Category Archives: Argument from Double Standards

Two wrongs of straw

Kellyanne Conway has had a hard couple weeks.  She had the ‘alternate facts‘ brouhaha, then she had the case where she made up a massacre in Bowling Green.   That then yielded a refusal by  a number of news outlets to interview her.  CNN’s ran for 48 hours. She had a credibility deficit.

Jonah Goldberg, over at National Review Online has come to Conway’s defense saying that she is “good at her job, and the media hates her for it.”  You see, she’s regularly been sent on a tough mission – to defend Trump’s policies against a media set on interpreting everything they say in the worst possible light.

President Trump’s surrogates, including Vice President Mike Pence, have mastered the art of defending straw-man positions that don’t reflect the actions and views of the president himself.

Just for clarity’s sake, it’s worth noting that I don’t think Goldberg is holding that Conway must defend straw man positions, but rather she must defend against straw men of her positions.  It has been a bit of a pet peeve of mine to see the language of informal logic abused, but this one is a doozy!  Regardless, the point is a fair one.  If folks have been getting the views and policies wrong, it’s the job of the communicators to set the record straight.

But it’s here that Goldberg switches gears – you see, if you must defend against those who straw man in hostile fashion, then you, too, must fight dirty. And a lesson from history is a case in point.

In 2012, Susan Rice, Barack Obama’s national-security adviser, flatly lied on five Sunday news shows, saying that the attack on the Benghazi compound was “spontaneous” and the direct result of a “heinous and offensive video.” No one talked of banning her from the airwaves. Nor should they have. Here’s a news flash for the news industry: Birds are gonna fly, fish are gonna swim, and politicians are gonna lie.

This, of course, is a curious line of argument, since the lies made the administration’s position (in both cases!)look considerably worse.  Who needs a straw manner in one’s opposition when one is doing such a bang-up job oneself?

TU to-the-evah-lovin’ QUOQUE!

We’ve had a number of discussions here at the NS about how ad hominem tu quoque can sometimes actually be a relevant form of argument. (See one of mine HERE, Colin on it HERE, John on it HERE, and my publication on it at IL HERE) In short: the argument form, when properly presented, can show in speaker inconsistency: incompetence, insincerity, or  evidence that a proposed practice is impractical.  I have one that seems a glaring case of insincerity.  Thomas Sowell’s syndicated piece (here at the American Spectator) is that because liberals control (most of) education, there’s no actual fact-checking from critics of conservatives. Instead, all liberals do, from his experience, is give counter-assertions, and that’s what’s supported by the educational institutions producing them.  Well, at least that’s what happened when Sowell read an email from a liberal critic.

It is good to check out the facts — especially if you check out the facts on both sides of an issue…. By contrast, another man simply denounced me because of what was said in that column. He did not ask for my sources but simply made contrary assertions, as if his assertions must be correct and therefore mine must be wrong.

He identified himself as a physician, and the claims that he made about guns were claims that had been made years ago in a medical journal — and thoroughly discredited since then. He might have learned that, if we had engaged in a back and forth discussion, but it was clear from his letter that his goal was not debate but denunciation. That is often the case these days.

OK.  So Sowell got an email from someone with outdated information.  From a medical journal, but outdated information.  Well, that’s not so bad, is it?  Apparently so, because Sowell takes this email to be representative of how liberals think:

If our educational institutions — from the schools to the universities— were as interested in a diversity of ideas as they are obsessed with racial diversity, students would at least gain experience in seeing the assumptions behind different visions and the role of logic and evidence in debating those differences.

Instead, a student can go all the way from elementary school to a Ph.D. without encountering any fundamentally different vision of the world from that of the prevailing political correctness.

Well, first, I smell weak manning here — thanks, Tomas Sowell, for picking a bad arguer for a liberal talking point and generalizing to all liberals.  Perhaps we could do the same for you and use Michele Bachman as the representative voice for conservatism?

At this point, Sowell then turns to the institutions that produce what he takes to be shoddy arguments, that is, universities.  And he’s got one case in point:

The student at Florida Atlantic University who recently declined to stomp on a paper with the word “Jesus” on it, as ordered by the professor, was scheduled for punishment by the university until the story became public and provoked an outcry from outside academia.

Ah, but then there’s the old fact-checking, getting the other side’s version of the story.  You know, like what a well-educated person would do.  The exercise did take place, but the student who refused wasn’t up for punishment for not stepping on ‘Jesus’, but for threatening the professor with violence.  And that’s where we know that Sowell’s not playing fair – when his side gets criticized, he wants his critics to be entirely up to date on all the details of the matter.  And when they aren’t, well, that’s evidence of how stupid, horribly educated, and disinterested in actual debate they are.  But when it’s his side, well, it’s just a matter of saying what his favored audience wants.

A final question, but now about the FAU case:  why would Christians care about stepping on the word ‘Jesus’? The name’s not holy. The letters aren’t either.  This strikes me as another case of hypocrisy — they’ve got their own graven images.  The name of god in their own language.  Christians who threaten Professor Poole with death over this don’t understand their own religion.

True tolerance

Chris Broussard at ESPN said that Jason Collins, the NBA player who’s come out as gay, isn’t a true Christian and is “in open rebellion to God.”  So what?  Well, he got some blowback from a variety of sources.  So what?  Well, he’s now got to clarify things, and when he does, he also needs to clarify a concept for all of us:

true tolerance and acceptance is being able to handle [differing lifestyle beliefs] as mature adults and not criticize each other and call each other names

I don’t think that’s true tolerance.  Tolerance means that even when you think someone else is wrong about something that matters, you don’t exclude them or prohibit them from doing the things that they do.  Tolerance isn’t tolerance if you like what they do.  It means putting up with things you hate.  That, by the way, was one of the reasons why the stoics thought of themselves as the ones who kept the old Republican virtues alive, by the way. But, notice, that doesn’t mean that you have to hold your tongue.  In fact, tolerance without care for criticism and correction isn’t much of anything — it’s more like ignoring each other.  Oh, and convenient that he’s NOW saying that tolerance is not criticizing others.  Again, sometimes inconsistency is evidence of a double standard.

Makers and takers

Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's Vice Presidential choice.  As a consequence, there's been a good bit of attention paid to Ryan's much-touted appreciation of Ayn Rand.  One edge is to criticize Randian economic policy.  Another edge is to ask whether Ryan himself lives by the Randian rules.  Here's Joan Walsh taking the second option, over at Slate,  with her article, "Paul Ryan: Randian Poseur":

When his lawyer father died young, sadly, the high-school aged Ryan received Social Security survivor benefits. But they didn’t go directly to supporting his family; by his own account, he banked them for college. . . . After his government-subsidized out-of-state education, the pride of Janesville left college and went to work for government. . . .Let’s say it together: You didn’t build that career by yourself, Congressman Ryan.

It's been a regular question here at the NS whether some kinds of tu quoque arguments can be relevant.  Again, the best example is what we've been calling smoking dad, which has the father, in the midst of taking a drag from a cigarette, telling the son that he shouldn't smoke because smoking's addictive and bad for your health.  Of course, the father's a hypocrite, but he's right, and his hypocrisy actually is relevant, because it's evidence that the father, who thinks smoking's bad, can't stop.  So it is addictive.  OK, so what about Walsh's argument here?  It seems to be that: Paul Ryan is committed to Randian principles, but doesn't live by them.  So… what follows, and why?

Here's the argument with the strongest conclusion:  Ryan's failure to live by his principles shows that they aren't right, that they aren't practicable.  Randianism is all about individuals, doing things by themselves, and ensuring that others don't interfere.  But that's not how societies work. Instead, individual success arises out of large-scale cooperation, opportunities afforded, and others giving back. 

Now, I do think that the hypocrisy of those avowing ideology X can regularly be relevant to our estimation of X.  But not all hypocrisies are created equal.  Couldn't a defender of Ryan and Randianism say something like: sure, but all this is evidence of how things work now, not how they should.  Paul Ryan benefitted from this system, and it was in his interest to do so, but that doesn't mean that the system is just or appropriate.  It just means it benefits some people.  They should be free to criticize it, still.

I think that reply is just about right, but it does miss one thing, which I  think Walsh's column could make clearer: it's easy to forget, even when you're Paul Ryan, that individual successes are nevertheless social products.  And that social programs do help people, even Randians, pursue their self interest.

Not really hypocrisy of the day

Think Progress is accusing Ron Paul of hypocrisy for criticizing social security but taking it (they also suggest that he compared social security to slavery, which he did and didn't:  He did in the "immoral" sense, but not in the "social security is a type of slavery sense):

Paul is, of course, not the only conservative to benefit from government programs that he or she opposes. But his crankish view of the Constitution has brought him to the conclusion that Social Security is altogether unconstitutional, which also hasn’t stopped him from collecting benefits.

Any critic A's criticism of policy x naturally leads critic B of critic A to see whether A is consistent with regard to x.  Since x is government policy, or law, it's very easy to spot alleged inconsistencies.  I'm against, at least I think I am, various tax breaks for people who make over a certain amount of money.  These tax breaks might benefit me.  I'm not a hypocrite for not writing a check to the federal reserve.  I'm a hypocrite if the policy I advocate goes into effect, and I do not abide by it.

People might remember that this is, in essence, the Buffett criticism (we talked about it here and here and here and here): if you like taxes so much, pay voluntarily.  Such criticism was bad then, and it's bad now.

It's bad in part because it would make it practically very difficult to criticize laws and policies without engaging in civil disobedience of one form or another.

Bend my beliefs

An obvious point (forgive me I've been really busy), but how does one properly evaluate views one finds hateful?  Here's Growing Pains' star and banana enthusiast Kirk Cameron:

I should be able to express moral views on social issues, especially those that have been the underpinning of Western civilization for 2,000 years —- without being slandered, accused of hate speech, and told from those who preach 'tolerance' that I need to either bend my beliefs to their moral standards or be silent when I'm in the public square."

In other words, when Kirk Cameron is calling others immoral, and advocating that they pray away the gay, or whatever it is they should do, how dare they ask him to bend his beliefs

It’s not only mistaken, it’s also wrong

John Kass, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, argues in today's column that requiring health-insurance plans to include contraception for women in their health insurance plans is a "clear" violation of the First Amendment.  He offers this puzzling argument:

But then, recently, he decided to challenge the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. And his new policy to force religious hospitals and schools to offer abortion-inducing drugs and birth control in health care plans for employees is a clear violation of religious freedom guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

It demonstrates to Americans that their government is not only willing but eager to dominate faith, by telling religions how to practice their beliefs. And if they refuse, then the faithful will feel the federal wrath.

So the president's policy is not only mistaken and insensitive and wrong, it is the perfect expression of everything Americans fear about the ever-increasing federal leviathan.

It is not only mistaken–it's also wrong.  Mistaken is the most wrong kind of wrong.  The article (and the comments) are worth reading for the factless cocoon in which some people seem to live.  Nowhere in the piece does Kass bother to (1) cite the facts about the actual policy; (2) consider reasonable objections to such non-restrictions; (3) discuss what the actual position of the Catholic Church is:

The Catholic bishops have called the new health coverage rule "an attack on religious freedom" and argue that all employers who object to contraception–not just faith-based organizations–should be exempt from having to provide it to their employees.

“That means removing the provision from the health care law altogether," said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the USCCB, "not simply changing it for Catholic employers and their insurers."

He added, "If I quit this job and opened a Taco Bell, I'd be covered by the mandate."

That's not a slippery slope, that's their stated objective.  So imagine the following etiam tu quoque (offered, by the way, by a commenter on the Tribune page): the Chicago Tribune has now changed hands, it's owned by Jehovah's Witnesses.  However life saving blood transfusions may be, they are not covered on their plan because Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in them.  Sorry John Kass, no blood transfusions for you so long as you work at the Tribune.  In addition, the JWs think it immoral to refer you to outside plans that would cover blood transfusions.  You must find insurance and pay for that out of pocket on your own.  A discount from you current plan to cover it would violate their beliefs (these are, by the way, objections actually offered to compromise plans by the Catholic Church).    Would you support the law then?

Anyway, the point is that it is not super-obvious to everyone that this is a religious freedom issue.  I would say that it's one worthy of some careful discussion.  Kass isn't offering that.

The scheme meme

I get a kick out of image macros and the memes generated therefrom.  To me, some of theme are like instances of argument schemes for the generation of kids who don't want to read Boethius's De topicis differentiisKnow your meme even expresses them as abstract functions.

Here's a good instance of a "inconsistency" argument scheme meme:

This one doesn't work, because there is no double standard (interpretations of amendments may differ, etc.).

Nonetheless.  The scheme meme is fun.  Lots of others to talk about.

The symbols of my religion are religiously neutral

Joseph Ianfranco and Byron Babione's recent post at the American Spectator, "Atheists Attack 9/11 Cross," deserves some comment, as it instantiates a troubling bit of doublethink when it comes to defending state-sponsored religious symbolism.  On the one hand, there is the line that these symbols are representative of the religion of the society, and so what's wrong with a democracy that reflects the religious views of the majority?  On the other hand, there is the line that recognizes the necessity of restraint, but also holds that using the specific symbols in question doesn't amount to government endorsement of any particular religion.  The trouble is that you can't have both. 

They run their first line of argument by quoting the majority (with Kennedy as the lead writer) in the SCOTUS Salazar v Bruno case regarding a giant cross erected in the Mojave desert:

The Constitution does not oblige government to avoid any public acknowledgment of religion's role in society.

That's fine, but the key is that using that symbolism for lots of people's acts displays those people's acts in the light of those religious stories.  There's having holidays on days that people of the dominant religion will likely take off, then there's using their symbols to invoke public virtues.  This puts too much stress on the establishment issue, so defenders of religious symbolism then demur that the symbolism is all that religious to begin with.

Who drives by such a cross and immediately sees an "establishment of Christianity" instead of a memorial? Not most Americans, 72 percent of whom favor inclusion of the 9/11 cross at the New York memorial and see no constitutional violation.

Huh. That's funny, as invoking the opinions of the majority of people won't save the case that is the tyranny of the majority.  As if the issue was settled as follows:  You say this is the majority overreaching its bounds?  Well, 75% of the people we polled say this is just fine with them!

But the deeper issue is the strange cultural blindness that Christian monoculture imbues people with.  The state erecting a giant cross doesn't look in the least like an endorsement of Christianity, because crosses just mean piety and holiness and such.  That's just what crosses mean, right?   It seems reminiscent of the Wittgenstein joke about the Frenchman who said that French is the best language, because the words come out in the order that you think them.


Scare quoque

Mallard Fillmore's recent take on the President's rhetorical strategies:

This is an argument about arguments — namely, that scare tactics are bad, but it's worse to be a hypocrite about using them.  So the score tally goes:  Republicans -1 for using scare tactics, Obama +1 for chastising them for using the tactic.  Obama -1 for using scare tactics, and -1 for being a hypocrite about using them.  (And +1 for Fillmore for pointing out the scare tactic, and +1 for pointing out the hypocrisy.)

Now, a question.  Surely arguing that policy X will have bad consequences (or not following policy X will have the bad consequences) appeals to people's fears, but (a) so long as those things are bad and worth fearing, and (b) X is a crucial element in either avoiding or bringing about those consequences, aren't arguments from fear also good arguments from prudence?  The scare tactic is not composed of simply pointing out that something bad will happen if we don't do something — it's comprised in shutting down discussion about what is the best way to avoid the bad consequences.  Take for example the insurance salesman who says something like: people your age often can get sick and die with no warning — that's why you need St. Bartholomew Insurance to take care of your family if that happens.  The fact of the sudden death may mean that you should get insurance, but it certainly doesn't mean that you should get St. Bartholomew Ins.  We don't get why the Republicans or Obama are using scare tactics here, but it is a real question for us when we're being scared to accept a conclusion that doesn't follow.