Category Archives: General discussion

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Rid of a meddlesome priest

Recent news is James Comey’s revelation that President Trump said:

I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy.  I hope you can let this go.

The issue with regard to whether this is obstruction of justice is what kind of speech act this is.  Here’s the discussion afterwards (full transcript here):

RISCH: Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go.

COMEY: Not in his words, no.

RISCH: He did not order you to let it go.

COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.

RISCH: He said, “I hope.” Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases charging people with criminal offenses. And, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there that — where people have been charged.

Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this — they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?

COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.

RISCH: Right.

COMEY: I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, “I hope” this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.

The key is to properly interpret Comey’s distinction between “in his words” and what’s not.

To start, directives standardly take the form of imperative sentences.  “Close the window, please.”  Or “Shut your mouth!”.  That’s how you utter a directive in those words.  But we can have other speech acts, given our interpretive devices in context, with directive force.  “It’s cold in here” is a way to request the heat be turned up.  A child uttering the words “I’m hungry” is a way to demand a PBJ sandwich.  And, in many cases, expressing one’s preferences, especially when the power dynamic is asymmetric, is a form of issuing directives.

For example, if I say “I expect you to clean your rooms” to my kids, I’m not just reporting that I have made a prediction, I am giving an order.  Or if someone on my tenure committee says, “I encourage you to place papers in better journals,” that’s not just some ra-ra encouragement, but a statement better translated as: “place papers in better journals.”

Comey clarified this last point — that when the President lets you know what his hopes are, that’s a way of issuing a directive.  Like if I tell my students that I hope that they can get their papers in on time, I’m not just letting them know about my preferences, I’m telling them what do do.  In the service of this, Comey made a jaw-droppingly-awesome historical reference, that to Henry II’s indirect directive to take care of Samuel Beckett.  Here’s Comey’s version:

KING: …. I think in response to Mr. Risch — to Senator Risch, you said he said, “I hope you will hold back on that.” But when you get a — when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or — or “would you,” do you take that as a — as a — as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The point, again, is that given the context and the cross-categorical pragmatics of many speech acts, it’s reasonable to see how that could be a directive.  Or a directive given with plausible deniability.

Body slam!

Image result for body slam creative commons

An interesting example of ad baculum (appeal to force) reasoning came up last night. A candidate for Congress in Montana body-slammed a reporter for asking a question about the CBO score of the AHCA.  This got me thinking about the ad baculum.

The textbook ad baculum argument is something of a puzzle. Here’s what we might call a fairly standard version:

The fallacy of appeal to force occurs whenever an arguer poses a conclusion to another person and tells that person either implicitly or explicitly that some harm will come to him or her if he or she does not accept the conclusion. (Hurley Concise Introduction to Logic 2008, p. 116).

As the text goes on to explain, the fallacy works by blinding the listener to the weakness of an argument with the threat of sanction. Other texts of this type make similar claims (see the Hurley-esque Baronett 2013 or here at the Fallacy Files).

On the other hand, some research-based approaches do not seem to include it (e.g., Groarke and Tindale Good Reasoning Matters! don’t mention it at all).  Walton, in contrast, includes a discussion of “fear or threat” arguments, though he stresses the ways they are passable (and considers the relevance question “outrageous”) (see Walton Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation 2006, p. 288).

Like Walton, I’ve long struggled with whether this is anything. You can’t force anyone to believe anything. Your forcing, or threats of forcing, will likely have the opposite effect. You will reinforce their believe or raise their suspicions. Beliefs just don’t work like this.

One common suggestion is that such moves aren’t really arguments, so they’re not really fallacies. It’s been used on me (and Scott) before to discount some one of our dialectical examples. It would go like this. My threats to punch you if you keep asking about the CBO score aren’t “argumentative” in any real sense. They’re just threats to get you to engage in some action or other. They are threats, in other words, to get you to do something (not conclude) something.

I’m loathe to give up on threats and violence as common distortions of dialectical exchanges. They happen too often, I think, for us to ignore them. If our model of fallaciousness can’t capture them, then we need to rethink it.  I have therefore two suggestions. The first is this: the aim of the ad baculum is indeed an action–the action is “accpetance.” You are going to “accept” (rather than believe) that some proposition is true. You are going to include it in your practical reasoning. If I threaten you to accept some proposition as true, then you will act as if it is. Whether you believe it in your heart of hearts is irrelevant.

The second suggestion: my threats are not aimed at your believing, they’re aimed at your doing and the believing of others. If I can get you to stop blabbing on about the CBO score, even though you think it’s important, I can shield that evidence from others and therefore control (however indirectly) their believing. You control believing, after all, in this indirect way.

An unforeseen cost of free speech

Freedom isn’t free.  Sure, and neither is free speech.  Some of the costs are those of ire from your allies for giving time to someone whose views you despise, some costs are the time and energy expended in ensuring that those with whom you disagree can express their views.  And there are the costs of considering and replying to their views.  These kinds of costs are familiar to those with Millian sympathiesthose who know only their own side know little of that.

Dennis Praeger at NRO has exacted a new cost for those who defend free speech: being attacked by those for whom you’ve fought for the freedom to speak for not being sincere in supporting free speech.  His reason?  Because you don’t seem to agree with his views.

While some of the professors who have signed these statements might sincerely believe that the university should honor the non-left value of free speech, one should keep in mind the following caveats.

First, the number of professors, deans, and administrators who have signed these statements is very small. . . .

Second, while no one can know what animates anyone else, it’s a little hard to believe that many of those who did sign are sincere. If they were, why haven’t we heard from them for decades? Shutting out conservatives and conservative ideas is a not new phenomenon.

Third, these statements accomplish nothing of practical value. They are basically feel-good gestures. . . .

If any professors want to do something truly effective, they should form a circle around a hall in which a conservative is scheduled to speak, with each professor holding up a sign identifying themselves as a professor: “I am [name], professor of [department].”

…. But it won’t happen. It won’t because the university is a particularly cowardly place.

Let’s start with the fact that because there are few professors signing the letter in support of free speech, they must not be sincere.  Surely this is backwards — it’s because they are few and stand to be on the receiving end of the ire of their colleagues that we know they are sincere.

Second, the familiar no conservatives in the academy line is just dumb here, since those who stand up for free speech and so on in the academy have been doing that since the beginning.  That they need to stand up for conservatives is (i) evidence of the problem Prager is talking about, and (ii) shows what wilting violets academic conservatives turn out to be.  Ooooh the Marxists can be soooo mean.  Prager’s big thought is that because they aren’t conservatives, they can’t seriously be in for protecting conservative speech.  But, hey, you’re not supporting free speech unless you’re supporting the rights of those whose views you hold to be deplorable to speak.  Otherwise, it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense.

Third, if Prager’s criterion for sincerity is to ‘form a circle’ around folks who are talking on campus, then (a) he’s got a misunderstanding of how most academics spend their time, and (b) he’s forgotten about the prof at Middlebury who got a concussion protecting Charles Murray from an angry mob of student protesters.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is that Praeger, because he doesn’t see the academics as on his side can’t see the work they are doing for free speech as anything but insincere.

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.

The airing of grievances

We’ve had a few posts up lately about the adversarial paradigm of argument (links: one, two). Today will be another one. The others discussed the problems resulting from treating arguers as opponents, today’s will discuss the problems in not viewing them this way (when appropriate.

Vox.com ran an article on CNN, where it blamed them for treating politics “like a sport.”

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, CNN president Jeff Zucker described the network’s approach to covering politics, saying, “The idea that politics is sport is undeniable, and we understood that and approached it that way.” That politics-as-sport approach has placed a heavy emphasis on drama, with much of CNN’s programming revolving around sensationalist arguments between hosts, guests, and paid pundits.

That fighting-based approach to covering politics has created a huge demand for Trump supporters willing to appear on the network, which is why CNN hired Trump supporters like Jeffrey Lord and Kayleigh McEnany to defend Trump full time.

Another dominant metaphor for argument is war: arguers are adversaries, positions are attacked and defended.  It’s similar to sports, but the focus is not on the entertainment of the spectator (I hope), but rather on the viciousness of the contest. Scott wrote a paper on this.

In both cases the focus is not on the quality of the reasons, but rather on some external features–either the joy of the audience in the case of sport or the ability to extract concessions in the case of war.

This is generally bad news for arguments. But not all arguments are about truth telling, as the author supposes:

All of this would be fine and normal for a network like ESPN — but when you treat politics like a sport, you end up with news coverage that cares more about fighting and drama than it does about serious truth telling.

I’d be happy to find out when CNN had ever been about serious truth telling.  But seriously, the context of these CNN discussions is scandal and audience-driven (because of advertising, the need to pay Wolf Blitzer millions of dollars, etc.). This should be a clue as to their focus.

So, in CNN’s defense, they specialize in a subgenre of argumentation called the quarrel. The point of the quarrel is not to settle the truth of some proposition but rather to air grievances. The problem really consists in the viewers (and participants) thinking that this is supposed to be an argument.

Kids today, you know what I mean?

Catherine Rampall, of the Washington Post, lists five self-interest-based reasons allegedly liberal college students should listen to speakers who ridicule them to their face or allege blacks and Latinos are genetically inferior.  They’re solid, utilitarian reasons, taken right out of Mill’s On Liberty.

  1. You make a martyr of the protestee;
  2. You dull your ability to answer the arguments of the protestee;
  3. You force their ideas underground;
  4. Your jerkishness drives people from your cause;
  5. These techniques will be used against you.

This seems to be reasonable strategic advice. I do, however, have two concerns, one broad and one narrow.  The broad one concerns the tired narrative that we’re dealing with a real danger to democracy here; the narrow one regards reason #2: the idea that advancing learning objectives requires reciting reasons against the worst possible trollishness.

The broad concern: let’s remember that these are just kids–and a tiny handful of them at that. Kids say and do a lot of misguided things. Sadly, these particular things and these particular kids seem to make the news and then loom large in the minds of scolding commentators at our nation’s flagship newspapers. Have a sense of scale in other words. It’s not like they have managed to outlaw the teaching of basic science.

Second, to repeat something I said the other day (and something you can find discussed more eloquently by others here and here and here), the idea that you are somehow obligated to handle crazy objections can sometimes undermine free inquiry, rather than advance it. Clearly, the people who invite trolls aren’t learning anything–either because they’re too clueless to recognize trolling or, more likely, they just want to troll. Answering trolls, after all, takes up precious time that might be better spent learning about actual views on the table. This goes for everyone.

In the end, of course, strategic considerations might suggest these kids not scream so loud. But then again, they’re kids. They’re only just learning about strategy.

 

Not any kind of game

Here is some advice from  Joshua Parsons, who passed away this week at the too-young age of 44.

In the bad old days philosophers used to invite speakers to seminars just in order to show off to each other by tearing strips off the speaker. It was a wonder anyone ever accepted an invitation to give a talk anywhere! The most prized skill a philosopher could have was to be able to utterly demolish a speaker’s argument; a good speaker would be one who could resist this process, or if that was not possible, then accept defeat with good grace. You’ll still hear old-timers reminiscing about this fondly: “Back in ’58, X gave us a lunch time talk on whether or not jars were a kind of bottle! Y interrupted 15 minutes in with a counterexample, and X said that he was refuted and there was no point in continuing so we all went to the staff club early for cigars and sherry!”

Point-scoring was big then. The idea is that philosophical discussions are a zero-sum game: either someone wins a point and looks clever and someone else loses one and looks foolish, or it is a stalemate, and no one likes a stalemate. This is of course completely false – philosophical discussions are not any kind of game, but a collaborative attempt to uncover and solve serious intellectual problems.

In my view, point-scoring behaviour is one of the biggest blights on the philosophy profession. The way philosophers are trained to conduct conversations in seminars lends itself to point-scoring, which is how the whole sorry idea got started in the first place. Think back to graduate school. At first you were afraid to ask questions in seminars because you had hardly understood a word of the talk, and everyone who was asking questions seemed to have understood it better than the speaker and have a trenchant criticism. Then your supervisor told you that the only way to learn was to muck in, and that she was expecting you to ask a question at the next seminar. At the paper, you listened very carefully to find something that you were sure you understood to ask a question about. You tentatively asked your first question. To your surprise, the speaker took you seriously and famous Prof X asked a follow up on your question. Your supervisor was proud of you. That was good! After that you tried your hardest to think of a question in every seminar. A few years later you had mastered the technique, not only thinking of a question, but anticipating the speaker’s response and ready with a follow-up too.

An interesting thought here is the mercenary nature of these discussions–you don’t actually have any points to make, you need to come up with some because that’s your job (or so you think). You come up with objections that may not be your objections, but they are objections nonetheless.

A further thought might be this: perhaps the author of the paper didn’t care about their point themselves. They had to come up with something to give a talk. That would make it a game for them, I think.

The adversary paradigm

In “The Adversary Paradigm,” (1983) Janice Moulton challenged the claim that the ideal way to examine a view is to subject it to adversarial challenges in the form of  counterexamples. Roughly, I assert p, you assert ~p in an attempt to challenge p.

Among Moulton’s problems with this view are these. First, it’s epistemically limited. There are lots of ways a view can go wrong, not all of them, or even the most salient ones, are revealed by this method.

Second, it tends to institutionalize a kind of intellectual trolling culture. Since to challenge its view is to assert its opposite, we need to refresh the pool of people who will play this role, even if their criticisms have little plausibility. So, for instance, do we need to host Holocaust deniers in a history of the holocaust course? Does answering their charges do much to improve our knowledge of the Holocaust? What’s more likely, is that it obscures the many actually controversial elements to the study of the Holocaust and it gives greater plausibility to a fringe view (among other reasons).

This danger, I think, lurks behind the idea that we need to invite controversial people for the sole reason that they’re controversial. Here’s this from Inside Higher Ed:

As movements to protest and silence controversial campus speakers have become common, the president of a new Harvard University student group intends to “saturate” the campus with those types of talks — to challenge established ideologies that he said administrators there blatantly promote.

Open Campus Initiative was organized this year, its president, Harvard sophomore Conor Healy, said in an interview Friday.

Already, the group of roughly 25 students, Healy said, has secured commitments from two right-leaning, controversial figures to address the campus. One, writer Charles Murray, made headlines in March after his lecture at Middlebury College was drowned out by student chants, forcing him to stop. Murray is often accused of promoting racist ideals. Open Campus Initiative has not yet pegged a day for his talk.

The pick of Murray was deliberate, Healy said. He was horrified by the disruptions at Middlebury and said he wanted to prove Harvard could serve as a role model institution for free expression.

“Most of the community wants to hear from the people we’re inviting, they want to critique them, ask them hard questions, and they’re willing to be convinced,” Healy said. “If they’re not convinced, their perception of the truth can be reinforced by the opposing view.”

Free speech rights and all. But this is college, the challenge in college is to bring students (and others) up to speed with debates among academics. This naturally will not include everyone and every view. The challenge then, for controversial speakers, is to show that they’re part of a live controversy, and not instead just people who are very good at hanging on to discredited views.

Moulton herself was not categorical in her rejection of the adversary paradigm. The problem, she maintained, was considering it to be the ideal of intellectual engagement.

 

With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do

There is no question that President Trump has done a 180 on military intervention in the Middle East. You can see the tweet record here.

It is reasonable, I think, to call this hypocrisy or inconsistency. That’s why we have those terms. They’re shorthand for saying, “you have changed your view without signaling any reasons for having done so.” Part of what this evaluation points out, in other words, is that it’s time for reasons. After all, there’s been a change, and we normally expect there to be something to justify the change.

So this is a discussion we ought to have and “hypocrite” or “inconsistent” are terms we need to use.  But that’s just me. Here’s Josh Marshall from TPM.

Donald Trump has said all manner of contradictory things about Syria and unilateral airstrikes. He said Obama shouldn’t attack in 2013 and insisted he needed congressional authorization to do so. Now he is contradicting both points. But whether or not Trump is hypocritical is not a terribly important point at the moment. Whether he’s changed his position isn’t that important. But the rapidity and totality with which he’s done so is important. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the intervention question. But impulsive, reactive, unconsidered actions seldom generate happy results.

Another way to put this is that while I agree it’s silly for the now to focus on calling Trump a hypocrite, the man’s mercurial and inconstant nature makes his manner of coming to the decision as important as the decision itself. That tells us whether he’ll have the same worldview tomorrow, whether this is part of any larger plan. There are arguments for intervention and restraint. But given what we know of Trump, it is highly uncertain that this is part of either approach. It may simply be blowing some stuff up.

Which is another way of saying his hypocrisy raises questions. This is why we have  meta-linguistic terminology. And the important thing about the metalanguage  is that it makes our analytical work easier. We don’t need to build new theories every time we encounter a problem.

James Brown’s hair

One reason we started this blog so many years ago was to create a repository of examples of bad arguments. There were, we thought, so many. There are, we still think, so many.

Since then, we’ve expanded our focus to theoretical questions about argumentation. One such question is whether there are actually any fallacious arguments at all. Part of this question concerns the usefulness of a meta-language of argument evaluation. Argument has a tendency to eat everything around it, which means evaluations of arguments will be included in the argument itself. To use a sports analogy, penalties are not separate from the game, they’re part of the strategy of the game. The use of fallacies, then, is just another layer of argument strategy and practice.

That’s not the usual argument, I think, against employing a meta-language of fallacy evaluation. Often rather the discussion hinges one whether such moves can be precisely identified, or whether it’s practically useful to point them out. These, like the first, are both excellent considerations.

On the other hand, there’s a heuristic usefulness to a set of meta-terms for argument evaluation. For one, it’s nice to have an organized mind about these things.  Second, people tend to make the same moves over and over. Consider this one from Bill O’Reilly last week:

In case you can’t watch, a brief summary (courtesy of CNN):

During an appearance on “Fox & Friends,” O’Reilly reacted to a clip of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) delivering a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives.

I didn’t hear a word she said,” O’Reilly said of Waters. “I was looking at the James Brown wig.”

“If we have a picture of James Brown — it’s the same wig,” he added.

The classical version of the ad hominem goes like this: some speaker is disqualified on grounds not relevant to their competence, accuracy, etc. This seems like a pretty textbook example.

This brings me to another reason people have for skepticism about the usefulness of fallacy theory: fallacies, such as the one above, are so rare that it’s just not useful to spend time theorizing about them.

I don’t think so.