Tag Archives: circular arguments

Question-begging and terms of preference

Dysphemisms and euphemisms – it’s all in the naming when it comes to the rhetoric of a cause.  So one side’s freedom-fighters are the other side’s guerillas or insurgents.  And now it comes to what terms to use for those who protest much of the Trump Presidency.  From the start, the term resistance was appealing for those who were sympathetic with the protester-cause.  And for those who see it as mere trouble-making by sore losers, it’s obstructionism or public tantrums.  Fair enough, really.  What really matters is whether the folks have a point.

But that’s just it — if you think they’ve got a point, then that determines the term to use.  So far, this is the sensible thought shared by many, and Varad Mehta at NRO (with a nicely barbed title, “Resistance is Facile”) makes similar remarks.  But then he sees a fallacy behind it all when it comes to reporting on the matter:

There’s an element of circular reasoning involved: The media reports on the resistance because the resistance exists because the media reports on the resistance. But thinking something doesn’t make it real.

But the second part of the circle isn’t part of the question-begging, is it?  That is, the media may report on the ‘resistance’ because it is happening and is pretty widespread.  That’s the first part.  But the second part isn’t part of the issue, is it?  Moreover, the resistance doesn’t exist because the media reports on it.  Rather, it’s something that people are doing on their own, organizing through social media, and so on.  It’s not because CNN set up some cameras.

So, the lesson is that, to use Mehta’s words, just thinking something is circular reasoning doesn’t make it circular.

A circular argument against begging the question

A puzzle for the readers of the NonSequitur

Colin, John and I will be attending the upcoming Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA) conference in the coming weeks.  We're presenting a version of the Subjunctive Tu Quoque argument (Colin blazed the trail here). 

To the point, I'm slated to comment on a paper with the thesis that there are virtuous circular arguments.  I've posed a challenge to the author, with the following argument:

P1: There are no virtuous circular arguments.

C: Therefore, there are no virtuous circular arguments.

The challenge is to explain, if there are virtuous circular arguments, what is wrong with P1 being used to support C. Of course, the author doesn't get to say that P1 begs the question.

Is this out of bounds?  Moreover, if the challenge can't be met, what follows?

Because it has a dormitive power

Throughout the internets there has been headsratching and headshaking over this op-ed by NYT's David Brooks-in-training, Ross Douthat

He begins by admitting that the arguments of gay marriage opponents have so far failed:

Here are some commonplace arguments against gay marriage: Marriage is an ancient institution that has always been defined as the union of one man and one woman, and we meddle with that definition at our peril. Lifelong heterosexual monogamy is natural; gay relationships are not. The nuclear family is the universal, time-tested path to forming families and raising children.

These have been losing arguments for decades now, as the cause of gay marriage has moved from an eccentric- seeming notion to an idea that roughly half the country supports. And they were losing arguments again last week, when California’s Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that laws defining marriage as a heterosexual union are unconstitutional, irrational and unjust.

These arguments have lost because they’re wrong. What we think of as “traditional marriage” is not universal. The default family arrangement in many cultures, modern as well as ancient, has been polygamy, not monogamy. The default mode of child-rearing is often communal, rather than two parents nurturing their biological children.

Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available. Hence the historic prevalence of polygamy. And hence many societies’ tolerance for more flexible alternatives, from concubinage and prostitution to temporary arrangements like the “traveler’s marriages” sanctioned in some parts of the Islamic world.

Good for him, those arguments are bad.  Not to be outdone by them, however, he's going to offer one of his own, which, as you'll see, is worse than the ones he's just rejected, because, well, it's the same!  Continuing directly:

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

This ideal holds up the commitment to lifelong fidelity and support by two sexually different human beings — a commitment that involves the mutual surrender, arguably, of their reproductive self-interest — as a uniquely admirable kind of relationship. It holds up the domestic life that can be created only by such unions, in which children grow up in intimate contact with both of their biological parents, as a uniquely admirable approach to child-rearing. And recognizing the difficulty of achieving these goals, it surrounds wedlock with a distinctive set of rituals, sanctions and taboos.

Get that–marrigage is uniquely admirable because it's distinctive, particular, difficult, and uniquely admirable.  But this is really just the tradition argument again–straight non-divorcing marriage is admirable because that's what we admire it, it's our ideal of something admirable.  Nothing else is unique like it (although one would have to admit that gay marriages are pretty darn unique). 

The question begged here, of course, what makes it admirable in the first place.  This is especially interesting because he's just knocked down all of the reasons for thinking it's admirable.  Being unique, or difficult, of course, are not reasons for admiring something.  Nor is something being admirable a reason for admiring it.

Skipping a few bewildering paragraphs, he warns us about what is to come if we fail to beg the question with him:

If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

But based on Judge Walker’s logic — which suggests that any such distinction is bigoted and un-American — I don’t think a society that declares gay marriage to be a fundamental right will be capable of even entertaining this idea.

Allowing homosexuals to get married will only bolster the case that they're more awesome at marriage than straights are.  Once people begin to realize that, then gay marriage will be a moral necessity–even for straight people.  At least that's what I think he's saying, because I fail to see the context of "morally necessary." 

More absurd, however, is the idea that marriage's being (as Douthat conceives it) a great idea of Western Civilization justifies discrmination against gay marriage.  Well, in the first place, it's not really an idea of Western Civilization (traditional Western-Civ marriage isn't anything like this alleged ideal).  Second, he's just told us that argument sucks (and it does). 

Third, and most importantly, legally recognizing homosexual marriage doesn't mean straight marriage is not a great idea, even if it were.