All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

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.

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?

Not the First Amendment I Know

Over at the American Spectator, George Neumayr is arguing that the First Amendment does not protect the building of the "Ground Zero Mosque" or the burning of Korans. 

The truth is that the First Amendment protects neither the Ground Zero mosque nor Jones's burning of copies of the Koran. How do we know this? Because under the real First Amendment, the one written by the Founding Fathers, local communities within states were perfectly free to pass laws prohibiting the construction of particular religious buildings or pass laws that banned book burnings.

In fact, on his interpretation, the First Amendment should protect us against the "tyranny of the minorities" when it comes to religious matters.  His case is that because the various states had preferred state churches when they adopted the Constitution, there's no way that the First Amendment could prevent explicit state preferences for religion:

Six of the thirteen states that signed the Constitution ran established churches. It is a historical fact that the First Amendment was written not to suppress those state churches but to protect them. Those six states would have never signed the Constitution otherwise.

This is an interesting and promising point, one that deserves some consideration.  The rule restricts, as stated, Congress, not other legislative bodies or the executive branch.  But for a very long time, the restrictions on Congress here were taken to be exemplary for how the rest of all governing bodies and governmental executives were to conduct themselves in the US.  Taking it otherwise now contradicts stare decisis about the Constitution.  Moreover, it runs counter to what the 'free exercise' clause is supposed to protect.  In fact, a state must show compelling interest in restricting any religious expression.  So what kind of interest does the state have here?

The notion that the First Amendment requires individual states to treat all religious believers equally was invented out of thin air by judicial activists. . . . The rejection of the real Constitution for the phony "living" one explains today's tyranny of the minority. That tyranny has assumed ironically divergent forms in recent days. In New York City, a majority stands aghast as a group of Muslims tries to build a mosque within blocks of the World Trade Center ruins. In Florida, the majority stands appalled but idle before the pastor of a tiny church who launches an "International Burn-a-Koran Day." Both incidents are, in varying degrees, acts of gross and pointless incivility that do  not truly enjoy constitutional protections, but all public officials can mumble in the face of them is the cliché du jour that Americans have a "right to be wrong."

Wow. To say that actions that are gross and uncivil do not deserve First Amendment protection is just about tantamount to saying that you don't understand the First Amendment, isn't it?  Seriously, most of the stuff in The American Spectator would fail that test, wouldn't it?   Moreover, I will never be able to wrap my head around the idea that Constitutions are written to prevent tyrranies of minorities in a democracy.   Again, saying those sorts of things should be an easy tell that someone doesn't understand what they're talking about.

Equivocations, False Analogies, and Racist Stereotypes, Hooray!

Pat Buchanan hits the fallacy jackpot over at Human Events.  Here's his article in a nutshell: we should reconsider the utopian dream of educational equality, because educational ability across races is not equal.  He starts with the familiar argument from athletics.  In the NFL, blacks outnumber whites and all other races:

In this profession, white males, a third of the population, retain a third of the jobs. But black males, 6.5 percent of the U.S. population, have 67 percent of the coveted positions — 10 times their fair share. . . .  Yet no one objects that women are not permitted to compete in the NFL. Nor do many object to the paucity of Asian and Mexicans, or the over-representation of blacks, even as white males dominate the National Hockey League and the PGA.   When it comes to sports — high school, collegiate or professional — Americans are intolerant of lectures about diversity and inclusiveness. They want the best . . .

When it comes to athletic ability, we have very different native capacities, and so it should follow for educational abilities, too. 

Why, then, cannot our elites accept that, be it by nature, nurture, attitude or aptitude, we are not all equal in academic ability?

Buchanan's evidence for this difference in ability between the races is what he sees as the permanent achievement gap in the New York math and language achievement tests.  Whites and Asians generally outperform Hispanics and blacks, even after a good deal of work has been poured into the system to even the numbers.

Since 1965, America has invested trillions in education with a primary goal of equalizing test scores among the races and genders. Measured by U.S. test scores, it has been a waste — an immense transfer of wealth from private citizens to an education industry that has grown bloated while failing us again and again.  Perhaps it is time to abandon the goal of educational equality as utopian — i.e., unattainable — and to focus, as we do in sports and art, on excellence.

Oh, in case you didn't get the point, Buchanan is telling us to re-calibrate our academic expectations for people who are brown:

For an indeterminate future, Mexican kids are not going to match Asian kids in math.

Fallacy checklist:  Equivocation on 'equality'?  Check!  Inequality in ability (even in native abilities) does not mean that one deserves less.   False analogy between sports and athletics?  Check! If you can't throw a curveball, no biggie.  Can't read, well… Vicious use of racial stereotypes? Check!  Seriously, this guy ran for president and almost won the Republican nomination in '96.

Stop calling us stupid bigots, you arrogant leftist elitists!

Ah, nothing warms my heart like someone pointing out fallacies.  But pointing out ad hominem abusive is, really, just a little too easy.  And people, especially because they often take criticism of their views to also be criticism of them personally, over-report instances of this fallacy.  (Easy way to see this: imagine someone's just told you, in the midst of an argument, "think about it" — what's the implication but that you've not thought about it yet?)

The Professional Right has been put off by how often what they've seen as the ad hominem abusive gets used against them.  Ann Coulter, if you'll remember, had a whole book cataloging all the names conservatives have been called.  Carol Platt Liebau (over at TownHall.com) has weighed in on the issue, and she's against being called a stupid bigot.  And so with the (ahem) Ground Zero Mosque debate:

The recent debate about an imam’s plans to locate a large mosque at Ground Zero has highlighted, as never before, the liberal elite’s utter contempt for the sensibilities of regular Americans. From the President on down, those in favor of the mosque’s construction at Ground Zero have characterized the opponents as ruled only by emotion – especially animus toward all Muslims.

And on the recent California gay marriage case:

Recently, an unelected federal judge struck down a state constitutional amendment passed by a solid majority of Californians – and supported by a majority of Americans generally – that defined marriage as exclusively between one man and one woman. He did so by concluding that there was no rational basis for the measure he had overturned; its only conceivable purpose, according to the judge, was to “enshrine in the California Constitution” an assertion that “opposite-sex couples are superior to same-sex couples.” In other words, Judge Vaughn Walker characterized every single American who has reservations about changing the age-old institution of marriage as irrational bigots.

She sees these liberal types as taking the argumentative situation as one with utter dopes and fools:

Given that the President, Vaughn Walker, and much of the commentariat in favor of the Ground Zero mosque are part of the supposed intellectual and cultural “elite” in this country, the arrogance – and paucity of their moral imagination – is breathtaking. In their formulation, stupidity, ignorance and bigotry are the only conceivable reasons for opposition to anything they deem moral or just.

I am very much sympathetic to Liebau's point — it's best to have as one's defaults that one's argumentative opponents are reasonable, moral humans.  That not only prevents escalation, but it also will likely make it so that both sides will actually work together on finding an acceptable solution to the disagreement.  (I've actually got some research with Robert Talisse  in the works on what we call the "no reasonable alternatives" mindset that all too often takes over when one enters into clear argumentative contexts — more later on that.)  One of the ways to keep from feeding argumentative escalation is to keep the ad hominem temptation down — just because they're wrong about some matter of moral significance needn't mean that they are benighted, stupid, or evil.  It just means they're wrong.  And so now Liebau is going to show us how to do disagreement respectfully? Right? …  Right?

Their intellectual and personal disrespect for those who disagree with them is breathtaking – and it is unleavened by even the slightest dash of humility. . . . The irony, of course, is that in its eagerness to denounce the intolerance and shortsightedness of the masses, the liberal elite reveals itself to be shortsighted and intolerant. . . .  Increasingly, that kind of contempt emanates from those who consider themselves the meritocracy’s crowning glory.  To put it in terms they can understand, it’s hypocritical to claim solidarity with “the common man” while despising everything he holds dear.

Oh well.  Glad to see that someone's good at least good at recognizing abusive language in others.  It's a start.  Of sorts.

I will politicize free will!

Another addition to the evaluation of rock and roll argumentation.  Last time, Jem suggested a discussion of Rush's "Free Will."  Here goes. (Lyrics here)

I remember back in high school when someone told me that Rush was 'thinking man's music.'  I heard some of the songs, and I wasn't really sure what what my friend was getting at.  In fact, it was "Free Will" that he played for me, and my opinion now is pretty much the same.  Geddy Lee/Neil Peart are just confused about the whole metaphysical issue, and this confusion leads them to some pretty harsh judgments of the downtrodden. 

In a nutshell, "Free Will" is the following set of commitments. #1: If you are committed to fatalism or determinism, you are looking to lay the responsibility for your life's failings on anyone or anything but yourself. (Fate, the gods, and perhaps social conditions).  #2. Laying the responsibility for one's life (and its failings) outside oneself leads one to inaction.  #3. If you are committed to free will, you hold yourself responsible for your life.  #4. If you hold yourself responsible for your life, you are more active in that life.

The first two commitments are the ones that get the most attention, and so the majority of the song is out to cast the poor as people who rationalize their poverty as a consequence of fate, when it actually is because of their own inaction.

There are those who think that they were dealt a losing hand,
The cards were stacked against them; they weren't born in Lotusland.

The implication of 'Lotusland' is that the only benefits that some people appreciate are those of sloth.  Alternately, the case for #3 and #4 is made but briefly:

I will choose a path that's clear
I will choose freewill.

In a way, the Rush strategy is akin to the old pragmatist reconstructions of metaphysical views.  In this case, determinism/fatalism is pragmatically a form of passivity and irresponsibility, and libertarianism is a form of activity and responsibility.  So choosing a metaphysics is equivalent to choosing what kind of person you will be (and  the consequences of being that person). 

The implication is that if you help others (especially because you see them as mere victims of fate), you consequently encourage their further dependence. 

You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill

The conclusions (suppressed of course) are that: C1: One ought to choose the active and responsible life. C2: So one should choose free will as a metaphysics.  C3: Those who live the passive and irresponsible life (and suffer the poverty and ills that come with it) are nevertheless responsible for that life, because "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice".  (And so: the poor have, really, chosen to be that way!)  Finally, because treating the poor as though they are victims of fate promotes their conception of themselves as passive and not responsible for their lives, C4: We ought not even help the poor (as, again, that would be "kindness that can kill").

I will limit myself to three criticisms.  First, the fact of moral luck seems perfectly obvious.  No matter how active a farmer you are, you can't use  your free will to choose that your crops not be eaten by locusts or withered by a drought.  Your choosing free will has no impact on whether you are part of your company's downsizing, that you get brain cancer, or develop a psychosis.  (This song will set you straight on that.) No matter how free will-ist you are, if you're born to a family with little money, no interest in education or social improvement, and a proclivity to violence, it doesn't take much figuring to lay odds on your coming life.  So sometimes it's a reasonable attitude to blame the fates.

Second, there is nothing in the argument that shows that it is true that there is free will, only that believing that you have free will makes you more active.  So far, a Hellenistic fatalist could accept that.  In fact, the old fatalists like Euripides had a term for the thought that their fates were in their own hands — hubris.    Unless it is false that the gods control the world, Rush's suggestions here put his listeners in danger of one of the greatest errors mortals could make, that is, taking themselves to be like gods.  I presume that Rush has taken it for granted that the gods aren't in control, but that makes their whole argument from consequences superfluous.  In fact, it makes the whole song (as an argument) beg the question.

Third, and finally, the two rhetorically most powerful moments in the song key on the fact that one has "chosen" one of the options between freedom and fatalism/determinism.  The first is that if you go with fatalism, "you still have made a choice," and the second is that Geddy/Neil "will choose free will."   But the free will – determinism issue can be recast to  bear on whether the choice in either of these cases is determined.  So the determinist maybe could say: Sure, you choose free will.  That's exactly the kind of person you are — you're a stridently independent, anti-authoritarian, rock and roller.  That's what they all choose.  The fact that you choose free will just goes to show how determined you are.   As a consequence, this choice business, despite the fact that it's the rhetorical peak of the song, is an utter argumentative failure.

Oh, and the guitar solo is a noodly mess, too.

Why aren’t conservatives for equal protection?

There is a old but reliable theme in political discussion: the gulf between the rights of individuals and the objectives of the state.  Liberal democracies are posited on the premise that the objectives of the state must be in the service of individuals and are constrained by their antecedent rights.  That's why constitutions bind modern democracies.  They are ground rules (among other things) for ensuring individual liberties are protected.

The equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment is an extension of the moral rule of equity; namely, that one must judge all morally similar cases similarly.  The motivating conditions for the 14th Amendment was racial discrimination.  And so, the race of an accuser or the accused is a morally insignificant fact. Consequently, accusations and and cases must be adjudged independently of the race of the people in question.  The basic thought is that we have a right for the rule of equity to govern our legal standing, too.  Laws must equally apply, and the protections from interference by the state must follow these rules.

The thought with equal protection, then, is that (regardless of the fact that the Amendment was occasioned by race) we should follow the rule of respecting individual rights.  Any government must meet a very high standard of scrutiny if it is to interfere with one group's rights, but not another's.  Prohibitions against gay marriage don't meet that standard. Neither did anti-miscegenation laws.  (Same 14th Amendment equal protection clause invoked in both rulings.) California's Proposition 8 is a case of a state interfering with individuals on the basis of a morally irrelevant difference. 

Now, Mark Trapp, at the American Spectator, says that the recent decision to overturn to Proposition 8 is a case of federal  judges "imposing their personal policy preferences, the will of the people notwithstanding."   This is a pretty serious charge, one implies that the decision (and perhaps all judical review) is undemocratic. But if the people willed to take all the rich people's money and cars, that'd be rightly stopped.  If the people voted to prevent all left-handed people from driving, then that'd be rightly stopped, too.  That might be "imposing" a policy preference, but it'd be one guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. 

Trapp seems to think that judicial overturning of a legislative decision is an Federal imposition on a state's sovereignty, and ultimately, individual sovereignty:

Rather than determine for themselves such fundamental issues as abortion and same-sex marriage, many seem resigned or even content to having such momentous public policy decisions made by judges — for whom they do not vote and against whom they have no recourse. 

My question is how can one be in this case a person committed to States' Rights and the organizing value of the Constitution's protection of individual rights on this issue?  If it turns out that California's Proposition 8 runs afoul of the 14th Amendment, then California does not have the right (regardless of the vote count, 52% to 98%) to discriminate. 

You know, one of the few things I find appealing about conservativism is the individualism at its core.  That seems right to me.  But how does States' Right fit in that equation?  Why does a Federal decision over a State's decision matter to someone who cares about individual rights?  If the state is in the wrong and has run afoul of equal protection, isn't it a good thing to have a Federal Government to protect those rights?  I mean, what kind of individualist rationalizes oppression by saying "it's morally irrelevant unequal treatment, but it's the way we do it here." ?  How is the fact that it is here a morally relevant category?

The payoff for informal logic is that I think that some tu quoque arguments can reveal cases of bias and double standards.  Trapp's argument is that protecting the individual liberties of homosexuals with the 14th Amendment contravenes the individual liberties of those in the majority who want to discriminate against homosexuals.  And that's undemocratic and unjust.  You see, Trapp loves liberty so much…

Now, that’s a strawman!

Jonah Goldberg has a piece defending Lindsey Graham's recent proposal for a Constitutional Amendment (one that would revise the 14th Amendment's citizenship clause so that children born of illegal aliens are not citizens).  More importantly, Goldberg is out to defend our responsibility to revise and interpret the Constitution as the cases demand.  Now, this should come as a surprise to all the conservatives who take themselves to be strict "Constitutionists" — this sounds all too much like the old 'living document' take on the Constitution conservatives hate so much.  Goldberg anticipates this:

...this "living document" argument is a straw man. Of course justices must read the document in the context of an ever-changing world. What else could they do? Ask plaintiffs to wear period garb, talk in 18th-century lingo and only bring cases involving paper money and runaway slaves?

Goldberg's a little confused about straw men, as straw-manning depends on how you portray your opposition, not how obvious your views are.  But his point is reasonable enough — if the options are, on the one hand, seeing the world and the Constitution's relevance through the lenses of 18th Century Yankees and, on the other hand, looking at the world with the judgment of 21st Century Yankees, we should take the 21st Century perspective… given that we're out to deal with 21st Century problems.  So Jonah Goldberg has made a nice point and also has highlighted a straw man argument.  Oh, but then he steps right back into the straw man mode, himself:

When discussing the Constitution on college campuses, students and even professors will object that without a "living constitution," blacks would still be slaves and women wouldn't be allowed to vote. Nonsense. Those indispensable changes to the Constitution came not from judges reading new rights into the document but from Americans lawfully amending it.

Even professors?  Really?  Even professors?  Goldberg owes us at least one name for this charge.  But he provides no documentation, no names, no nothing, just vague allegations of intellectual incompetence.  Nobody said that living document interpretation of the Constitution was the solution to those things — we had Constitutional Amendments to solve those problems.  Only utter morons would say those were cases of living document work.  But how about, say, Brown v. Board, or pretty much every privacy rights case?  Or, maybe Gregg v. Georgia, with the notion of an evolving standards of decency in punishment?  Those are all cases of reading the document of the Constitution in a way that keeps its core commitments but also extends them to the cases that the framers did not anticipate.  Ignoring these cases (and actual discussions of them on academic campuses) not only distorts what the "living document" interpretation is, but it makes it impossible to make sense of what Goldberg's own views on the Constitution are.  For someone out to prevent straw manning about Constitutional interpretation, Jonah Goldberg is an expert at constructing and knocking the stuffing out of them.

Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?