All posts by John Casey


Rudy *follow up*

Yesterday it seemed to me that Rudy Giuliani was not doing the standard relativist argument, but, more ominously for our democratic institutions, was (incoherently) challenging the adversarial process for settling questions of fact.

The initial relativism of factual claims is the condition of the adversarial legal system. Someone says x, someone says y, and an impartial judge listens to their arguments and makes a factual determination. The presupposition is that both cannot be correct.

Giuliani seemed to be arguing that because of the disagreement over the factual claims at issue in this case, no resolution is possible, and so any result at all is bound to be unjust to one of the parties. Naturally, this view itself favors one of the parties (conveniently, his).

Today, however, it seems he’s just about to go full relativism, but only with regard to certain questions.

Consider the following exchange from an interview with Fox News:

MacCallum: What did you mean by that?

Giuliani: Oh, very simple. I’m talking about in this particular situation, one person says the Flynn conversation took place. The other person says the Flynn conversation didn’t take place. What’s the truth? You tell me how you figure out the truth. 

MacCallum: Well either it did or it didn’t.

Giuliani: It’s like the tree falling in the forest. Did anybody hear it? I mean how do we know what the truth is?  

MacCallum: You’re talking about whether or not the president asked James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. And James Comey says he did, and the president says he didn’t.

Giuliani: That’s right and they will possibly charge him with perjury should he give that answer. That’s why I’m saying in situations like this, to prosecutors, the truth is relative and it’s not absolute like some philosophical concept.

Unlike the tree case, there were observers to whatever conversation we’re talking about–namely, the participants. So points off Giuliani for not noticing that.

Now again it seems to me that the law does have a system for handling cases of, what to call them, extreme factual disagreement–a trial. If it is the case, as Giuliani alleges, that nothing can be known for certain, then there’s a default setting (to the defense).

So Giuliani again balks at embracing full-throated relativism. He’s only a relativist when it’s convenient.


Pontification on moral theology

In a conversation with NBC’s Chuck Todd on Meet the Press, Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, remarked, puzzlingly, that “truth isn’t truth.” Here’s Politico’s reconstruction of the exchange:

“When you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth,” Giuliani told Chuck Todd on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday morning

“Truth is truth,” Todd responded.

“No, no, it isn’t truth,” Giuliani said. “Truth isn’t truth. The President of the United States says, “I didn’t …”

A startled Todd answered: “Truth isn’t truth?”

Giuliani: “No, no, no.”

Todd said: “This is going to become a bad meme.“

This has occasioned lessons in metaphysics from former FBI chief, James Comey:

Not that these guys need any iron-manning, but it seems to me that this (like Kellyanne Conway’s alternative facts)  is pretty banal claim inartfully stated. Even the Politico reconstruction makes this obvious: Giuliani’s worry is that Mueller will be working with a different set of alleged facts, so there might be disagreement that looks bad for Trump. I think it’s hard to disagree with this view.

There’s a better version of the objection, I think (and I haven’t seen it yet, but I’m guessing someone somewhere has said this).

A slightly more uncharitable version of Giuliani’s utterance might go like this: Giuliani (and Conway before him) mean to undermine our processes of finding the truth. Part of the process for discovering the truth in our adversarial legal system is an interview such as the one Mueller wants to hold.  It is of course true that Mueller has (probably) collected, at this stage, a set of claims he thinks are true. But, as far as I know, and I am not a lawyer, Mueller is an investigator and not a judge and a jury. He likely also knows this. The problem, then with Giuliani’s claim is that it rejects the adversarial process for the reason that there will be disagreement over which claims are true, which is, after all, the very point of the adversarial process.

Late update. Here’s Giuliani’s Twitter clarification:

The view seems to be that if you have contradictory statements, he-said-she-said, then no process is adequate to discover it. Take note, criminal defendants!

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.

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.