All posts by John Casey

Blogger

Dissensus profundus

To have a meaningful or maybe productive disagreement you should be able to identify what it is you disagree about. Once, for example, I had a disagreement with a neighbor over whether some or other species of vine was an invasive (it was and she was right). It was easy in that case to point to the source of our disagreement: some factual claim about Boston Ivy (irrelevant side note: there are no climbing ivy species native to Chicago). Crucially, it was also easy to point to a source for confidence in such claims about plants: a plant manual (or something like that).

Sometimes, however, it’s easy to point to what you disagree about, but not easy to find a solution–this is because you disagree about what a solution would be. This is a deep disagreement (check on this project on the topic). You disagree so fundamentally that you disagree about disagreeing.

On this topic today I learned, courtesy of Dr. Sara J.Uckelman’s Medieval Logic and Semantics blog, a Latin phrase for this situation:

Contra negantem principia non est disputandum

Or: “against someone who denies principles there can’t be a debate.”

Well, in some cases, according to Duns Scotus, there is one thing you can do:

Et ideo negantes talia manifesta indigent poena vel scientia vel sensu, quia secundum Avicennam primo Metaphysicae : Negantes primum principium sunt vapulandi vel exponendi igni, quousque concedant quod non est idem comburi et non comburi, vapulari et non vapulari.

And thus those who deny such manifest things need punishment or knowledge or sense, because, According to Avicenna (I Metaphysics): those denying a first principle ought to be beaten or burnt until they concede that being burned is not the same as not being burned and being beaten is not the same as not being beaten.

There you might have a valid case of ad baculum, though I don’t recommend this as a general principle.

Too much argument

In a recent TED-X talk in Nashville, Robert Talisse (Vanderbilt) argues that to save democracy, we need to do less of it. Here’s the video:

There’s such a strong connection between argument and democracy that I think what we’re being asked to less of is not so much democracy, but argument. We should argue less in order to argue better.

Behind every weak argument there’s a strong one

Let’s say you’re a member of C. C is a big, non-homogenous group. It’s a group defined by adherence to a mish-mash of not-always-consistent beliefs. That’s how big groups work. That’s how names for big groups work. One obvious question is whether “C” really means anything, given the ideological variation among Cs. But there’s no changing that “C” is the term that gets applied to you and to the C whose view you find ridiculous. That’s a bummer, but that’s life.

Now comes someone, call them G, to single out a subset of C, a subset, by the way, he identifies as a subset, by saying something like “The subset of C with beliefs a, b, c, d, and e” are something or other. Crucially, G doesn’t then draw dark conclusions about other Cs. This would be weak-manning C. To be more precise, weak manning consists in singling out real, but terrible, arguments for scrutiny only then to draw broader conclusions about people who hold different, though related beliefs. In this case, it would be selecting some C-beliefs for scrutiny but then drawing, illegitimately, conclusions about others Cs who don’t hold those beliefs. But G doesn’t do that.

An objection might be that there’s no merit in isolating such a group because their views are uninteresting, or that there exist better versions of their views, or that people will confuse the good ones with the bad ones, thinking the good ones to be the bad ones.

To reply to this. In the first place, it’s certainly true that many hold the version of C under scrutiny. That their views are weak is an important fact (noted by G).

Second, there’s merit, especially to the stronger versions of C, for clearing the decks of the bad views. So, for instance, you’re a member of C, but some members of C hold really appalling views. Getting those views out of the way is not necessarily bad for you. This should be especially inoffensive when the critic explicitly identifies the subclass of C they’re referring to–those Cs over there, not you though.

Another, perhaps stronger, objection is that G ought to know that many will take his criticism of C, despite his specifications and qualifications, to imply that people who fail to distance themselves from C or people who did not notice the badness of C are implicated in the criticism of C. In other words, perhaps G is saying: C is bad, and you know that people confuse you with C, so you are guilty of not saying enough about that. You should be on record as not agreeing with C or aligned with C.

But then again, I’m not really sure that this is even an objection. That may be the whole point of criticizing C after all. C’s association will cost C-ists time and effort. That time and effort expenditure ought to dissuade them from being around C. They should have thought of that. That they didn’t reflects poorly on them and their time management skills.

Enlarging the goalposts

We’ve all heard of the accusation of moving the goalposts. At bottom, this consists in illegitimately changing the standard of appraisal in order to match some arbitrary standard. While before you had to prove B, now you need only prove A, because, well, because.  Closely related, so I think today, to this is the idea of enlarging the relevant dialectical context. Here’s a cartoon on point:

I have no comment on the actual discussion (and I don’t know anything about this Peterson fellow). This move nonetheless seems to be a pretty common one. It doesn’t so much as move the goalposts as enlarging the field of play to such a point where you’ll never catch the other player (I don’t know what game this is in my analogy, but you get the idea).

So it’s a kind of iron man. Like all such ferrous persons, it works in two ways: the first way is to make the object impervious to criticism; the second way is to make the critic look dishonest. There’s one more thing: it’s a status-booster for the iron-manner: their being aware of the relevant information is a way of basking in its reflected glory.

Such moves (and I’ve observed them in other contexts, however) are strategically risky: the greater the burden of critique, the greater the burden of understanding. While your critic might not land the blow, the costs of understanding such a complex and unassailable view might be too high for potential converts.

Fake News

Our friend Robert Talisse has an article up at 3 AM Magazine on the concept of “fake news.” TL;DR: it’s impossible to define “fake news” because our current discourse is so toxic that it will furnish no neutral examples:

Thus we confront what philosophers call the paradox of analysis.  Any definitional endeavor must begin from presumed instances of the phenomenon that is to be defined.  In many philosophical contexts, the paradox’s “I know it when I see it” circularity is manageable because philosophical debates often proceed against wider background agreements.  For example, philosophers who disagree sharply about justice nonetheless agree that antebellum slavery is an exemplary instance of severe injustice.  Similarly, metaphysical disputes over the nature of physical objects typically presume that tables and chairs are among such entities.

Things are far more troubled with fake news.  In order to devise a nuanced definition that is also politically impartial, we must identify cases of fake news that can be presumed to be noncontroversial among otherwise divided citizens.  I doubt that there are such cases.

I think this is correct, but the real problem is another one. Happily, it’s one that Rob (and Scott) have already identified:  discussions of terms such as  “fake news,” inevitably suffer from the problem of “weaponized metalanguage.” This is where the tools of argument analysis are crafted as weapons in arguments. The problem in this particular case  is particularly acute because  “Fake News,” like “gaslighting” and “whataboutism” are somewhat new entries in our metavocabulary. Perhaps we had high hopes for them; their novelty is meant to avoid worn-out terms like “propaganda” or “lying” or “tu quoque.” That they immediately fail at their appointed task shouldn’t be particularly surprising.

Charles Krauthammer

Charles Krauthammer

On a sad note, it appears that Charles Krauthammer, a frequent object of our criticism here, has but weeks to live. In his final column, he notes:

Lastly, I thank my colleagues, my readers, and my viewers, who have made my career possible and given consequence to my life’s work. I believe that the pursuit of truth and right ideas through honest debate and rigorous argument is a noble undertaking. I am grateful to have played a small role in the conversations that have helped guide this extraordinary nation’s destiny.

I leave this life with no regrets. It was a wonderful life — full and complete with the great loves and great endeavors that make it worth living. I am sad to leave, but I leave with the knowledge that I lived the life that I intended.

Best wishes to him, his family, and friends.

 

The argument police

Image result for turtles all the way down

Here’s a bracing passage from a recent article in the Baffler:

IN THE HEYDAY OF THE INTERNET MESSAGE BOARD, let’s say in the 1990s, a certain species of idiot materialized. He was male, aggressively pedantic, self-professedly logical, committed to the hard sciences, prone to starting sentences with “actually,” and almost always devoted to the notion that his disbelief in God imbued him with intellectual superiority.

There are several others like it. I have to admit that reading them stung a bit–this is after all what we do here. If you openly claim to do be self-conscious about your logicness, then any failing real or otherwise is an occasion for disdain and dismissal. It’s annoying, because everyone is their own logic police. As C.S. Peirce observed:

Few persons care to study logic, because everybody conceives himself to be proficient enough in the art of reasoning already. But I observe that this satisfaction is limited to one’s own ratiocination and does not extend to that of other men.

But one part of me thinks the criticism is for this reason completely superficial, not to mention self-contradictory. There’s something of the logic police in it: just another layer higher. When it comes to being critical, it’s turtles all the way down.

And therein lies the question. Argument analysis has its own terms of art. Tu quoque is an example. Using these terms of art in mixed company is nearly always a bad idea. I stress this over and over in my critical thinking classes. Do not use a fallacy name on anyone ever. I know, by the way, I’m guilty of this very thing many times here. In my defense, however, my presumption is that the targets know the terms and besides, I don’t do really do that anymore.

This raises, however, a somewhat tragic (to my mind) point–related to the turtles above. Is not using the name–say, tu quoque–sufficient? Should we not find ways of pointing it out either? That’s pretty much the same thing–it just takes longer (and sort of presumes the target not versed in the right terms). Besides, not using the standard names doesn’t stop people (or perhaps encourages them) from creating a duplicate set of terms. Now, for instance, we have “whataboutism” and others. It does the same exact work at twice the cost.

We can’t avoid the need of evaluating reasons (our own and that of others). We also for this reason can’t avoid the problem of evaluating the evaluating of reasons. It’s simpler, perhaps, just to remind ourselves of Peirce’s observation: everyone is perfectly logical and ignore the temptation to consider it some kind of hypocrisy or arrogance when they’re not.

An argument with an expiration date

The talk-show host Sean Hannity had a segment the other day about the “exploitative” nature of rushing in after mass shooting events to score “political” points. You can watch a video of him here:

And here’s a link to an NRA lobbyist saying the same kind of thing. Though I’m skeptical of the sincerity of these sorts of arguments, (see here for a sort of rebuttal), if not for the sole fact that running a spot on how others have violated norms in a time when we’re not supposed to be scoring points seems like an attempt to score points, I think it’s worthwhile to take a closer look at what might be a reasonable version of taking things on too soon.

The first question is this: what does it mean to “politicize” something or to “score political points”? My guess is that the events are going to be used as a premise in a policy argument. Something like this:

“the events of the other day have policy implications a, b, and c.”

Simple enough, but there’s more to this. Much hinges on what we mean by “political,” as in “political points” or “politicize.” My guess is that what makes these particular issues “political” is that those policy implications are (1) already well-known, (2) the subject of intense dispute, and (3) unresolved or in a kind of argumentative stalemate. By “argumentative stalemate” I mean that the positions of each side are well known and well defined, not that the sides have exhausted the possibility for resolution. The dispute is still live. Oddly, the only example I can think of is gun violence. Maybe readers can suggest different cases.

Now consider by way of counterexample that the injunction does not apply to one-off events where most people have not occupied ideological positions. Should there be, for instance, some kind of random event tomorrow with casualties, I’m going to guess that we’ll immediately discuss the policy implications. We’ll do so before anyone is buried or all the wounded are accounted for. The injunction against politics is not universal. It only applies to certain debates.

There’s a second thing to notice about such debates: the side that invokes the injunction will typically be the side that has the most to lose by the added evidence. This was covered (satirically) here.  Or, if not invoked by them, it will be invoked by others on their behalf.

Their concern might not be an entirely unreasonable one, but it underscores the somewhat limited scope of the injunction. They might fear rhetorical disadvantage by the tendency of people to run with latest piece of evidence adduced in deciding a question (by, in other words, availability bias). The politicization of the debate, or the “cheap points scoring” is therefore winning rhetorical advantage without working for it or by taking advantage of the temporary set-back of the other side.

This brings us to the key feature of such arguments: the invocation against talking “too soon.” It’s a temporal restriction rather than a content one. The presumption is that we can talk about it later, just not now. This can take a couple of forms. One argument is that the “the bodies are not in the ground, and the people have not had time to mourn” among other claims. This is a sensitivity claim. Arguing about the policy implications are alleged to be (1) insensitive to the people affected and (2) bad form for the participants, as their thoughts should be directed elsewhere. These don’t seem to be entirely unreasonable.

A second, and I think more problematic, version of the “too soon” injunction concerns the management of evidence “too soon.” This is an epistemological concern: we haven’t had time to learn the relevant facts or mull over the meaning of the evidence. Besides, as we’ve already noted, remarkable new evidence might bias us. Our haste will undermine the quality of our discussion.

Neither of these concerns is essentially unreasonable. We do care, after all, about the quality of our evidence and there is something to be said about hitting the pause button on civic disputes to focus on the needs of the large numbers of people affected. But, I might add here in closing as this has gone on longer than I meant, there’s something of a conflict between the state of the argument (stalemate) and the regularity of the need to hit the pause button. I think, furthermore, this takes concerns about making hasty decisions or corrupting our evidence off the table. We’ve seen all of this before. And our requiring frequent pauses to bury the dead seems to underscore the need to bring this thing to a resolution. If anything, this suggests that the “too soon” argument has an expiration date.

Let’s get political

In the wake of mass violence like the one last night people often say it’s not time to “for politics.” You can set your watch by it. Here’s the President’s spokesperson, Sarah Sanders.

Not sure about that analogy underneath the video, by the way. The point in any case is that you don’t talk about the political angle of these things for some determinate period after they happen. Not to be facetious, but in the US they happen with such regularity that you’re never really out of the hot zone.

Back to the point. I have the sneaky feeling that “let’s not politicize this” means “let’s not have a disagreement now.” This naturally favors the status quo ante, because there’s a restriction on admitting or considering new evidence for some particular position. I made that argument here.

What strikes me as odd about all of this is that we have all sorts of discussions in the immediate aftermath of events–we might describe them as ethical, metaphysical, and epistemological.  For we have conversations about what happened, about the quality of our evidence, or about the heroism of some of the people involved or the evil of the perpetrator. All of them involve some level of disagreement, uncertainty, revision, or retraction. So if the claim that we shouldn’t get political rests of fear of going wrong, we already seem to tolerate a fair amount of that.