All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

No plagiarism, please. We’re all friends here.

Steve Gimbel of Philosopher's Playground fame, in my opinion one of the most entertaining and canny philosophy blogs around, has posted his semi-annual appeal to students not  to plagiarize their final papers.  It's a different argument from your usual plagiarism is theft arguments or the plagiarism cheats you out of thinking things through yourself move. 

Steve's argument has multiple lines; the opening moves are pretty nice.  First, he notes that most students "just aren't that good at it."  Basically, the odds are that you'll get caught.  Plagiarizing isn't a good gamble.  Second, even if you don't get caught, "it won't end up making that much of a difference in the end."  Students already have done a lot of work over the semester, and even if the paper is good or bad, it will likely make only a small difference in one grade, in one semester. 

[I]n truth your college GPA means very little in the lives of most people. But getting busted for plagiarism could mean a lot. . . There is so little reward that it is absolutely not worth the risk.

These two arguments seem right to me: not only is plagiarism morally wrong and counter to the purposes of going to college in the first place (acknowledged by Steve, but not the focus), but it's actually a risky proposition.  But Steve has, I think, a much more rhetorically powerful argument, and one that is an occasion for some thought about arguments from pity and loyalty.

Steve's third argument has two parts.  The first is that professors, for the most part, like most students.  Bad work on one paper isn't going to hurt that:

We like you (well, most of you anyway). We want you to succeed. We want you to keep in touch by e-mail and come back to campus ten years from now for alumni weekend and tell us funny stories about your time in college and about how you got to be wherever it is you will end up. And you know what, we won't care or remember that paper. To be honest, we will have forgotten about it long before next semester.

Students and teachers have a relationship, and we teachers are not going to renege on that relationship just because you students wrote a bad paper.  We understand that bad work happens sometimes, especially when time's tight.  And now comes the second part:

But when you plagiarize, you put us in a horrible position. We don't want to turn you in, in part because we want the best for you, but also because we don't want to have to deal with the process. We are tired too. It's been a really long semester and we just want to get our grades in so we can get to the plans we've made for break. And now you make us have to spend our time searching for your sources, documenting evidence, and explaining how we knew this had to be plagiarized. We have so much to do right now that we don't need the headache.

But it's more than just that this is a hassle.  Remember: we're in a relationship, and plagiarism breaks the trust that the relationship requires. 

But more than that, it feels like betrayal…. I looked forward to giving you a good grade and seeing you around the campus and now you go and do this to me? ME: the one who spent the time preparing for class, answering your e-mails at awkward hours, giving you extensions and offering to look at drafts.

Plagiarism is disloyalty.  Not just to yourself, the scholars you steal from, or the discipline, but to your teachers, the people who've loyally worked for your (the student's) benefit all semester.

I'll have a follow-up post later to discuss forms of arguments from pity and loyalty.  Steve's argument here seems to be a case where the pity and loyalty that students (should) feel for their teachers is relevant to the conclusion that they shouldn't plagiarize.  The problem is that these are classically considered fallacy forms.  So the question is: under what conditions are the sentiments of pity and loyalty relevant? 

An exercise in spotting and correcting slanted language

Here's an exercise in spotting intentionally slanted language.  Michelle Malkin, commenting on Republican victories, finds that she must use the most divisive language she can in order to explain them.  I'll highlight four of five places in her opening two paragraphs, but I'm restraining myself:

Do Americans share President Obama's desire to impose redistributive social justice on the well off? In liberal Washington State, of all places, voters gave a definitive answer this Tuesday: No! The resounding rejection of a punitive "Robin Hood" initiative shows that it's not just red-state Republicans who oppose extreme tax hikes on the nation's wealth generators.

As Capitol Hill resumes debate on whether to extend the so-called "Bush tax cuts," the White House should pay special heed to the fate of little-noticed Initiative 1098. Its defeat by a whopping 65-35 margin doesn't bode well for Team Obama's class warriors still clinging bitterly to their soak-the-rich schemes.

Lordy. Would it kill Malkin to even try to lead with a fairly articulated argument before the framing starts? First, it's distributive justice, because it's about justice in the distribution of goods.  To call it "re-distributive" either implies that the current distribution meets standards of justice (it doesn't) or that redistribution, regardless of the current distribution, is counter to justice.  Calling it social justice is conservative double-dipping, as 'social justice' has become a new watchword up there with 'secular humanism,' 'liberalism,' and 'progressive' among conservatives.  Malkin, with this one, is showing she's too eager to talk the talk.

Taxing the rich is taken then to be punitive measures on the nation's wealth generators.  I just don't get it.  How is it a punishment, when their standard of living isn't being drastically effected, and yet their wealth depends on the proper functioning of the rest of the society?  Wealth-generators?  Wealth-generators?  Seriously.  I dare all those so-called Atlases to shrug.  None of these Atlases now-a-days are captains of industry or developers of ideas, as idealized by Ayn Rand and her huffy bunch of crazies.  They're skimmers of cream off banks and their holdings, people who encourage over-worked representatives to push mortgages to people who can't afford them, people who shuffle stock packages to hide debt.  Generators?  Overgrown ticks.

So-called "Bush tax cuts'.  So called… by everybody. Because they were tax cuts.  By President Bush.  Bigger than anything imagined by Reagan.  Mostly for the wealthy.  Shameless.  Better phrase: So-called 'So-called "Bush tax cuts" '.

Soak the rich schemes.  Schemes, indeed.   Schemes dreamed up by scheming schemers who dream of nothing but skimming the cream and reaping the bling of Atlases?  Schemes.  Schemes, as in plans.  Soak the rich, as in requiring those who've benefited the most to give back.   Schemes, oh, please.

The lesson: slanting can be fun, but it's really just an exercise for pretending you've got good arguments for what you're saying.  I wonder if Malkin has any of those?



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?