Not all arguments involve fundamental disagreements. Those that do, however, come along with a couple of challenges. One challenge regards the consequences of the disagreement. There are many, but I only want to talk about one. When A disagrees with B about some proposition p , then A impugns B’s competence, intelligence, or perhaps morality. That’s why people enter into such discussions in the first place–i.e., to levy these accusations and, hopefully, adjust the behavior or ideas of their interlocutor.
It’s frustrating to me, therefore, that people confuse these necessary concomitants of argument as somehow wrong or out of bounds. It’s especially frustrating when these people ought to know better. Here’s an example I stumbled over in the Chicago Tribune:
If Trump pursued the politics of resentment in courting white, working-class voters and their rural cousins, Democrats succumbed to what I call “the politics of righteousness” in overlooking their concerns and underestimating their power. By righteousness I mean the tendency of the Democratic Party to assume ownership of the moral high ground whenever cultural values and social norms are at issue in American politics — and to presume that those who disagree are, as Hillary Clinton put it, “a basket of deplorables.”
Aside from the false claims about “overlooking their concerns,” the assumption of “ownership of the moral high ground” is just what a debate about moral issues involves for Pete’s sake. What do you call people who call other people “Crooked Hillary”? That’s a moral position if there ever was one. Need we talk about abortion, gay marriage, or any of the other issues that are properly characterized as moral issues?
It’s a waste of time and energy to focus on garbage like this. We all take the moral high ground in moral debates where we hold some definite position. That’s how you play.
Internet denizen Matthew Yglesias coined the term “pundit’s fallacy” back in 2010. It goes like this:
The pundit’s fallacy is that belief that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively. So progressive populists think that Barack Obama would have higher approval ratings if he acted more like Ed Schultz while establishmentarian centrists think his ratings would go up if he acted more like David Broder. The truth, of course, is that he really needs to hew more closely to my preferences politics doesn’t work this way.
Naturally, the phrase, “without evidence” might raise some hackles. Let me specify. It’s to assert controversial things without the right kind or quality of evidence. So, for instance, democrats should have appealed to white working class voters by being less, er, judgmental, moralistic, or whatever. I’ve seen this a lot (one really bad one in today’s Chicago Tribune).
This kind of claim may be true (because any proposition can be true–well, almost any proposition). The problem is the kind of evidence offered for it. If it’s anecdotes about your father-in-law’s dislike of elites, then you’ll have to try again. Claims about what motivates mass numbers (or important minorities in this case) of people to select one candidate over another require a special kind of evidence; you can’t ask everyone and you cannot easily interpret their selection (or non-selection) as a signal of anything in particular.