All posts by John Casey

Blogger

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.

Hypocrisy that isn’t

Image result for hypocrisy

Many years back, Megan McArdle wrote that people who want higher taxes can just tax themselves and donate the excess. Their failure do this reveals their hypocrisy, so they should STFU.

That’s silly.

There was another example of this over the weekend. Tomi Lahren,  a conservative internet personality, decries Obamacare to beat the band. It so turns out that the 24 year-old benefits from a central provision of the law (that children can remain on their parents’ health insurance until the age of 26). To some (and to judge by internet trends many) this is some kind of rank hypocrisy:

Tomi Lahren says the Affordable Care Act is a disaster that’s in a death spiral, but that hasn’t stopped her from benefitting from it.

During an interview with comedian Chelsea Handler at Politicon, the controversial 24-year-old conservative commentator trashed Obamacare for 10 minutes before admitting to the crowd that she was, in fact, still on her parents’ health insurance plan.

“Okay, so do you have a health care plan or no?” Handler asked.

“Well, luckily I’m 24, so I am still on my parents’,” Lahren said.

The irony was not lost on the audience, which promptly started to boo, laugh and chant, “Thanks, Obama!”

A law as complex as Obamacare (it was many pages long, remember), affects pretty much everyone. This makes it nearly impossible for one to avoid benefiting (or suffering from) some of its provisions. The fact that Lahren benefits from a provision of it does not make her a hypocrite anymore than the non-volunteering tax payer of Megan McArdle’s imagination.

Indeed, as we’ve probably pointed out before, the practical impossibility of avoiding something is often a condition of laws. If this fact–the fact that you’re subject to thing you disagree with–were disqualifying, it’d be very hard to have disagreements in a democracy at all.

For more on tu quoque arguments, see this post by Scott.

Virtue signaling

Image result for semaphoreThe term “virtue signaling” has been around for a few years now, though there’s some dispute about its origin. This guy claims he invented it.  But that seems to be false, the term has been in circulation for much longer than that.

In any case, in its barest sense, signaling is a kind of implicature. I signal one thing by doing another. Virtue signaling borrows from this somewhat imperfectly. Instead of signaling my virtue by doing some other kind of thing, I signal virtue by making arguments or statements regarding virtue kinds of things. It’s not, in other words, the doing of one thing (taking out my recycling, for instance) to signal another (I love the planet). Rather, it’s the arguing or the saying itself that is the signaling.

Here’s how the pretend inventor puts it:

I coined the phrase in an article here in The Spectator (18 April) in which I described the way in which many people say or write things to indicate that they are virtuous. Sometimes it is quite subtle. By saying that they hate the Daily Mail or Ukip, they are really telling you that they are admirably non-racist, left-wing or open-minded. One of the crucial aspects of virtue signalling is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all.

I’m all for neologisms in the service of argument analysis. Scott and I have even coined a few of them. This one, however, seems confusing (see above), unnecessary, and (like qualunquismo) self-refuting.

As for the unnecessary part, there’s already a handy term (or maybe two) for what virtue-signaling means to single out: ad hominem circumstantial (on some accounts). The one who employs the VS charge, in other words, means to claim that a person is making a certain claim not for epistemic reasons (because they think it’s true) but rather to signal belonging in a group (I’m on the side of the angels). I don’t mean to say that this is inherently wrong, people after all make inauthentic pronouncements all of the time. But it’s certainly a difficult charge to make. You have to make a further claim of inconsistency to show that the person does not actually believe what they say (this would be another version of the VS). This is kind of hard. Often, in any case, it’s not relevant, thus the great risk that leveling the VS charge is just to commit the ad hominem circumstantial fallacy: you ignore the reasons and go for the alleged motives.

Now for the self-refuting part. If I by making some pronouncement regarding some moral claim M virtue signal, then does it not follow that the VS charge is itself subject, or potentially subject, to the same charge? It is at bottom a claim about what kinds of claims are proper to make in certain contexts. By leveling the charge I’m signaling that certain kinds of claims are improper in certain circumstances–that, in other words, it’s virtuous not to make them.

Hamilton

Image result for hamilton duel

I posted a while back about the ad baculum argument. Roughly, “you hold p, but p, is false, and if you don’t agree I will punch you in the nose.” The typical account is that the nose-punching is irrelevant to the truth of p, so the ad baculum in this version is a fallacy.  Put another way: the punching, shooting, or threatening are not epistemic reasons for p, though they may be pragmatic ones. Whether pragmatic reasons can bring about belief is another question.

A standard objection to the existence of the ad baculum is that this just never really happens this way, and there are all sorts of more subtle things at work–such as consequences of one’s commitments, tests of hypocrisy, and so on. I think there’s a lot of truth to this (though I think there’s much to be said for the ad baculum). One bit of evidence in favor of the deflationary view is that it’s just hard to come up with plausible sounding examples. They all sound so contrived.

Until now. Here is Blake Farenthold, Republican Congressman from Texas (via TPM)

“The fact that the Senate does not have the courage to do some things that every Republican in the Senate promised to do is just absolutely repugnant to me. … Some of the people that are opposed to this, they’re some female senators from the Northeast,” he said, likely referring to Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, who has been vocal about her opposition to each of the Senate’s health plans from the start. She said over the weekend that she’s opposed to the delayed repeal bill.

Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) and Shelly Moore-Capito (R-WV) have also been clear about their opposition to various versions of the Republican health care plan.

Farenthold suggested if it were a man from his state blocking the repeal bill, he might ask him to “step outside and settle this Aaron Burr style,” he said, referencing the famed gun duel between the former vice president and Alexander Hamilton, a former secretary of the Treasury who had longstanding political differences. The gun fight ended in Hamilton’s death.

Man or woman, that wouldn’t settle it really–well, other than to subtract one vote either way (ok, two votes, because duels are illegal).