Narcissists are people who worship themselves and want you to worship them, too. However, they do not know how to earn your respect honestly. So instead, they may try to bamboozle you. If that fails, they may try to bully you into submission. For this reason, narcissists love to debate. Their goal is to convince you that they know more than you do—even when they clearly don’t! If you get drawn into that kind of ugly and pointless conversation, you might be tempted to point out that real experts disagree with the narcissist, and for good reasons. But if you do that, the narcissist may sneer that you are using the “argument from authority.” The narcissist will then declare victory.Narcissists often assume that if they have pointed out this supposed error in your reasoning, they have won the debate. But by dismissing the opinions of real experts, the narcissist is claiming to be the world’s greatest expert—the one expert to rule them all! If you suggest that somebody knows more than the narcissist does, the narcissist will think that you are a fool. Nothing you can do or say will change the narcissist’s low opinion of you. (I explain this problem in more detail in my book Don’t Feed the Narcissists: The Mythology and Science of Mental Health).
The argument from authority is a logical fallacy. A logical fallacy is any problem in reasoning that could undermine the validity of an argument. However, pointing out that someone has made an argument from authority is rarely a reasonable objection. Here’s what an argument from authority is:
Some authority figure said that something is true. Therefore, it is true.
To understand the value and limitations of an argument from authority, it helps to know some logic terminology (I explain these in more detail in my book Not Trivial: How Studying the Traditional Liberal Arts Can Set You Free):
- Argument—a set of reasons (premises) given in support of a particular conclusion.
- Deductive argument—an argument that is intended to show that its conclusion must be true.
- Valid argument—an argument whose conclusion must be true if the premises are all true.
- Sound argument—a valid argument with true premises: its conclusion is definitely true.
- Invalid argument—an argument whose conclusion has even the slightest chance of being false, even when all of the premises are true.
- Inductive argument—an argument that is intended to show that its conclusion is unlikely to be false (all inductive arguments are invalid, because the conclusion might be false, even if all of the premises are true).
- Inductive probability—the probability that the conclusion of an argument is true, if all of its premises are true. The inductive probability of a valid argument is 100%. The inductive probability of any inductive argument is <100%.
- Strong argument—an argument whose inductive probability is high. Its conclusion is likely to be true if the premises are all true.
- Cogent argument—a strong argument whose premises are all true; its conclusion is likely to be true.
- Weak argument—an argument whose inductive probability is low. There is a high risk that the conclusion of the argument may be false, even if the premises are true.
When you make an argument from authority in a debate, you are saying, “An expert disagrees with you. Therefore, you are probably wrong.” To a narcissist, this argument makes absolutely no sense, for two reasons. The first is that they feel superior to all of the world’s experts. The second is that they are never wrong. So they need to use some impressive-sounding words to put you in your place. The term “argument from authority” is perfect for this situation. Typically, they have learned this term from reading something on the Internet, rather than from taking a philosophy course in school. So they don’t grasp what the term actually implies. By pointing out that you have made an argument from authority, they are merely pointing out that your inductive argument is inductive. They have not shown that it is weak. To show that it is weak, they would have to show that your expert is unreliable or mistaken.
If the authority figure has real expertise, then an argument based on his or her expert opinion can be strong. If the expert’s opinion is rendered accurately, then that strong argument is cogent, which means that the conclusion is likely to be true. That’s why the U.S. legal system allows some people to testify as expert witnesses in court cases. Of course, there are strict rules for who can be allowed to qualify as an expert in a particular field. Note that narcissists often dismiss the expertise of real experts. Narcissism means foolish pride. In contrast, the pride that is appropriate for a truly great person is called magnanimity, which means greatness of soul.
You could try to explain all this to a narcissist, but it would be a waste of breath. A debate is a struggle for dominance, not a quest for truth. Narcissists care little about the truth and have an unhealthy drive to win pointless dominance struggles. They never concede defeat, even when they have made total fools of themselves. Narcissists are a bit like the Black Knight from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Black Knight refused to admit defeat, even after both of his arms and both of his legs had been cut off.
Do not imagine that you can make someone less narcissistic by pointing out their errors in reasoning. Instead, you are probably only making their narcissism worse. By engaging in debate with a narcissist, you are merely giving them a chance to practice bad behavior. Since narcissists are always convinced that they have won, regardless of what you say, the narcissists will end up rewarding themselves for their victory, even if they made a fool of themselves. In other words, you will be contributing to that other person’s narcissism.
Narcissists overvalue themselves because they are bad at recognizing and accepting negative feedback from other people. Narcissists judge their own performance. They grade their own papers, and they give themselves high marks! When narcissists debate, they play a game of “heads-I-win, tails-you-lose.” Thus, the narcissists always believe that they have won. Since they feel that they have a long, unbroken string of victories, they imagine that they are great debaters. They would be in for a surprise if they ever tried to take part in the real sport of debate.
In competitive debate, the outcome is decided by judges, not by the participants. The competitors will be judged on their research, analytical skills, and delivery. Debate is generally a team sport, and in each bout, one team generally wins and the other loses. People who regard their own bloated self-esteem as evidence of the truth of their beliefs are particularly likely to lose.
If narcissists take part in competitive debate, their debating skills would probably improve. But at the same time, their string of losses might erode their foolish pride. So even as their skills improve, their self-esteem would decrease. Yet both of those outcomes would be good for the narcissist! Of course, people with severe narcissism have contempt for the judges and will not even try to play any game that they might lose. As a result, their foolish pride persists.