All posts by Scott Aikin

Scott Aikin is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University.

War, Hypocrites, and Islam

Tu quoque arguments are posited on finding a contradiction or tension in the other side's position with regard to the matter at issue, and then holding on that basis that the other side is wrong or at least not qualified to speak to the issue.  I've argued elsewhere ("Tu quoque arguments and the significance of Hypocrisy" and "The truth about hypocrisy," with Robert Talisse) that sometimes these arguments are acceptable — e.g., if someone keeps contradicting himself, that's evidence he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Other times, the inconsistency of the other side is simply irrelevant to the issue (the classic example: even if your father smokes, he's right that you shouldn't smoke, and the fact that he is a smoker is at best irrelevant to the issue, and perhaps actually improves his case, as he, himself, is a testament to how addictive it is).

The tu quoque comes in a variety of forms.  The most significant differentiation to make is between the inconsistencies of speech and speech and speech and act.  The first is about a person who can't keep his story straight.  The second is about hypocrites.  Often the hypocrisy is actual — the person really says "do X" and they turn around and do not-X.  But sometimes, the inconsistency of the other side isn't something that's an actual inconsistency, just one that's likely.  One that would happen….  That is, sometimes the other side may not now be inconsistent, but if things were a little different, the other side would be singing a different tune.  So you say, "You say that now, under these circumstances, but were the shoe on the other foot…"  Colin called this phenomenon subjunctive tu quoque.

I've been on the lookout for it and for a few varieties, and I've found an interesting one in Sam Harris's The End of Faith (Norton, 2004).  Harris makes the case that we (in the West) shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for all the just war norms that we bend when we fight against Muslims.  His reasoning is perfectly subjunctive tu quoque.  First, in defending the way Israel deals with Palestinian aggression:

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? (2004, 135)

Harris uses the same form of reasoning when mitigating blame for disproportionate use of force in Iraq:

If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (2004, 146)

The reasoning is appealing, but it doesn't support the conclusion that it's OK to be more cavalier in war with Muslims.  Jus in bello isn't affected by how the other side would be treating you, if they had the upper hand.  If it's unjust to wage war indiscriminately, it's unjust; and the fact that the other side has a clear inclination toward injustice may be a good reason to be at war with them, but it is not a reason to break the rules of war.

This said, I do want to retrieve what's appealing about the reasoning.  It does seem wrong for someone to insist on the rules of war when it's also clear that they, themselves, would not feel bound by them were they the dominant power.  It seems, first, dishonest.  And second, it seems like the use of moral argument is strictly strategic, instead of moral.  The most that would follow from the Harris arguments would be that there is a member of the discussion who is not an honest arbiter. 

One final thing is that these subjunctive moves carry a weird burden of proof, that it seems, is difficult to satisfy.  It's one thing to show that someone's a hypocrite — all you need to show is that he said "Do X" and then show that he did not-X.  But how do you show that the person, after having said "Do X" would nevertheless would, if circumstances were different, would do not X?

Sabotage or Enforcing Equal Protection?

Maggie Gallagher has been doing some reading, and she's found that Richard Epstein, a libertarian legal theorist, opposes the way the Department of Justice and the lower courts have been chipping away at the Defense of Marriage Act.  She approvingly quotes Epstein:

I … think that the DOJ's faint-hearted advocacy is no way to run a legal system…. Nor is it wise for courts to use the equal protection clause as a club against conventional morality, deeply felt.

In the title of her posting, Gallagher calls these decisions that merely allow same-sex partners of federal employees access to federally mandated family benefits (such as health and dental coverage, at issue in the Gill vs Office of Personal Management) sabotage of electoral politics and morality.

Strange, but the question of equal protection isn't about reflecting the moral judgment of the majority.  It's about ensuring minority rights and protections.    And saying it is a question of "deeply felt" moral conviction is to betray the expressed intent and justification of the law, that of "responsible procreation."  Turns out the DOMA was really just majoritarian moralizing all along, only dressed up as a public health initiative.  Thanks, Maggie Gallagher, for pulling the curtain back.

What refutes what?

Phyllis Schlafly is right about one thing: the Fourth of July is a good time to read the Declaration of Independence.  But she's wrong about pretty much everything else.  First, her timing is a little off — her posting is dated July 9, but she's giving advice about what to do on the 4th.  Maybe her plan was for us to remember what to do next year.   Second, she claims that the Declaration is a 'religious document.'  This seems a little thin, as her evidence is that:

The Declaration of Independence is the official and unequivocal recognition by the American people of our belief and faith in God. It affirms God's existence as a "self-evident" truth that requires no further discussion, debate or litigation.. . . The Declaration of Independence contains five references to God: God as Creator of all men, God as supreme Lawmaker, God as the Source of all rights, God as the world's supreme Judge, and God as our Patron and Protector. The Declaration declares that each of us was created; so if we were created, we must have had a Creator and, as the modern discovery of DNA confirms, each of God's creatures is different from every other person who has ever lived or ever will live on this earth.

Just for the record, I took a quick look at the Declaration, and I counted only four overt references to God.  One in the first paragraph, to Nature's God.  One in the second paragraph, that "we are endowed by our Creator….", and two in the final paragraph, one an oath to the Supreme judge of the world, and another about trusting 'divine providence.'  Now, with each of these, I don't (especially given the widespread deism of the day) see these as strongly theistic as Schlafly sees them.  Regardless, whatever these references mean, they aren't there as core commitments of the Declaration — the Declaration is about human rights and about the role of government (and also to list all the colonial grievances against the crown).  To put it on record that they all love God doesn't seem to be the point, but more a rhetorical element of the presentation of more (ahem) humanistic concerns.  If you use reference to God in making a point, that doesn't by necessity make your speech religious, because I often punctuate my angriest moments with "Goddammit!", but that hardly makes my speech religious.

Schlafly's third error is most troubling.  She claims:

The message of the Declaration of Independence is under attack from the ACLU and atheists because it refuted the lie about a constitutional mandate for "separation of church and state."

Wait.  That gets it backwards, doesn't it?  The whole point of the Constitution was to provide a framework for government that wasn't there in the Declaration. And in putting those things together, wasn't the objective to either supplement or correct the Declaration?  What about the First Amendment, the one that prohibits laws "respecting an establishment of religion"?  If the Declaration had a line that said anything about acknowledging and establishing a religion of the one true God (which seems to be Schlafly's reading), it's the Constitution that would refute that establishment, not the Declaration that would refute the Constitution. 

Nothing’s Sacrosanct

Ann Coulter’s been paying attention to Elena Kagan’s SCOTUS nomination proceedings.  She even read a profile of Kagan from the New York Times.  Kagan’s aunt notes that the family was intellectually engaged:

“There was thinking, always thinking,” Joyce Kagan Charmatz, Robert Kagan’s sister-in-law, 71, said of the family’s dinner table. “Nothing was sacrosanct.”

That “nothing was sacrosanct” caught Coulter’s eye.  She’s skeptical about whether in a liberal family that there could be a nothing’s-off-limits discussion.  She first observes:

Really? Nothing was sacrosanct? Because in my experience, on a scale of 1-to-infinity, the range of acceptable opinion among New York liberals goes from 1-to-1.001.

And then she ponders:

How would the following remarks fare at a dinner table on the Upper West Side where "nothing was sacrosanct": Hey, maybe that Joe McCarthy was onto something. What would prayer in the schools really hurt? How do we know gays are born that way? Is it possible that union demands have gone too far? Does it make sense to have three recycling bins in these microscopic Manhattan apartments? Say, has anyone read Charles Murray's latest book? Those comments, considered "conversation starters" in most of the country, would get you banned from polite society in New York.

Coulter’s hypothesis is that Kagan’s family was actually a group of insular liberals, people who pretended to be open-minded, willing to hear out all the sides, and so on, but never actually met anyone who had an opposing view.  Coulter knows all those New York liberals, and she knows just how dogmatic they can be: 

Even members of survivalist Christian cults in Idaho at least know people who hold opposing views. New York liberals don't. . . .  Even within the teeny-tiny range of approved liberal opinion in New York, disagreement will get you banned from the premises.

Seriously?  Now, for sure it’d be easy to switch out ‘New York liberals’ with ‘Texas conservatives’ and all the right-wing talking points with lefty talking points, and you’d see just what a bigoted and ridiculous tirade that’d be about conservatives.  Surely, we all know there are dogmatists on both sides. But they don’t define the sides, and they don’t define how parenting happens.  One of the things that Coulter fails to observe is that Joyce Kagan Charmatz is trying to get across that the Kagan family was not one of those dogmatic families you might see on the liberal side.

The larger problem is that Coulter has the worst of the ‘New York liberals’ define them all.  We’ve observed a number of times here at the NonSequitur that this is a form of straw-manning more precisely called weak manning. The basic trope is to find the worst and dumbest representative of a group you hold to be wrong, criticize this representative, and then act as though the group is wrong uberhaupt on the basis of this criticism.  For example, we all have shut-in uncles who surf the web in their bathrobes who are just right of Ron Paul libertarians.  When they say stupid things at family reunions, we don’t think this necessarily impugns libertarianism.  Every time you’re inclined to think that libertarians are stupid, you must remember Robert Nozick was very likely smarter than you. Same goes for Coulter – every time she thinks she can define the class ‘New York liberal,’ their views and their parenting on the basis of the worst of the class, she should exercise some measure of judgment.

New study shows: liberals don’t have conservative economic views

Ron Ross, at The American Spectator, reports that a Zogby International survey "confirms what (he's) long suspected — when it comes to economics, liberals are clueless."  The survey asks respondents to identify themselves on a spectrum from very liberal to very conservative, and then eight questions come.  Ross notes: 

On the basis of eight economic questions, wrong answers correlated consistently with ideology.  Progressive/very liberal respondents got four times more wrong answers than libertarians.

Ross concludes that the survey results "demonstrate a strong connection between economic ignorance and interventionist enthusiasm.  Those who are most determined to interfere with the economy know the least about it."

Well, golly, if there really is a connection between not knowing economics and being a liberal, that'd be a bad thing.  Especially for liberals and their views about economics.  So let's look at all the economics that liberals are so ignorant about.  Here are two of the most telling questions:

1. Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.  (Unenlightened Answer: Disagree)

6. Third-world workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited. (Unenlightened Answer: Agree)

The rest of the questions are the usual libertarian talking points (minimum wage laws increase unemployment, licensing professional services causes the price for those services to be raised).  The crazy thing is that question 1 is so vaguely stated that anyone with any sense would ask for clarification: Are the restrictions with regard to where the houses will be built, what kind of houses, or whether they must meet safety codes, and so on? In some cases, those restrictions will drive prices up, and other times, down.  Of course, the survey has the right answer that they do.  Why? Because that's what libertarians believe.

With question 6, I don't see this as a matter of having knowledge of basic economics or any such thing, but more a question of having ethical judgment about what counts as exploitation.  Again, because the right answers are being determined by people who casually use the term "leftist," as a term for anyone who's not a member of the John Birch Society, the right answers will likely be different from, say, any morally developed adult.

None of this would be surprising or irritating if the survey and report did not use terms like "unenlightened" and "wrong" for the answers here.  Now, if the survey were about, say, basic economic knowledge, where there is no reasonable disagreement, then we'd have no problem.  But here we have the simple strategy of polling one's opponents in a disagreement, noting how they have views you reject, casting them as being wrong, and then reporting how often those with whom you disagree are wrong about things that matter.  But, even if liberals are in error, these are not the simple errors that Ross portrays them to be.  These are controversial matters in economics, ones about which intelligent people disagree.  To portray this as a matter of ignorance, as Ross does, is not just a distortion of the debate, it's simple lying.  But Ross is all too happy to run up the score when the deck is stacked:

What we're seeing all too often is "the arrogance of ignorance." Both arrogance and ignorance do enormous damage in the world, but together they are a toxic brew.

Ross's gerrymandered study really only shows that opinions about economics track political self-identification.  That's not news, and certainly not something to make the hay Ross does of it.  There's another toxic brew, in addition to Ross's arrogance and ignorance: it's willful deception and self-righteous indignation.

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