Tag Archives: Ad Populum

Argumentum ad virilitatem

Steven Watts at NRO gives an amazing analysis of what happened in 2016’s election.  The thesis: Trump won because he was so manly.
Many liberals and conservatives alike, with considerable reason, denounced Donald Trump as a policy ignoramus and mocked his simplistic, rambling statements on immigration, social issues, government regulation, and foreign policy. What they missed, however, was Trump’s compelling connection to the cultural values — those fears, yearnings, and visions — of vast swathes of the American voting public.
What was it that they missed?
Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
You see, Watts’s view is that because so much of American culture has emasculated men and bent gender to a point of unrecognizable chaos, American voters yearned for something clear and simple, like a John Wayne movie.  And so, Trump, like JFK, before him became the strong hero for us.
Each moved center stage as an assertive masculine figure who appealed to mainstream Americans yearning for leadership by such a man. Their manly image, as much as their words, promised to allay deep-seated anxieties about masculine effectiveness in the modern world.
Aristotle’s Rhetoric has a nice bit on ethos, a kind of argumentative move wherein one establishes oneself as the kind of person who is believable, a person of sense.  Given Aristotle’s view of ethics, with phronesis, at the core, you can see why this would be an appropriate intellectual strategy — if you can make it clear that you have good judgment, then you don’t need to make all the arguments.
And this is Watt’s analysis, too.  Once establishing one’s “masculine mystique,” all the hard decisions, all the leadership questions, even the deep cultural divides, they’re all things that can be handled by a person, no a man, with a strong chin.  (It’s not an accident, then, that Mike Pence termed Trump’s foriegn policy ‘broad shouldered’.)
Two things.  The first, a political point.  The sexism of this line is appalling, if only because the election was between Trump and Hillary Clinton.
The second point is about argument.  It has to do with the kind of ethos one establishes when making an argument.  We are all familiar with the regular “I’m just a lawyer from…” (It worked for Matlock and for Caveman Lawyer).  But in many cases, like with ad populum style arguments, being the kind of person you’d like to talk things over with (or in GW Bush’s case, have a beer with) is exactly the wrong model for who you’d want making the decisions.  Perhaps I’d want John Wayne for someone who’d chase down some desperadoes, but beyond that, no way for being in charge of the Federal Government.

Leaky Arguments from Precedence

Jack Shafer’s “How Trump Can Learn to Love Leaking” over at Politico has a few nice insights about the love-hate relationship many administrations have had for leaks, and he, I think rightly, observes that:

[T]here is no leak crisis, only a leak panic. . . . As leaks go, the ones currently tormenting the Trump administration are pedestrian, merely embarrassing the president rather than rupturing national security.

From this reasonable observation, Shafer makes, what seems to me, an unreasonable inference:

Trump, of course, might reject the status quo and order Attorney General Jeff Sessions to mount a hammer and tongs foray against the press and leakers, as Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan recently warned. But there is scant precedent for such a crackdown, and for good reason. To chase down journalists, Trump and Sessions would have to weaken the Department of Justice guidelines that protect reporters from such investigations. Would the political costs of trashing the guidelines and stalking the leakers be worth it, especially in cases where no vital secrets have been revealed?

As I see it, Shafer’s inference runs something like:

The leaks are mostly costly cosmetically for the administration, and prosecuting them would be politically costly.  Moreover, few Presidents have pursued many leaks.  Therefore, it’s unlikely that Trump will pursue the leaks.

 But the problem is that, as with all probabilistic reasoning, if we add evidence that we are dealing with an outlier case, then the inductive reasons are defeated.  And there are good reasons to say that Trump’s case is an outlier here.  Recall that he’s fiercely retributive for those who break his trust.  Moreover, that X is the way that folks in Washington have done things is not a reason that seems to hold much force with the Trump administration.

This is, I think, a good example of why the ad populum forms of arguments from precedence (and from all the motives that make up that precedence) are all inductive, and so non-monotonic forms of inference.  They can be just fine so long as we think the cases we are applying them to are not relevantly different from what had come before, but if we add the new information in, then that inference gets defeated.  And I think that most of arguments from precedence are suspended when we talk about the orange one.

I just repeat things I read

Lordy, what a presser yesterday! There was a lot for us to work on, but Trump gave an interesting answer to a challenge.

First, the challenge.  In the opening remarks and in the Q&A, Trump swung back to talking about the election.  He said his 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232 was the largest win since Ronald Reagan’s in 1984. However, Obama won more electoral votes in 2008 and 2012, Bill Clinton won more in 1992 and 1996 and George H.W. Bush won more in 1988.  So much for historic — at least he beat W’s 2000.  To this, Peter Alexander of NBC, after having corrected Trump on this, asked him:

Why should Americans trust you?

Trump’s replies were, from what I can gather from the audio:

I was given that information… I don’t know. I was just given it. We had a very, very big margin.


I was given that information…  Actually, I’ve seen that information around. But it was a very substantial victory. Do you agree with that?

To the last bit, Alexander replies,

Well, you’re the President.

The last is interesting, if only because it’s an elision of instituional authority with cognitive authority.  But the more interesting feature is that Trump’s best reply to being caught out on a falsehood is (a) to say he’s just reading what’s written for him, and (b) to say he’d heard it before.  Of course, neither is a reply to the question of whether he’s reliable.

That he reads what’s written for him is not a relevant reply, since the question could be then put to: why should we trust the things you read?  To the latter, the issue isn’t whether he’s heard it before (there are many untrustworthy rumors and things people say), but whether they are credible.

I think these must be something like weak ad populum arguments, to the effect:

It’s been said/written that p

Therefore, p

The bridge principle, like with ad populum arguments, must be something along the lines If people are saying it, that’s reason to believe it’s true.

The problem with all ad populum arguments is that they are very weak inductions.  Moreover, if you don’t know who said it, then they aren’t really even cases of believing on the basis of testimony — it’s just that you’d heard it.  Generally, on-record testimony is better evidence, at least because people can be held responsible for their assertions.


Killin’ (clap, clap)

I'm still recovering from the Republican debates this Wednesday.  Another post tomorrow on them.  But a question about how to interpret the response from the audience when Rick Perry mentions his record in Texas on capital punishment.  See the video HERE

Brian WIlliams calls him on it.  To the effect: aren't you playing to the ghouls?   Perry's justification is that:

Americans understand justice. Americans are clearly, in the vast majority of cases, supportive of capital punishment. When you have committed heinous crimes against our citizens, and it is a state-by-state issue, but in the state of Texas our citizens have made that decision, and they made it clear:  they don't want you to commit those crimes against our citizens.  And if you do, you will face the ultimate justice. 

#1: That's no way to justify the policy.  #2: Nor is it any way to justify the response.  #3:  Unless those folks are people bussed in from Texas, they aren't representative of Texans (the debates were held in California).  The most that means is that the policy and the audience's response is justified, because the people of my state think that the policy is justified.  You know what I want? I want people clapping whenever I say something, too!  I expect it in the comments.  That is, unless you don't understand logic.

Everyone ’round here loves the ad populum!

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

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

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

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

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

Discrimination by any other name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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