Hermeneutics for a Columnist

Krauthammer tries his hand at O’Connor bashing today in “Philosophy for a Judge” (Source: WaPo 5/9/05). O’Connor’s fault is that she lacks a “judicial philosophy:”

>stable ideas about constitutional interpretation. Her idea of jurisprudence was to decide whether legislation produced social “systems” that either worked or did not.

But, as Krauthammer reminds us, judging social policy is a matter for the legislature and not the courts: The court is only to decide whether the laws that the legislatures passes comform to the constitution. Instead, O’Connor entered into the “empirical world” and sullied the purity of constitutional interpretation with facts.

>That is what made O’Connor so unpredictable. Sure, she was headed for what she judged to be socially a stable settlement. But you could never know what empirical judgments she would make to get there. Would she decide that the long-term stability introduced by returning abortion to the elected branches of government would outweigh the short-term instability it would produce? You could not be sure. What you could be sure of was that she would come up with some ad hoc constitutional principle to justify her empirical judgment.

Continue reading Hermeneutics for a Columnist

Don’t know much about science

One of the worst arguments for the existence of God–consistently and solidly refuted since before the birth of Christ–is the argument from design. The occasion for mentioning this today is yet another intelligent design proponent op-ed contributor to the New York Times, Christoph Schönborn, the Roman Catholic cardinal archbishop of Vienna, and lead editor of the official 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church. Impressive credentials, for a clergyman.

Like others before him in the intelligent design camp, Cardinal Schönborn confuses science with theology:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense – an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection – is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

If the Cardinal’s objection is that scientists sometime confuse philosophy with science–claiming that there evidence shows things that it doesn’t–then we join him; such scientists would be guilty of the very same thing the Cardinal is. For evolution shows nothing either way about the theological design hypothesis. Just as no serious scientist can affirm that evolution demonstrates the existence of God; no serious scientist can claim that it does not.

The devastating problems with the design argument lie elsewhere:

Naturally, the authoritative Catechism of the Catholic Church agrees: “Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.” It adds: “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

This raises two questions. First, if it is the case that the real aim of biology is to learn the design of the intelligent creator, then biology is either a version of art criticism or psychology. Second, how could we presume to understand the wisdom of the creator through his works, when discerning the wisdom of our fellow humans through their works remains an almost insurmountably difficult task. Wherein, for instance, lies the wisdom of the framers of the constitution?

. . . about History

Some time ago we let a George Will piece on the magisterium of History (over philosophy) go by without comment. We were lazy and we regret it. For certainly our decisive critical analysis would have changed the future. But there is still time. We reserve the right to write about any op-ed at any time. In that sense perhaps we too are historians.

And so as historians, we were appalled to read

What is history? The study of it — and the making of it, meaning politics — changed for the worse when, in the 19th century, history became History. When, that is, history stopped being the record of fascinating contingencies — political, intellectual, social, economic — that produced the present. History became instead a realm of necessity. The idea that History is a proper noun, denoting an autonomous process unfolding a predetermined future in accordance with laws mankind cannot amend, is called historicism. That doctrine discounts human agency, reducing even large historical figures to playthings of vast impersonal forces. McCullough knows better.

Nevermind that the making of history is more than politics (in our view there’s a little geology [e.g., tsunami] and biology [e.g., black death] and probably more). Instead, imagine for a moment the position described by Will as “Historicism.” Such a view turns history into “Historywithacapital’H'”; discounts human agency; it’s deterministic; large historical figures are subject to forces stronger than them: Who would hold such a moronic view of history?

Probably nobody. This is has to be the view of Will’s imaginary academic friend Karl–he has more imaginary friends–liberals (Ted), non-strict constructionists (Ruth), and so forth. They stick around to provide him with silly and shallow arguments. And when they’re not actually imaginary, he makes them so by lampooning their arguments. But like all things imaginary, others can’t see them as clearly as you do.

Take for instance this historicism crap. What would show that historicism is a load of bunk? Why a ripping good yarn of course:

Using narrative history to refute historicism, McCullough’s two themes in “1776” are that things could have turned out very differently and that individuals of character can change the destinies of nations. There is a thirst for both themes in this country, which is in a less-than-festive frame of mind on this birthday. It is, therefore, serendipitous that “1776,” with 1.35 million copies already in print, sits atop the New York Times best-seller list on Independence Day.

So a really good narrative–like those so often narrated by McCullough himself on PBS (which, by the way, according to Will is so very unnecessary) shows that great men can change destinies (who believes in destinies?) and things could have turned out otherwise (gee, you mean history is not a deductive science?). But a narrative doesn’t show this–it can’t. And in this case it probably doesn’t even try. Mr.McCullough has done the study of the Past too great a service–both in his writing and his work on Public Television–to receive this kind of praise from George Will.

Do as we do not as we say

Recently George Will has spilled a lot of ink on the Supreme Court. The other day it was a shallow and snarky analysis of the takings clause, today
the same for the establishment clause. This time we have a Scalian excursus on original intent. Rather than consulting a dictionary contemporary to the founding fathers for the meaning of the word “wall” in “wall of separation,” Will consults their behavior. According to the author Will cites–and we have no reason to doubt him–the founding fathers’ notion of “wall of separation” did not include religioius services in a government building, among many other things. On the strength of the founding father’s behavior, and some rather shallow lampooning of the very real problems of constitutional interpretation, Will concludes that 25 years of constitutional “hair-splitting” have been a waste.

In response it should be said that some of what the founding fathers thought and did was deplorable. Some of this (to our everlasting shame) they even enshrined in the Constitution. So it’s certainly not the case that their behavior should serve necessarily as a guide for our own. And though it might remain an open question as to whether some of their behavior should serve as a guide for our own, we would need some way to tell which behavior to emulate and which to eschew. Once we do this, we’re back to what George Will calls hairsplitting and what the student of constitutional law might call “reasoning.”


We have never discussed a letter to the editor before, but considering the very impressive medical credentials of the author (whose name we deleted) of the following piece from the June 21st, 2005 *New York Times*, and the fact that he challenges the *logic* of the argument of the supporters of Michael Schiavo, we felt we had no choice.

Here’s the letter in full:

>To the Editor:

>Terri Schiavo’s autopsy report claimed that she was probably blind. Supporters of the decision to starve her to death have hailed this finding as bolstering their argument that withdrawal of her feeding tube was ethical.

>Their reasoning is hard to follow.

>If Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, blindness is a meaningless diagnosis. Only sentient people can see, and only sentient people can be blind. And if she were blind, then she was sentient, and the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state was a genuinely fatal mistake.

>The lapses in logic aside, it’s chilling to assert that it’s more ethical to starve a handicapped person if that person is blind. This is what passes for ethics among advocates for euthanasia.

Now let’s take a closer look.

The author claims that supporters of the decision to remove the feeding tube have mistakenly concluded that evidence of Ms. Schiavo’s blindness bolstered their argument. This argument, however, suffers from a number of fatal lapses in logic.

First, the term “blind” and “blindness” is used in all sorts of ways. Certain bats and moles are referred to as blind in order to indicate their complete inability to see. This is presumably the sense in which the term was meant. Certainly if all that was meant was that Ms. Schiavo was blind, but still conscious, then the case never would have gotten so far. One might think of the blindness claim as evidence against the Fristian and Bushian view that Ms. Schiavo could “see” her mother.

Second, the author of the letter compounds his error by constructing a specious implication. We might restate this as follows: if someone can or cannot see, then that person is sentient, so if someone cannot see, then someone is sentient. That’s fine as it stands, but this means that dead people are sentient–after all, they are blind (in that they cannot see).

Third, it must be the case that by “blind” Dr. Whosits means “sentient, but not able to see” in which case he has simply assumed what was meant to be demonstrated–i.e., that she was sentient. The blindness (understood as it was meant to be) was evidence in support of the clinical diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state. That it can be used, as the doctor uses it here, as evidence of sentience can only be due to a semantic trick.

Finally, it may not be the case that all sentient things are conscious. A doctor of neurosurgery ought to know this.

Worth it or not

Now that some on the right have concluded the obvious–the Iraq was a mistake in its inception and in its execution–a new argument has appeared on the scene. It’s not a new argument, of course, it’s an old one dressed up to fit current circumstances. It goes something like this. For those, like John Kerry, who say the Iraq was not worth it, we have to ask what the costs of leaving Saddam in power would have been. We see a variation on this argument in Sunday’s *Washington Post.* Short of saying that the invasion was worth it, Robert Kagan revives the rhetorically effective 2004 Republican campaign strategy of citing the opinions of Clinton-era policy types as evidence that Saddam would have gotten worse if left unchecked. And that’s just the thing. For serious and responsible world leaders–some of them perhaps French–the question was never the one that was thrust on them by bifurcating American hawks:

>go to war against Saddam and remove him from power


>trust that he will no longer be an evil person and do nothing (or some variation of the status quo).

Perhaps it’s overly pedantic to point out that between these two false alternatives lies a range of possibilities. Even if the status quo was not keeping weapons out of Saddam’s hands (and it was–by the way–he didn’t have any WMDS; and he barely had an army with any will to fight, least of all invade a neighbor), there were still many options short of an Anglo-American invasion. The depressing thing about Kagan’s piece is that Bush’s silly dichotomy–something for which he has a marked tendency (cf., “you are either with us or with the terrorists”)–resurfaces in the calm light of what otherwise might seem to be careful historical analysis. But it’s not careful or historical–it’s simply regurgitated pro-invasion talking points that were no more cogent the day they were uttered than they are today.

Ignorantia juris

Sometimes we run across arguments so incoherent that they are nearly impossible to categorize. For this reason, some time ago we added the category “plain bad arguments” alongside the list of commonly known logical fallacies. David Brooks most recent column (4/21/05) in the *New York Times* is a perfect example of the need for this new category.

In a very general sense, the argument is a causal one. Brooks argues that the cause of the current vitriolic atmosphere in the Senate is *Roe v. Wade* and therefore the only way to save the Senate is to “overturn *Roe v. Wade*.” But to point out–as we will in a moment–the ridiculousness of this claim would not do this awful piece justice. For in making the basic causal argument, Brooks interweaves so many other dubious, misleading and fallacious arguments that we fear not being able to capture them all. What follows is our attempt to make sense of what has to be one of the worst arguments to appear in the pages of the *New York Times* in recent months.

Continue reading Ignorantia juris

George Will and the Metaphysics of Personhood

George Will in his “Eugenics by Abortion” (Source: WaPo 4/14/05) argues in favor of a bill proposed by Senator Brownback–The Prenatally Diagnosed Condition Awareness Act.:

> Its purpose is “to increase the provision of scientifically sound information and support services to patients” who receive positive test diagnoses for Down syndrome, spina bifida and other conditions. Under this bill, parents could learn, for example, that there is a waiting list of families eager to adopt children with Down syndrome.

What troubles Will is that up to 80% of fetuses that are diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted in the US. We should note that this test occurs at roughly 16 weeks, well within the scope of the right of the mother to choose to terminate the pregnancy.

But Will wants to be able to judge the reasons for an abortion, and he seems to believe that the desire not to have a child with a significant disability is a matter of “inconvenience.”

>determined not by its impact on the disabled person’s life chances but by the parents’ reluctance to be inconvenienced by it.

This, Will argues is “Eugenics by Abortion.”

Continue reading George Will and the Metaphysics of Personhood

Dichotomies are not always fallacious

Continuing the examination of “good arguments,” I thought I’d consider David Brook’s recent seeming attempt to provide reasons in favor of John Bolton’s nomination, “Loudly, with a Big Stick (Source: NYT 04/14/05).

What is refreshing in Brooks’ column, is that he at least attempts to present an argument for his conclusion that does not depend on the simple fallacies that we spend our time identifying. This doesn’t mean, of course, that his conclusion is true. But at least he is playing the game of arguing for his conclusion. He is at least offering hsi readers an attempt at justifying his opinion.

Brooks begins by his usual dichotomous clarification:

> The Bolton controversy isn’t about whether we believe in the U.N. mission. It’s about which U.N. mission we believe in.

>From the start, the U.N. has had two rival missions. Some people saw it as a place where sovereign nations could work together to solve problems. But other people saw it as the beginnings of a world government.

Continue reading Dichotomies are not always fallacious

Showing them how it’s done

As we have said from the beginning, we analyze the logic of arguments here. We do not claim to decide, in most cases, the truth of the many complicated matters that come before the pundits. We try, however, to evaluate whether the reasons advanced by the pundits provide justification for their conclusions. We also attempt to catch as many of their cheap tricks as we can along the way.

Not all pundits are as scandalously fallacious as some of our favorite subjects. It might be good occasionally to examine a good opinion piece, to remind ourselves what our standards for reasoned discourse should look like.

One the pundits whom we watch carefully is Paul Krugman. Krugman’s opinion pieces stand out on the pages of the NYT for their clarity and rigor. His arguments are clearly developed and precisely articulated. He rarely claims to have shown more than his argument justifies and he never seems to stoop to the fallacious glibness that characterizes most, or at least many, of his fellow editorialists. One reason for this may be his willingness to develop his arguments over a long series of columns rather than trying to fit for example a critique of all other alternatives to his view in a single 700 word column. There is patience here that is a sign of good academic training.

Just this week he has inaugurated a new topic: the crisis in our health care system (Source: NYT 4/11/05).

>America does face a real crisis – but it’s in health care, not Social Security.

Continue reading Showing them how it’s done

Your argument is invalid

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