Precise, clear, passionate, and false.

A commenter (John Small Berries) asked if we were going to comment on the Republican National Convention.  The answer is no.  So here's a comment on the RNC. 

Ripped from the headlines this morning (via Eschaton via TPM), here is the following exchange between two kids on the day before their first day in college:

B: So there he is, the republican vice presidential nominee and his beautiful family there. His mom is up there. This is exactly what this crowd of republicans here certainly republicans all across the country were hoping for. He delivered a powerful speech. Erin, a powerful speech. Although I marked at least seven or eight points I’m sure the fact checkers will have some opportunities to dispute if they want to go forward, I’m sure they will. As far as mitt romney’s campaign is concerned, paul ryan on this night delivered.

E: That’s right. Certainly so. We were jotting down points. There will be issues with some of the facts. But it motivated people. He’s a man who says I care deeply about every single word. I want to do a good job. And he delivered on that. Precise, clear, and passionate.

It's difficult to avoid the fact that the theme of the RNC has been a rather enormous lie: "We did build it."  For those who don't remember, this line is an alleged rebuttal to the President's claim that no one but the government is responsible for anyone's success.  He never said that, or anything close to that.  It's the product of a straw man through context-deprivation: in other words, cut out all of the surrounding context and the President did in fact say that.  No matter, as facts are not really at issue.

The commenters above, two grown ups with jobs in the media, fails in the same way kids fail on the first day of critical thinking: but it's true to me!  It's mystifying, however, that the commenter, Erin Burnett, thinks someone who gets basic facts wrong "want[s] to do a good job."  That person, it would seem to me, has promised to do a very bad job. 


Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has some interesting musings on conditional arguments.  Critical point:

Strawser claims that IF drones reduce civilian casualties compared to other means THEN the use of drones is justified (I’m simplifying). Philosophers will typically then say that the argument is merely conditional, and that therefore, if the antecedent is false then the conclusion doesn’t follow. Clearly that’s right. But does it get us off the hook in a world of propaganda, mass media, think tanks and the like? . . . .So, for example, I’ve heard it argued by philosophers that IF sweatshops improve opportunities for poor people in poor countries THEN they are on-balance justified: so people shouldn’t campaign against sweatshop labour. This then gets supplemented with “evidence” that the antecedent is true, but by this time the casual listener has been inclined by the rhetoric to accept the conclusion.

Here we have, I think, a major source for iron-manning: the conditional "arguments" are not really arguments at all.  They're conditional statements.  The real question, as Bertram correctly points out, is whether the claims are true.  As he notices, however, whether the claims are true is a secondary question (in the minds of some people) to conditional statement in question.  How those get evaluated is the more interesting question (to philosophers).  But it's often the wrong question.  And entertaining such arguments might often amount to a form of iron manning.

Here we have an example of this.  Yesterday Todd Akin, Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, remarked that in cases of "legitimate" rape, women cannot get pregnant.  Here's what he said:

"From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," said Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist."

I think it would be very hard to defend this remark, as it has no basis in scientific fact.  Sadly, if you treat the whole thing as conditional, suddenly it appears Akin is making an interesting point worth discussing among rational adults.  Here's Politico's David Catanese (tweeting):

"So perhaps some can agree that all rapes that are reported are not actually rapes? Or are we gonna really deny that for PC sake?" he said. "So looks like he meant to say — 'If a woman was REALLY raped, it's statistically less likely for her to get pregnant.' What's the science?"

Akin is saying something rather different.  He's saying that pregnancy is statistically less likely in cases of "legitimate" rape.  It's more likely when that rape is "illegitimate."  Catanese version has it that Akin is querying after some science.  As I think I've often repeated here (sorry), I think this is a kind of philosopher disease.  You're looking for the thing worth discussing, but in looking for it, you overlook or ignore the awful things before you.  So, yes, maybe there is a scientific question here we discuss, but that's not what Akin's point was.  In fairness to us, and oddly to him, we ought to represent his words and his intention correctly.  How else will he or we learn his "doctors" are wrong?

What's the harm?  Bertram poses an interesting question:

ADDENDUM: it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy. So, for example, are people exposed to the conditional “IF increased inequality ends up making the poorest better off THEN increased inequality is justified” more likely to believe that increased inequality is justified, even when no evidence that increased inequality benefits the poorest is presented?

Anecdotal evidence says this is true.  If that's the case, then I think he might have an interesting point.

Mallard Fillmore’s critique by reportage?

Here's a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon.  It portrays president Obama making two inferences.  First, there is the argument by projected increase:

P1: The rate of entitlements in 1962 was 6%

P2: The rate of entitlements in 2012 is 35%

C1: Entitlements are increasing at a rate of .58% a year.

The second inference is the regular conservative culture of dependency argument:

P3: If one depends on entitlements, one is dependent on the state.

P4: If one is dependent on the state, then one will vote for the welfare state

P5: If one votes for the welfare state, then one will vote for liberals.

C2: Those dependent on entitlements will vote for liberals.

Putting C1 and C2 together yield the final conclusion:

C3: The proportional voting block for liberals is increasing at .58% a year.

There are other features of the presentation in the background, too, namely, that it's implied that Obama already knows about the culture of dependency argument, and that because of that, he's arranged to make P2 true.  That is, it's a politically motivated move to make people dependent so as to make them Democrats. 

Now, I think it's clear that Fillmore is displaying the inferences here critically.  So what's the critical edge to it?  Here's my best try to reconstruct it:  the implication is that Obama is intentionally making people dependent on government assistance to make them more liberal.  That will make them more inclined to vote for him and his party in this and upcoming elections. 

But two questions here.  First, I don't think it's appropriate to attribute the first argument to Obama.  Few people would think that rates of increase like this are projectable.  There was a story circulating a few years back that given the rate of dropoff of jobs in philosophy in the last year, we're only three years away from having NO jobs. Of course, few precipitous dropoffs are projectable, as there are natural bottoms and tops to markets.  So even after the precipitious dropoff in PHIL jobs, it hit a bottom.  The same, presumably, is the case with dependency, at least in the sense of entitlement deployed here.

The second is whether the second argument is right, too.  England has a conservative party.  They win elections. Shouldn't that be enough to show that government assistance doesn't guarantee political affiliation? 

Regardless, the weird thing is that the Fillmore cartoon presents the very bad inferences as not just intellectual moves, but as plans

Even the daft find him stupid

A particularly frequent subvariety of argument from authority is the, for lack of a better description, "even sophists find his arguments fallacious" scheme.  The thought is that even people likely to make bad arguments have special authority when they point out a bad argument.

I ran across an instance of this scheme on Balloon Juice.  Here's the whole post:

The National Catholic Reporter calls Obama the more pro-life candidate (via):

There is no doubt Obama is pro-choice. He has said so many times. There is also no doubt Romney is running on what he calls a pro-life platform. But any honest analysis of the facts shows the situation is much more complicated than that.
For example, Obama’s Affordable Care Act does not pay for abortions. In Massachusetts, Romney’s health care law does. Obama favors, and included in the Affordable Care Act, $250 million of support for vulnerable pregnant women and alternatives to abortion. This support will make abortions much less likely, since most abortions are economic. Romney, on the other hand, has endorsed Wisconsin Republican Paul Ryan’s budget, which will cut hundreds of millions of dollars out of the federal plans that support poor women. The undoubted effect: The number of abortions in the United States will increase. On these facts, Obama is much more pro-life than Romney.

That’s some good reasoning, but it’s preceded by a defense of Cardinal Dolan that includes Canon Law justification of Dolan paying pedophile priests. In a way, that makes it even more remarkable, since even someone who can defend Dolan for that kind of stuff sees through the Romney/Ryan bullshit.

The last part is the key.  There is indeed something strangely compelling about that kind of reasoning.  But I think on logical grounds this fails miserably.  First, I'm not sure I see bad arguments increasing a person's authority.  Second, it's oddly selective; i.e., usually such a person has no authority, but here that they have come to the conclusion I find palatable I find them convincing.  But perhaps on this occasion their reasoning is also flawed.  My sense then is that this sort of scheme undermines rather than strengthens someone's authority. 

In fairness to mistermix, the author of the post, his primary point is that the reasoning in the cited passage was indeed good.  To that extent my comment here is tangential.  It's just that this reasoning was seen to be given more probabitive force by instances of reasoning poorly (earlier in the article).

Interested in comments on this one.

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.

You ain’t just (dog)whistling Dixie

Newt Gingrich suggested that Romney serve Chick-fil-a at the Republican convention (reported in Newsmax here). 

I certainly think that the Romney campaign would be smart to serve Chick-fil-A at the convention for one occasion. I think that would send a pretty clear signal to people without having done very much except to make it happen.

Now, there's the first read of this, which is, I think, what Newsmax has in mind: that Romney, who's seen as having missed an opportunity to show his cultural conservative bona fides with the chicken sandwich issue, can make clear that he stands with opponents of gay marriage with a small token.  But I have a bit more of a less optimistic reading of what Newt communicated with this.  I think he's asking for Romney to make the move only to show just how weak Romney is on cultural issues important to conservatives. (Does anyone remember the "who's a real conservative?" issue in the Republican Primaries?)  And if Romney doesn't make the move, then even worse for him.  Gingrich was clear in the primaries that he didn't see Romney as a real conservative, and this suggestion here has ambiguous import on that issue. Here's another way to put my second point:  Gingrich, with the second sentence, is implicating that Romney hasn't been clear on the issue.  That's enough for social conservatives. 

Consistently confusing criticism for censorship

Jeffrey Lord's post, "Gay Totalitarianism," over at The American Spectator is hampered by confusion.  Lord's main case is that liberals can't stand dissent, and want to shut down any opposing voice.  This has, in his view, been in bright highlight with the Chick-fil-a issue.  Here's his case in point:

Down in Southwest Florida liberal reporter Mark Krzos of the News Press was furious at seeing free speech exercised in his midst, whining on his Facebook page that "The level of hatred, unfounded fear and misinformed people was astoundingly sad. I can't even print some of the things people said."

So this means Mr. Krzos wants to shut down Occupy Wall Street? It gets better. Krzos went on:  "I have never felt so alien in my own country as I did today while covering the restaurant's supporters…. It was like broken records of Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and a recitation of half-truths and outright lies…. Such a brave stand… eating a go**amn sandwich. "

So this guy feels "so alien" in his own country because he comes face to face with free speech? What country is Mr. Krzos living in? Cuba? North Korea?

I can't speak for Krzos, but on my interpretation, his alienation was at seeing speech he disagreed with, and that he felt he was powerless to address or argue against because of the way the beliefs of the speakers were formed.  It's not the freedom his lines were objecting to, but to (a) how the views stated were misinformed and hateful, and (b) that those speaking seemed to be only interested in those who speak for them, not the views of anyone else.  Krzos wasn't, by my lights, calling for the supporters of the chicken chain to be jailed or muzzled or anything like that.  He was criticizing them.  That's how you respond to speech when you recognize the freedoms — you use more speech to criticize it.  Ah, but Lord's on a roll, and can't resist the conservative argument-by-comparision-money-shot on speech issues:

As we have mentioned before, leftist intolerance for dissent and opposition is as old as the blood soaked guillotines of the French Revolution. Not to mention the Revolution's 20th century descendants from Communists to the Nazis (aka the National Socialists) to their more modern American cousins like all those progressives who hid for decades behind the hoods of the Ku Klux Klan or a few decades later appeared as Bill Ayers and his bomb-setting brethren in the Weathermen.

Whew!  When Lord makes historical comparisons, he doesn't hold back.  (Oh, love the "aka the National Socialists"… what's that even doing? Making a point about socialism?)   I said at the end of my previous post that there's a weird thing about many Burkean conservatives, that they see Robespierre behind every progressive.  This seems overkill, but maybe with the Robespierre line so abundant, you've really got to pile on to be sure that folks know you're using hot rhetoric.

Again, the point is that responding to dissent with criticism and responding to dissent with violence are different things, and Lord's case conflates them.  Responding to speech with more speech is a form of tolerance, actually — you face something you think is wrong, but you don't destroy it,  only criticize it.  But for the analogy to go through, you have to be responding with violence. 

Untangling Scruton

Roger Scruton is one of the real intellectual heavyweight social conservatives. Usually, he, like many social conservatives going back to Burke, hold that certain liberalized notions are the prime movers for social chaos. But catch this line from his recent (and apparently final) article at The American Spectator:

The demoralization of society is the effect of many causes, only some of which belong in the realm of ideas. Prolonged peace, unprecedented abundance, social mobility, contraception, drugs, and stimulants — all these have a predictable effect in weakening the bonds of society.

Yeah, in the middle of that list of socially demoralizing forces, he said social mobility.  Apparently, one of the real problems with contemporary society is that people not knowing their place really undoes the bonds you have with them.  Oh, and peace is demoralizing, too.  So, just like with liberals, he sees the material conditions of culture to be influential in the same ways intellectual features of culture are.  He just sees all the material objectives of contemporary liberalism (peace, abundance, social mobility, control over when one begins a family, and access to medicine) as bad influences on culture.

OK, OK. Perhaps this is an uncharitable reading of Scruton.  Maybe by 'social mobility,' he means that we move around spatially, not across economic or social classes.  And by 'peace,' he means… erm, wait, are we at peace?  Maybe, he means, without constant existential threat.  And perhaps he means too much of a good thing by abundance. Regardless, when he turns to how to confront these challenges, he turns positively morose:

We have to accept that it is no longer possible to govern young people by the methods that were used to govern and influence the young of my generation. Exhortation, example, the stories of saints and heroes, the life of humility, sacrifice, penitence, and prayer — all such moral influences have little or no significance for them.

Really embracing the 'get off my lawn' model for the social conservative, isn't he?  And, by the way, I find this, at least in my experience as a college teacher utterly false. (Both at Vanderbilt and in by recent years at Western Kentucky)

Funny, though.  He ends with a line of thought on conservative education I find totally convincing:

We cannot ask young people to live as we lived or to value what we valued. But we can encourage them to see the point of how we lived, and to recognize that freedom without responsibility is, in the end, an empty asset. We can tell them stories of the old virtues, and enlarge their sympathies toward a world in which suffering and sacrifice were not the purely negative things that they are represented to be by the consumer culture but an immovable part of any lasting happiness. Our task, in other words, is now less political than cultural — an education of the sympathies, which requires from us virtues (such as imagination, creativity, and a respect for high culture) that have a diminishing place in the world of politics.

Agreed, agreed.  And note that none of the points here of the education Scruton asks conservatives to model are inconsistent with liberalized culture, just one that can maintain a kind of reverent acknowledgement of what had come before.  I'd alsways thought these Burkean conservatives inherited a kind of reaction-formation from the French Revolution.  Is liberalism coming from Scruton's pen really Robespierre?