Category Archives: Appeal to the People

Argumentum ad populum in all its varities–including appeals to snobbery, direct and indirect appeals to the people.


In what's good for the gander news, NRO's Jonah Goldberg thinks that President Obama's rhetoric has turned ugly.  He's using patriotism against Republicans. 

According to his new stump speech, if you oppose his agenda, then you don’t care about America as much as he does.

Well, let's see the line that Goldberg thinks crosses the line.

What is needed is action on the part of Congress, a willingness to put the partisan games aside and say we’re going to do what’s right for the country, not what we think is going to score some political points for the next election. . . . There is nothing that we’re facing that we can’t solve with some spirit of ‘America first.'

Goldberg objects that the 'America First' spirit is supposed to "separate the patriotic from the petty."  But surely this is mild compared to, say, Michele Bachmann saying liberals are unAmerican or even the rest of Goldberg's article, which makes hay about how the President is going on vacation (and so thereby must not be patriotic, either!).  

The point, however, isn't to make the hypocrisy charge here.  The point is to say that Goldberg doesn't defend those charged with pettiness.  He only cries foul at their being called petty.  But surely if there is a group of legislators that are out only to save their hides for the next election rather than making hard choices or getting on with the work of governing, then they need to be called out.  Moreover, it's not the charge of being unpatriotic that I saw in the Obama speech, but the charge of political cynicism.  And it's easy to be a political cynic and be really patriotic.  In fact, those all too often go hand in hand, don't they?

Wave the flag, miss the point

Melissa J. Ferguson, at Cornell University, just released findings showing that exposure to the American flag inclines you to vote Republican.  The more you saw the flag before the '08 election, the more likely it is that you voted for McCain.  The more you saw the flag in '10, the more likely you voted Republican — even if you self-identified as a Democrat.  This is troubling for two reasons.  First, it seems that patriotic displays count in favor of Republicans.  And so the causal connection is actually the other way — it's not that Republicans wrap themselves in the Flag because they're Republicans, it's that they're Republicans because they wrap themselves in the Flag.  That occasions the second piece of troubling news — it's imagery that's having the effect on people, not reasons, evidence, or anything like that.  Change a few features of your environment, and next thing you know, you're a conservative.  That should give conservatives pause about what basis they really hold their convictions.

But all that is beside the point when Lisa Fabrizio at the American Spectator responds to the news.  You see, she can't take the good news (that her ideological stripes have an advantage) without being suspicious of who's bringing it:

What is intriguing though, is the motivation behind these studies. Because they expose the tremendous anxiety of liberals when confronted by American patriotism, they reveal more about the observers than the observed. Because, in the main, liberals are ashamed of our country and all that it has represented and all that represents it: mainly our military and our flag.

But it seems she hasn't been paying attention. It's not the imagery that's the problem.  It's the ideology that the imagery serves that's the problem for those liberal folks.  To get hung up on the images is to miss the point.

Even the colors of the flag are cause for concern amongst those who despise what it stands for: purity, vigilance and valor. No, in modern America, liberal hearts do not beat true for the red, white and blue.

Now it's about color schemes.  Surely there's a correlation between you wearing an American Flag jacket or  John Phillip Sousa on your ipod and how you vote.  But the findings show that for many conservatives, it's the imagery that makes the determinations.  How does the motivation behind the researchers (whether or not they are liberals, commies, or whatever) influence the troubles for conservative conception?  Maybe, as noted before, it really is more a game of identity politics than anything else. You already know what to expect when you see someone wearing a tricorn hat.

Everyone ’round here loves the ad populum!

Quin Hillyer, over at the American Spectator, is running the "We don't cotton to his kind" argument about President Obama's policies and style of governance. Hillyer has recently moved to Mobile, Alabama after years in Washington, D.C.  He's now writing about how everyday Americans in RedState American cities (or, as Hillyer calls them, "The Real America") have their American sensibilities offended by so obviously an un-American President. 

More than anything else, though, again and again and again, the question comes at me, with a deep concern almost plaintive in nature: Who is out there who can beat Obama and do an okay job? This isn’t merely a “Clinton is a scuzzbucket” or a “Carter is inept” sort of sentiment. This is different. This is an expression of the conviction that what Obama is doing, along with the likes of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer, is alien to our very idea of what being an American means.

All of the alien ideas are: the health insurance mandate and government stimulus spending.  But what Hillyer takes as the indicator that Obama is so alien isn't really that he objects to his policies.  He takes it that because Obama doesn't go in for flag-waving extravaganza, he's not one of us.  Same goes for pretty  much anyone associated with him:

Does anybody doubt that Van Jones would sneer at the tri-colored bunting? Does anybody doubt that White House Science Czar John Holdren would look askance at the propagation of so many carbon-emitting children? Does anybody really think that Obama himself feels real joy at hearing a 13-year-old recite the Declaration’s words about rights endowed by a Creator?

Yes, it's come to this — the lefties are sneering cheese-and-brie-crowd haters of America and Americans. 

Discrimination by any other name

Roger Scruton is a serious philosopher.  That's why I was disappointed to read his American Spectator article defending an English couple's right to refuse to allow a gay couple to share a room at their hotel (see the Guardian report).  It's not that I was disappointed that Scruton would defend these folks (I expected that), but that I expected a good argument.  Instead, I got the old canards. 

Maybe that [laws prohibiting discrimination] is the only way to proceed, but it involves curtailing freedom in ways that can easily be resented.

Ah, prohibiting discrimination curtails the freedom of discriminators to discriminate.  That is a very important freedom, indeed.  And we must be very careful not to cause people the harm of feeling resentment.  That's a much worse harm than not being treated as an equal.

We discriminate between people on grounds of their height, their age, their strength, their virtue, their looks.

Oh, the false analogy!  The familiar, yet utterly irrelevant, old saw of the discrimination apologists.  Yes, we discriminate on the basis of characteristics relevant to a job, opportunity, and so on.  Isn't the burden of proof always on those who do the discriminating to explain why some characteristic is relevant?  If there is a relevant connection between the characteristic and the opportunity, we don't call the decision 'discriminating,' but 'distinguishing.'  Is there a relevant bit of distinguishing to be done with homosexuality?

The purpose of including sexual orientation in the open-ended "non-discrimination" clauses of modern legal systems is to overcome "prejudice," to normalize homosexuality…. It is, however, much more of a prejudice to think that matters of sexual conduct can, in this way, be simply placed beyond moral judgment — as though they were not, for ordinary people, the very essence of the moral life.

Ad populum, too. Everyone thinks it is unnatural and immoral, so that's evidence it is.  But why think that these views are right? 

It is one part of a considered religious morality that has stood the test of time.

But why does the fact that it is an old view make it a good one, yet?  Surely at some point in time over the course of the long testings of time someone must have said that perhaps the view needs to be worked out in some detail.  After all that time, all they have to say for the view is that it is old and keeps getting older… standing the test of time. Oh, but the times are changing. 

THIS, IT SEEMS TO ME, shows what is really at stake in these disputes. They are not about human rights, or about the perennial conflict between liberty and equality. "Non-discrimination" clauses are ways of smuggling in vast moral changes without real discussion . . . . Sex, sexual orientation, and maybe soon sexual practices — so that the hotel keeper will no longer be able to discriminate against the person who happens to live as a prostitute.

And the slippery slope to running a flophouse for prostitution for a finale!  Well, at least he didn't have the slippery slope to bestiality.  And after having repeated the same old weak arguments for discrimination, has Scruton made any headway in helping this real discussion he wants to have?  I'm sad to say I don't think so.  Which, again, is too bad.  Because he's the best thinker that conservatives have.  That may be evidence as to just how bad-off the conservative case against gay rights is.

Arguments from Fidelity

Previously on the NonSequitur, I'd reconstructed the core arguments of Steve Gimbel's innovative and rhetorically powerful "Open Letter to Students."  Overall, there are three arguments not to plagiarize: (1) the moral argument: it's theft, it's lying; (2) the practical argument: it's a bad gamble; and (3) the argument from fidelity: in plagiarizing, the student breaks a bond of trust with the teacher (and one the teacher has upheld).

The trouble is that arguments from fidelity are considered fallacy forms.  They may either be a sub-class of arguments from pity or at least they are considered in the same family as arguments from pity and the other emotive-expressive argument forms that generally fail relevance tests.  (E.g., arguments from outrage, wishful thinking, arguments from envy, etc.)  Additionally, arguments from fidelity also work on a person's self-identification as a member of some group or other, and so they rely on the similar forms of reasoning as ad populum arguments.  The rough class of affections these arguments key on are: the desire to belong, the desire to see oneself as loyal and constant, the desire to be proud of one's ties.  Some examples:

A1: You're a Titans fan. How could  you criticize Jeff Fisher like that?

A2: Your job in this organization is to off the snitches, so you owe it to us to nail anyone who's squealing.

The trouble with both A1 and A2 are that the fidelity the person addressed by them has to these organizations underdetermines what that person's supposed to do.  With A1, anyone familiar with the NFL knows that being a fan of a team means that you find yourself having more critical things to say about your own coach than you do about other teams' coaches.  A2 works on loyalty a little differently, as here deviating would be breaking the bond with the organization.  But that is the right thing to do (the problem, of course is that someone will fill your position and likely come to murder you, but that's a different issue).  The point is that A1 and A2 show two different ways that arguments from loyalty can fail. Here's a basic schema for the arguments:

P1: You are a member of X

P2: If you are a member of X, you have an obligation do A (as an expression of your loyal membership in X)

Therefore, you should do A

The problem with A1 is that P2 is false in its case.  The problem with A2 is that even though P2 is true, the obligation to A does not trump the moral reasons not to A (in this case, A=murder).  So the conclusion does not follow. 

Back to Gimbel's argument.  Here's the reconstruction:

P1: You (student) are a member of this student-teacher relationship.

P2: If you are a (student) member of this relationship, you have an obligation to turn in non-plagiarized work. (or: refrain from plagiarizing…)

C; Therefore, you should not plagiarize. Plagairizing is a failure of loyalty to this relationship.

Two ways arguments from fidelity can fail are, I think, in A1 and A2 fashion.  I think Steve's argument passes these tests.  It passes the A1 test, because P2 is true in Steve's case.  Syllabi, honor codes, and things like that make it so it's clear what a student's role is.  It passes the A2 test, because there are no moral reasons that trump the transmission of obligations of group membership to what one ought to do.  In fact, because of the moral argument against plagiarizing, the support for the conclusion is strengthened, not weakened (as with A2).

Arguments from loyalty place a prima facie obligation on others, and we can recognize those obligations in the shame we'd feel were we not to live up to those obligations.  That's what make these emotional arguments.  But their emotionality need not make them fallacious.  They are fallacies when they either proceed from false presumptions about what one's obligations are as a loyal X or from the thougth that even if one has prima facie obligations to X to do A, they are always ultima facie oblligations to do A.  In Gimbel's case, he's made neither error.  His case, then, aggregative.  The moral, practical, and fiduciary arguments converge on the same conclusion. 

Taking back political discourse for the nice bigots

James Gannon used to write for the Wall Street Journal.  Now he writes for American Spectator, and he's bringing his insights about public discourse to bear on the rhetoric leading up to the mid-term elections in his recent "Hayseed Rebellion".  He makes some observations about how his side of the debate is being portrayed:

If you believe that marriage is exclusively the union of one man and one woman, you are a homophobe and a bigot.

Yep, that's right.  If you believe that, you are a homophobe and a bigot.  Where's his problem there?  Be proud of your bigotry, right? (Spoiler alert: Gannon says just that.)

If you believe that the U.S. Constitution means only what it actually says, you are an extremist who ought to be wearing a powdered wig.

Uh, no.  It means that you likely haven't read the Constitution, or that if you have read the Constitution, it's with the radio on,  watching television, while smoking crack.  Seriously, even folks who knew the framers had to read the Federalist Papers to understand what's going on, what's being said, at times.  And then there's stare decisis.  The world's a complicated place, and that means that 18th century legal principles may be relevant, but not perfect fits every time.  Whatever, maybe powdered wigs are in.

If you have misgivings about the morality of abortion, or any doubts about the absolute right of a mother to kill her unborn child, you are a religious fanatic, an anti-feminist, and probably a right-wing Catholic.

OK. I think I get where Gannon's going, now.  He thinks that if he can tell bigots, homophobes, re-enactors of 18th Century legalisms, and religious fanatics that liberals think they are bigots, homophobes, religious fanatics, and general nincompoops, then they'll get mad and act like the bigots, homophobes, fanatics, and nincompoops they are.  And he can do this while noting how generally nice they are, until they've been angered.  Liberals wouldn't like them when they're angry.

And the docile, largely silent majority of ordinary Americans, who don't relish confrontation and controversy, have allowed these institutional forces to have their way in changing American culture. Up to now. . . .

Hey, all you bigots and extremists and homophobes who still believe in all that stuff this country used to stand for — it's time for your Willie Stark moment. It's time to stop being so nice, so naive, so accommodating to the movement that is intent on changing your country radically and permanently. It's time to stand up, speak out, reject the unfair labels being pinned on you and reject the redefinition of everything you care about.

First of all, I can hardly believe that Gannon thinks that the exemplars of this movement are mostly nice.  They are mostly people who think they are nice, but those are often the least nice of all.  Moreover, at this point, who's making these "nice" people angry?  Is it the liberals?  Or is it the blowhards who have been telling them what they believe? 

A quick point on analyzing ad populum arguments to close.  Many are arguments from authority — the authority of crowds.  In this case, this argument is another form of argument from authority, but one less from numbers.  This form of argument is one from persecution conferring authority.  Here's a rough try at the move:

P1: People with identity X are widely persecuted for their views

P2: Persecution is wrong.

C: It is wrong to persecute identity X.

P3: If it is wrong to persecute those with identity X, then X must be right.

C2: X and the views coming with it must be right.

The problem is all with P3, clearly, as there are plenty of stupid views and identities that have been treated shabbily, but that bad treatment hasn't been instrumental to the improvement of the views.  Wiccans, anyone?  So what is the "Hayseed Rebellion" that James Gannon is suggesting?  Not sure, but I have a feeling it involves voting Republican.  That's a good way to let off some steam, you see. 

Of course, they could try to do things that would make the rest of America not think they are homophobes, bigots, racists, and nincompoops.  But that'd be, you know, accommodationist, and they're done being nice, apparently.

Why is X right? Well, because I’m an X-ist.

When addressed with the question whether X or Y is better, any reasonable person answering the question should be capable of  two speech acts: (1) a  determination of X or Y, and (2) producing a reason why that choice is a good one.   Often we just allow folks to just to perform (1), and we let them keep their reasons for themselves.  But its in the reasons that we find all sorts of interesting things, and we may, ourselves, learn something about X or Y.  Importantly, those reasons should be about X or Y, what properties they have, maybe their history, what about X or Y appeals to you.

Here's a kind of reason  that fails that requirement: I'm the kind of person who always chooses X.  Or, I was brought up choosing X.  Or, if X was good enough for my parents, X is good enough for me.   Now, those reasons are pretty weak — they amount to the concession that X and Y aren't objectively any better than one another, but because of the contingencies of history, I've ended up an X-ist.  Since it's just trouble to end up changing, I'll stay one.  Again, that's a reason, but a very weak one.  And one that, again, concedes that there's not much relevant difference between the two.  Ad populum arguments and those from tradition need not be fallacious, but even in their non-fallacious forms, they still aren't very good.  They, really, aren't answers to the question.  The question was which was better, not which you choose.

Here's another type of answer that fails, too.  Say that those who like Y are repulsive in some way.  Perhaps they all talk funny, or are from the wrong side of the tracks.  Maybe they don't dress right, drink too much, and so on.  Again, these speech acts effectively concede that there's very little to distinguish X and Y objectively, but the determination comes down to the kind of person who chooses one over the other.  But that's no determination of what's better, just an expression of distaste for other people being transferred to the things they believe. Um, ad hominem abusive, anyone?

All of this is a setup for a review of the Smart Girl Summit (note, don't click that link unless you're ready to see a pink-ified Capitol Building), a  gathering of conservative women, to discuss women's issues.  John Hawkins, of Human Events, covered the Summit (he also was a speaker), and he approvingly quotes a number of the attendees responding the the question: Who better represents the feminist ideal: conservative women or liberal women—and why.

Here are some of the responses:

"All I want to know is why do feminists hate women?"

"I would say conservative women because we can take care of ourselves."

"I've always thought conservative women, maybe because I am one."

The first two fall into the ad hominem variety.  The first one seems like it's from Upsidedownsville.  Moreover, it doesn't answer the question: who's better at capturing the core of feminism?  The answer: feminists hate women.  Well, at least it makes finding the answer easier.

The second, being a comparative judgment of the people, again, is an ad hominem reason.  But it's ambiguous.  "Take care of ourselves" can mean one of two things: (i) get a job, balance a checkbook, and make decisions without being told what to do by a man, or (ii) look nice.  I have suspicions (especially given the comments below the article) that it's (ii) — liberal feminists are ugly, and their hideousness is a reductio of their views.   It's an old slander, and one that doesn't go away, unfortunately.

The last one is just, well, sad. Confusing reasons and causes happens, but this is a particularly eggregious case.  Again, if the only determining factor as to why the third respondent chooses conservative feminism over liberal is the simple fact that she antecedently identifies as a conservative, then her answer is no indicator as to the compared value of what she chooses.  She's not responding to what liberal or conservative feminisms are, but acting out her identity.  It's all a big show, amounting to nothing.

I’m rubber, you’re glue…

David Limbaugh (yes, brother of that Limbaugh) has a message for all those liberal-types and namby-pamby conservatives who aren't down with the Tea Party: the more you act like or say that Tea Party Conservatives are extremists, that just shows what an extremist you are. 

I'm surely not the only one who notices the persistent efforts of the leftist establishment and certain establishment Republicans to portray mainstream conservatives, especially those inhabiting the tea party movement, as radicals and extremists. The more they push this theme the more they marginalize themselves.

You see, according to Limbaugh, Tea-Partiers can't be extremists, because they believe in everything that is right and good.  And so, those who hold that the people who believe in all things right and good are extremists must themselves be the real extremists:

They reveal a great deal about themselves when they call "extremists" patriotic Americans who believe in the American ideal, lower taxes and fiscal responsibility, originalism, the rule of law, blind justice, equal protection under the law, strong national defense, limiting government to its assigned constitutional functions, the Second Amendment, the nondiscriminatory application of freedom of speech and expression, the free exercise clause, a reasonable — not unduly expansive — interpretation of the establishment and commerce clauses, protection for the unborn, judicial restraint, federalism, the separation of powers, the free market, racial colorblindness, the existence of good and evil in the world, equality of opportunity rather than of outcomes, law and order, immigration control and border protection, motherhood and apple pie.

First of all, anyone who says he believes in apple pie has got to be an extremist, if only because he takes it that in having to avow belief in apple pie, there are people out there who don't.  Who doesn't believe in apple pie?  Anyone?  So who's he up against?   Well, sure, it's a rhetorical flourish… but what on Limbaugh's list isn't?  It's not that anyone in the debate doesn't believe that lower taxes and fiscal responsibility would be great… just if we didn't have to prop up banks that would otherwise drag the country down the drain or find some way to stimulate the economy in a way that doesn't take advantage of the fact that so many are suffering.  Who's against the rule of law, blind justice, freedom of expression and speech, free exercise of religion?  Who doesn't believe in real goods, real evils? Anybody?  Really, it's all a long list of stuff nobody really rejects, well, except Originalism and the stuff about the unborn.  But reasonable people disagree about those things.  Ah, but here's the rub: Tea Partiers have a quick tendency to use terms like 'fascism' or 'tyranny' or 'socialism' or 'communism' to describe those who disagree with them on the details.  That's what makes them extremists — they refuse to acknowledge that those with whom they disagree have good intentions, reasons, a love for their country, and a vision of justice.

Now, here's the problem: if Limbaugh can't see liberals (or even moderate conservatives) as committed to blind justice, free exercise, and fiscal responsibility, too, regardless of how they come down on originalism and abortion, then isn't that the real face of extremism?

Pile on

The other day I talked about this weak and hollow man rich column by Charles Krauthammer.  But there was way more about that column that an attentive undergraduate could have criticized.  Here's another tidbit.  He wrote:

And now the mosque near Ground Zero. The intelligentsia is near unanimous that the only possible grounds for opposition is bigotry toward Muslims. This smug attribution of bigotry to two-thirds of the population hinges on the insistence on a complete lack of connection between Islam and radical Islam, a proposition that dovetails perfectly with the Obama administration's pretense that we are at war with nothing more than "violent extremists" of inscrutable motive and indiscernible belief. Those who reject this as both ridiculous and politically correct (an admitted redundancy) are declared Islamophobes, the ad hominem du jour.

So fine two thirds of the population are against the Ground Zero community center.  What else have two thirds of the people been against?  I wonder.  Let's go back in time:

The reponse?

The "smug attribution of bigotry" to 82 percent of the people.

Phoning it in

George Will phones it in today with a boiler-plate global warming denying column.

There really isn't anything of interest in the column, though I found myself wondering why it is that the particular argument he recites have any probative relevance to the question of global warming.

The occasion for his cutting and pasting was some remarks by Secretary of Energy Chu on the likely disruption and ultimate disappearance of agriculture in California if global warming continues unchecked.

After blithely ignoring any evidence for Chu's claim, or even (of course) accurately representing them, Will trots out several predictions that proved, it seems, to be false: Global Cooling and Ehrlich's bet about the price of commodities.

Both have not come true, though one wonders whether it is the prediction itself that has failed to come true or the time-frame of the prediction. 

But, even if we assume that both of the underlying claims are false–that the earth was entering a cooling phase in the 1970's and that there will be shortages of non-renewable commodities in the future, what does that tell us about Chu's worries? Neither failure tells us anything about the degree to which we should trust climate science and the consensus around the general theory of anthropogenic climate change. They are essentially irrelevant.(What's the best description of these fallacies? Red Herrings?)

As global levels of sea ice declined last year, many experts said this was evidence of man-made global warming. Since September, however, the increase in sea ice has been the fastest change, either up or down, since 1979, when satellite record-keeping began. According to the University of Illinois' Arctic Climate Research Center, global sea ice levels now equal those of 1979.

Deniers love to claim that every local short term climate change is advanced as "evidence of man-made global warming," despite the frequent denials by climate scientists that the case rests on local short term climate variations. (Yes, the media often represents climate science this way, but that cannot be taken to be an accurate representaiton of climate science). Nevertheless, it provides a nice straw man for Will to defeat. 

An unstated premise of eco-pessimism is that environmental conditions are, or recently were, optimal. The proclaimed faith of eco-pessimists is weirdly optimistic: These optimal conditions must and can be preserved or restored if government will make us minimize our carbon footprints and if government will "remake" the economy. 

Seems to me that this is not an unstated premise, but a pretty explicit claim–that human life has come to thrive within a tiny window of climate variation and that it will not thrive if dramatic change occurs. This is a nice rhetorical move, but seems to be some sort of straw man as well.

Because of today's economy, another law — call it the Law of Clarifying Calamities — is being (redundantly) confirmed. On graphs tracking public opinion, two lines are moving in tandem and inversely: The sharply rising line charts public concern about the economy, the plunging line follows concern about the environment. A recent Pew Research Center poll asked which of 20 issues should be the government's top priorities. Climate change ranked 20th.

This paragraph just beggars even Will's limited rational capacities! The argument seems to be that  a short term calamity make you less concerned about long term calamities. It would seem to be true: if I break my leg, I will worry more about getting this healed, than lowering my cholesterol. But my elevated cholesterol may still be the thing that kills me in the long term. It isn't clear what Will thinks we should conclude from this, but all of the things I can conceive as possibilities, seem remarkably silly. I suppose that this is some sort of ad populum fallacy.

Real calamities take our minds off hypothetical ones. Besides, according to the U.N. World Meteorological Organization, there has been no recorded global warming for more than a decade, or one-third of the span since the global cooling scare.

The last claim–if it is true–might provide some reason to accept Will's cautioning. Perhaps someone can find this assertion here.