All posts by John Casey

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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.

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.

 

The argument police

Image result for turtles all the way down

Here’s a bracing passage from a recent article in the Baffler:

IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INTERNET MESSAGE BOARD, let’s say in the 1990s, a certain species of idiot materialized. He was male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical, committed to the hard sciences, prone to starting sentences with “actually,” and almost always devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority.

There are several others like it. I have to admit that reading them stung a bit–this is after all what we do here. If you openly claim to do be self-conscious about your logicness, then any failing real or otherwise is an occasion for disdain and dismissal. It’s annoying, because everyone is their own logic police. As C.S. Peirce observed:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination and does not extend to that of other men.

But one part of me thinks the criticism is for this reason completely superficial, not to mention self-contradictory. There’s something of the logic police in it: just another layer higher. When it comes to being critical, it’s turtles all the way down.

And therein lies the question. Argument analysis has its own terms of art. Tu quoque is an example. Using these terms of art in mixed company is nearly always a bad idea. I stress this over and over in my critical thinking classes. Do not use a fallacy name on anyone ever. I know, by the way, I’m guilty of this very thing many times here. In my defense, however, my presumption is that the targets know the terms and besides, I don’t do really do that anymore.

This raises, however, a somewhat tragic (to my mind) point–related to the turtles above. Is not using the name–say, tu quoque–sufficient? Should we not find ways of pointing it out either? That’s pretty much the same thing–it just takes longer (and sort of presumes the target not versed in the right terms). Besides, not using the standard names doesn’t stop people (or perhaps encourages them) from creating a duplicate set of terms. Now, for instance, we have “whataboutism” and others. It does the same exact work at twice the cost.

We can’t avoid the need of evaluating reasons (our own and that of others). We also for this reason can’t avoid the problem of evaluating the evaluating of reasons. It’s simpler, perhaps, just to remind ourselves of Peirce’s observation: everyone is perfectly logical and ignore the temptation to consider it some kind of hypocrisy or arrogance when they’re not.

An argument with an expiration date

The talk-show host Sean Hannity had a segment the other day about the “exploitative” nature of rushing in after mass shooting events to score “political” points. You can watch a video of him here:

And here’s a link to an NRA lobbyist saying the same kind of thing. Though I’m skeptical of the sincerity of these sorts of arguments, (see here for a sort of rebuttal), if not for the sole fact that running a spot on how others have violated norms in a time when we’re not supposed to be scoring points seems like an attempt to score points, I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what might be a reasonable version of taking things on too soon.

The first question is this: what does it mean to “politicize” something or to “score political points”? My guess is that the events are going to be used as a premise in a policy argument. Something like this:

“the events of the other day have policy implications a, b, and c.”

Simple enough, but there’s more to this. Much hinges on what we mean by “political,” as in “political points” or “politicize.” My guess is that what makes these particular issues “political” is that those policy implications are (1) already well-known, (2) the subject of intense dispute, and (3) unresolved or in a kind of argumentative stalemate. By “argumentative stalemate” I mean that the positions of each side are well known and well defined, not that the sides have exhausted the possibility for resolution. The dispute is still live. Oddly, the only example I can think of is gun violence. Maybe readers can suggest different cases.

Now consider by way of counterexample that the injunction does not apply to one-off events where most people have not occupied ideological positions. Should there be, for instance, some kind of random event tomorrow with casualties, I’m going to guess that we’ll immediately discuss the policy implications. We’ll do so before anyone is buried or all the wounded are accounted for. The injunction against politics is not universal. It only applies to certain debates.

There’s a second thing to notice about such debates: the side that invokes the injunction will typically be the side that has the most to lose by the added evidence. This was covered (satirically) here.  Or, if not invoked by them, it will be invoked by others on their behalf.

Their concern might not be an entirely unreasonable one, but it underscores the somewhat limited scope of the injunction. They might fear rhetorical disadvantage by the tendency of people to run with latest piece of evidence adduced in deciding a question (by, in other words, availability bias). The politicization of the debate, or the “cheap points scoring” is therefore winning rhetorical advantage without working for it or by taking advantage of the temporary set-back of the other side.

This brings us to the key feature of such arguments: the invocation against talking “too soon.” It’s a temporal restriction rather than a content one. The presumption is that we can talk about it later, just not now. This can take a couple of forms. One argument is that the “the bodies are not in the ground, and the people have not had time to mourn” among other claims. This is a sensitivity claim. Arguing about the policy implications are alleged to be (1) insensitive to the people affected and (2) bad form for the participants, as their thoughts should be directed elsewhere. These don’t seem to be entirely unreasonable.

A second, and I think more problematic, version of the “too soon” injunction concerns the management of evidence “too soon.” This is an epistemological concern: we haven’t had time to learn the relevant facts or mull over the meaning of the evidence. Besides, as we’ve already noted, remarkable new evidence might bias us. Our haste will undermine the quality of our discussion.

Neither of these concerns is essentially unreasonable. We do care, after all, about the quality of our evidence and there is something to be said about hitting the pause button on civic disputes to focus on the needs of the large numbers of people affected. But, I might add here in closing as this has gone on longer than I meant, there’s something of a conflict between the state of the argument (stalemate) and the regularity of the need to hit the pause button. I think, furthermore, this takes concerns about making hasty decisions or corrupting our evidence off the table. We’ve seen all of this before. And our requiring frequent pauses to bury the dead seems to underscore the need to bring this thing to a resolution. If anything, this suggests that the “too soon” argument has an expiration date.

Let’s get political

In the wake of mass violence like the one last night people often say it’s not time to “for politics.” You can set your watch by it. Here’s the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Sanders.

Not sure about that analogy underneath the video, by the way. The point in any case is that you don’t talk about the political angle of these things for some determinate period after they happen. Not to be facetious, but in the US they happen with such regularity that you’re never really out of the hot zone.

Back to the point. I have the sneaky feeling that “let’s not politicize this” means “let’s not have a disagreement now.” This naturally favors the status quo ante, because there’s a restriction on admitting or considering new evidence for some particular position. I made that argument here.

What strikes me as odd about all of this is that we have all sorts of discussions in the immediate aftermath of events–we might describe them as ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological.  For we have conversations about what happened, about the quality of our evidence, or about the heroism of some of the people involved or the evil of the perpetrator. All of them involve some level of disagreement, uncertainty, revision, or retraction. So if the claim that we shouldn’t get political rests of fear of going wrong, we already seem to tolerate a fair amount of that.

Offensive line

Image result for meme flag protest

If you’ve been following the news even superficially you’ll have heard about the National Anthem protests. Started by now free agent NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to protest the treatment of African Americans and other minorities, the protest mainly consists in taking some kind of alternate posture (sitting, kneeling, linking arms, not being present) during the singing of the National Anthem before a football game, though this has no spread to other sports and activities.

I’ve seen more than a few arguments against the protest. One argument strikes me as oddly familiar. It goes like this. The people not standing for the protest are an offense to those whose relatives or husbands or wives or friends have died or in general to those who have sacrificed for the flag. Here’s one version, from the Governor of Illinois:

I strongly disagree with those who disrespect our flag and our anthem,” Rauner told POLITICO through a spokesman. “To me they are disrespecting the foundations of our country, the veterans who risked their lives for our democracy, and the men and women who fight every day and make the ultimate sacrifice to defend our liberties.”

The key notion there is respect. This is, in part at least, a standpoint argument. Standpoint arguments are authority arguments. Someone with a standpoint S has privileged access to p. So when they say p, it’s likely p. This works in one way when a person with that standpoint is likely to know the answer to p (because they were looking right at p for example). This is not really the case here. Though there is an element of knowledge to the standpoint (“I know the true meaning of the flag because I saluted every day in the service”), knowledge is not the decisive factor here. In the present case, the person has privileged access to feelings of offense and therefore especially deserves respect. Everyone’s an expert in that. It turns out that in this case their feelings have special weight on account of the objects (the flag) involved. For us outsiders, people with that standpoint have special weight on that question.

The trouble is, however, others with that same exact standpoint do not feel offended at all, but rather heartened, etc. Here’s one example. We now have a disagreement on our hands. Consider that there’s nothing we can do to resolve the disagreement, as the standpoints in question are fundamentally decisive.  What to do?

One thought is that the disagreement nullifies the consideration. If we’re respectful of the feelings of people with this status, and they feel all different ways, then all different ways are ipso facto permissible. This seems, however, to settle the matter in favor of one view. Or perhaps it just practically settles the matter against these sorts of standpoint arguments.

Another possibility is that we defer, for moral reasons, to the most offended on some kind of least harm principle. If it’s going to offend some, then maybe we shouldn’t do it. The symmetrical nature of the disagreement, however, means that we’re bound to cause offense–stopping our protest will cause offense to those who see obeisance to nationalist flag ceremonies as the very thing they sacrificed for.

Still another thought might be to split the difference between the two and reconcile the disagreement on our own. I don’t know what that would be. One version might be to consider the disagreement along democratic lines. If the majority of people with standpoint S say to do p, then p it is. If a preponderance of members of the class say it’s offensive, then maybe there’s a prima facie case for offense. Something like this is at work in arguments against employing racist stereotypes on, er, football helmets. There are some Native Americans who don’t find the name (or image) “Redskins” offensive.

Perhaps the disagreement about how to manage the disagreement is itself evidence that such arguments are of little value in circumstances such as these, where other more obvious considerations should come to the fore (such as free speech considerations). Certainly, it seems, the fact that something is offensive isn’t usually the only reason to do it or not do it.

Slippery Slopism

Image result for statue graveyardWandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

This is the life we have chosen

School has started again. For some of us academics, this means shifting from reading professional literature to papers written by absolute beginners. Over the years this can wear on you, especially since you’ll encounter the same moves over and over and over. The sheer repetitiveness of it will cause you to ask whether you’re having any effect at all on their work. If you’re smart, you’ll vent about it to your trusted colleagues in the friendly confines of the faculty lounge. They will commiserate with you, and hopefully remind you of your obligations as a teacher. After a scotch or two and some quality time in a chesterfield chair, you’ll return to class refreshed, or maybe a bit buzzed, but nonetheless ready to do whatever it is you do.

Should you lack good mentors or quality whisky, you may be tempted to go online with a post about how stupid the kids are. Before you do this, you need to remind yourself of three critical things.

First, this is the life you have chosen. You are in the instruction business and this necessarily requires a constantly replenished supply of people who need and (hopefully) who desire instruction from you. They stay the same age over the years as you get older. You are wiser than them each year; they are the same. This might account for the feeling that they’re bad at the thing you teach in exactly the same way.

Second, the people you teach, especially if you’re a philosopher, are brand-spanking new at the game of argument. They’ve got views all right, they’ve got views about everything. Some of them even have reasons for those views. But they’ve very likely never subjected those views to the kind of scrutiny they’ll face in a philosophy class.

Third, while you may tell them that you consider them an equal partner in discussion, they’re not. You’re the teacher for a reason. Your obligation is to improve their argument performances–not to treat them as the failures they might be. This obligation includes improving arguments for views you may disagree with. One essential feature to improving their view is recasting their deficient argument as a less-deficient one, fortifying it, as it were (trying out “fortify” for “iron man” by the way). Going around their backs and griping publicly about their failures undermines the whole idea.

The Straw We

Lately with all of the doings I’ve run across a few examples of what we might call the “Straw We.” Here’s  (a not particularly ideal) one:

The idea is that this is false. Many indeed would have and did think this.

As far as I can tell, Steven Pinker first identified the “Straw We” in a review of a book by Malcolm Gladwell (we discussed it here briefly, some years back). The idea is that someone represents the view held by us, most of us, or some subset of us, to be more weak, less nuanced, less sophisticated, etc. as it actually is for the purposes, I imagine, of highlighting the ingeniousness of some discovery or other.

Here’s how Pinker put it:

The banalities come from a gimmick that can be called the Straw We. First Gladwell disarmingly includes himself and the reader in a dubious consensus — for example, that “we” believe that jailing an executive will end corporate malfeasance, or that geniuses are invariably self-made prodigies or that eliminating a risk can make a system 100 percent safe. He then knocks it down with an ambiguous observation, such as that “risks are not easily manageable, accidents are not easily preventable.” As a generic statement, this is true but trite: of course many things can go wrong in a complex system, and of course people sometimes trade off safety for cost and convenience (we don’t drive to work wearing crash helmets in Mack trucks at 10 miles per hour). But as a more substantive claim that accident investigations are meaningless “rituals of reassurance” with no effect on safety, or that people have a “fundamental tendency to compensate for lower risks in one area by taking greater risks in another,” it is demonstrably false.

At first glance, the Straw We might seem to be a narrative device meant to enhance the originality or insight of what responds to it. I can even think of several pastiches of it (mostly from the Simpsons). This technique might serve somewhat innocently to increase the uptake of whatever it is one is trying to say (or maybe sell) by way of heightening the contrast. You sharpen the contrast in order to make the lesson clearer.

The Straw We’s pernicious use mirrors the pernicious use of the regular straw argument strategy: it misrepresents the dialectical terrain: things aren’t really so shallow or silly.  But the Straw We draws attention to a particular feature of straw arguments, noticed by someone whose name I don’t have handy (but will fill in later). In a straw argument, the misrepresentation of an opponent enhances the stature of the one doing the misrepresenting (and at the cost of the ones who are misrepresented) to an onlooking audience. Someone in other words looks a fool so that someone else can claim insight. The same account might be given of the Iron Man or Iron Argument: the enhancement of the argument (and consequent impugning of critics) enhances the stature of the one doing the enhancing.

The Straw We, then, highlights the performative aspects of argument. You can rarely just assert your authority on some matter (trust me, I’ve tried) and expect to be believed. You have to perform it. An easy to way to perform it for an onlooking audience, and so establish your own awesomeness, is to find some dumb thing to beat up on: Look at me, I’m winning.