All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

Slippery Slopes and Puppies

Charles Kruse, President of the Missouri Farm Bureau, was recently interviewed by the New York Times about Missouri's upcoming Referendum Vote (Prop. B) outlawing overcrowded dog breeding operations and  setting living standards for dogs owned by breeders (adequate shelter, rest time between litters, access to outdoors, not living in excrement, and so on).  In effect, the proposed law outlaws puppy mills, and the Humane Society of Missouri is behind the proposition. Here's what Kruse had to say:

This is just a first step…. It’s pretty clear their ultimate desire is to eliminate the livestock industry in the United States.

Wuh?  This is about dogs.  They don't eat those in Missouri, do they?  (I went to WUSTL for undergrad, and I don't remember them serving dog anywhere in St.L., but that was the city, and all.) But seriously, folks, how does making it illegal to make a dog have litter after litter in squalid conditions with no time to regain her heath or even be healthy at all make it so that there's no livestock industry?  Even if this were the Humane Society's endgame, what's wrong with treating dogs in ways that aren't utterly horrible?

You know that Kruse, on the Farm Bureau website, has an answer to that question:

“Furthermore, if Proposition B passes, these radical animal rights organizations and individuals won’t stop there.  As experienced in other states, they will work to further regulate Missouri farmers, driving them out of business as well and driving up food costs,” said Kruse.

Oh, I see.  It's not that this sets a precedent, it's that because the Humane Society promotes vegetarianism, a win for them about treating dogs decently is a blow to anyone raising chickens or cows for slaughter.  They won't stop there.  But what if there is a perfectly legitimate position, and there are other reasons to oppose where they want to go from there?  What about that? 

There's an old distinction to make between slippery slopes and bumpy staircases.  It seems that this is more bumpy than slippery.  Moreover, what's Kruse got against dogs? 

Arguments from Persecution Redux

My last posting was about James Gannon's "Hayseed Rebellion," and the version of ad populum argument I'd called 'arguments from persecution."  I've reconsidered the reconstruction, as I don't think  the argument hangs on the injustice of persecution per se, but the vice of the persecutors being a function of what they are persecuting.  In this case, the crucial element of the argument is that it is addressed to an audience of folks who feel as though they are under attack from somebody (or who are open to being convinced that they are) who persecutes them for what they believe is right.
Take the opening characterization Gannon uses:


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


Now, his audience (it is American Spectator) is someone who accepts the antecedent.  But they feel uncomfortable, I think, about the consequent.  I think Gannon's audience would want to say something like the following:  I stand for traditional marriage, which is between a man and a woman, but that doesn't make me a homophobe or a bigot.  That just makes me a conservative. 

Gannon's statement, clearly, attributes a view, then, to an opposition that is inattentive these fine distinctions between conservatives and bigots.  You see, bigots deny rights that are deserved, conservatives deny rights that, erm, aren't deserved. Or are "special rights" that the rest of everybody else has.  Or something like that.  The irony, as Gannon takes it, is that these folks who hold that to be opposed to treating gays as equals is a case of bigotry are educated.   These educated folks just don't get it, yet they look down on conservatives, who are right, you see.

Now, I've myself used this little frame of argument in passing, but with postmodernists.  These folks think that everyone who thinks that logical thinking and valid argumentation is worthwhile are 'logocentric' and hold a 'totalizing' view of the world.  Totalitarianism isn't far (down a slippery slop).   So when I say these things to right-minded folks, i.e., those who see the value of logic and valid  argumentation, all I need to do is say that they have names of disapprobation for these things that are so clearly right.  That's enough, because we see this as a short-hand for saying: this group is composed of stupid people who must be stopped. 

So these contrastive statements (if you believe this thing that seems right to you, then you are a that thing that seems wrong to you) are for the purpose of out-grouping a class of people who think that of you.   We think this, they think the things we think are stupid.  This is right, so that makes them stupid. All done, especially when it's done in the right tone of voice. 

The objective, then, is to show the vice of those who are wrong and stupid: they have special terms of abuse to refer to those who are right.  They call us (conservatives) bigots, homophobes, religious  nutcases, and so on.  That not just shows that liberals are wrong, but that shows that their error breeds unique vices.  Liberals don't just need correction.  They need confrontation, and resistance.

So the reconstruction:
P1:  You hold view p. And view p is true (that's why you hold it, duh!)
P2: Those who belong to group X hold that anyone who holds view p has vice V.
P3: You do not have vice V.
C1: Those in group X are wrong about p.
P4: Those who hold that those with true beliefs are vicious are opponents of truth.
C2: Those in group X are opponents of truth.
P5: Opponents of truth must be resisted and reviled.
C3: Those in group X must be resisted and reviled.

And thereby, you make a case against a group (and provide a rallying cry) simply by the fact that they criticize you. 

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.

God only knows…

Ever notice how people use the expression, usually when claiming and attributing widespread ignorance, "God only knows…"?  The upshot of it is to say: the issue is evidentially impenetrable, so only an omniscient entity could know the answer.  But the expression doesn't say that.  It says that God only knows, not that only God knows.  If God only knows, that means that knowing is the only thing he's doing. Moreover, it doesn't say that we (or anyone else) don't know… which is what the expression was supposed to imply.  Now, you can imply that by quantifying over God instead of over knowledge.   So why do people say it that way, if it doesn't mean what they say?

Maybe it's because in saying "God only knows,"  one is actually compressing a dramatic pause, so: "God, only, knows," which would read the quantifier ranging over "God," not "knows".   Any thoughts?

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.

Go meta-, bring some muscle

In the wake of the new Republican "Pledge" (more on that in the coming week), there's been a small bloom of commentary from the Professional Right on how to run their political commentary.  Call this meta-commentary.  Ron Ross, over at the American Spectator, gives some sound advice: use the tools of logical analysis.  You know: determine what your opponent's argument is, highlight questionable premises, detect unsound reasoning.  Allow the opposition to to the same with your proposals.  Then defend what's been criticized, and listen to the defenses of what you've criticized.  That kind of stuff, right? 

For example, one of Rush Limbaugh's most effective and influential innovations is his use of audio clips and reading quotations of liberals. This is not something that had not been done before, but he definitely has taken the practice to new levels. Rush turns the words of his political opponents against them and demonstrates the absurdity and inconsistency of what they say and believe. He listens carefully to what they say, takes it seriously, logically dissects it, and then shows just how nonsensical it is.

Oh.  All right, so logical dissection is finding utterances from your opposition that sound inconsistent, playing them back to back, and then acting like it's all nonsense.  And Ross thinks that's good.  Well, first, there's the problem of tu quoque fallacies — just because someone's inconsistent, it doesn't mean that person's wrong.  Second, it's not got the solutions side to the equation — you know, you've got to have ideas, too.  Third, sometimes, the facts change, and given that, some statements are indexed to the facts.  Quoting without context is just an abuse of the resources.

Ah, but Ross is all about context and the meta-elements of exchange:

What's even more important than their (Liberals) intended message is the "meta-message." The website Enclyo defines meta-message as "A message about a message…Meta-messages are higher level messages about: 1. The type of message being sent. 2. The state/status of the messenger. 3. The state/status of the receiver. 4. The context in which the message is being sent." We can use an awareness of their meta-messages — that their reactions are signs of weakness, for example — to our advantage.

So Ross's suggestion is to be sensitive to context, but only for the sake of detecting signs of weakness.  Logical weakness?

We need to answer their wussy double-talk with clear, muscular words that actually mean something.

I don't think he means logical weakness.  But given Ross's notion of meta- messages, what do you think is being said with that sentence?  Perhaps:  liberals are scared, weak, and muddle-headed; conservatives must be brave, strong, and … uh, muscular? 

Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically — asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

Some arguments by analogy are like slave uprisings

Pat Buchanan thinks the Republican Establishment doesn't respect the Tea Party or their candidates.  Apparently, Republican Party Leaders had their preferred candidates (you know, ones that might win the general election), and they supported them in the primaries.  And then these Tea Partiers come along, and well… win those primaries.  Now it looks like the Dems may not get trounced quite so badly in November. Republican Establishment folks get mad, because they're trying to win elections, but a large segment of the party won't cooperate. 

Now, this is evidence to me that there should just be two parties.  Luckily, they've already got two names picked out.  But this isn't about me or where the evidence takes us.  This is about the Tea Party and its, uh, spokespeople.  Or something.  Here's what Buchanan thinks this is about: exploitation.  That's right, he thinks the Republican Establishment looks to conservatives and just tells them what to do, and they expect conservatives to just do it.  And so, in Buchanan's mind, Tea Partiers are like slaves. 

To the Republican establishment, tea party people are field hands. Their labors are to be recognized and rewarded, but they are to stay off the porch and not presume to sit at the master's table.

Oh, "field hands."  Alright.  So what follows?  Well, Buchanan doesn't seem to be sure.  He's sure that the Republican Establishment isn't fit to govern, as they are all "neoconservatives," which means "evil," these days.  So is there going to be a Tea Party's version of Nat Turner?  (Highly likely: Nat Turner=Sarah Palin. Look out.)  Maybe they're waiting for the Emancipation Proclamation (though, I'd bet they'd have taken that, too, as a breach of the Constitution).  Maybe they'll realize that they aren't really slaves, and they'll leave the plantation and start a commune where they're all equal, and everyone has a say, and everyone gets what they need.  Tea Partiers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains!

Equivocations and professionalism

Those who work in American philosophy often suffer from an unfortunate set of professional blindnesses.  The list is long, and I won't go into listing them all.  But there's one worth noting here:  they seem to be totally unaware of how their judgment in terminology is questionable.  Exhibit 1 is the unfortunate name for the main scholarly society for of American philosophy: the Society for the Advancement of American Philosophy, for short, the SAAP.  Exhibit 2 is pretty much anything, other than 'pragmatism,' named by Peirce.  And then this line turns up in a (now, not so recent) book review in the journal of record for the area, Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society:

Hickman’s Dewey is the ultimate tool…

To be fair, the sentence then proceeds with the metaphor, comparing Dewey to a "Swiss Army knife" that is "ready for any job at hand," and so on.  But come on.  Just a little judgment here, people.  Just a little.