Category Archives: General discussion

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Arguing with Children

The other day the New York Times ran an op-ed about Greta Thunberg, the teenage environmental activist. The TL;DR is that activism, particularly the activism of Ms.Thunberg, is “at odds with democracy.”

Many on Twitter wondered how attempting to persuade people to take an interest in an issue could be undemocratic. It seems, if anything, just like how you do democracy.

What the author really means, however, is that her argument methods are no good. He writes:

Her politics rests on two things. First is simplification. “The climate crisis already has been solved,” she said at a TED Talk in Stockholm this year. “We already have all the facts and solutions. All we have to do is wake up and change.” Second is sowing panic, as she explained at the World Economic Forum in Davos last winter.


Normally Ms. Thunberg would be unqualified to debate in a democratic forum. Since a 16-year-old is not a legally responsible adult, she cannot be robustly criticized and, even leaving aside her self-description as autistic, Ms. Thunberg is a complicated adolescent. Intellectually, she is precocious and subtle. She reasons like a well-read but dogmatic student radical in her 20s. Physically, she is diminutive and fresh-faced, comes off as younger than her years, and frequently refers to herself as a “child” — about the last thing the average 16-year-old would ever do.

Kids her age have not seen much of life. Her worldview might be unrealistic, her priorities out of balance. But in our time, and in her cause, that seems to be a plus. People have had enough of balance and perspective. They want single-minded devotion to the task at hand.

Pointing out in an argument with a child that they’re a child and you can’t really argue with them is pretty much the same thing as arguing with them, only it’s way more dishonest because it’s patronizing, self-contradictory, and itself pretty much fallacious. For, in the first place, you’re actually arguing with them, you’re just not doing it right by calling into question the truth of the premises or the logic of their conclusions. Instead, you’re pointing out that they’re children who, because of their fragile nature (I won’t even point out the other thing he mentions–see how I can be ironic too!), cannot be criticized by adults.

Still more perplexlingly, and equally ironically, the author argues that drawing negative conclusions about people’s behavior is not allowed:

Increasingly, climate agitators want action, not distraction. That often requires demonizing anyone who stands in the way. In July the climate editor of the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad complained that Paris’s declaration of a “climate state of emergency” on July 9 had not been accompanied by a ban on automobile traffic in Paris or by a dimming of the lights on the Eiffel Tower. In Germany the word “Flugscham” is one of the last year’s more interesting coinages. It means not fear of flying but shame of flying, and of the pollution it brings about. The German economist Niko Paech urges shaming people for booking cruises and driving S.U.V.s, too.

I’m supposing that the people making such arguments should be ashamed of themselves. Geez. It’s pretty much an inescapable feature of disagreements that the people with whom you disagree are doing something wrong. That’s just the way it’s done. When the disagreement concerns actions, then it follows that the claim will be that doing that action is wrong, and so should not be an action that is done. Pointing this out is just how you do arguments in a democracy. Maybe, just maybe, the extremity of the wrongness is exaggerated. If so, that’s something that’s pretty easy to point out.

To end on a rather more general note, this is another example of what Robert Talisse and Scott Aikin call the Owl of Minerva problem. The argument is so often not about what to do or what to believe but about what are legitimate arguments concerning what to do or what to believe.

Sadly, sometimes it’s pretty easy to have an argument about first order issues. Even Greta Thunberg, a mere child, can direct you to that.

Argumentative clutter

A while back, not that long ago actually, you couldn’t escape memes about Marie Kondo, the Japanese de-cluttering expert and reality TV personality. The most famous one was to ask, about any object that you have laying around your house: does it spark joy? If it doesn’t, then you get rid of it.

Over at Philosophy15, run by our own Scott Aikin and Robert Talisse, they run another version of the “Owl of Minerva Problem.” Here’s the video (it’s a two-parter, this is part I):

A common stoic-type (Scott can confirm this) argument against extra stuff (one that I unsuccessfully employ all of the time) is that stuff just creates the need for more stuff. There’s a version of the this in Boethius’s Consolation.

Interestingly, this works for arguments as well, though there is no Marie Kondo here to help you. The better you get at arguments, the more argument furniture, rugs, tchotchkes you gather in the form of argument vocabulary, fallacy names, etc. In a sense, gathering this stuff is what it means, in the minds of many at least, to be good at arguing. The problem is that it gets subsumed into arguments such that you then have to gather more of it–more second (third?) order vocabulary, and so forth, to manage the misemployment of fallacy vocabulary, for instance.

One quick example of that. The Harry Potter Problem, so I call it, is the employment fallacy names (expecto ad hominem!) in place of ordinary language critique of argument. The Harry Potter problem only arises because we have a second-order vocabulary.

Anyway, back to the main point: you can get rid of stuff, lead a more simple life. This is not an option with arguments, even though the cause of the problem is pretty much the same. We’re stuck with the clutter. The only solution is more clutter.


I don’t agree with this, but. . .

In the wake of the 2016 Presidential election there were countless takes about how it was a repudiation of elites and liberals who didn’t take working class white people‘s concerns seriously. In the ensuing years, enterprising journalists from every corner have done the Cletus Safari, as Ed Burmila calls it, where they venture into some diner in a dying Midwestern Rust Belt to hear the denizens’ concerns over immigration or political correctness. After years of this kind of reporting appearing in the New York Times and all, some newspaper editors seem to believe that if you live in the Midwest, you’re white (and maybe eat 10-egg breakfasts at a diner). One political editor at the New York Times said as much.

Now there seems to be an argumentative version of the Cletus Safari. Tom Scocca, writing today at Salon, identifies the form. While the journalistic version consists in filling the pages of the paper with reporting on the thoughts and impressions of all of those forgotten people no one hears from, the argumentative version summons these impressions into a point of view that occupies some important dialectical space. Scocca writes:

At the end of June, after the first round of Democratic presidential debates, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens got criticized for writing this passage:

What conclusions should ordinary people draw about what Democrats stand for, other than a thunderous repudiation of Donald Trump, and how they see America, other than as a land of unscrupulous profiteers and hapless victims?

Here’s what: a party that makes too many Americans feel like strangers in their own country. A party that puts more of its faith, and invests most of its efforts, in them instead of us.

They speak Spanish. We don’t. They are not U.S. citizens or legal residents. We are. They broke the rules to get into this country. We didn’t.

This was straightforwardly in the spirit of what the accused El Paso gunman would write, about “defending my country from cultural and ethnic replacement brought on by an invasion.” But Stephens, a self-styled Never Trumper who claims to be offended by the president’s vulgarity and bigotry, didn’t believe he had written any such thing. In a follow-up column, calling his critics “Jacobins” and their complaints “preposterous,” and comparing himself to the target of Big Brother’s Two Minutes Hate, he explained that people had willfully misunderstood his effort “to channel the negative way ‘ordinary people’ might have viewed last week’s Democratic debates.”

Like Nixon, Stephens was simply expressing racist ideas that he supposed belonged to someone else—some figure, or mass of figures, offstage, whose point of view deserved a respectful hearing. He was writing, that is, in the dominant mode by which white nationalist ideas are presented in America: as a second-order concern, or, better yet, a third-order one, a warning that liberals, by denouncing racism, run the risk of offending or provoking the people who hold those racist views (or views that may seem, to a snobbish and uncaring coastal elite, to be racist, when in fact they reflect the reasonable or at least understandable frustrations or fears of the people who hold them).

I often think that all argument is really meta-argument. Your moves are moves about moves in arguments as much as they are moves within an argument. The straw man (hollow man version actually) illustrates this point nicely. It’s like you’re saying: “By bringing up these racist ideas, I’m not asserting them, I’m merely making sure the argument we are having is conducted with respect to both sides.” Stephens should get extra points for invoking the very meta “free speech” defense, where a criticism of a view is conflated with the idea that the view shouldn’t be heard at all.

It’s all extra meta because Stephens casts himself as adjudicating the middle ground between people with racist ideas (not him!) and other (equally made up) people whose sole obsession is political correctness and silencing free speech. It’s a double straw man, with Stephens right in the reasonable middle.

Interestingly, this move–the straw man argument invoked to establish a bothsiderist meta position, was identified by Whately in his 1855 Elements of Logic. Aware that spectators of arguments often don’t pay careful attention to what they’re seeing or hearing, it is often enough, as he points out, to suggest there is some view without having to put it into any particular detail. The point of invoking the unattended or ignored view is not to examine it, but to force conciliation or some kind of draw in the minds of the onlooker (pp.241-242).

*I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, thanks for listening.

The cure is worse than the disease

Image result for the horse's mouth

The intuition that political polarization is caused by lack of access to dissenting views has much to recommend it. First of all, if you don’t know what these views are, you can’t learn about them. Second, if you only know strongly dialectical or distorted (straw man) versions of them, you’re unlikely to find your opponents to be reasonable people with plausible views. The obvious antidote to this would seem to be to sit and listen to dissenting voices in their own words.  Let’s call this view, “the horse’s mouth” Looking into the horse’s mouth will have a moderating effect; for,  people are eminently reasonable, so if you just listen to them in their own reasonable words you’ll be compelled to admit that (and so abandon your polarized, straw man versions of their view).

Now comes science to spoil everyone’s intuitions. Some political scientists have tested whether this decreases polarization. The long and the short of it is that it doesn’t and it may (though this result was within the margin of error) increase it. From their paper:

Social media sites are often blamed for exacerbating political polarization by creating “echo chambers” that prevent people from being exposed to information that contradicts their preexisting beliefs. We conducted a field experiment that offered a large group of Democrats and Republicans financial compensation to follow bots that retweeted messages by elected officials and opinion leaders with opposing political views. Republican participants expressed substantially more conservative views after following a liberal Twitter bot, whereas Democrats’ attitudes became slightly more liberal after following a conservative Twitter bot—although this effect was not statistically significant. Despite several limitations, this study has important implications for the emerging field of computational social science and ongoing efforts to reduce political polarization online.

This is disappointing in part because things were looking good for the horse’s mouth view. For it has recently been shown that another representationalist paradox–the backfire effect–had failed to replicate. In the “backfire effect” study, Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler found that attempts to correct mistaken information would backfire in certain circumstances. The idea, in other words, is that exposure to facts is not sufficient for correction and may in fact make one retrench.

Naturally, we should be cautious with such results, as the authors themselves warn:

Although our findings should not be generalized beyond party-identified Americans who use Twitter frequently, we note that recent studies indicate this population has an outsized influence on the trajectory of public discussion—particularly as the media itself has come to rely upon Twitter as a source of news and a window into public opinion (47).

In closing here I might venture a hypothesis for why people didn’t moderate their view. Prominent politicians on Twitter, from what I’ve observed, produce content for a partisan audience.  Often that partisan audience is already polarized and it isn’t particularly well-informed. Content that appeals to them, viewed by an observer, might only tend to confirm the worst views about them.  If you see a bunch of tweets urging you to “lock her up,” you can hardly be blamed for thinking them to be idiots.

Self straw manning

Image result for straw man

This is a continuation of Scott’s post from yesterday, where he observed that you can perform a kind of self straw man. You say something vague, knowing that you’re going to be “misinterpreted” and then you complain that you have been misinterpreted.

This kind of move–and I’ll give a slightly more subtle version of this in a moment–nicely illustrates the Owl of Minerva Problem for fallacy theory. The Owl of Minerva problem, as Scott and Robert Talisse describe it over at 3 Quarks Daily, runs like this:

But the Owl of Minerva Problem raises distinctive trouble for our politics, especially when politics is driven by argument and discourse. Here is why: once we have a critical concept, say, of a fallacy, we can deploy it in criticizing arguments. We may use it to correct an interlocutor. But once our interlocutors have that concept, that knowledge changes their behavior. They can use the concept not only to criticize our arguments, but it will change the way they argue, too. Moreover, it will also become another thing about which we argue. And so, when our concepts for describing and evaluating human argumentative behavior is used amidst those humans, it changes their behavior. They adopt it, adapt to it. They, because of the vocabulary, are moving targets, and the vocabulary becomes either otiose or abused very quickly.

The introduction of a metavocabulary will change the way we argue and it will, inevitably, become a thing we argue about.  The theoretical question is whether there is any distinction between the levels of meta-argumentation. The practical question is whether there is anything we can do about the seemingly inexorable journey to meta-argumentation. I have a theory on this but I’ll save that for another time.

Now for self straw manning.  This is a slightly more subtle version of yesterday’s example. Here’s the text (a bit longish, sorry) from a recent profile of Sam Harris by Nathan J.Robinson.

A number of critics labeled Harris “racist” or “Islamophobic” for his commentary on Muslims, charges that enraged him. First, he said, Islam is not a race, but a set of ideas. And second, while a phobia is an irrational fear, his belief about the dangers of Islam was perfectly rational, based on an understanding of its theological doctrines. The criticisms did not lead him to rethink the way he spoke about Islam,[4] but convinced him that ignorant Western leftists were using silly terms like “Islamophobia” to avoid facing the harsh truth that, contra “tolerance” rhetoric, Islam is not an “otherwise peaceful religion that has been ‘hijacked’ by extremists” but a religion that is “fundamentalist” and warlike at its core.[5]

Each time Harris said something about Islam that created outrage, he had a defense prepared. When he wondered why anybody would want any more “fucking Muslims,” he was merely playing “Devil’s advocate.” When he said that airport security should profile “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim, and we should be honest about it,” he was simply demanding acknowledgment that a 22-year old Syrian man was objectively more likely to engage in terrorism than a 90-year-old Iowan grandmother. (Harris also said that he wasn’t advocating that only Muslims should be profiled, and that people with his own demographic characteristics should also be given extra scrutiny.) And when he suggested that if an avowedly suicidal Islamist government achieved long-range nuclear weapons capability, “the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own,” he was simply referring to a hypothetical situation and not in any way suggesting nuking the cities of actually-existing Muslims.[6]

It’s not necessary to use “Islamophobia” or the r-word in order to conclude that Harris was doing something both disturbing and irrational here. As James Croft of Patheos noted, Harris would follow a common pattern when talking about Islam: (1) Say something that sounds deeply extreme and bigoted. (2) Carefully build in a qualification that makes it possible to deny that the statement is literally bigoted. (3) When audiences react with predictable horror, point to the qualification in order to insist the audience must be stupid and irrational. How can you be upset with him for merely playing Devil’s Advocate? How can you be upset with him for advocating profiling, when he also said that he himself should be profiled? How can you object, unless your “tolerance” is downright pathological, to the idea that it would be legitimate to destroy a country that was bent on destroying yours?

Sam Harris is certainly a divisive figure. I’d also venture to guess that he is smart enough to know his audience, some of whom (such as Robinson here above) strongly disagree with him. He might be expected, therefore, for the purposes of having a productive debate, to make his commitments absolutely clear. This would involve, one would hope, avoiding bombastic utterances bound to provoke strong reactions or misinterpretations.

But, crucially, arguments are not always about convincing new people to adhere to your view, but to strengthen the attitudes of your followers. It seems to me that just such a tactic as the self-straw man is ideal. You get an opponent (cleverly, this case) to embody the very stereotype of the unreasonable, ideology-driven mismanager of fallacy vocabulary by setting up a straw man of your own view for them. They’re drawn to that but not to your qualifications and so the trap closes.

It’s all interpretation

There seems like there should be a name for the dialectical trap of saying something controversial, but then acting hurt that those who object to it interpreted it as controversial.  Talisse and I called a very closely related stategy spitballing, that of covering the dialectical space with too many things to respond to.   Consider the following case.  President Trump has been the target of a defamation lawsuit by Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who allegedly had an affair with Trump years ago.  Daniels’ lawsuit has been dismissed, and Trump goes to Twitter:

So he calls Stormy Daniels ‘Horseface’ when announcing the case is dropped. The President has a long history of saying nasty things about womens’ appearances, so he was asked about it by the AP in a recent interview.

Trump also did not back down from derisively nicknaming porn actress Stormy Daniels “horseface” hours earlier.

He says “you can take it any way you want,” when asked if it was appropriate to insult a woman’s appearance.

Such an off-base reply.  The question wasn’t what the statement meant, but whether the President stands by the statement given what it clearly means.  Moreover, what are the options for my preferences to interpret this statement, to begin with?  Is there another option, perhaps less misogynistic, to interpreting calling a woman ‘horseface’ to be a way of maligning her looks?  Maybe it’s a shorthand that rich guys use to show that they know someone who looks like they own horses… you say “Ah, Sterling… he clearly has a wonderful set of stallions at home… see his regal horseface?”  But still hard to take it in these lights when the expression is next to calling Danels’ attorney, Michael Avenatti, a “third rate lawyer”.

The question is what’s the problem?  Here’s a shot.  The problem is along two lines.  The first is just that it’s a form of incorrigibility — you get caught doing something that someone objects to, and even if you think it is fine even under their interpretation, you just say they are interpreting it all wrong.  So this is the ‘out of context’ play with verbal indiscretion — you make the game of nailing down exactly what you said just more costly than what’s worth the points of making the objection.  In this case, making explicit what the problem is, what the interpetive options are, and so on, is just more work than is worth it.  (At least for the reporters… I’m an academic… this is my JAM!)

The second part is the trap element.  The trap is as follows — if Trump has said that we can interpret the claim as we see fit, if we interpret it as offensive, that’s evidence that we’ve chosen to interpret the claim as something bad.  But who would do such a thing, except someone who suffers from an irrational, uncivil bias?  And so, by saying that this unqualifiedly objectionable piece of language can be taken as we wish, Trump, by his lights, is testing us for whether we choose to blindly resist him on everything and act all offended when we do that, or we just see that Stormy Daniels is as ugly as he thinks she is, and we agree.

But the point, again, is the trap — once you choose to be offended by interpreting his statement in the offensive way — how is he really responsible for the objectionable stuff.  The only apology he would owe, then, would be that he’s sorry that people can’t help themselves but to interpret him in a nasty way all the time.

With charges of straw man, those who make the challenge take on particular dialectical burdens.  One of them is to point out how the view that’s been straw manned is not only better than the representation, but that better view was accessible to those who performed the straw man.  Namely, that a reasonable interpretation was available that did not suffer from the problems with the represented view.  But here’s the problem with the Trump case here with the trap — he hasn’t offered any alternative that’s a reasonable interpretation that’s not misogynistic.   Not a surprise, really.  But it’s useful for the theory of fallacy.

Poe’s law and hoaxes

Some of you may be familiar by now with the second in a series of hoaxes perpetrated by Peter Boghossian* (Portland State University’s Philosophy Department), James Lindsay, and Helen Pluckrose  (the editor of Areo, the online journal that published the hoaxes findings). The first of these hoaxes, by Boghossian and Lindsay, got a fraudulent  (what that means we’ll have to discuss) article into a very weak pay-to-play journal. They then drew dark conclusions about that fact for the future of scholarship.  You can read a very sound rebuttal of their work  by CUNY’s Massimo Pigliucci here. TL;DR: the hoax was if anything a hoax on many credulous members of the so-called skeptical movement, who thought that posting a crap article in a crap journal meant something.

The latest version of the hoax improves upon the methodology of the first one significantly–it avoided, from what I can tell, the pay-to-play journals and, importantly, it produced a larger number of fraudulent (I’m still not sure this is the right term) article.  In all, the trio wrote 20 and managed to get seven accepted. They even managed to get one of these articles accepted by Hypatia (which has had its own problems recently).

A couple of minor criticisms before I move on to the main point of this post. Other than Hypatia the other journals are hardly top-tier.  (e.g., Journal of Poetry Therapy?).  I’m also puzzled that they call this stuff “humanities” (in the introduction to the project and elsewhere). Other than the Hypatia piece, most of the stuff is what humanities people such as myself would call “social science.” While on the surface this might appear to be a minor terminological issue, there’s a big difference when you get down to it. People may think they have shown something about history, philosophy, and literature when only two of twenty had that focus.

If you’re interested in reading more criticisms, this piece in Buzzfeed does a pretty good job of summarizing the main complaints.

As an argumentative matter, I think this is a lot of wasted effort. Are there absolutely crappy papers that make it through the publishing process? Absolutely. I bet you could ask anyone who reads this stuff and they could point you to some. Sorting this stuff out, however, is just what one does in Academia–this article was bad, let me refute it; this article was bad, so bad we’re going to ignore it. Those are criticisms. And cumulatively over time these criticisms yield results of a kind–results far better than producing some bad work narrowly tailored to pass muster at gullible journals.

If they’ve shown anything conclusively here, it’s that you can produce shoddy work insincerely. Some of the work they produced was accepted only after revisions. Doing those revisions meant insincerely adapting their work to some kind of standard. Whether that standard is a good one is what people dispute (and why, ultimately, there’s  ranking of journals and so forth). But, speaking of insincerity, you can accidentally stumble into a good point. Consider this bit from one of the hoax papers:

Thesis: When a man privately masturbates while fantasizing about a woman who has not given him permission to do so, or while fantasizing about her in ways she hasn’t consented to, he has committed “metasexual” violence against her, even if she never finds out. “Metasexual” violence is described as a kind of nonphysical sexual violence that causes depersonalization of the woman by sexually objectifying her and making her a kind of mental prop used to facilitate male orgasm.

Purpose: To see if the definition of sexual violence can be expanded into thought crimes..

This was from a paper that was rejected. Oddly, they’ve stumbled into a sort of virtue theory argument here. Certain activities are wrong not because they actively harm another person only, but also because they turn their perpetrator into the kind of person who would do that kind of bad thing or at least enjoy that kind of thing. It’s bad, but for primarily self-regarding reasons. Stated this way it’s not great (remember the paper was rejected) but in all of the attempt to do a clever hoax, they actually run over the line into something plausible. The fact, however, that they can’t see the line is evidence that their failure to grasp the meaning of the term “humanities” was more than a mere oversight.

So there’s one problem with hoaxing: you might accidentally make the matter hinge on sincerity. Again, the fact that people write insincere papers is not particularly surprising. Demonstrating this fact is certainly not worth the effort they put into it.

Another feature of the hoax–its baseline logical feature–comes out of Poe’s Law–the eponymous internet law that says that a view is absurd to the extent that it’s impossible to create believable satire of it without saying explicitly: this is satire. As it happens, Scott discussed this here (also, follow the references at the end for more). There, the thought was that there are always weak adherents of views to turn the satire into reportage.

So it’s true in this case. It’s not a secret that there exists really crappy, politically-motivated, or downright unethical work in academia. It’s also not surprising that if you try to satirize some of that work, some people will not recognize it as satire and will take it as genuine work. The more direct route to that thesis is just to look at the work. Such work exists, of course, as it was the premise of the entire hoax.

A somewhat sad coda to this was the tweet thread of the graduate student who refereed that paper. He spent hours crafting feedback for what he thought was an earnest, but inexperienced, scholar. Journals such as these are where such earnest scholars go to continue the discussion and to continue their professional development. So, the net effect of the hoax is that some one of these apparently earnest but inexperienced scholars might be an earnest but insincere person looking to waste your time.

*Not to be confused with philosopher Paul Boghossian (NYU) who is now dealing with mistaken requests for interviews.

Why we argue

The second edition of Why we argue  (and how we should) by Robert Talisse and our own Scott Aikin is now out. You can get it here or (what’s better) at your local bookstore.

Devoted readers of this site will recognize some of the ideas, but (and perhaps I’m biased) all will appreciate its lively approach to the topic of disagreement and informal logic. It’s primary virtue is that  it’s a self-aware discussion of informal reasoning–it recognizes that everyone is already familiar with the metalanguage of argument and this is what amounts to its biggest challenges.  Along these lines, the new edition has stuff on deep disagreement, the Owl of Minerva Problem, and online arguing.

It will be worth your time.

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!