Tag Archives: petitio principii

The Pundit’s Fallacy

Internet denizen Matthew Yglesias coined the term “pundit’s fallacy” back in 2010. It goes like this:

The pundit’s fallacy is that belief that what a politician needs to do to improve his or her political standing is do what the pundit wants substantively. So progressive populists think that Barack Obama would have higher approval ratings if he acted more like Ed Schultz while establishmentarian centrists think his ratings would go up if he acted more like David Broder. The truth, of course, is that he really needs to hew more closely to my preferences politics doesn’t work this way.

For this to be a “fallacy” in any meaningful sense of the term, there has to be some reasoning failure. To me it seems the failure consists in a lack of self-awareness about one’s own perspective. Not, mind you, that you have a perspective. Rather, that you assert your perspective as the perspective without, and this is crucial, offering any argument for it.  If you put it this way there is nothing peculiar to pundits. Indeed, it’s just another form of petitio principii–the one where you assert controversial premises without evidence.
Naturally, the phrase, “without evidence” might raise some hackles. Let me specify. It’s to assert controversial things without the right kind or quality of evidence. So, for instance, democrats should have appealed to white working class voters by being less, er, judgmental, moralistic, or whatever. I’ve seen this a lot (one really bad one in today’s Chicago Tribune).
This kind of claim may be true (because any proposition can be true–well, almost any proposition). The problem is the kind of evidence offered for it. If it’s anecdotes about your father-in-law’s dislike of elites, then you’ll have to try again.  Claims about what motivates mass numbers (or important minorities in this case) of people to select one candidate over another require a special kind of evidence; you can’t ask everyone and you cannot easily interpret their selection (or non-selection) as a signal of anything in particular.

It is invalid and holds no weight

So, I was derping around on the internets and I ran into an article with the following portentous title: "A Rational Basis for Marriage between One Man and One Woman."  Curious, I read on.  Here's how it begins:

It is imperative for Catholics to develop rational arguments to defend the institution of marriage in the public square. We live in a pluralistic society and, therefore, what we accept as revelation is not necessarily accepted by others. However, an argument grounded in right reason—without explicit recourse to revelation—is in principle comprehensible to all persons of good will.

I'm all in agreement.  It continues:

As we consider the current debate over marriage, it would be a mistake to underestimate the pedagogical function of the law and how a fundamental change in marriage law will result in a fundamental change in our understanding of the human person. What is at stake in the push to redefine marriage to include same-sex partners is not only the radical redefinition of marriage—but, also and necessarily, the radical redefinition of the human person and the entire range of relationships that constitute our basic experience as persons: male and female; husband and wife; mother and father; son and daughter; brother and sister.

Well, that's a bad sign–there's going to be a slippery slope!  But that's not what interests me about this piece.  It's the following two paragraphs (directly from above):

Marriage between one man and one woman is recognized as a public institution, with its attendant benefits and responsibilities, precisely because it serves the common good. Marriage offers the State its most necessary common good: bringing children into the world and raising them in a family that includes the love of their mother and father. The State needs people (citizens) in order to flourish: no people = no State. Under the principle of subsidiarity, the common good is better served when mothers and fathers raise their children, not the State.

Extending marriage to same-sex partners will redefine marriage in such a way that marriage will no longer be understood to have a direct relationship to the procreation and education of children. Bringing children into the world and raising them will be seen as extrinsic rather than intrinsic to marriage.[1] Openness to procreation will no longer belong to the very substance and definition of marriage. It will be reduced merely to an option for those couples who happen to want children.

If you're playing along at home, the first paragraph seems to suggest that it's either Trad Marriage (by the principle of WTF) or the STATE RAISES YOUR BABIES.  It also seems to allege that there will be no babies without marriage.  But forget about that.  The second of the two rests on a couple of key instances of the passive voice: will be understood and will be seen.  Well, I wonder, by whom?  Let's rewrite the passage in the active voice:

Extending marriage to same-sex partners will redefine marriage in such a way that [rewrite: some people, catholics, etc. will no longer understand] marriage to have a direct relationship to the procreation and education of children. [rewrite: These people will see ] that Bringing children into the world and raising them [is] extrinsic rather than intrinsic to marriage.[1] Openness to procreation will no longer belong to the very substance and definition of marriage. It will be reduced merely to an option for those couples who happen to want children.

The passive voice just covers up all of the questions being begged.  Marriage, in its public legal sense, has many definitions.  In some states, this already includes same-sex marriages.  As a public institution, therefore, it has "no substance and definition" in some kind of robust metaphysical sense, as the use of the passive suggests.  People see marriage in all sorts of ways, and they define it as a public institution in different ways.  Some people may "understand it to be x" but that doesn't mean that they understand it correctly.  Nor for that matter does it mean that they aren't fully entitled to live it that way.

If you want to make openness to procreation a part of your marriage, then get married in a Catholic Church.  If you don't care, as some already don't, then don't.  Catholics do not own the definition of marriage as a secular and public institution.  If you're going to make an appeal to reason, right or otherwise, you cannot presume without argument that your view is the starting point.       


Grounded in logic

The other week the New York Times ran a fawningly long profile of a "big thinking" ultra-conservative Catholic intellectual.  It stressed his powerful Oxford credentials, his Big University Post (at a non-Catholic institution–take that elite liberal institutions!), his influence over Catholic leadership, his ties to Bush, Glenn Beck's admiriation of him, and, most importantly for our purposes, his frequent use of the word "reason" in place of an actual argument.  So powerful his intellect, you see, that Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, aped his words in a recent speech. 

Even marriage between a man and a woman, Rigali continued, was grounded not just in religion and tradition but in logic. “The true great goods of marriage — the unitive and the procreative goods — are inextricably bound together such that the complementarity of husband and wife is of the very essence of marital communion,” the cardinal continued, ascending into philosophical abstractions surely lost on most in the room. “Sexual relations outside the marital bond are contrary not only to the will of God but to the good of man. Indeed, they are contrary to the will of God precisely because they are against the good of man.

Now I may not be a logician of this fellow's calibre, but I'm trying to think of which principle of logic grounds the union of a man and a woman in life-long monogamous non-divorcing holy Catholic and procreative matrimony.  I'm going to guess that it must be one of those Latin principles, an abstraction, in other words, few could understand.  Maybe it's ex falso quodlibet sequitur

I think, however, it's more likely the principle of petitio principii–begging the question. 

*edited for sense later in the day.

All Cretans are liars

A former Bush speechwriter attempts to put our minds at ease about torture.  He tells us that tortured prisoners do not lie, because the lying deceitful terrorists (whom we should never believe) have told us under torture that they don't:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely. 

Besides, it's their religious duty not to lie under torture–and we ought to take that at face value.