Dissensus profundus

To have a meaningful or maybe productive disagreement you should be able to identify what it is you disagree about. Once, for example, I had a disagreement with a neighbor over whether some or other species of vine was an invasive (it was and she was right). It was easy in that case to point to the source of our disagreement: some factual claim about Boston Ivy (irrelevant side note: there are no climbing ivy species native to Chicago). Crucially, it was also easy to point to a source for confidence in such claims about plants: a plant manual (or something like that).

Sometimes, however, it’s easy to point to what you disagree about, but not easy to find a solution–this is because you disagree about what a solution would be. This is a deep disagreement (check on this project on the topic). You disagree so fundamentally that you disagree about disagreeing.

On this topic today I learned, courtesy of Dr. Sara J.Uckelman’s Medieval Logic and Semantics blog, a Latin phrase for this situation:

Contra negantem principia non est disputandum

Or: “against someone who denies principles there can’t be a debate.”

Well, in some cases, according to Duns Scotus, there is one thing you can do:

Et ideo negantes talia manifesta indigent poena vel scientia vel sensu, quia secundum Avicennam primo Metaphysicae : Negantes primum principium sunt vapulandi vel exponendi igni, quousque concedant quod non est idem comburi et non comburi, vapulari et non vapulari.

And thus those who deny such manifest things need punishment or knowledge or sense, because, According to Avicenna (I Metaphysics): those denying a first principle ought to be beaten or burnt until they concede that being burned is not the same as not being burned and being beaten is not the same as not being beaten.

There you might have a valid case of ad baculum, though I don’t recommend this as a general principle.

Too much argument

In a recent TED-X talk in Nashville, Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt) argues that to save democracy, we need to do less of it. Here’s the video:

There’s such a strong connection between argument and democracy that I think what we’re being asked to less of is not so much democracy, but argument. We should argue less in order to argue better.

Behind every weak argument there’s a strong one

Let’s say you’re a member of C. C is a big, non-homogenous group. It’s a group defined by adherence to a mish-mash of not-always-consistent beliefs. That’s how big groups work. That’s how names for big groups work. One obvious question is whether “C” really means anything, given the ideological variation among Cs. But there’s no changing that “C” is the term that gets applied to you and to the C whose view you find ridiculous. That’s a bummer, but that’s life.

Now comes someone, call them G, to single out a subset of C, a subset, by the way, he identifies as a subset, by saying something like “The subset of C with beliefs a, b, c, d, and e” are something or other. Crucially, G doesn’t then draw dark conclusions about other Cs. This would be weak-manning C. To be more precise, weak manning consists in singling out real, but terrible, arguments for scrutiny only then to draw broader conclusions about people who hold different, though related beliefs. In this case, it would be selecting some C-beliefs for scrutiny but then drawing, illegitimately, conclusions about others Cs who don’t hold those beliefs. But G doesn’t do that.

An objection might be that there’s no merit in isolating such a group because their views are uninteresting, or that there exist better versions of their views, or that people will confuse the good ones with the bad ones, thinking the good ones to be the bad ones.

To reply to this. In the first place, it’s certainly true that many hold the version of C under scrutiny. That their views are weak is an important fact (noted by G).

Second, there’s merit, especially to the stronger versions of C, for clearing the decks of the bad views. So, for instance, you’re a member of C, but some members of C hold really appalling views. Getting those views out of the way is not necessarily bad for you. This should be especially inoffensive when the critic explicitly identifies the subclass of C they’re referring to–those Cs over there, not you though.

Another, perhaps stronger, objection is that G ought to know that many will take his criticism of C, despite his specifications and qualifications, to imply that people who fail to distance themselves from C or people who did not notice the badness of C are implicated in the criticism of C. In other words, perhaps G is saying: C is bad, and you know that people confuse you with C, so you are guilty of not saying enough about that. You should be on record as not agreeing with C or aligned with C.

But then again, I’m not really sure that this is even an objection. That may be the whole point of criticizing C after all. C’s association will cost C-ists time and effort. That time and effort expenditure ought to dissuade them from being around C. They should have thought of that. That they didn’t reflects poorly on them and their time management skills.

Nutpicked Trump Derangement Syndrome

Nutpicking, or weak-manning one’s opponent, is a form of the straw man fallacy wherein one finds the worst or weakest version of your opponent’s views or the least sophisticated defenders of an opposed view and then subject that view to scrutiny.  So one goes after the bad versions of one’s opposition, instead of the good ones.

The strategy can occur in lots of ways.  One can wait for an offhand and awkward comment to encapsulate the view, or one can track down the least informed representative of the opposition.  Or one can listen in on the other side’s loose talk.  This last one is a new way to weak man — listen in on a comedy show by and for liberals and wait for them to say something that sounds all-too-revealing.

Well, the folks at INFOWARS did just that.  They listened in on Michelle Wolf’s new Netflix show, and in a comedy gag, she asks:

Are you sort of hoping we don’t get peace with North Korea so you won’t have to give Trump credit?

A funny question.  Of course it’s a joke, but one that is at the expense of the deep resentments at the heart of American politics.  The joke gets funnier, since the audience polled answered YES 71% to No 21%.   That’s pretty funny, and surely everyone who responded had a little chuckle.

Oh, but the INFOWARS folks were listening, too.  They don’t like humor, unless it’s them making a joke about how sensitive liberals are.  Anyway, Paul Joseph Watson, the INFOWARS author, didn’t get the joke, and now reports:

In other words, a significant majority of leftists would happily risk nuclear war, so long as it meant Trump would look bad.

Let that sink in.

When conservatives talk about how many on the left “hate America,” it’s seen by most as a tired cliché, but when you see clips like this it really makes you wonder. . . .

Indeed, it seems that the left is so beset by Trump Derangement Syndrome that they’re quite happy to see the pilot crash the plane even though they’re on it.

So, as I see it, a reporter watches a comedy show and reports that a gag that the audience was supposed to play along with bespeaks a traitorous vendetta among liberals.   So much of the straw man fallacy generally is about interpreting your opponent in a way that exercises minimal charity, if only for the sake of the quality of the exchange that these defaults encourage.  But, look, if your defaults are set on interpreting a comedy sketch like this as little more than a suicidal desire for Trump to fail, then it’s hard to see how there’s much of any opportunity for critique either way.

Yeah, well everybody tu quoques

The fallacy of ad hominem tu quoque is that of identifying an inconsistency either between what’s said and what’s done or between what’s said in one case and in another.  It’s sometimes a strategy of criticism, but it can also be used as a way of deflecting criticism.

The deflection strategy is one that goes after the authority of a speaker for a critical point.  So that I smoke can be a point someone may make back at me when I say one shouldn’t smoke.  For sure, it’s an uncomfortable fact, and one that makes me subject to my own critiques.  So I’m a hypocrite. And that’s why it’s got the pull it does — it’s a matter of making someone uncomfortable in their critical role.  Again, it’s just a deflection strategy, and it still holds that one shouldn’t smoke, even if the person  delivers the message with a cigarette in their mouth.

Now, consider Donald Trump’s defense against the critique of his exchange with Kim Jong-un.  Apparently, there was no discussion about human rights in the meeting.  When asked about it by Bret Baier of Fox News, Donald Trump replied:

Baier: “But he’s still done some really bad things.”

To which Trump said: “Yeah, but so have a lot of other people done some really bad things. I could go through a lot of nations where a lot of bad things were done.”

The strategy here is to say: Look, lots of people do bad things… why make a big deal of it now, especially if we’re making this progress with the de-nuclearization of Korea.  But that’s not exactly what got communicated.  What got communicated is that because everybody (or “lots of other people”) does bad things, we don’t have grounds for criticizing someone who’s done bad things.

This is a pretty strange strategy of managing norms and their demands.  I think that since Trump criticizes people for bad things at other times, he’d probably not accept this as a reply.  Right?  So when he criticizes the ‘deep state’ for undermining his Presidency, I suppose he’d think it irrelevant that lots of other nations have states that undermine their leaders, too.  Or when he complains about celebrities who criticize him, the fact that there are many other people criticized by celebrities is not much of a defense.

One way, maybe, to get a handle on why a defense like this is disappointing is that the fact that lots of people or countries make the error is likely a very good reason to take the criticism to be important and serious.  That is, if it’s a widespread and very costly error (which abusing human rights is, if anything is), then shrugging one’s shoulders and saying that LOTS of people do it is a way of highlighting how important the issue is.  Not of deflating the criticism.

Enlarging the goalposts

We’ve all heard of the accusation of moving the goalposts. At bottom, this consists in illegitimately changing the standard of appraisal in order to match some arbitrary standard. While before you had to prove B, now you need only prove A, because, well, because.  Closely related, so I think today, to this is the idea of enlarging the relevant dialectical context. Here’s a cartoon on point:

I have no comment on the actual discussion (and I don’t know anything about this Peterson fellow). This move nonetheless seems to be a pretty common one. It doesn’t so much as move the goalposts as enlarging the field of play to such a point where you’ll never catch the other player (I don’t know what game this is in my analogy, but you get the idea).

So it’s a kind of iron man. Like all such ferrous persons, it works in two ways: the first way is to make the object impervious to criticism; the second way is to make the critic look dishonest. There’s one more thing: it’s a status-booster for the iron-manner: their being aware of the relevant information is a way of basking in its reflected glory.

Such moves (and I’ve observed them in other contexts, however) are strategically risky: the greater the burden of critique, the greater the burden of understanding. While your critic might not land the blow, the costs of understanding such a complex and unassailable view might be too high for potential converts.

Real Life Circular Arguments

A pretty common complaint among argument theorists about the fallacy of begging the question and circular argument is that hardly anyone ever really commits the error.  But then there are the cases where it happens for realz.

President Trump, before flying to the G7 conference in Montreal, argued that Russia should be included in the proceedings again — so, returning the meeting to the familiar title, G8.  Reported at Politico and InfoWars(don’t read the comments!) (Russia was expelled after their 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.) Here’s the argument:

I would recommend — and it’s up to them, but Russia should be in the meeting, it should be a part of it. You know, whether you like it or not, and it may not be politically correct, but we have a world to run . . .  And in the G-7, which used to be the G-8, they threw Russia out. They should let Russia come back in. Because we should have Russia at the negotiating table.

As far as I can see, the explicit form of that argument, given the ‘because’ clause, is:

We should have Russia at the bargaining table

So: Russia should be part of the G7(8).

That’s pretty much a perfectly circular argument, since the premise is just a differently worded version of the conclusion.  I think the only mitigating factor to this fallacy challenge is that Trump also says, “we have a world to run,” which I think is a point about economic and political necessity.  Something like:  Look, Russia has been and should be sanctioned, but leaving them and their economy out of these discussions is short-sighted…”  But he doesn’t do that.

One lesson, then, is that fallacy charges of circularity may be good ways to elicit submerged reasons.   Like what we see with the Trump case here — there is a hint of a better argument in the background, but it’s really just a series of assertions of the conclusion.  The charge of begging the question is a way of getting those other reasons out for evaluation.  So there’s something right about the argument theorists’ complaint that there aren’t really circular arguments, but there’s also something to the thought that the fallacy categories are useful.


Fake News

Our friend Robert Talisse has an article up at 3 AM Magazine on the concept of “fake news.” TL;DR: it’s impossible to define “fake news” because our current discourse is so toxic that it will furnish no neutral examples:

Thus we confront what philosophers call the paradox of analysis.  Any definitional endeavor must begin from presumed instances of the phenomenon that is to be defined.  In many philosophical contexts, the paradox’s “I know it when I see it” circularity is manageable because philosophical debates often proceed against wider background agreements.  For example, philosophers who disagree sharply about justice nonetheless agree that antebellum slavery is an exemplary instance of severe injustice.  Similarly, metaphysical disputes over the nature of physical objects typically presume that tables and chairs are among such entities.

Things are far more troubled with fake news.  In order to devise a nuanced definition that is also politically impartial, we must identify cases of fake news that can be presumed to be noncontroversial among otherwise divided citizens.  I doubt that there are such cases.

I think this is correct, but the real problem is another one. Happily, it’s one that Rob (and Scott) have already identified:  discussions of terms such as  “fake news,” inevitably suffer from the problem of “weaponized metalanguage.” This is where the tools of argument analysis are crafted as weapons in arguments. The problem in this particular case  is particularly acute because  “Fake News,” like “gaslighting” and “whataboutism” are somewhat new entries in our metavocabulary. Perhaps we had high hopes for them; their novelty is meant to avoid worn-out terms like “propaganda” or “lying” or “tu quoque.” That they immediately fail at their appointed task shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

On a sad note, it appears that Charles Krauthammer, a frequent object of our criticism here, has but weeks to live. In his final column, he notes:

Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

Best wishes to him, his family, and friends.


Your argument is invalid

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