Slippery Slopism

Image result for statue graveyardWandering about twitter this morning I stumbled on a couple of links I thought I’d share here. The first is an article by Steven Nadler, a philosopher at Wisconsin, who argues in a contribution at Time that the one weird trick to solve America’s stupidity crisis is a basic course in critical thinking.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be epistemologically responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

No argument here.

The second link is a medium-long piece by Jay Nordlinger of National Review on the subject of Confederate monuments. Along the way to making the (to me, obvious) point that the Confederacy represented an unequivocal moral evil, Nordlinger went meta and made the following remark about slippery slope arguments:

William F. Buckley Jr. used to warn against “slippery-slopism,” as he called it. There were always people saying, If you ban Hustler magazine from the public library today, you will ban D. H. Lawrence tomorrow. Bill hated this kind of thinking. It was a kind of anti-thinking. People should make judgments, he said. People should exercise their powers of discrimination.

I, however, have always been soft on slippery-slope arguments. And I make them. But I also think Buckley had a point: People should not be excused from thinking.

If you dishonor John C. Calhoun, do you have to dishonor Thomas Jefferson?  If you take Calhoun’s name off a college within Yale University, do you have to raze the Jefferson Memorial? Do you have to change the name of our nation’s capital, because Washington owned slaves? Oh, come on.

This is a clumsily stated but not unreasonable point. The only thing surprising to me–and I’m willing to consider this a consequence of professional deformation–is the novelty with which the subject matter is presented: “hey, have you ever thought about slippery slopes?” Of course you have. (Or maybe you haven’t, if so, you should; that’s Nadler’s point).

The slippery slope is a bread-and-butter topic of any worthy critical reasoning course. Justly so. Sadly, as Buckley correctly suggests, people frequently abuse the term as well as the argument form (for abuse of terms see this post by Scott). They do so especially when the matter regards permitting or prohibiting something. If we prohibit x, then logic dictates we prohibit y, and then it will further require that we prohibit z. The chain itself of increasingly horrible consequences does the work of the argument. In the present case, should we remove the statues of Confederate soldiers, etc., then logic requires we remove the statues of other morally problematic figures (like George Washington)  then there will be no statues (or something).

Buckley’s point is that this energy-saving line of thought absolves you of addressing the question as to whether reasons apply the same way in the separate cases. The slope is actually slippery, though I wonder whether we should use this term (maybe another time for that claim), when the reasoning applies in the separate cases. In these cases, however, what you actually have is a parity of reasons argument. The same reasons that allow x also allow y. A somewhat recent example. When the Bush administration invited religions to collect federal money for charitable activity, Wiccans showed up (to the dismay of the Bush administration). A quick note on the slope here: I hardly think the Wiccans would consider themselves the bottom of any kind of slope.

Sadly, Nordlinger seems to obscure this distinction and fall exactly into the cognitive efficiency  problem Buckley identifies, only in his case rejects the possibility of a parity of reasons case out of hand. This is a point any (again worthy) critical thinking course ought to make–not all slippery slopes are fallacious. Fallacious slippery slopes is that you don’t do any real analytical work. The problem in rejecting parity of reasons arguments out of hand is to do the same thing.

Argumentum ad bawitdabam

So we’re doing this.  Kid Rock gave a speech about his upcoming Senate bid during one of his concerts.  It was not well-composed, but it did have something that looked like an argument in it.  And here we are, seeing if we can do some logic with the American Badass.  Here’s the speech:

And a transcript of it is available here (provided, btw, by Metal Injection).

Rock gave two arguments of note.  One had an interesting bit of complication about taxes and entitlement programs to it.  Here’s the relevant piece:

It seems the government wants to give everyone health insurance but wants us all to pay. And to be very frank, I really don’t have a problem with that. ‘Cause god has blessed me and made my pockets fat.

“But redistribution of wealth, seems more like their plan. I don’t believe that you should say sacrifice, do things by the book and then have to take care of some deadbeat, milking the system, lazy ass, motherfucking man.

So, here’s what I see to it.  Rock holds that he’s OK with government subsidized health insurance, and he’s happy to pay in to that because he’s rich.  But he thinks that there’s a limit to what government entitlements he’s willing to support — and so he’s against free riders to the system.  (He runs a follow-up to the argument about ‘struggling single parents’ and the threat of ‘women, who can’t even take care of themselves, but keep having kid after fucking kid’).

But here’s the crucial thing.  It looks like Rock is saying his defaults are on supporting these entitlement programs, and he’s not willing to let the fact that there are free riders defeat support for these programs.  He just wants to stop the free riders from doing what they are doing.  Now, how he proposes to stop them is bonkers. In all the cases, he proposes that we ‘lock up’ those who are taking advantage of the programs.  That free riding is productive of outrage does not imply that free riders must be punished with incarceration.  Hence an argument from outrage.

What’s important here is noting that, again, Rock’s defaults are on supporting the programs.  It looks like he can distinguish his disappointment with those who cheat them from the fact that the programs work for those who really need them.  Again, his over-reaction to one shouldn’t overshadow the fact that he’s made a good move with the other.  (Well, perhaps it can overshadow it a bit … are we really going to ‘lock up’ people who have more kids than someone like Rock thinks they should while on welfare?)

The second argument is just a piece of word-salad that seems to come out as a case for him to be President.  Here’s the relevant bit:

Kid Rock for senate has got folks in disarray. Wait till they hear Kid Rock for president of the U.S.A.. ‘Cause wouldn’t it be a sight to see, President Kid Rock in Washington, D.C.. Standing on the Oval Office like a G. Holding my dick ready to address the whole country.

I’ll look the nation dead in the eyes, live on TV, and simply tell them, you never met a motherfucker quite like me

This image is very hard to erase from a mind.

As far as I can see, this is a form of ad populum, one that runs that because the Kid is dope/fly/cool, he should occupy the highest political office in the land.  The fact that the interest in his candidacy has ‘got folks in disarray’ is a form of the negative ad populum we’ve discussed a few times, one that runs:

P: If I do X, it will drive liberals/elites crazy

C: I should do X.

Again, I’m calling the move now negative ad populum, because the core of the line of argument is that the judgment of a certain class of people is so badly aligned, they are a barometer for the correct decision, except by way of negation.  You just do whatever would make them mad, or the opposite of what they would do.   Rock is, in many ways, running this argument convergently — both as an ad populum (I’m cool, so deserving the Presidency), and as a negative ad populum (my candidacy drives the libs nuts, so I’m deserving of more votes).  Of course, as with any ad populum, the matter is regularly underdetermined by the premises.  But, hey, when you’ve got a rock show to run, who has time for relevant premises, amirite?

 

 

Losers say ‘what?’

It was a dumb game in junior high — you mutter, “loser says what?” and your buddy says, “What?”, because you muttered it and he couldn’t hear it properly. Then you say, “Ha ha, you’re a loser.”  A great way to make and keep friends.

David Harsanyi has a little move like that in politics, and he runs it in his recent article, “Democrats are Increasingly Comfortable with Religious Tests” over at NRO.  Here’s the setup.  Because a standard liberal line is that religiously-inspired law and jurisprudence is a threat to religious liberty, vetting judges in terms of how significantly their religious commitments influence how they vote is important.  But this test is not a religious test, it’s a zealotry test.  And, again, we keep the religious nutcases from making and deciding law for the sake of religious freedom — because religious nutcases make law only for their religion.

Well, you can see where this is going.  With Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination for the Federal Appeals Court, Harsanyi takes every question about whether and to what extent her religious views influence her policy decisions to be a religious test,  not a zealotry test.

It is irksome, no doubt, that Barrett’s faith informs her views. Our backgrounds and beliefs always color our opinions. This is not yet an illegal act. But these lines of questioning, which are becoming increasingly prevalent in political discourse, are an attempt to create the impression that faithful Christians whose beliefs are at odds with newly sanctified cultural mores are incapable of doing their job. They are guilty of another kind of apostasy.

But the some of these colorings that Harsanyi thinks are inevitable are different from the very or extreme colorings that these lines of questioning are out to determine.  Once we see it through Haryani’s lens, though, it’s all a form of religious discrimination by the Left.  His middleschool trap, then, is roughly something along the lines of saying, “Leftist anti-religious bigots say ‘What’s the role of religion in your policy decisions?’… and he waits for them to say it.  But it’s a confusion of what the purpose of the question is.

Of course, when there are occasions for clarification of what the purpose of the questions, Harsanyi won’t hear it, because he can’t take anything the folks on the other side says seriously.  Here’s the height of it, recounting Al Franken’s exchange with Barrett:

“I question your judgment,” the former star of Stuart Saves His Family lectured the mother of seven.

Of course you can’t hear a reasonable thing come out of someone’s mouth if you keep bringing up the dumbest things they’ve ever done.  Maybe we should go drag up some of Harsanyi’s early essays or attempts at painting or standup comedy or his performance in a sophomore year poetry slam to see how well they hold up…

To the Fallacy Analysis point, this is a peculiar case.  I’m inclined to think it’s a special kind of straw man — you interpret the questions along some totally uncharitable line, and then you criticize it for being the bad thing you took it to be.  And you avoid the main line of critical questioning, which is about the proper role religious commitment has in making policy for a society committed to religious liberty.  Surely a reflective person can see the issue, right?  But what arises out of this distortion of the point of the questions is a further issue, one that seems to make it so that the other side just can’t make good or decent points.  Once you see their track record through such a lens, they can seem to be little more than those who make awful noises and act on the basest of instincts.  And so, straw man arguments extended over time make for consistent well poisoning. 

 

This is the life we have chosen

School has started again. For some of us academics, this means shifting from reading professional literature to papers written by absolute beginners. Over the years this can wear on you, especially since you’ll encounter the same moves over and over and over. The sheer repetitiveness of it will cause you to ask whether you’re having any effect at all on their work. If you’re smart, you’ll vent about it to your trusted colleagues in the friendly confines of the faculty lounge. They will commiserate with you, and hopefully remind you of your obligations as a teacher. After a scotch or two and some quality time in a chesterfield chair, you’ll return to class refreshed, or maybe a bit buzzed, but nonetheless ready to do whatever it is you do.

Should you lack good mentors or quality whisky, you may be tempted to go online with a post about how stupid the kids are. Before you do this, you need to remind yourself of three critical things.

First, this is the life you have chosen. You are in the instruction business and this necessarily requires a constantly replenished supply of people who need and (hopefully) who desire instruction from you. They stay the same age over the years as you get older. You are wiser than them each year; they are the same. This might account for the feeling that they’re bad at the thing you teach in exactly the same way.

Second, the people you teach, especially if you’re a philosopher, are brand-spanking new at the game of argument. They’ve got views all right, they’ve got views about everything. Some of them even have reasons for those views. But they’ve very likely never subjected those views to the kind of scrutiny they’ll face in a philosophy class.

Third, while you may tell them that you consider them an equal partner in discussion, they’re not. You’re the teacher for a reason. Your obligation is to improve their argument performances–not to treat them as the failures they might be. This obligation includes improving arguments for views you may disagree with. One essential feature to improving their view is recasting their deficient argument as a less-deficient one, fortifying it, as it were (trying out “fortify” for “iron man” by the way). Going around their backs and griping publicly about their failures undermines the whole idea.