Bad arguments get bad replies

A student of mine is a lapsed vegetarian–with vegetarian parents. They object, for religious and ethical reasons, to his meat eating.   He retorts with the following argument:

If it’s wrong to eat animals because they’re living creatures, it’s wrong to eat plants, because they’re also living creatures.

My student acknowledges that this is a weak argument but nonetheless reports that this is a successful rejoinder to the extent that his parents do not reply.  Let’s say for the sake of argument that this is the case.  Let’s further say, again for the sake of argument, that the parents’ argument is both weak in itself and weakly held by them.

This means that his parents do not have (or do not share) very good reasons for their vegetarianism.  So, the student replies to a weak argument with an equally weak argument.  When I raised this point, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “what does it matter?  It does the job.”

Students of argumentation, in my limited experience, tend to study either bad arguments or bad replies, but not both together.  And in this case, the bad reply is offered on purpose, because a better reply isn’t necessary.

I’m inclined to think this is wrong, and that the student owes the parents (and himself) a better reply to a better argument.   I say this because he’s aware of how bad his own argument is.  On the other hand, his parents haven’t offered a very good defense, and answering a better argument would be iron manning them.

12 thoughts on “Bad arguments get bad replies”

  1. For the sake of argument, why does the student need to devise a better argument when he feels he has put forth enough effort to defuse further rebuttal? Is it because he didn’t sufficiently convince his parents that he does not need to be a vegetarian? I would say no because a definitive win is probably not likely. Is it a moral concern: e.g. not doing his due diligence to explore all arguments to support his position? If he knows he won’t convince his parents, why should he expend the effort?

    I guess what I’m getting at is that it seems like one may argue for one’s position so far as that position is challenged. To argue further may be iron manning or, perhaps more importantly to the argument maker, a waste of time and effort. (Confirmation bias, anyone?)

  2. SL–right on. That’s my question. Need he argue further? I think you hit on two critical considerations: addressing the argument made; wasting time.

  3. The student’s failure to give adequate reasons violates the principle of humanity by not treating his parents with the dignity they deserve as purportedly rational beings.

  4. @Jem I think that’s why the student might feel guilty about not fully defending his position. But then, suppose he did offer a stronger argument. Since the parents have only given weak replies, which do not seem to demand a stronger response from the student, might that not appear to be excessive, unwarranted, and potentially hostile to his parents?

    I think the goal of the student is to not to convince his parents but to preserve a harmonious relationship with them. Thus, they may not always agree and may not always offer adequate reasons for their decisions, but they can still “get along.”

    (On a personal and anecdotal note, having recently married into an extended family much larger than my own, I have repeatedly observed how people who don’t like each other still apparently abide each other’s presence with amicability — all in the name of family.)

  5. Sean you raise an interesting point about “over arguing”. My colleague and I have recently discussed this in regard to arguing with non-philosophers. He found that he had a tendency ask for principled arguments for some position p when the people he was arguing with hadn’t the faintest idea what that was (and took offence at the demand). He was, to his mind, acting in the Kantian way Jem suggests. I suppose the problem is something like this (no small amount of irony):

    http://memeguy.com/photo/56562/overly-educated-problems

  6. I think that if there is an obligation it depends upon the role that this particular question has for his parents and his relationship with his parents.

    Is it true that the conditional is relevant to his parents reasons for thinking that he should not eat animals? If not then he may only have a reason to argue further or differently if he has an obligation to be rational.

    Since there are better arguments for vegetarianism his fault may not lie in not offering his parents a better argument (which apparently they aren’t asking for) but in not having good reason for his own beliefs.

    I would imagine a sort of virtue argument might be developed that suggests that there is something base about treating one’s friends as sub-rational beings (i.e. manifesting a sort of contemptuous attitude towards their rationality). Or in a Kantian strain–he shows contempt for his parent’s character as rational beings.

    It might even be connected to an obligation not to lie. Does he suggest that he really believes this sucky argument succeeds? It seems like he must–so he lies to his parents about something that is of importance to them. Not the worst sin in the world perhaps, but. . ..

    How about an analogy with publication of scientific data? Does a scientist have more of an obligation than to provide any old evidence that can get past their reviewers? If they know that their data is problematical but disguise that fact and then hope that their reviewers won’t notice have they failed in any obligation? If a pharmaceutical company did this, is it only wrong when there are actual harms that occur as a result?

    But even if there is such an obligation perhaps it is a special one for scientists and teachers, but one that doesn’t obtain for most people most of the time.

    I’m not sure whether there is a strong moral obligation to always engage the best arguments relevant to your beliefs–that is likely a philosophical or scientific virtue, not a moral obligation.

    I suspect that there is always some reason to engage the best arguments relevant to your beliefs, but not a reason that can’t in some circumstances be overridden by other reasons (e.g., maintaining family harmony–something I often wish I could learn :)). But the description you give suggests other motivations.

  7. @John, Nice one. I have that problem, too.

    In particular, South African politicians really irritate me. Their defenses — e.g. against corruption — lack any amount of sophistication. Public Protector: “We found that the government spent 246 million ZAR for ‘security’ upgrades on the private homestead of President Zuma and that he derived undue benefit from it.” Zuma: “What? That’s unfair. I’m a citizen with rights, and I need security. My wife was raped over 15 years ago. I’ll have a committee of my ruling party MPs convene just before the national election to discuss it. Then, since they won’t have time to do anything, they’ll have to pass it onto the next parliament. How dare you question me?”

  8. I think the title of that piece illustrates the weakness of the very argument.

    What possibly could we mean by saying that a brussel sprout “likes to live”? It’s a truly silly argument.

    The original formulation that Casey gave is at least seemingly dialectically relevant, if the parents do in fact hold that “People should not eat animals because animals are living things.”

    But to claim “if it is wrong to eat animals because it thwarts their preferences not to suffer or die, then it is wrong to eat plants because it thwarts their “preferences” not to “suffer” or die” requires some sense of “preference” or “suffering” that I think is very likely false in one or other proposition and likely just equivocal.

  9. Is this not a false equivalency? (BTW, is it me or is Wikipedia really weird.)

    I mean, mammals are a completely different form of live than plants, a higher order, have sentience, etc. Like more and more people — even the greatest of meat eaters — frown on whale and dolphin killing, as they are, along with elephants, quite close to humans in many ways. (Parts of Africa still eat bush meat, but that’s just going to make this even more complicated.)

    Animals (mammals) are not the same as plants, far from it. Fungi are “living” too in some sense.

    Does not the parents inability to rebut their son just mean they are, in this regard, just not learned enough? (Certainly not in argument.) Or perhaps not confident enough to deal with their child? Or, even, are just humoring their son?

  10. (Just a meta comment to apologize for my, um, weak grammar skills… And by bush meat I meant chimpanzees (bush meat includes many animals). And, Mr. Casey, I’d love to read your take on George Will’s “rape victims” piece which you can probably easily find if you have not read about it.)

    Thank You

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