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.


We’ve all been very busy around here doing whatever it is that we do, so apologies again for the dearth of posting.

While writing something else and looking for distraction, I ran across a tweet of interest.  Here’s the tweet: (courtesy of Media Matters).

You can imagine the context, but here it is (again, MM):

And I would betray my duty to you, and to the country we love, if I sent you into harm’s way simply because I saw a problem somewhere in the world that needed fixing, or because I was worried about critics who think military intervention is the only way for America to avoid looking weak.

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military that you have joined is, and always will be, the backbone of that leadership. But U.S. military action cannot be the only – or even primary – component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail. And because the costs associated with military action are so high, you should expect every civilian leader – and especially your Commander-in-Chief – to be clear about how that awesome power should be used.

In a very narrow sense, Hayes is correct to accuse Obama of strawmanning–especially with the “only” modifier.   I’m sure in Hayes’s world many problems cannot be solved by military action (e.g., a famine or natural disaster).  And indeed it certainly sounds like Obama is making the general claim that this is all and only what certain pundits think about.

Fair enough, but I think it’s fairly obvious that the “only” in this case shouldn’t be read so strictly.  In the first place,  given the context of the speech (West Point), that Obama is talking about diplomatic crises involving possible (or suggested) military force.  Second, it’s a speech, and Presidents don’t generally name their critics or get specific.

And here is where Hayes’ accusation of straw manning is coupled with self-iron manning.   On any fair reading, Obama is referring to the many pundits  and members of the political opposition who complain that his failure to make military moves during diplomatic crises is a sign of weakness.  Here, for instance, is the allegedly straw manned Hayes (same link as above):

HAYES: [If] we had said when Russia first invaded Crimea, if we had sent troops, hopefully more than 150, to our NATO allies at that time, it would have suggested that the president was resolute, that he was determined not to let Russia push our allies around. Instead what he did was dither for weeks and weeks and weeks on end. And now he does it almost grudgingly and because is he being badgered in part by members of Congress suggesting is he not doing enough, that he sends something that everybody recognizes. The United States, the Obama administration basically has to concede, members of Congress are calling him out on this. Our allies are saying this is just a symbol. This is basically just a symbol.

Funny, this is just the kind of thing Obama is talking about.  Hayes’s accusation of straw man is itself an iron man of his own view.  Here’s another:

HAYES: I think the overriding objective for the Obama administration on a number of different fronts, whether you’re talking ability Iran, Syria, or Russia, is to avoid military confrontation. We can all understand why he wants to avoid it. Everybody would like to avoid it. But there comes a time where that can’t be your leading objective. When you have one of the world’s great powers invading other countries or annexing other sovereign states, you have to take that seriously.

Gee, and this is just the kind of thing Hayes complains has happened to him.   But more to the point, and in the interest of charity, the question is whether “seriously” means “military something.”  I think that’s what Hayes means by it.  Thus Obama’s criticism.

Be patient–We’ll be back

WordPress or our host seems to have a very serious problem and we’re no longer able to post here regularly.  We’re going to be making some changes, but they will take some time.  We’ll be back soon.  In the meantime, please make comments here about things you find worthy of gentle criticism.

Be nice

My view on civility in discourse is that people ought to try their best to be nice, given the very delicate matters often on the table.  This may involve being nice to actual people with whom you disagree (in person or online) or actual people whose life choices are implicated in your utterances.  Indeed, people ought to bear in mind that even abstract arguments have real targets–all arguments, in this sense, are ad hominem. On this point, here is an interesting meditation on civility.  It’s a fun read and well worth it, a sample paragraph:

What exactly is the difference between what I am doing and what McArdle is doing? Is it that the hypothetical poor person is this faceless human being that nobody in the elite pundit class has ever actually known and that therefore their internal feelings and humanity can sort of be tossed about in some half-assed psychoanalytical effort to theorize their needs and dreams? Meanwhile, McArdle is a concrete human being in your circle whose humanity is present on your mind as she’s being torn through in my concrete example for my pro-material-security argument?

I’m inclined to think, as I think the author is suggesting (though I’m not sure), that we ought actually to be nice to the people in our arguments, even though those people aren’t always real people.  Our views, however, have implications for real people, so perhaps we should act as if those people were before us and not just nameless idiots.  After all, you care about the cognitive life of those idiots; that’s why you’re arguing with them.


Fig. 1: a slam












Here’s an unproductive exchange between Paul Krugman and Joe Scarborough on the subject of the changes by the Census Bureau in the way it evaluates health care information.  First, here’s Scarborough on the changes:

“Listen, the White Houses on both sides do their best to cook the books,” he said. “This is a particularly clumsy effort.”

Krugman then observes:

You can argue that the Census decision to change its health-insurance questionnaire starting with the 2013 data wasn’t such a good idea — in fact, I know a number of health care experts who are dismayed,” wrote Krugman, a liberal columnist and Nobel Prize-winning economist. “But it’s really quite vile to have talk-show hosts who quite literally know nothing about the field, other than that they’re against covering the uninsured, casually accusing Census of “cooking the books” to support Obamacare.” (Link in the original.)

Note the concession, in bold.  Now Joe Scarborough responds:

“Paul’s shrill attack is off target and wrong, as usual. I just hope the good professor can work through the humiliation of his debate performance against me and will soon stop being driven to post silly attacks because of his feelings of inadequacy. I’m pulling for him,”

Krugman alleged Scarborough didn’t offer any evidence for his assertion that the books are being cooked; nonetheless, he attempts to move the ball forward here by conceding that the change might not have been wise; Scarborough ignores that, and declines to offer evidence for his assertion (or address the charge) opting instead for a textbook ad hominem.  This is how you make the big money folks.

On a related matter: could the authors at Salon and Talking Points Memo stop describing such interactions as “slams” or “rips”?  It’s dumb.


I’ve encountered a fair number of people who do not understand satire (some of them here).  For them, satire is just a sneaky way of straw manning someone–only to say “I’m kidding, jeez” at the end of it, as if that were immunity to the basic responsibilities of argument and evidence.  They then complain relentlessly about The Daily Show or The Colbert Report.

Two points.  First, satire–satire faithful to the genre at least–kicks up, not down.  It pokes fun at the powerful, not the powerless.  One reason for this is that it’s not fair to pick on the powerless: they don’t have their own media empires, for instance, or publicists, or people who should warn them not to do an interview with the Daily Show (because they’re going to cut and paste the crap out of it).  What’s funny about many Daily Show or Colbert Report interviews is the fact the that interviewee thinks she can spin the comedian.  She can’t.

Second, satire isn’t really argument.  This drives critics of left wing satire around the bend; how is it that Stewart gets away with mockery, when Rush Limbaugh doesn’t?  They don’t get the difference.

Talking Points Memo brings us an example:

This routine, in which Colbert plays at conservatism in order to portray it as unendingly ugly, should be labeled for what it is: vile political blackface. When Colbert plays “Colbert,” it’s not mere mockery or satire or spoof. It’s something far nastier.

Blackface, which has an ugly history dating back to at least the fifteenth century according to historian John Strausbaugh, was used to portray demeaning and horrifying stereotypes of blacks. Such stereotypical imitation has not been limited to blacks, of course; actors tasked with playing stereotypical Jew Shylock often donned a fake nose and red wig, as did actors who were supposed to play Barabas in The Jew of Malta. Such stereotypical potrayals create a false sense of blacks, or Jews, or whomever becomes the target of such nastiness.

And this is precisely what Colbert does with regard to politics: he engages in Conservativeface.

That’s Ben Shapiro, a conservative commentator somewhere on the internet.  The objects of Colbert’s mockery–which is, by the way, sadly milder than much common right wing commentary–are powerful and rich people.  Colbert’s satire is directed at that.  I can’t really explain why Shapiro doesn’t get that.

Das Eisernes Kreuz

There’s a strategy to going ad hitlerum–at least I imagine there is (but I’m not sure I hope there is).

It’s difficult to break through the enormous media clutter without bringing in the rhetorical heavies.  The subtleties of tax policy or gun control are lost on most people, so you may think; if you want to contribute to a discussion, you have to go big.  Once you do, you’re assured of a prime place on Talking Points Memo, the Huffington Post, and so forth.  Here’s from yesterday’s Talking Points Memo:

The billionaire founder of Home Depot just pulled a Tom Perkins.

Ken Langone, a major GOP donor, was among “the denizens of Wall Street and wealthy precincts around the nation” who spoke to Politico for a piece published Tuesday and titled “The rich strike back.”

“I hope it’s not working,” Langone told Politico, referring to populist political appeals. “Because if you go back to 1933, with different words, this is what Hitler was saying in Germany. You don’t survive as a society if you encourage and thrive on envy or jealousy.”

Politico noted that Langone’s comments would inevitably “draw ire from those who find such comparisons to Nazi Germany insensitive” and that he “showed no hesitancy” in invoking the Nazis.

The last part’s the hilarious part–even Politico has noticed the cravenness of the strategy.

Naturally, your Nazi analogy is absurd, and hopefully you know it.  This requires you “to apologize.”  Here again, Talking Points Memo:

The billionaire founder of Home Depot apologized late Tuesday for taking a page from the Tom Perkins playbook in comparing the fight against income inequality to Nazi Germany.

“My remarks were intended to discourage pitting one group against another group in a society,” Ken Langone said in a statement obtained by the New York Daily News. “If my choice of words was inappropriate — and they well may have been that — I extend my profound apologies to anyone and everyone who I may have offended.”

Langone had told Politico that populist political appeals currently en vogue parallel the rhetoric Hitler used in Nazi Germany, albeit in “different words.”

It’s the words you see–not the thought.  What we have here is a kind of self-iron manning: I say we call it the “Iron Cross” in honor of the Nazis who dominate the form.

Here’s how it works:

Step one: go ad hitlerum to get attention: modest adjustments in tax reform are just like the populism that carried Hitler to power!  Wait one day while news organizations report on your absurd analogy.

Step two:  “apologize” for the “words” you’ve used, but caution that the thought–though much altered to exclude the Nazi part–stands.  Wait one day while news organizations report on your apology.

Step three: reap the rewards of a discussion turned your way.  Though you began with a manifestly absurd move that ought to have earned you STFU points, it doesn’t, because you come back with the apology.  Your opponent–the critic–in other words, has to waste a move (and you only get so many) pointing out how wrong you are.

I wonder, short of ignoring the likes of Iron Crossers such as Langone, etc., is there any move open here to the critic?

Oh, the analogy

A long while back, I noted that most discussions about gay marriage are more like races to who could pose one of the three tired old analogies first.  The three variables are: race, polygamy, and bestiality.  If you can pose the analogy first, you have a kind of dialectical advantage — even if the analogy isn’t perfect.  This is because there’s a kind of defensive posture the opposition must take, once the analogy is posed — they have to answer this line of argument before they can proceed with their own, and this often takes more time and energy than we normally allot for our critical discussions.  And so, for familiar structural reasons (we always have a dearth of time an energy for critical discussion), those who wield the analogy first are those who often get to claim they came out the best.

So much for the strategic argumentative elements of argument by analogy.  There are a few other things to note.  First, all analogies, in the end, are limited.  They can find some relevant feature that’s the same, but they also must have their differences.  Analogies are not identities.  Second, the form of argument by analogy in this context is off of a deep principle of justice:

Treat like cases alike

The strategy with analogy is to identify the similarity between two cases and show that because we have an unproblematic precedent of treatment with one kind of case, we, assuming the deep principle of justice, treat the other case similarly.  And so, if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against blacks, we shouldn’t.  And if discriminating against gays is like discriminating against people who want to have sex with sheep, we should.  Everything hangs on the relevant similarities between the cases, and so, everything hangs on the aptness of the similarities between the cases.  And we should, being good, rational arguers, be open to the possibility that our analogies are weak and the opposition’s are strong.  That happens.

Will Saletan’s post over at Salon is an exercise in this kind of argumentative humility.  He takes the analogy between race and sexual orientation to be a good analogy, but he’s willing to note where there may be relevant moral differences between the two.  Primarily it’s about the issue of having children.

The central, categorical objection to gay marriage is that same-sex couples can’t produce biological children together…. Just because I don’t agree with an argument, however, doesn’t mean it’s irrational. Marriage has historically been a sexual institution. A rational person can maintain that a relationship between two people categorically incapable of producing children together—that is, two people of the same sex—can’t be a marriage. That argument doesn’t justify denying them the right to love one another openly, nor does it justify denying them the benefits and honors we bestow on couples for making lifetime commitments. But it can justify a person’s refusal to accept a same-sex relationship as a marriage.

Saletan’s giving the case for disanalogy it’s due.  He follows this noting:

The argument has plenty of problems. We let old people marry. We let infertile people marry. We don’t insist that married couples produce kids. We welcome adoption and stepfamilies. Gay couples can have kids using donated eggs or sperm. Many gay people are already raising children, and doing it just as well as straight people.

All of that is true. But I’d be remiss to omit the rejoinder from George and his colleagues: Sex is a much brighter line than fertility or intention to bear children. It’s certainly a less intrusive distinction to enforce.

This is now a point about legal treatment – the law isn’t about your intentions with the marriage, it’s about what can reasonably be expected in it.  In this regard, it is right that the case for analogy between race and sex-orientation discrimination is weaker.  But, again, analogies are not identities, and to hold them to the standard that the cases be identical is crazy.

In this respect, I think Saletan’s on the right track both argumentatively and politically to acknowledge that there may be differences between these cases.  But the differences are still insufficient to break the relevance of the analogy.

Everyone deserves property

One oft-invoked criticism of “Critical Thinking” texts is that they use arguments no one would ever make.  Well, in the first place, there’s pedagogical value to that.  Second, people make all sorts of crappy arguments.  Here’s a laughably silly textbook version of the slippery slope (Mother Jones via Daily Kos):

Well how far will [it] go? Last year, February 29, 2012, the Journal of Ethics in Australia, they debated that. They said we already know abortion is fine, why stop in the womb? Why not three months after. Why should we end the responsibility at that point? It could happen in America. Florida’s trying to do it right now and so is Georgia. Planned Parenthood. Because we allowed that slippery slope. Every human being deserves life, liberty, and property.

Forget the slippery slope, everyone deserves property?  How much property?  If we allow that slippery slope, everyone will demand to be as wealthy as Donald Trump.*

*(a joke).