Contested concept equivocation

I’ve been toying for a while with the thought that there’s a rhetorical device that works in the following pattern: you point to an uncontroversially positive concept and emphasize its importance, and in the process import your own controversial conception of that concept over the course of talking about its importance.

For example, we all think fairness is good and important, so it’s uncontroversially positive.  But we may have different conceptions of that concept. I may think that impartiality is sufficient for fairness, so favor blind lotteries to determine what people get. Others may think that need may determine what’s fair. You may think that equality of outcome is what’s fair.  You get the point.  So even if we all agree that fairness is good, we all have different conceptions of fairness.  And it’d be an error on my part to import my conception without acknowledging that we need to move from concept to conception.  That’s why semantics matters – anytime someone says “it’s just semantics,” they’re intellectually lazy and probably trying to prevent their own conceptions from being challenged. It’s effectively an attitude that equivocation isn’t troubling.  That’s stupid.

Now, we all agree that civic virtue is important.  And we all agree that we should encourage it.  But, not surprisingly, civic virtue is a contested concept.  Some think that individualism and independence are civic virtues – not being a burden on others and ensuring that others are not burdensome. Some think that civic virtue is about making oneself intelligible to others and ensuring that the cultural system of significance is maintained.  Some think that being informed and politically engaged are the central civic virtues. Some think that ensuring that others have sufficient means to survive and thrive are the core virtues. Some think that acknowledging diversity and reasonable disagreement (especially about contested concepts) is a core civic virtue. See? Contested concept.

Michelle Malkin’s new essay over at National Review Online commits this fallacy.  I call it contested concept equivocation.  She starts with the universally acknowledged value of civic virtue and that we are in sore need of more of it these days:

We have forsaken the observance, in any systematic and deliberate public manner, of one of our most fundamental duties: fostering civic virtue in each and every one of our citizens.

She invokes the founders noting the importance of virtue to the fledgling republic:

And Thomas Paine said it best: “When we are planning for posterity, we ought to remember that virtue is not hereditary.”

So far, not controversial.  Ah, but then the contested conception comes in:

Calvin Coolidge, profiled in Why Coolidge Matters, a terrific new book by Charles C. Johnson, echoed the Founding Fathers’ emphasis on virtue, restraint, and work ethic. “If people can’t support themselves,” he concluded, “we’ll have to give up self-government.”

Add militant identity politics, a cancerous welfare state, entitled dependence, and tens of millions of unassimilated immigrants to the heap, and you have a toxic recipe for what Damon calls “societal decadence — literally, a ‘falling away,’ from the Latin decadere.” Civilizations that disdain virtue die.

Did you see the move?  The contested conception got introduced with this notion of self-support, independence.  If that’s what civic virtue is, then of course the welfare state and all the other nanny-style stuff the government does will not only fail to encourage virtue, but positively retard it.  And so those who promote the liberal welfare state must disdain virtue.  They are terrible people, rotting civilization from the inside out.

But, you see, the move was from uncontested concept to contested conception.  And those who promote progressive taxation and the social safety net aren’t disdaining virtue; they are promoting their own conception of it.  Surely someone who values liberty should be able to acknowledge the value of that.  Unless, of course, they disdain liberty.


3 thoughts on “Contested concept equivocation”

  1. Hey Scott, I think this sheds light on an important variation on the fallacy of equivocation.

    One other (slight?) variation of this strategy occurs dialectically. The scheme goes something like this. You affirm concept x, but concept x has meaning y, which you don’t affirm, so your views are not consistent (and you’re an idiot, liar, etc., for not noticing). George Will does this a lot–he criticizes “progressives” for not embracing every instance of “progress.” Come to think of it, perhaps this has affinities with petitio, as Malkin, in your example, assumes key disputed meanings. She does this, as you point out, by equivocating.

  2. Hey John. Right! This is a close cousin to your observation about subtle equivocations. And you’re right that it happens more often than we are aware. I remember, actually, pretty clearly playing a game like that with my conservative cousin. He was making fun of the green movement, and I asked him why he isn’t for the greenies, as conservation surely is a conservative value. But I was just being cheeky. These folks think they’ve got some deep point.

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