaceful life, it would have to be based upon a harmony between oneself and nature. Do in Korean means “art,” “path,” “way,” “way of life.” It is the way of the universe. The philosophy of Tae Kwon Do has as its roots in many of the tenets held by religious masters and devout laymen throughout history. These qualities can be traced back to the influence of Buddhism, and its aim of the “Mastery of Life.” The focus of Tae Kwon Do philosophy is to offer a means by which the student can rid him or herself of the ego, or what Zen-Buddhists call “discriminating mind,” in order to live in harmony with the universe.

At the core of this philosophy is the concept of ‘duality’ in nature. Duality refers to the interaction of opposing forces. Harmony is achieved when opposite forces are distributed equally, resulting in balance. When one force dominates however, discord is the result. For example, when an adversary uses positive (aggressive) energy, or in other words initiates an attack, the defender should use negative (yielding) energy to respond, by stepping aside to allow the energy of that attack to flow past harmlessly. In this manner, what was once hard (the assailant’s attack) becomes soft (non injurious), and what was soft (the defender’s passivity) becomes hard (an effective way to counter a potential dangerous assault), allowing balance to return.

Ultimately, the philosophy of Tae Kwon Do seeks to bring students to a level of consciousness known as “Present Time.” This occurs when one is completely in tune with oneself and nature to the degree that one’s actions and reactions are always perfectly coordinated with the forces in life, whether that be in the sparring ring, in a social setting or even when alone. Such a person cannot be made upset by anything they encounter in life. True masters of Tae Kwon Do are noted for their serene personalities, which stem from their living in Present Time.

Every person is capable of coordinating him or herself with the forces in life more perfectly. By centering oneself and balancing the dual forces through living in “Present Time,” students can begin to touch the true goal of all human life which is the aspiration to and application of perfection.”

Now, this statement of the ultimate goals of taekwondo is quite different from the one we just read. There’s no talk about a unification of peaceful nations here. The focus is more on moving individuals toward a Buddhist version of self-realization.

But what they have in common is they see the practice of taekwondo as a means to a greater goal, and when you move closer and closer to this goal, the martial aspects of the practice begin to fade, and even more, the physical aspects begin to fade. What comes more and more into focus are higher ideals — virtue, character, self-realization, enlightenment, justice, harmony, universal peace.

I’m not going to say that every traditional martial art tells the same story, but I will say that every traditional martial art has a story like this.

Now, let’s return to my office where I’m talking to that student, the fan of mixed martial arts. Let’s imagine that I’ve just told him this story about the reasons why people dedicate themselves to training in a particular martial art style, like taekwondo, in spite of it being a less effective system for learning self-defense and realistic fighting ability.

What do you think his response will be?

If he’s a real fan of MMA, he’ll probably say, “that makes a lot of sense, but it just proves my point. People who study taekwondo for years want to become great at taekwondo, whatever that means — but they don’t want to become great fighters. If they wanted to become great fighters they would learn other styles.”

I actually think this is a fair description. If one of your goals is to be able to confidently handle yourself in a wide variety of self-defense or personal combat situations, it would be foolish not to train in a variety of styles, there’s no question about that.

But here’s my question. What should I do if I care about both? What should I do if I want to become a more effective fighter and learn from lots of different styles, AND I want to use my training as a means to attaining higher spiritual and ethical goals?

There are two things to say about this.

First, you will have a hard time finding a martial arts school that has just this combination of features. There is no official philosophy of MMA, it doesn’t have that kind of history. There’s the competitive philosophy of successful fighters which can be inspiring in its own right, and there’s the ethics of respect and the rules of the training hall that most good schools demand. But you’ll never walk into an MMA studio and start talking about working toward universal peace or finding the right balance of opposites while living in “present time”.

But second, there’s nothing in principle preventing these two goals from coming together. Arguably this is what Bruce Lee was after. He studied Wing Chun kung fu when he was a teenager in Hong Kong, but in the US he studied judo grappling and taekwondo kicking and Western style boxing and even fencing, and tried to synthesize them in his own fighting style. The practical, physical side of combat was very important to him.

But at the same time he was driven to look for deeper insights and a higher meaning to his practice. Lee’s writings can be a challenge to interpret because ultimately he was an atheist of sorts, and he didn’t identify with any organized religion or spiritual practice. But he was drawn to this philosophy of “no style”, to resist the pull to codify your practice into a specific style, and by extension, to resist the pull to identify with creeds and doctrines and philosophies of any kind, any system that does your thinking for you, that stifles your unique creative ability and prevents you from acting with genuine freedom.

That’s quite different from the philosophy of taekwondo, or many other traditional martial arts. But it’s still a philosophy that transcends the goal of fighting — in his case, it’s a way of being in the world.

So, to reiterate my point, there’s nothing preventing a martial art from having both a strong emphasis on effectiveness as a combat art, and a guiding philosophy that transcends the goals of combat.

This is something that I believe more people are looking for today. There are lots of people who are fans of MMA training, but not fans of the bloodsport aspects of MMA competition, and they would like to see more options like this.

Now, I said that I would tie this all back into argumentation and persuasion, so let’s do that now.

When you study logic and argumentation, you’re learning how to identify genuine strengths and weaknesses in arguments.

When you study rhetoric and debate strategy, you’re learning how to exploit broader psychological, social and strategic factors to maximize the chances that your message will be successful.

We can think of verbal debate as kind of martial art, a type of combat that is played out with words and other forms of communication, rather than physical contact.

The study of persuasion methods and rhetorical strategies is an important part of training in this martial art. It can serve as a foundation for logical self-defense, a way of defending ourselves against the many forces that are conspiring to influence our perceptions and our beliefs and our values. And it can ground an effective offensive strategy, when you’re setting out to persuade an audience to accept a particular point of view.

So what’s the analogy with different martial arts styles?

Well, we all have a default persuasion or communication style. It’s the style that we’re naturally disposed toward, in a particular situation, without the benefit of explicit training or instruction. How do I relate to people, communicate with people, at work, at home, in public, online?

Our default communication styles can change from situation to situation, and they can evolve over time, but we all have these default modes. Sometimes they’re effective, but often they’re not.

They’re like our default responses to threats of conflict or aggression, without the benefit of martial arts or self-defense training. Sometimes we respond well, but often we don’t.

Now, we can imagine a structured, intentional program of instruction in persuasion, in communication, in argumentation. Not unlike a structured, intentional program of instruction in a martial art.

But any such program is going to emphasize certain techniques and methods and ignore others. It’s inevitable, because (a) the space of possible techniques and methods is huge, and (b) anyone who is offering such a program is going to have made these selections for you, based on their background and experience, their theoretical understanding of how good persuasion works, and the type of context where these persuasion skills are going to be applied.

And this is what you see when you look at what persuasion coaches are offering, or what is taught in communications programs, or what a marketing firm is selling to business clients, or how formal training in stage magic is structured, or what a university class in logic and argumentation is teaching, or what training in the art of speech writing looks like. It’s a set of skills and concepts that are tailored for a specific range of applications.

Taken altogether, these various training programs are a motley collection that range widely in their style of teaching, in the scope of what they teach, and in the goals that they serve.

There’s an analogy with martial arts instruction. When instruction is really informal, and one-on-one, it’s like the uncle who takes his 10 year old nephew out to the garage to show him a few tips on how to handle himself in a fight if that bully harasses him again. Do a little wrestling in gym classes, that’s another level of organization. Join a martial arts program with an international association and a standardized curriculum, that’s a much higher level of organization.

With persuasion training it’s similar. When a parent talks to their kid about how to talk to other people, that’s persuasion training. Learn how to write a good argumentative essay in school, that’s persuasion training. Join a debate club, that’s persuasion training. Learn how to write a publishable research paper, that’s persuasion training. Sign up for a weekend seminar on Neuro-Linguistic Programming and sales techniques, that’s persuasion training.

These are all analogous to different styles of martial arts programs, except even more diverse and varied than you see in traditional martial arts.

Now, let’s bring our MMA fan back into the picture.

Just as we can imagine someone saying that if you really want to learn how to fight, you shouldn’t stick with one style, you should train in multiple styles, we can imagine someone saying that if you really want to learn how to be persuasive, you shouldn’t stick with just one style or school of persuasion, you should train in multiple persuasion styles.

This would be like the MMA of persuasion.

I can imagine people being very interested in something like MMA for persuasion skills. I know I would be.

Now, there really isn’t anything like this out there, in terms of a structured program. But there are individuals who fancy themselves students of persuasion in general, and devote time to reading and learning as much as possible about a wide range of persuasion methods, including what I would call ‘critical thinking’ methods, like classical logic and argumentation, scientific reasoning, and so forth.

I think that some of the NLP gurus think they’ve got the broadest, most comprehensive program of instruction out there, but that’s mostly bullshit. Most of them have no background in real logic and real argumentation, for example, so they have no concept of what a good argument is, as opposed to a merely persuasive argument.

But now we’re getting closer to home.

An MMA of persuasion and argumentation is something that I would like to see built. A program of instruction in foundational concepts and techniques that can apply to a wide range of scenarios, that draws from different persuasion styles that are known to be effective across these different scenarios.

Now, at this point I’m going to need to draw a distinction. There are two ways this MMA idea can go, and both are viable, but we’re going to have to pick sides.

If the exclusive focus of this program of instruction is persuasion — successfully getting people to accept your conclusion or make the choice you want them to make, then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal is to become a better fighter.

In my notes to myself I’ve been calling the person who is a master of diverse styles of persuasion, a Persuasion Ninja. You rise up the ranks of the persuasion MMA, you eventually become a Persuasion Ninja.

However, if your focus isn’t solely on persuasion, but also on persuasion for good reasons — actually having good reasons for the beliefs you have, and the decisions you make then this is similar to an MMA program where the ultimate goal isn’t just to become a better fighter. You’re also committed to something else, something that transcends combat, and even the physicality of training. Something that aims at truth and wisdom.

The person who rises through the ranks of this MMA program, who masters a variety of persuasion styles while also remaining dedicated to the goals of genuinely good argumentation, and the intellectual virtues that go with it … I call that person an Argument Ninja.

We saw examples like this when we looked at the philosophy of taekwondo, where it’s quite explicit — the ultimate goal isn’t to become the best fighter, it’s to achieve some other spiritual or ethical goals.

In standard MMA training you don’t normally see this kind of explicit philosophical commitment, but the example of Bruce Lee illustrates how it’s possible to be committed to caring about the effectiveness of the combat system, and be committed to philosophical goals that transcend combat.

What I’m talking about isn’t any more unrealistic. It’s just that no one is doing it. Looking at the scene today, the people who are most interested in persuasion tend to be uninterested in, or ignorant of, genuinely good argumentation. Or if they do, they spend no time teaching it or discussing its importance. They figure that’s someone else’s job.

It’s a modern day version of what the Sophists were teaching back in the days of Plato. How to win friends and influence people, how to master yourself and achieve personal and professional success, how to become irresistible to the opposite sex, how to convert visitors to fans and fans to customers, how to hypnotize the masses and win an election, how to deflect attention away from the criminal activities of governments and large corporations.

Some of these uses are good and worthwhile, some are not so good, and some are terrible.

The MMA program for Persuasion Ninjas wouldn’t take a stand on how these persuasion skills are used. Individual Persuasion Ninjas may care, according to their conscience — you can have good ninjas and bad ninjas — but they view the skills themselves as neutral. How you use them is up to the discretion of the individual. If you want to use your persuasion skills to fight for peace and justice, that’s great. If you want to use them to get young women hooked on binge drinking, that’s your business.

The MMA program for Argument Ninjas does take a stand on how persuasion skills are used, it has to. If we imagine the overarching goals of this MMA program to include the basic goals of critical thinking — to improve the quality of our beliefs and judgments, and to promote the rational agency of individuals — then there are certain forms of persuasion that, all other things being equal, we should avoid. These are like the Five Tenets of Taekwondo, in the sense that they serve as ideals that constrain the practice, but also are served by the practice.

For example, if I’m using persuasion techniques that systematically bypass your reasoning faculties in ways that you cannot detect, to compel you to believe or do things that undermine your capacity for independent critical thinking, all other things being equal, that’s a bad thing.

So, I’m on the side of a mixed martial arts approach to teaching persuasion and argumentation, where the goal is to produce Argument Ninjas, not just Persuasion Ninjas.

The analogies go beyond traditional martial arts.

When you have these skills in your possession, you’ll be able to do things that other people can’t. You’ll be tempted by the Dark Side, to cultivate influence and wield power for personal gain. The Jedi are ambassadors for the Light Side. Yoda and Obi-Wan and the Jedi are Argument Ninjas of the Star Wars universe.

In the Harry Potter universe there are good wizards and bad wizards. But there are schools of magic, like Hogwarts, that are run by wizards who are committed to the good. Yet in order to teach their students properly, they have to teach them the Dark Arts as well, so they understand how magic can be bent to evil purposes, and how to defend against it. Harry and Hermione and Ron are training to be Argument Ninjas of the Harry Potter universe.

In these fictional universe where there’s a struggle for control between a light side and a dark side, the question always arises: which is stronger?

I’ll let Master Yoda answer that question for me.


Run!  Yes.  A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force.  But beware of the dark side.  Anger… fear… aggression.  The dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight.  If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will, as it did Obi-Wan’s apprentice.


Vader.  Is the dark side stronger?


No… no… no.  Quicker, easier, more seductive.


But how am I to know the good side from the bad?


You will know.  When you are calm, at peace.  Passive.  A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.


But tell me why I can’t…



No, no, there is no why.  Nothing more will I teach you today. Clear your mind of questions. 

Mmm.  Mmmmmmmm.

Thank you for listening.

If you want to leave comments or questions, please visit argumentninja.com and look for episode 008.  I’d love to get your feedback on this episode.

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Thanks again for listening. Hope you have a great week.

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  1. Hi Kevin,

    I’ve been a follower of the critical thinking academy and I’ve been enjoying this podcast. I was initially skeptical about the martial arts comparison, but you’ve gradually won me over.

    One of the difficulties I see is that mastery of a school’s martial arts techniques are often demonstrated in the school or outside the school in a different way, perhaps as in the ability to avoid conflict, rather than through enhanced competence in street fighting. Unfortunately, an argument ninja must demonstrate their ability in the persuasion ninja’s home turf. This difficulty brings up a host of problems that must be sorted out by the audience.

    In a previous podcast, you mentioned a dating scenario that brought out these difficulties. The lady on the date has to sort out whether their date has honorable aims or not. Since both the argument ninja and persuasion ninja use the same language/techniques, the audience must be educated to detect the aims via the language/techniques, which brings us back to a background knowledge problem in logic and argumentation.

    This potentially could be rectified via an epilogue, afterword, or appendix that uses argument ninja language – something that a persuasion ninja wouldn’t be able to articulate. This would achieve a type of transparency that a persuasion ninja without honorable aims wouldn’t want to showcase. As an example, if I wrote an argumentative essay using breadth, depth, counter examples, objections, and so forth, but couched it in persuasion language, it may be difficult for the audience to sort through that and understand whether I’m an argument ninja or a persuasion ninja. However, if I add an appendix to that essay where I map out my argument using argument ninja techniques (and not persuasion ninja techniques), then showcase how I used persuasion techniques in the body of the essay to get my point across and win the reader over, this transparency could help the audience in their own analysis of the essay.

    Let’s go back to that dating example. What if the date is successful and you begin a wonderful relationship with this lady? More than likely, the topic of “how we met” will come up a few times. For this conversation, what if the various techniques used to “get a foot in the door” on the first date were made clear? This is an important test to determine whether your techniques would be moral in the eyes of the lady. For example, saying that you looked at her public profile on LinkedIn, her public Facebook profile and based upon that public information, binged watched several movies and read many books to try and get to know her before you met her doesn’t seem so bad. Saying you hacked into her Facebook, Instagram, Netflix and so forth would likely be deemed a privacy violation and you may find your stuff out on the lawn.

    Of course, someone without honorable aims will simply lie about this and again be difficult to detect. But, at least in an appendix to an essay, the argument ninja can provide information in a way the persuasion ninja can’t and in doing so, promote the transparency that the persuasion ninja would likely want to avoid. However, the audience would need to be educated in this language.

    Thanks for your interesting work Kevin!

    • This is a fantastic comment Clay, and I appreciate the thought and consideration that went into it. The problem you’re describing is a real one. If your audience doesn’t know whether you’re a persuasion ninja or an argument ninja, can that fact obscure your message? Is there a way of signaling your true intentions in a way that an audience can pick up, without requiring that they already have the ability to distinguish genuinely good argumentation from merely persuasive speech? I’ll have to think about this, but I don’t think there’s an easy answer.

      • Hi Kevin,

        Thank you for the response (sorry I didn’t see it right away). It is a difficult problem. It may be that “background knowledge” is the dirty little secret here too, albeit one confined to logical and reason. I did run across something on television that may help demonstrate this issue and may help in brainstorming a solution.

        I love baseball and I’m an MLB.tv subscriber. I especially like that MLB.tv simply shows a screen that says “Commercial Break In Progress” between innings. I don’t have to see the commercials, which tend to repeat and tend to be very similar in style for sports programs. Unfortunately, once the playoffs arrive, MLB.tv defers to the network providers for playoff coverage and then those commercials rear their ugly head again.

        I believe this year it was the “Testosterone Supplement” vs. “Prescription ED” advertisements that caught my attention. For simplicity, let’s just call it Testosterone Supplement vs. Viagra. To be fair, the testosterone supplement is basically trying to get men over 40 to feel like they are in their 20s again, while Viagra is only about ED. However, I still feel there is a valid comparison to be made between the two.

        Looking at the persuasion techniques used in the ads, we can see that Viagra is the more sophisticated of the two, but not necessarily more effective. With Viagra commercials, you have the faceless man (could be anyone), the happy smiling “older” woman (“older” by marketing standards), a myriad of shades of blue placed everywhere, vacation destinations that look so nice and expensive the hotels could probably leave you Viagra single packs instead of mints on your pillow, and so forth. The testosterone supplement is basically a guy over 40s feeling down and out – not physically active, not sexually active, tired, and so forth. Taking the testosterone supplement means you too will be picking up on 25 year old women, owning the local gym records, and be able to go 24×7. The Viagra commercials seem to showcase a serious relationship between a man and woman while the testosterone supplement is seemingly a single male on the prowl.

        If those are the persuasion techniques used by the ads, what could be providing the backbone to differentiate them? This backbone would function in the same way as reason and logic as would for an argument ninja and this backbone would be missing from a persuasion ninja. Can this difference be meaningfully detected by the audience of these commercials?

        A possible backbone is that Viagra has FDA approval, is available (legitimately anyway) by prescription only, which should require an initial visit with your doctor. The ad seems to be required to declare troubling side effects (hilariously made fun of by about every standup comedian working today) and medication conflicts. You don’t really see that on the testosterone supplement ad. Assuming your background allowed you to understand the difference between an FDA approved drug vs. a non-FDA approved drug, then this would seem to be a promising start. Of course, this assumes the audience believes that the FDA approval process would result in a safer and better drug than a non-FDA approved drug.

        Let’s cast the limitations and costs of television advertising aside and think about how the argument ninja and persuasion ninja would confront each other for control of the audience. If I were working for the Viagra marketing team as an argument ninja, my goal would be to make this backbone of Viagra explicit. After the Viagra “persuasion” section ended, I may lead into a different section that does not use persuasion techniques explicitly. This section would showcase the FDA approval process, what was done for Viagra, and the value of a doctor consultation prior to using Viagra. In short, the “logic and reason” backbone would be made explicit to the audience. Optionally, I may choose to dissect the persuasion section of the advertisement, showing the audience members how the advertisement uses persuasion techniques to steer the audience toward their doctor and Viagra. In other words, full disclosure. An argument ninja doesn’t mind exposing persuasion techniques, but the persuasion ninja would seem to want to keep those “under wraps”.

        What if I worked on the marketing team as a persuasion ninja for the Testosterone Supplement? I probably would just use the extra time to increase the amount of persuasion techniques used. However, what if it became clear that the Viagra advertisement was winning the audience over? How would I change the ad? I think I would take the “burn the prophets of reason” approach. Using persuasion techniques, I would attack the credibility of the FDA. I would showcase any failures of the FDA in drug approvals, showcase drugs that work over the course of history prior to the FDA being established (or prior to FDA approval), highlight conflicts of interest between pharma and the FDA, bring up conspiracy theories, and so forth. I want this to be a battle of persuasion techniques, one I can win.

        What if I worked on the marketing team for Viagra and the Testosterone Supplement was winning the audience? What if I use persuasion techniques to undermine the Testosterone Supplement’s credibility? Should someone point this out to the audience, I’ve potentially undermined my backbone because my ideal audience realizes I’ve stooped to the level of my competition maybe because my backbone wasn’t strong enough. Now it becomes a battle of persuasion techniques – a battle that I may not win. There may be nugget of wisdom here: Use persuasion techniques to get attention to your ideas or products, use logic and reason to provide the backbone of why your product or idea is important, and do not use persuasion techniques to attack. While this could be extremely effective, to do so undermines the ability of the audience to distinguish between an argument ninja’s message and a persuasion ninja’s message.

        Thanks again for your work Kevin!

        • Your examples do a great job of illustrating the argument/persuasion distinction. I’m still working through my own thoughts on the ethics of persuasion and how I want to present these ideas. That’s coming up in a later podcast.

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