Category Archives: False Dichotomy

False dilemma, inclusive disjunction

Mark Steyn’s lead post at NRO today was an argumentative (and organizational) trainwreck.  Here’s just one of the fallacious lovelies.  Steyn observes that lefties have in the past been against marriage, as a kind of anti-bourgeois bit of posing.  And now the lefties want marriage for homosexuals, now as a kind of ennobling and civilizinginstitution.  He  poses the dilemma for them:

Which of these alternative scenarios — the demolition of marriage or the taming of the gay — will come to pass? Most likely, both.

I like the fact that you can have an inclusive ‘or’ in ordinary English, but this one seems wrong.  First, it seems that the two features are at least prima facie inconsistent — if marriage is demolished, then it won’t play the taming function it’s supposed to play.  Right?  Second, are those the only two options or consequences? How about gay unions going on as they have for years and years, but now with legal protection from the state?

 

Did he just false dilemma himself?

Jed Babbin, over at The American Spectator, has some objections to the gender-integration of combat troops.  He breaks the issue into two questions:

First and foremost is whether the presence of women will add to or detract from the readiness and capability of the unit to perform its mission. The second is a moral question: Will having women serve in harm’s way benefit our military and society at large?

OK. That sounds fine.  Though the second moral question seems improperly formed.  Shouldn’t it be less an issue of serving society at large but more an issue of equal treatment of those in the military (i.e., not having a glass ceiling for women)?  Well, regardless, Babbin holds that the answer to the second is a NO, but he feels like the PC police will descend on him if he says much more about it:

The question of benefit to society has been mooted politically.

He then turns to the question, again, whether the presence of women will add or detract from readiness:

So we are left with the first question, which has to be answered with a resounding “no.”

Wait.  He posed the dilemma (add or detract), and now he says ‘no.’  Now, that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be arguing for a third option (though, given the way the question is posed, it should). Given what he says later (like, having women around yields “complete the destruction of the warrior culture”) it’s pretty clear that what Babbin means to say is that it will detract from readiness.  But, sheesh!  Somebody over there is playing (and being paid to be an) editor, right?

 

Adventures in false dilemmas

Here's the title of Howard Rich's post at American Spectator.

Barack Obama: Socialist or Nouveau Fascist?

Rich argues that Socialism isn't quite right about Obama's policies, as he does let many who have done well keep their spoils.  So it's fascism.  But the fascism label, Rich concedes, "isn't perfect".  That's why he calls it Nouveau Fascism. You see… when the term doesn't work, just call it a new version of that! 

Just is

Yet again, in the can't tell if trolling category, we have Ross Douthat, New York Times Columnist, arguing for the death penalty.  It's the not fact of arguing for it (full and irrelevant disclosure: I think we're better off without it), it's the way he does.  His argument has all of the earmarks of a sophistry challenge:

This is a healthy fear for a society to have. But there’s a danger here for advocates of criminal justice reform. After all, in a world without the death penalty, Davis probably wouldn’t have been retried or exonerated. His appeals would still have been denied, he would have spent the rest of his life in prison, and far fewer people would have known or cared about his fate.

Instead, he received a level of legal assistance, media attention and activist support that few convicts can ever hope for. And his case became an example of how the very finality of the death penalty can focus the public’s attention on issues that many Americans prefer to ignore: the overzealousness of cops and prosecutors, the limits of the appeals process and the ugly conditions faced by many of the more than two million Americans currently behind bars.

Simply throwing up our hands and eliminating executions entirely, by contrast, could prove to be a form of moral evasion — a way to console ourselves with the knowledge that no innocents are ever executed, even as more pervasive abuses go unchecked. We should want a judicial system that we can trust with matters of life and death, and that can stand up to the kind of public scrutiny that Davis’s case received. And gradually reforming the death penalty — imposing it in fewer situations and with more safeguards, which other defendants could benefit from as well — might do more than outright abolition to address the larger problems with crime and punishment in America.   

That Troy Davis's likely unjust (and therefore actually unjust) execution inspired people to care about his fate is not an argument in favor of the death penalty anymore than the outpouring of blood donation and patriotism was an argument for 9/11.  Some in the public responded in the appropriate moral way to an atrocity.  Good for them.  But the atrocity is not the reason for their being moral.  Take away that atrocity and they can be moral about something else–like prison reform, about which many already care death penalty aside–Douthat's insinuation is a false dichotomy (it's either death penalty elimination or broader prison reform!). 

There's too much that's just awful here to comment on.  Here, however, is the worst of the worst:

Abolishing capital punishment in a kind of despair over its fallibility would send a very different message. It would tell the public that our laws and courts and juries are fundamentally incapable of delivering what most Americans consider genuine justice. It could encourage a more cynical and utilitarian view of why police forces and prisons exist, and what moral standards we should hold them to. And while it would put an end to wrongful executions, it might well lead to more overall injustice.

And thus the sophistry challenge.  Eliminating the big injustices would merely (albeit justifiably) undermine confidence in the unjust system.  That would be unjust. 

If it impedes economic growth

I watched the first Republican debates this last Tuesday.  Michele Bachmann, I felt, got the short end of the stick. Even for her coming out party (she declared herself in the race at the debates), she was too often talked over and seemed to get the fewest direct questions. John King spent way too much time asking "Elvis or Cash," "Iphone or Blackberry," "Boxers or Briefs."  Bachmann didn't get a chance to shine. Too bad for fallacy hunters like me.  But when asked what government program she'd cut to reduce the deficit, she did offer up a classic false dilemma (video):

And I would begin with the EPA, because there is no other agency like the EPA. It should really be renamed the job-killing organization of America

Short reply: it is part of the government's job to think 20+ years down the road even when you don't.  Too many complain about the government being on people's backs, but, you know, if you have dangerous chemicals that could end up in my drinking water, the government should be on your back like a family of spider monkeys.  Got toxic waste and need to dispose of it? G-man, I hope, has a long, long, long list of forms and so on that you need to fill out and verify before so.  Why?  'Cause nobody (not even the polluters) wants to live in a world of trash.

(N.B., I once had a colleague who confessed that he rooted for the polluters when watching the late 80's cartoon series Captain Planet.  So I will back off my statement that polluters don't want to live in filth.  Apparently, one of them does, or at least doesn't see the comic book justice of having his trash ending up in his bedroom.)

If it’s on a spectrum, it doesn’t mean anything

Phyllis Schlafly is a culture warrior.  Long ago, it was about the Equal Rights Amendment.  Nowadays, it's about gender.  Her recent post at the Eagle Forum is about an Oakland elementary school that had a presentation about gender identity.  It was paid for by the California Teacher's Union. 

The major message was that "gender identity" means people can choose to be different from the sex assigned at birth and can freely "change their sex." According to Gender Spectrum, "Gender identity is a spectrum where people can be girls, feel like girls, they feel like boys, they feel like both, or they can feel like neither."

Yep.  That's why there were terms like 'tomboy' and 'girlyboy' and so on.  Schlafly knows about those things, for sure.  Surely she's not objecting to the fact that someone's saying something true. She's objecting, instead, to how this is being presented.

Kindergartners were introduced to this new subject by asking them to identify toys that are a "girl toy" or a "boy toy" or both, and whether they like the color pink. They were read a story called "My Princess Boy.". . . . The lessons seem more likely to confuse the kids about who they are and, indeed, Gender Spectrum boasted that its goal is to confuse the children and make them question traditional ideas about who is a boy and who is a girl.

It is the confusion that's objectionable, you see.  That is, it can't be that Schlafly is objecting to it being made clear that some people are tomboys, it's that it is being taught that it's OK.  That, she thinks, is confusing.  Her thought seems to be: if you are going to educate children, it cannot be in the form of showing them that things are difficult, complex, and confusing.  That's bad. 

I'd like to know what Schafly thinks about teaching long division to third graders, because when my kid was in third grade, she had more trouble with remainders than she did with the idea that her classmate had two moms.  Oh, and she still had to do the long division — being educated means that you have the cognitive tools to face confusing facts, not deny them. 

But, you know, it's never really about the children with Schlafly.  It's all dogwhistling for cultural conservatism.  And the destruction of the intelligibility of sexual reality.  Ready for the conservative culture-warrior dogwhistling money shot?

Gender Spectrum is determined to make children think that boy and girl don't mean anything anymore, and that it's no longer normal to believe people are born male or female or have different roles.

Phew!  Now, I don't think that's possible, if they are on a spectrum.  Otherwise, it wouldn't be a spectrum.  Schlafly's point is confusion. An analogy: Black and white are on a spectrum, and you can have lots of things in the penubral space between the two.  But for it to be a penumbra, the two must be different.  The point of gender spectrum is that there isn't one way to be a girl or a boy.  But that doesn't mean the terms don't mean anything.  It's just that many of the things that we'd thought distinguished the two are irrelevant (playing with trucks, for example) and that a person's sex doesn't determine where that person is on the gender spectrum.  Sure, it's complicated and confusing.  But, geez, the only things that aren't complicated and potentially confusing are the mindsets of conservatives.  Well, to clarify, they aren't confusing, but they are all too often confused.

Better we didn’t shoot him?

Jay Homnick at The American Spectator isn't buying the "apotheosis of Obama" narrative he thinks is being told about the operation to take out Osama Bin Laden.  Partly because the target didn't really matter any more. He says:

Osama has been dead for years, of course, in the operational sense. He has not been in the position to lead anything. He was lucky enough to be physically in this world so he could read his own obituary. . . . He turned out to be in a suburban hovel rather than in a feral cave, but the basic reality was just as advertised. Once he went over-the-hill in Tora Bora, he was reduced to watching the reruns of his greatest episodes.

So operationally, it wasn't a high priority to get OBL.  He'd been cut off from the operations.  Ant it seems that when he's giving directions to others, it's more like advice.  Not orders.  And so:

I hate to say this, really I do, but it looks like we have done Zawahiri and Awlaki a huge favor by taking out their dotty old pensioner. They are off the hook of paying sentimental obeisance to the old mullah emeritus, plus as a bonus they get to invoke his martyrdom as a call to arms. Otherwise they might have had to smuggle him back to headquarters someday and deal with him up close.

We've been slowly working out this notion of the false dilemma with only one lemma (the false whatever), and I think this is a good version of it.  Homnick may be right about the consequences of killing OBL, but consequentialist arguments must always be constrastive.  That is, if you make a consequentialist argument against doing X, it must not only be from the bad consequences of doing it but you must show that those consequences are worse than not doing X.

Donald Effin’ Trump

Over at National Review Online, Dennis Prager has some important things to say about Donald Trump's choice of words.  Well, what choice of words, first:

The following comments were made in a public speech last week by a man considering running for president of the United States.

On gas prices: We have nobody in Washington that sits back and says, ‘You’re not going to raise that f***ing price.’”

On what he would say as president to China: “Listen, you mother f***ers, we’re going to tax you 25 percent.”

On Iraq: “We build a school, we build a road, they blow up the school, we build another school, we build another road, they blow them up, we build again. In the meantime we can’t get a f***ing school in Brooklyn.”

Ho hum.  The reality is that I love me some F-bomb.  I do object to Trump's sentiments, though.  But it's not the fact that Trump puts some salt on his verbiage, it's the fact that he thinks he can yell at China and say he can tax a trade partner at 25 percent.  Protectionism is great, until you pay for it with their tariffs and so on.  We're in the can with the Chinese, but I'm unsure that this is the solution. Washington doesn't set gas prices, either.  And Iraq?  Anyone who was for the war knew going in it was a 'you break it, you buy it' deal.  And Brooklyners don't need a school for f***ing.  They already know how (joke by amphiboly — like cooking school).  Regardless, Prager has other issues.  Yeah, it's with the dirty words, especially with their use in public.

But there is a world of difference between using an expletive in private and using one in a public speech. For those who do not see the difference, think of the difference between relieving oneself in private and relieving oneself in public. It usually takes a university education and a Leftist worldview not to see the enormous moral distinction between public and private cursing.

One disanalogy: nobody has to clean up a puddle when I tell a dirty joke.  Another: I'll still privately curse in front of my neighbors. One more: some cursing is artistic and is wasted unless it is shared with the world.  I can't help it: It's OK for someone to collect all the dirty language someone else has used.  Fine, fine — I do understand Prager's point, though.  It is unseemly to curse like that.  I get it, and I've even got a university education and everything (read the quote again, if you didn't get that last one).  I'm glad that Prager made sure to get in an unseemly jab at educated elites while chastising a Republican for acting indecently and uncivilly.

If we cannot count on Republicans and conservatives to maintain standards of public decency and civility, to whom shall we look?

Geez. Is this another false dilemma without the other option?

Bully for false dilemmas

Thomas Sowell thinks most of the contemporary rhetoric about school bullying is nonsense.  Empty rhetoric, says he.

There is a lot of talk from many people about bullying in school. The problem is that it is all talk. There is no sign that anybody is going to do anything that is likely to reduce bullying.

The trouble, as Sowell sees it, is that teachers can't decisively respond to bullies in the classroom.  Why is that?  Because the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of the bullies.  And you see, when the courts are all over the teachers, when the government interferes with how discipline in the classroom is handled, nobody can be in charge.  And then there are bullies. 

Might educators abuse their power, if the courts did not step in? Of course they could. Any power exercised by human beings can be abused. But, without the ability to exercise power, there is anarchy.

And so there are two choices: anarchy consequent of judicial meddling to preserve the rights of bullies or . . .  What?

For years, there have been stories in New York and Philadelphia newspapers about black kids beating up Asian classmates. But do not expect anybody to do anything that is likely to put a stop to it.

If these were white kids beating up Hispanic kids, cries of outrage would ring out across the land from the media, the politicians, the churches and civic groups. But it is not politically correct to make a fuss when black kids beat up Asian kids.

I am going to take a shot at what Sowell's suggestion is:  racial profiling for bullying.  Alright, that's crazy.  How about not being worried about the racial politics of identifying violent individuals, regardless of the color of their skin?  That seems plausible, but is that outlawed by the courts?  No.  So that's not a different option. Okay, I don't know what the proposal is. Certainly not about how teachers should run class, now.

Sowell isn't very clear about what he sees as the alternative.  Fine, maybe we can see his alternative in the way he handles a contrast case: 

Britain was once one of the most law-abiding nations on earth. But the reluctance of the left to put some serious punishment on criminals has been carried so far there that only 7 percent of convicted criminals actually spend any time behind bars. Britain has now overtaken the United States in various crime rates.

Ah, so it is the state punishing criminals, but more severely?  How does that have anything to do with teachers in classrooms?  Or bullies?  Now it's about crime rates.  Huh.  Some false dilemmas derive from there being two options posed, but the best third option suppressed.  This false dilemma has one option posed (and rejected), and then no clear alternative offered.  Maybe should be called the 'false whatever-lemma'. 

Grown ups

People acquainted with media narratives know that the "adults" and the "grown ups" and the "serious people" are very often the Republicans, especially when we're talking about entitlements.  Democrats and their union friends, we're often told, are childish or immature for wanting something–public benefits such as medicare and social security–at no cost.  Click here for a funny illustration of that sorry meme

We have something along these lines in this Steve Chapman column from the Chicago Tribune.  The "real world," of course, demands cuts and reforms just like the Republicans want:

After House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., unveiled a plan to overhaul Medicare, Democrats announced that despite its minor flaws, it was a brave and thoughtful attempt to grapple with a serious problem that has been ignored for too long.

Just kidding. They said it was the worst thing they've seen since "Sex and the City 2."

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Ryan of offering "a path to poverty for America's seniors." Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said Ryan's proposal would not reform Medicare but "deform it." The White House faulted Ryan for "placing a greater burden on seniors."

The chief outrage, in their minds, is his proposal to restructure Medicare for Americans currently younger than 55 while keeping the old version for older folks. Instead of guaranteeing a certain set of benefits regardless of cost, the government would pay a fixed premium so recipients could choose their own packages.

The other meme is the "brave" or "courageous" meme.  This one, unfortunately, has even been adopted by Democrats.  On the unity of the virtues theory, however, you can't be stupid and courageous, or wrong and courageous. 

Back to the point.  The "reality" meme usually requires that you show that someone else's plan is unrealistic.  You can do that by carefully demonstrating the shortcomings of their views or their presuppositions, or you can do that by misrepresenting them.  The second is faster.  Here's Chapman again:

I have news for people old enough to be thinking about retirement: Your children may love you, but not enough to be taxed into poverty. Ryan's detractors pretend we can go on enjoying the status quo indefinitely. But it's only a matter of time before we hit a fiscal wall, hard.

There are three basic choices. We can keep on just as we have in the past until the program collapses of its own weight. Or we can restrain costs by letting the federal government ration medical care. Some patients would have to wait months or years for procedures now taken for granted — and some wouldn't get them at all. Death panels, anyone?   

"Ryan's detractors" sure seem stupid, don't they?  There's a reason they don't have a name–they don't exist.  They're hollow men.  Whatever you say about the opposition to Ryan, you'll have to admit that they tried to have a discussion about health insurance reform in light of the problems of rising health care costs, an aging population, and, of course, the limitations of the private insurance model.  Whatever you say about them, you cannot say that they embraced the status quo indefinitely. 

One more thing along these lines.  Notice that Chapman considers three options for reforming medicare: (1) do nothing; (2) death panels; (3) Ryan's plan.  That's a false trichotomy.  It's like a false dichotomy, only you add two unworkable choices rather than just one.  Since (1) and (2) are ridiculous, ergo, ipso fatso, (3) is our only realistic option. 

A courageous adult conversation about the realities of health care systems in the industrialized world, however, would consider many other empirically tested options.  Would it be immature to want that?