All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Rid of a meddlesome priest

Recent news is James Comey’s revelation that President Trump said:

I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.  He is a good guy.  I hope you can let this go.

The issue with regard to whether this is obstruction of justice is what kind of speech act this is.  Here’s the discussion afterwards (full transcript here):

RISCH: Thank you for that. He did not direct you to let it go.

COMEY: Not in his words, no.

RISCH: He did not order you to let it go.

COMEY: Again, those words are not an order.

RISCH: He said, “I hope.” Now, like me, you probably did hundreds of cases, maybe thousands of cases charging people with criminal offenses. And, of course, you have knowledge of the thousands of cases out there that — where people have been charged.

Do you know of any case where a person has been charged for obstruction of justice or, for that matter, any other criminal offense, where this — they said, or thought, they hoped for an outcome?

COMEY: I don’t know well enough to answer. And the reason I keep saying his words is I took it as a direction.

RISCH: Right.

COMEY: I mean, this is the president of the United States, with me alone, saying, “I hope” this. I took it as, this is what he wants me to do.

The key is to properly interpret Comey’s distinction between “in his words” and what’s not.

To start, directives standardly take the form of imperative sentences.  “Close the window, please.”  Or “Shut your mouth!”.  That’s how you utter a directive in those words.  But we can have other speech acts, given our interpretive devices in context, with directive force.  “It’s cold in here” is a way to request the heat be turned up.  A child uttering the words “I’m hungry” is a way to demand a PBJ sandwich.  And, in many cases, expressing one’s preferences, especially when the power dynamic is asymmetric, is a form of issuing directives.

For example, if I say “I expect you to clean your rooms” to my kids, I’m not just reporting that I have made a prediction, I am giving an order.  Or if someone on my tenure committee says, “I encourage you to place papers in better journals,” that’s not just some ra-ra encouragement, but a statement better translated as: “place papers in better journals.”

Comey clarified this last point — that when the President lets you know what his hopes are, that’s a way of issuing a directive.  Like if I tell my students that I hope that they can get their papers in on time, I’m not just letting them know about my preferences, I’m telling them what do do.  In the service of this, Comey made a jaw-droppingly-awesome historical reference, that to Henry II’s indirect directive to take care of Samuel Beckett.  Here’s Comey’s version:

KING: …. I think in response to Mr. Risch — to Senator Risch, you said he said, “I hope you will hold back on that.” But when you get a — when a president of the United States in the Oval Office says something like “I hope” or “I suggest” or — or “would you,” do you take that as a — as a — as a directive?

COMEY: Yes. Yes, it rings in my ear as kind of, “Will no one rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

The point, again, is that given the context and the cross-categorical pragmatics of many speech acts, it’s reasonable to see how that could be a directive.  Or a directive given with plausible deniability.

Straw Figures and Analogies

When one makes a straw figure of an interlocutor’s position, one casts it in worse lights than it deserves.  And so, one interprets a ‘most’ as an ‘all,’ or a prima facie duty as an absolute one.  And so with Mallard Fillmore’s recent comic, we have an imagined critical discussion.  The person in the black turtleneck says “we should be more like Scandinavia.”  Fillmore’s rebuttal is that there’s a brewery in Scandinavia that makes beer from urine, presumably with the thought that this is a counter-example.  He then predicts that this should have “no impact” on the black turtleneck guy’s thesis.

Of course, it’s a joke.  But the humor in the joke, I presume, is that the urine-beer point is supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, instead of a counter-example.

So, in the first instance, the Fillmore argument is a straw figure.  He interprets black turtlenecks’ thesis as: we should do all the things that Scandinavians do.  All it takes is one counter example.  So pee beer.  You could also have other things.  Black Metal, weird furniture design, love of Schnapps, obsessions with wool mittens.  Those are things that Americans could probably take the pass on.  (Sidebar: I’ve always thought I should like Black Metal, but I just can’t seem to get into it.)

As I take it, black turtleneck won’t be phased by the urine beer counter-example, because his argument isn’t that we should do all the things they do, just those from a relevant class.  So, decent treatment of workers, living wage, encouraging bicycles, social safety net.

So, here’s how I think that Fillmore’s argument works in the second instance.  It’s supposed to be a kind of analogy-breaker, and the line is that if you’re comfortable with all the social things that come with being a Northern European Socialist Utopia, then there are other things that come along for the ride. External costs.  And urine beer is just one of those things.  So the thought is that if you experiment with society to a certain degree, you break common sense.  And you end up with piss beer.

The irony, of course, is that if reductio of social policy can be done by way of what kind of beer a society produces, then we are in for some trouble.  And Fillmore implicitly recognizes that point.  See the next comic:

What’s funny, of course, is not just that Fillmore recognizes the  implication for American beers, but that he’s really hung up on the Danish piss brew.

Two scoops of weak man

Time magazine ran a bit about how President Trump got two scoops of ice cream for desert after a dinner interview, while everyone else got just one.  CNN then ran a few stories about it.

So far, not fake news.  Ah, but that’s not the issue.  The issue is how Breitbart and Hannity are responding to the story.  Here’s Hannity’s tweet:

The implication is that the story isn’t newsworthy, so CNN (and Time) are undercut as news organizations for running with it.

The first thing is a version of the weak man point.  Judging a news organization on the basis of its weakest story is uncharitable, especially if it’s a slower news day.   Puff pieces happen when you’ve got a 24-hour news channel.  One nut-picked puff piece does not a case against a network make.  So long as it’s not made up, poorly sourced, or misleading, how exactly is this bad journalism?

The second thing is that I’m not sure what the argument against the story is beyond the implication that it comes off a little petty.  But here’s the thing: the character of the President of the United States is a matter of significant import. (I’d posted something on this point about ad hominem a little while back.)  And what we seem to keep getting is a picture of a very selfish person.  Sure, it’s not a scoop on whether there are “tapes” of the conversation Trump had with Comey, and it’s not a discovery of evidence of collusion with Russia.  But it is yet one more story confirming what we’d had a pretty good idea of to begin with, and that the office has had no change on the character of the man inhabiting it.

 

Iron Turkey

Remember the bonkers 80’s move, Iron Eagle? I only vaguely do, but I remember thinking it was bonkers back then.   Well, taking off from that, I’ve been thinking of ways iron-manning can fall apart.  So, instead of making someone an IRON EAGLE, they show back up and turn themselves into an IRON TURKEY.

Here’s an example. President Trump won’t accept someone reinterpreting what he’s saying so that it won’t sound crazy.  Take the Jeaninne Pirro interview.

Pirro: Are you moving so quickly that your communications department can’t keep up with you?

Trump: Yes, it’s true.

P: So, what do we do about that, because –

T: We don’t have press conferences. And we do –

P: You don’t mean that!

T: Well, we just don’t have ’em – unless I have one every two weeks, and I do it myself.  We don’t have ’em.  I think it’s a good idea. First of all, there’s a level of hostility that’s very unfair….

Trump also tweeted that it’s impossible for his surrogates to get everything right all the time, so it’s just better to opt out of having press conferences altogether.  Just have press releases.

There are actually two issues with the argumentative context here.  The first is Trump’s false dilemma between (a) having totally error-free press conferences and (b) not having press conferences at all.  His reasoning is that because (a) is impossible, (b) must follow.  But, we know, that there are many other options. Another option could just be: (c) have press conferences, but have people who are properly briefed before them, vet the people you’ve got speaking on behalf of the administration for competence, and try to cultivate an amicable relationship with at least some of the media outlets and their reporters. You know, what responsible Presidents do.

Ok, so that’s the familiar perfectionist’s false dilemma.

But it’s what Trump does after someone tries to help him out in the midst of the argument that’s so interesting.  Pirro responds: surely this must be just a rhetorical overstatement.  It’s a nice way to say: Look, I know it’s hard to get a detailed view out, so using a bit of reactionary language is useful.  But try the detailed view, now.  I’m listening.  But, as it turns out, that’s all Trump’s got!  It’s like you try to iron man a guy, and he shows back up and says not only it’s not his view, but that it’s worse.  He wanted the fully on bonkers view!  So here’s folks trying to iron man him, and he turns it into an iron turkey.

 

 

 

Straw Mom

Jimmy Kimmel’s monologue about his son’s congenital heart defect and the medical treatment it needed was pretty moving.  And Kimmel then followed it with an observation that too many folks without insurance coverage would not have had the medical access he had. It was, ultimately, a personal story about why the Affordable Care Act is so important.

Enter Michelle Malkin for some pushback.  She titled her piece, “A Thinking Mom’s Message for Jimmy Kimmel.”  First, she took issue with the fact that Kimmel “turned his personal plight into a political weapon” that so many were willing to re-tweet and like on social media.  But then the argument, and not the opportunisim, gets some critical attention:

Kimmel doesn’t need more maudlin Twitter suck-uppery. He needs a healthy fact-check. “Before 2014,” he claimed, “if you were born with congenital heart disease like my son was, there was a good chance you’d never be able to get health insurance because you had a pre-existing condition, you were born with a pre-existing condition.”

This is false. If parents had health insurance, the child would have been covered under the parents’ policy whether or not the child had a health problem

But this is a pretty uncharitable interpretation of Kimmel’s sentence.  Surely Kimmel’s not saying that without the ACA the babies would need to have insurance coverage, but the baby’s parents.  But the second issue is not addressed at all – the point about pre-existing conditions.  Sure, if the parents have coverage, no problem.  But the parents can’t apply for coverage after finding the condition without either huge penalties, going into a high-risk pool with sky-high premiums, or just not getting coverage.  That’s what Kimmel is focusing on.  And that’s not at all what Malkin’s responding to.
This occasions an important theoretical point.  Sometimes the straw man is constructed not in the restatement or the explicit representation of the opponent’s view, but in the implicature in how one responds to the things they said.  So when Malkin makes the unnecessarily persnickety point about parents, she’s painting a picture of Kimmel’s view by only stating the correction.  And when she makes the point about health insurance already on the books, she obscures Kimmel’s main point by attacking something off stage.

An unforeseen cost of free speech

Freedom isn’t free.  Sure, and neither is free speech.  Some of the costs are those of ire from your allies for giving time to someone whose views you despise, some costs are the time and energy expended in ensuring that those with whom you disagree can express their views.  And there are the costs of considering and replying to their views.  These kinds of costs are familiar to those with Millian sympathiesthose who know only their own side know little of that.

Dennis Praeger at NRO has exacted a new cost for those who defend free speech: being attacked by those for whom you’ve fought for the freedom to speak for not being sincere in supporting free speech.  His reason?  Because you don’t seem to agree with his views.

While some of the professors who have signed these statements might sincerely believe that the university should honor the non-left value of free speech, one should keep in mind the following caveats.

First, the number of professors, deans, and administrators who have signed these statements is very small. . . .

Second, while no one can know what animates anyone else, it’s a little hard to believe that many of those who did sign are sincere. If they were, why haven’t we heard from them for decades? Shutting out conservatives and conservative ideas is a not new phenomenon.

Third, these statements accomplish nothing of practical value. They are basically feel-good gestures. . . .

If any professors want to do something truly effective, they should form a circle around a hall in which a conservative is scheduled to speak, with each professor holding up a sign identifying themselves as a professor: “I am [name], professor of [department].”

…. But it won’t happen. It won’t because the university is a particularly cowardly place.

Let’s start with the fact that because there are few professors signing the letter in support of free speech, they must not be sincere.  Surely this is backwards — it’s because they are few and stand to be on the receiving end of the ire of their colleagues that we know they are sincere.

Second, the familiar no conservatives in the academy line is just dumb here, since those who stand up for free speech and so on in the academy have been doing that since the beginning.  That they need to stand up for conservatives is (i) evidence of the problem Prager is talking about, and (ii) shows what wilting violets academic conservatives turn out to be.  Ooooh the Marxists can be soooo mean.  Prager’s big thought is that because they aren’t conservatives, they can’t seriously be in for protecting conservative speech.  But, hey, you’re not supporting free speech unless you’re supporting the rights of those whose views you hold to be deplorable to speak.  Otherwise, it’s just self-congratulatory nonsense.

Third, if Prager’s criterion for sincerity is to ‘form a circle’ around folks who are talking on campus, then (a) he’s got a misunderstanding of how most academics spend their time, and (b) he’s forgotten about the prof at Middlebury who got a concussion protecting Charles Murray from an angry mob of student protesters.  Yeesh.

The takeaway is that Praeger, because he doesn’t see the academics as on his side can’t see the work they are doing for free speech as anything but insincere.

Simple Truths and Politics

The Simple Truths Thesis is that within some domain of inquiry or dispute, there is a set of truths that only the wicked, stupid, or mendacious would question or deny.  (Philosophy15 video on it here) Some domains of inquiry admit of simple truths, for sure.  But even in those domains, not all truths within them are so simple.  The core problem with the simple truths thesis is that there’s a difference between being wrong and being irrational.  It’s possible to be rational and wrong, to make a mistake, to be led astray by some piece of evidence or a theory.  And to have one’s defaults set on interpreting those with whom one disagrees as being on the wrong side of a simple truth is to set oneself up for being deaf to all criticism.

A perfect recent instance of Simple Truths being wielded to defend against criticism is by President Donald Trump in his AP interview over the weekend.  Transcript here.  When asked about criticism he’s received over whether he’s not kept his campaign promise to label China a currency manipulator, Trump replies that they’ve, since he’s taken office, not been so bad.  Oh, and he can’t call them out on it if he’s also hoping to get help from them on North Korea.  But what does he think of the criticism?

And the media, some of them get it, in all fairness. But you know some of them either don’t get it, in which case they’re very stupid people, or they just don’t want to say it.

Stupid or mendacious.  Those are the only options.

Ad baculum cum balaklavam

The ad baculum fallacy is a fallacy of relevance.  It is of the form:

If you don’t assent to p, you’ll get a whuppin’.

You don’t want a whuppin’.

Therefore, you should assent to p.

The relevance failure is that there’s no obvious connection between the impending threatened whuppin’ and the truth of what’s assented to.

A regular error folks make about the ad baculum is that with law enforcement, the enforcement techniques are purely pragmatic reasons offered for a truth that was settled elsewhere.  So that you shouldn’t drive over 55 mph in a certain zone isn’t established by the fact that you could get a ticket for doing so; rather, that’s determined by safety considerations and what activity is in the zone.  But the ticketing is there to help motivate you when you aren’t moved by (or aware of) those justifying reasons.  So the police cruiser conspicuously sitting there with the radar gun isn’t a scare tactic in the vicious argumentative sense. It’s just a reminder.

Now, that seems right, but then there are cases where this two-lines bit of motivation seems to give too much leeway to the threat (and use) of force to enforcers.  Enter the Lake County Sheriff’s department and their new video about heroin use.  The image is one thing: black-ops cops.  But the message takes the whole thing further:

To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you: We’re coming for you…. Our undercover agents have already bought heroin from many of you, we are simply awaiting the arrest warrants to be finalized …. Enjoy looking over your shoulder constantly wondering if today’s the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight, wondering if tonight’s the night our SWAT team blows your front door off the hinges.

There’s been plenty of complaint about the militarization of police forces, seeing those whom they protect and serve as a potential population with whom they must do deadly battle.

But here is where a diachronic way of looking at argumentative tropes is useful.  Ad baculum arguments aren’t fallacious just because they are irrelevant, but they are bad for us because they break down the dialectical goodwill necessary for argumentative culture.  Consider:  if you had an argument with your neighbor over a tree limb and she threatened you with a knife over it, would you go back to have a calm discussion later with her over a barking dog?  No.  Why?  Because it seems she likes knives a little too much.

Same with these characters in the Lake County Sheriff’s office.  They like playing scary intimidaters so much, it’s hard to imagine a good discussion of laws or police techniques with them.  So the way they do enforcement of decisions, even if the enforcement is independent of the argumentatively good means for it, undermines further critical exchange.  Ad baculum is bad for argumentative culture.

Then there is the worry of what that kind of power does to a person.  For a moment, recall what it does to my favorite cartoon id:

 

Come out, come out, wherever you are!

The New Scientist has a short article with the title, “Philosophers of Knowledge, Your Time Has Come.”  Right on!  Oh, but there’s a catch.

First, the setup.

A COMMON refrain heard around New Scientist‘s offices in recent weeks has been “episte… what?!” Even among educated and well-informed people, epistemology – the study of knowledge – is neither a familiar word nor a well-known field of enquiry. But it has never been more important.

Again, this seems right.  And many of the folks working in epistemology, and social epistemology in particular, have been working hard on getting the word out about the study of knowledge, the analysis of evidence, how argument works, and so on.  And it’s not just since the Trump Presidency — it’s been urgent for longer than that.  At least since classical Athens.  OK, so the New Scientist wants philosophers to enter the public sphere and discuss accounts of knowledge.

And herein lies a problem. In the current crisis over truth, epistemology is nowhere to be seen. . . .   Philosophers may be reluctant to enter the public square, afraid of being derided by the post-truthers as yet more “fake news” or tarred with that pejorative term “expert”. But epistemology has become one the most relevant and urgent philosophical problems facing humanity. Philosophers really need to come out – or be coaxed out – of the shadows.

Give me a break.  Seriously.  (In fact, when I read the above paragraph, I said something much stronger.)

The argument seems to be: philosophers are in the shadows, because we don’t see them in the public sphere.  And it must be because the ‘post-truthers’ have been keeping them there, or because they are just shy beasts.

The first problem is that this first line is an argument from ignorance.  Just because you haven’t seen X, it doesn’t mean there aren’t X’s.  In this case, the problem is that you’re often looking in places where you’re not seeing them.  Perhaps if one were to, say, go look.  Ask google.  Maybe ask a philosopher, “Hey, are there folks who do this epistemology stuff, but aren’t all academic-y who can sell this to a public audience?”

And just for the record, here are five, just right off the top of my head, who are public epistemology folks, who’ve been doing it, even before the great wave of orange anti-intellectualismMichael LynchJennifer LackeyLee McIntyre.  Alvin GoldmanPhilip Kitcher.  And one more that came to me while googling the pages for the others. Elizabeth Anderson.   And then there are lots of other folks doing that work, too.  I mean, geez, just look around for a second.  (And for the record, I count the work I do and what I’ve done with Rob Talisse as in this domain.)

The second bit of reasoning is truly insulting and erroneous as an explanation.  That philosophers shy from public controversy is not just nonsense, really, it is silly.  And it’s here that I think I have an explanation for why the folks at the New Scientist don’t know of any philosophers.  It’s that THEY ignore philosophers of knowledge.  I can recall almost every time, say, back in the NEW ATHEISM debates, the scientists would scoff at the philosophers when we talked about knowledge.  Why?  Because they thought THEY knew about knowledge, and we were bullshitters.  And that yielded the garbage arguments in Dawkins’ God Delusion and all the other ways scientists think they can handle questions external to their domains of inquiry.  And so when the editors of the New Scientist says, “Hey, where are all the philosophers?”  the answer is: “We’ve been here all along… it’s just that you’ve been ignoring us.”

‘Tis but a scratch

When the Black Knight gets his left arm chopped off in the battle with King Arthur, he shrugs, “Tis but a scratch.”  He continues fighting, and he loses his right arm.  “Just a flesh wound.”  Eventually, he’s had all his limbs hacked off, and he calls out to Arthur, who has spared his life (such as it is, now), and leaving.  “Ooooohhh… I see… running way!”

This downplayer strategy for challenges works only when the evidence of the situation isn’t clear.  And so in sports, one can’t be a big braggart when the L’s outnumber the W’s, for example.  But it seems that in politics (and perhaps business?) there’s just enough grey for big talk to cover difficulties.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times (which is behind a paywall, so a summary on Politico), Trump responds to questions about his difficulties with passing health care reform (i.e., “repealing and replacing Obamacare”).  Here’s his reply:

Yeah, I don’t lose. I don’t like to lose. But that wasn’t a definitive day. . .  There was no reason to take a vote. I said, ‘Don’t take a vote,’ and we will see what happens,. . . . But one way or the other, I promised the people great health care. We are going to have great health care in this country. Now, it will be in one form or another. It will be a repeal and replace of Obamacare which is the deal that is being negotiated now.

Two things.  #1.  That you don’t like to lose isn’t a piece of evidence that shows that you don’t lose.  Moreover, saying that the day wasn’t ‘definitive’ is a strange point — perhaps a way of re-casting a loss as something equivocal.  Perhaps what the President counts as a loss is a total loss, like having it go to a vote, nobody votes for it, and his pants fall down on TV.  Seriously, who does this guy think he is, Baghdad Bob?

#2.  Notice that the goalposts have moved here.  And with a kind of vague notion of what success will be.  “… one form or another.”  Sure, if you’ve got a well-stated goal like that, you’re sure to succeed.  The only more self-serving program would be to define success after the enterprise.

The important thing about lines of argument like this is that they are not packaged for the reporters who interview Trump or for his opposition, those who have critical views of the man and his policies.  Rather, they are designed for his preferred audience — they function as a way of re-casting the dialectical situation for those who are his, well… fans.  We’ve had a few discussions of the role of onlooking audience here at the NS, and I think that it’s at play here.  For sure refusing to call the miss with health care a ‘loss’ looks like more intransigence to many of us, but we are not the ones DT is talking to.  Just like when you see a straw man of a view and you see it clearly as a straw man, you find that you were not the target audience for those arguments.  Who are the folks targeted?  Folks who are looking for something to undermine the going story that the White House is floundering, that the President is a foopdoodle in charge of a group of people who, when they try to write legislation, find that they can only turn out raggabrash.  Nothing like standing in front of a flaming pile of tires and diapers and saying, “Nothing to see here… everything’s going according to plan.”