Category Archives: Accident

Why don’t they live by it?

E.J. Dionne tries out an argument against concealed carry laws, with disastrous results.  He writes:

Isn't it time to dismantle the metal detectors, send the guards at the doors away and allow Americans to exercise their Second Amendment rights by being free to carry their firearms into the nation's Capitol?

I've been studying the deep thoughts of senators who regularly express their undying loyalty to the National Rifle Association, and I have decided that they should practice what they preach. They tell us that the best defense against crime is an armed citizenry and that laws restricting guns do nothing to stop violence.

If they believe that, why don't they live by it?

. . . . 

Don't think this column is offered lightly. I want these guys to put up or shut up. If the NRA's servants in Congress don't take their arguments seriously enough to apply them to their own lives, maybe the rest of us should do more to stop them from imposing their nonsense on our country. 

This argument has the sour flavor of the ad hominem tu quoque: If Senators in favor of concealed carry laws were serious, they would not permit gun restrictions at their own place of work (they don't, so their argument is wrong).  That criticism is silly and misdirected.

I think these senators would consent to people carrying weapons around them at other places (say at their local Qwik E Mart in their home state)–at least that's what the laws they support allow.  The US Capitol is an exception to such laws (for reasons too plain to mention).  So the other part of this argument is a nearly textbook fallacy of accident: applying a general rule to an obvious exception.

As one who opposes relaxing gun laws (most of the time), I find this argument (and this endorsement of it) embarrassing.


**7/28/09 edits for elegance–

Compound error

I read these things and shake my head:

Last week’s column about Denis Rancourt, a University of Ottawa professor who is facing dismissal for awarding A-plus grades to his students on the first day of class and for turning the physics course he had been assigned into a course on political activism, drew mostly negative comments.

The criticism most often voiced was that by holding Rancourt up as an example of the excesses indulged in by those who invoke academic freedom, I had committed the fallacy of generalizing from a single outlier case to the behavior of an entire class “Is the Rancourt case one of a thousand such findings this year, or it the most outlandish in 10 years?” (Jack, No. 88).

That's Stanley Fish, the New York Times' interpreter of the academic world.  Sounds like he has been accused of a hasty generalization in the form of "nutpicking."  I'm not particularly interested in the merits of the charge–Fish seems even to concede it.  One minor observation.  I'm sure we are all guilty at one point or another for reasoning that badly.  The difference is that Fish gets to air out his errors in the New York Times.  Anyway, he makes things worse as he defends himself.  He writes (following directly):

It may be outlandish because it is so theatrical, but one could argue, as one reader seemed to, that Rancourt carries out to its logical extreme a form of behavior many display in less dramatic ways. “How about a look at the class of professors who … duck their responsibilities ranging from the simple courtesies (arrival on time, prepared for meetings … ) to the essentials (“lack of rigor in teaching and standards … )” (h.c.. ecco, No. 142). What links Rancourt and these milder versions of academic acting-out is a conviction that academic freedom confers on professors the right to order (or disorder) the workplace in any way they see fit, irrespective of the requirements of the university that employs them.

Eegads!  "Carrying the behavior to its logical extreme" is the characteristic marker of the slippery slope.  And its supported by an alleged fallacy of accident: certain very jerky professors are going to interpret academic freedom very broadly, and, since they will allege this, there must be a logical connection between academic freedom and being a complete nitwit.  Well there isn't.  Just because the connection is alleged by some–how many, not many I would guess–does not mean the connection obtains.  What Fish has done, in other words, is compound the error of one fallacy (the hasty generalization nutpicking variety) with three more:the slippery slope, the fallacy of accident, and the implied hasty generalization again!

I’m not an economist

Since I'm not an economist, I can't easily judge the content of the Krugman's arguments against anti-stimulus arguments. But what makes Krugman stand head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow pundits, is that he makes arguments.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Now to be fair, we can criticize the argument in a couple of ways–first, air traffic control involves a task of coordination and it isn't clear that priming the economic pump does in the same way. It isn't just that centralized air traffic control is more efficient than a "free market" equivalent. So we might ask whether the analogy holds.

Second, we might ask whether the claim that "taxpayer are the best judges of how to spend their money" (see last paragraph here) implies that all public spending should be replaced with private spending. A more moderate position might be to argue that when it comes to something like economic stimulus this principle holds true. However, Krugman is arguing against some of the simplistic and fallacious dismissals of stimulus spending, and so aims to free the discussion for substantive arguments from economists and policy makers rather than from the ideological hacks.

By the way, what is the fallacy in the argument he is attacking? Is it a fallacy? Accident, perhaps? Seems to involve the universalization of a principle that probably holds true in many cases (better to let me choose whether to spend my money on a Squeezebox Duet rather than a Sonos System, than have the government choose for me. Maybe something like "When there's no compelling public need, it is preferable to allow citizens to choose how to spend their money than have government choose." What counts as a compelling need is a political question–in the case of the stimulus plan Krugman makes the case that the public need is stimulating the economy and government spending is just much more effective than private spending in doing that.

The "fallacy" seems to work by arguing:

1. We accept principle x.

2. Principle x entails we should not do y.

3. Therefore we should not do y.

However, principle x is either a) not accepted as stated or b) when qualified does not apply to case y.

1. It is wrong to kill.

2. If it is wrong to kill then we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

3. Therefore we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

 But, either a) it is not wrong (always to kill) or b) it is only wrong to kill without justification.

The fallacy seems to arise when the principle is taken to be persuasive because on the surface it seems true.


Paying a stranger to write a paper for you when you're a college student is called plagiarism.  The other day NPR's On the Media did a story on someone who ghost wrote what he called "model papers."  When pressed about what would justify his actions, he produced a blizzard of sophistry:

BOB GARFIELD: Let me just quote from you here. Quote, “Writing model term papers is above-board and perfectly legal. Thanks to the First Amendment it’s protected speech, right up there with neo-Nazi rallies, tobacco company press releases and those ‘9/11 was an inside job’ bumper stickers.”

So, I mean, I don't want to be putting words in your mouth, but I think what you’re saying is legal but repulsive, sleazy.


BOB GARFIELD: Unethical, morally disgraceful. Am I leaving anything out?

NICK MAMATAS: No, that pretty much sums it up, yeah.

BOB GARFIELD: So Nick, how do you rationalize your behavior? I mean, it sounds kind of whorish to me.

NICK MAMATAS: Mm, well again, I also think that prostitution should be legal, and I've written several term papers about that over the years.

As far as my own work in term papers, basically I felt my other writing was more important. You know, everyone makes these decisions. What about people who work in munitions factories, or who work for defense contractors?

So we all make these decisions. It’s just a cost benefit analysis. In the end, I felt I benefited from writing these papers ‘cause it allowed me to work at home and write novels and short stories and articles. And the people who were buying the papers, well, they – that was their decision. They could take that as a model paper, and many of them did. They could hand it in and roll the dice, ‘cause I was always happy, always thrilled, actually, to hand in a paper to a professor. If the client, you know, was trying to pull one over on me, or was even nasty to me sometimes, I'd just sort of like secretly fax it.

So Mr. Mamatas seems to think that ghost writing term papers is morally disgraceful, yet despite not being morally justified, it's morally justified.  What follows are his justifications and in parentheses what I think is their appropriate interpretation.

(1) He was able to do his other writing with the income from writing "model papers" (I only lied and cheated because it benefited me!something is morally justified if you benefit in some way from it).

(2) Everyone makes cost/benefit decisions (a general and irrelevant rule which doesn't apply to my circumstance in particular applies to it).

(3) Other people work for munitions factories and defense contractors (other people have jobs I have improperly characterized as morally questionable so that makes it ok for me to have a self-evidently morally unjustifiable job).

(4) Whether the paper which was produced for the sole purposes of cheating–otherwise there would be no income, as professors provide model papers all of the time–was used for its stated purpose depended on the person who turned it in, not on the person who profited from that person's attempted deceit (I produced papers for entertainment purposes only, should anyone actually use it for its intended purpose, the purpose for which I produced it and the reason I was paid for it, well, I can't be held responsible for that).

(5) There is no honor among thieves, if you're mean to Mr.Mamatas, he'll turn you in (I'm not only a dishonest person in regards to honest people, I'm a dishonest person in regards to dishonest people–so it's ok).

The Lobby Lobby

One hears a lot of complaints about lobbyists from the likes of McCain, Clinton and Obama this election season.  But did you know that lobbying was protected by the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States?  I didn't.  Well, Charles Krauthammer will set me straight.  My intrusions are in bold.

Everyone knows the First Amendment protects freedom of religion, speech, press and assembly. How many remember that, in addition, the First Amendment protects a fifth freedom — to lobby? [No way–I don't believe  you]

Of course it doesn't use the word lobby [Phew–I thought I forgot my rights!]. It calls it the right "to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Lobbyists are people hired to do that for you, so that you can actually stay home with the kids and remain gainfully employed rather than spend your life in the corridors of Washington.  [I wonder where I can get one of these lobbyists]

To hear the candidates in this presidential campaign, you'd think lobbying is just one notch below waterboarding [we thought waterboarding was ok with you Charles], a black art practiced by the great malefactors of wealth to keep the middle class in a vise and loose upon the nation every manner of scourge: oil dependency, greenhouse gases, unpayable mortgages and those tiny entrees you get at French restaurants. [He's being serious–this isn't a caricature or a straw man]

Lobbying is constitutionally protected, but that doesn't mean we have to like it all [that's a relief, because I was about to embrace every single instance of "lobbying" fully in the spirit of the law rather than sophistical equivocations meant to cloud the issue.]  Let's agree to frown upon bad lobbying, such as getting a tax break for a particular industry. Let's agree to welcome good lobbying — the actual redress of a legitimate grievance — such as protecting your home from being turned to dust to make way for some urban development project.

And with this last claim we're back to square one.  When people scream about "lobbying" this election season, they mean the kind of lobbying of special interests purchasing favors and access–bad lobbying.  Just because you call it "lobbying" does not ipso fatso mean its protected by the constitution.  That would be to insist on the relevance of a general rule where it obviously doesn't apply.  But I guess Krauthammer has a right to do that.  It's a free country.


Big boss man

Commenters on the website make all of the good points about George Will’s latest failure to understand that general rules of human behavior have obvious limitations while the imagination of those who would like to cheat does not.

>Restrictions on freedoms, and especially freedoms as fundamental as those of the First Amendment, require serious justifications. So the question is: To what pressing problem did the university’s $100 limit respond? Or is it merely another manifestation of the regnant liberalism common on most campuses — the itch to boss people around?

The reason for this? Some kid broke the universities rules regarding spending for a school election. Are the rules fair? Maybe not. But that’s got nothing to do with the McCain-Feingold campaign law:

>Thus do the grossly anti-constitutional premises of McCain-Feingold seep through society, poisoning the practice of democracy at all levels

Nor is “you’re not the boss of me” the proper response to rules you don’t agree with.

Freedom of speech

Whenever a constitutional matter comes before the public, people are fond of citing the relevant amendment, as if the words alone will resolve the conflict so many legal minds have failed to understand. This is a favorite tactic of George Will, especially when it comes to McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform. He will say, very slowly, that “Congress-shall-make-no-law. . . It’s as a plain as day, only a communist moron could not see that.” Today’s version of that argument comes from Robert Samuelson. True to the tradition, he writes:

>”Congress shall make no law. . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

>The Fourth of July is an apt moment to reflect on one of the great underreported stories of our time: the rise of speech regulation. Glance at the First Amendment, but do not think it still applies. Large bodies of political speech are now governed by laws, agency regulations, court decisions and lawyerly interpretations. Speech has become unfree.

>This does not mean that we don’t have vigorous debate or that most points of view aren’t represented. But in and around elections, what can be said, by whom and under what circumstances, is now a tangled web of legal qualifications — all justified as campaign finance “reform.”

>As proof, consider the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life Inc. Don’t try to understand it; you won’t. That’s the point. What’s permissible or impermissible speech is now murky. Plain political speech has mushroomed into many subcategories — “issue speech,” “electioneering communications,” “express advocacy” and “nonexpress advocacy,” among others. Different legal standards apply.

He goes on to point out (correctly, we imagine) some of the myriad practical difficulties of regulating “political” speech according to the parameters of McCain-Feingold. Indeed, McCain-Feingold may be a dumb law.

But it’s not dumb because of some obvious contradiction with the first amendment or because it confuses what was not confused before. A quick glance at constitutional history will reveal many cases in which the notion of “speech” has been expanded (or contracted) either in virtue of its content, its location, or more fundamentally, the person or entity doing the speaking. Simple, seemingly absolute rules such as the amendments to the Constitution, invite all sorts of challenges and raise all sorts of legitimate questions about what, where, when, why, and who.

Obscenity anyone? Is that speech? How come it can be regulated?

So, while the McCain-Feingold law may–I say may–have been sloppily written. It’s not wrong simply because it abridges political speech. Whatever is left of the integrity of our political process deserves more mature consideration than this.


Empirical generalizations are a matter of common sense, and, yes, generality. Most people know that one counter example is not enough to render it false. Most people. Most people also know, by way of generalization, that general rules are bound to be interpreted in surprising ways some of the time. That’s no surprise. Since the subject of rules is human behavior, there are (1) bound to be exceptions and, (2) instances where people will test the limits of the law, and, more importantly, (3) people who refuse to understand that general rules regarding human behavior are subject to (1) and (2)–most of the time that is.

A rule about workplace speech in California (I bet you can see what’s coming) concerns speech on the employee bulletin boards and email system. Fair enough. There are rules because people abuse public fora. But things went awry (as could have been expected). Here’s what happened, in George Will’s retelling (I recommend one seek an independent source for this):

>Some African American Christian women working for Oakland’s government organized the Good News Employee Association (GNEA), which they announced with a flier describing their group as “a forum for people of Faith to express their views on the contemporary issues of the day. With respect for the Natural Family, Marriage and Family Values.”

>The flier was distributed after other employees’ groups, including those advocating gay rights, had advertised their political views and activities on the city’s e-mail system and bulletin board. When the GNEA asked for equal opportunity to communicate by that system and that board, it was denied. Furthermore, the flier they posted was taken down and destroyed by city officials, who declared it “homophobic” and disruptive.

>The city government said the flier was “determined” to promote harassment based on sexual orientation. The city warned that the flier and communications like it could result in disciplinary action “up to and including termination.”

>Effectively, the city has proscribed any speech that even one person might say questioned the gay rights agenda and therefore created what that person felt was a “hostile” environment. This, even though gay rights advocates used the city’s communication system to advertise “Happy Coming Out Day.” Yet the terms “natural family,” “marriage” and “family values” are considered intolerably inflammatory.

As usual, we make no judgment here on the merits of the case as it stands (it seems poor taste to use language you have chosen on purpose to offend any captive audience–but sometimes that is unavoidable). We would merely like to return to the whole idea of general rules which are bound to confuse some and be abused by others.

Free speech, for instance, means you can assert the false without legal penalty, but you can’t shout fire in a crowded theater. You also can’t use it threaten people with violence of one kind or another. And the limitations continue. It’s a general rule. Rules have exceptions. To think such rules have no exceptions is simply the fallacy of accident (misapplication of a general rule). To suggest, however, that the existence of those exceptions means the rule ought to be abandon is to compound that with the ignoratio elenchi (suggest an extreme conclusion follows from premises the suggest something milder).

Worse than those two things would be to put them together to arrive at a silly conclusion:

>Congress is currently trying to enact yet another “hate crime” law that would authorize enhanced punishments for crimes motivated by, among other things, sexual orientation. A coalition of African American clergy, the High Impact Leadership Coalition, opposes this, fearing it might be used “to muzzle the church.” The clergy argue that in our “litigation-prone society” the legislation would result in lawsuits having “a chilling effect” on speech and religious liberty. As the Oakland case demonstrates, that, too, is predictable.

Not really. It doesn’t demonstrate anything. The Oakland case illustrates that rules (or laws) regarding human behavior will have exceptions and that people will exploit them (sometimes illegitimately). It doesn’t show that there shouldn’t be rules. Besides, if you want to demonstrate any proposition regarding human behavior, you’ll need many many more instances. One won’t inflammatory anecdote won’t do. That’s a hasty generalization.

10 Simple Rules

General rules–such as Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech–are pesky things. As soon as they are posted in the village square people start confusing them. Luckily, when you have dipped your pen in the minds of the founders, you know that by “freedom of speech” Congress clearly meant, “no rule limiting how much *money* you can spend on a political candidate.” After all (1) you use your money to have a candidate “speak” for you, (2) your vast sums correlate with how much you have to say (and you have a lot to say if you have a lot of money–more freedom, as it were), (3) you cannot “speak” in any other way than putting your money where you mouth is (so limiting how much freedom you have would violate your right to speak), (4) The Constitution clearly says that no law can separate you from your money, and (5) finally, no law can limit what you spend your money on, because that too is “speech.”

Sweet Charity

Charity is a basic principle of rational and civilized discourse. We’ve talked about it here many times. Failing to be charitable to an opponent’s argument is playing dirty, playing dirty is a form of cheating, cheating is a form of deliberate dishonesty–i.e., lying. So being uncharitable is a kind of lying. How is one uncharitable? There are many ways. The most typical form is to characterize an opponent’s argument in an unfavorable light. Another more greviously dishonest form–one we see today from George Will–is to pick out only a small part of that argument and claim you’ve fairly or accurately represented the whole (when you haven’t). Arguments are not like sports matches: while you can’t (unfortunately) get disqualified for cheating, you can’t ever win by dishonest means either.

That said, let’s compare Feinstein’s argument with Will’s characterization of it. First, Will:

>Dianne Feinstein’s thoughts on the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice of the United States should be read with a soulful violin solo playing, or perhaps accompanied by the theme song of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” Those thoughts are about pinning one’s heart on one’s sleeve, sharing one’s feelings and letting one’s inner Oprah come out for a stroll.

Here is how Feinstein’s speech began:

There is no question that Judge Roberts is an extraordinary person. I think there is no question that he has many stellar qualities, certainly a brilliant legal mind and a love and abiding respect for the law, and I think a sense of its scope and complexity as well.

But before taking the momentous step of agreeing that a nominee serve as the Chief Justice of our Supreme Court, for what in this case could be over 30 years, I wanted to have a reasonable sense of confidence that he would uphold certain essential legal rights and protections that Americans rely on, and rights that reflect the values and ideals that make our country so great.

I don’t ask for certainty.

I don’t ask for promises – especially as to how a nominee would rule in any case in the future – even one as important as Roe v. Wade.

But I ask for some ability to find a commitment to broad legal principles that form the basis of our fundamental rights:

* Equal protection under the law, and the ability to remedy discrimination.

* A basic right to privacy that extends from the beginning of life to the end of life.

* The ability of the American public to elect representatives that have the constitutional power and authority to protect and respond to America’s safety, social, and environmental needs; and

* A view of Executive Power that extends deference – but within the law.

It’s important to know that a Justice will be willing to at least start with these fundamental rights.

In making the judgment as to how Judge Roberts evaluates these fundamental rights, I must start with his record.

This hardly seems like the episode of *Oprah* Will suggests that it is (besides, what’s wrong with Oprah?). But how is it that Will makes it seem so vapid? For the sake of brevity–we’ve seen too much of this tripe from Will in the past–we’ll give two examples from Will’s argument. First, by way of response to some remarks about the (so-called) right to privacy, Will rhetorically questions:

>But what would make such a right a “general” right? Do Americans have, say, a constitutional privacy right to use heroin in the privacy of their homes? No. To sell prostitution services in the privacy of their homes? No again.

One would hardly think that criminal activity is covered by a “general” right; we have a general right to freedom of speech, but that does not include yelling fire in a crowded theater or inciting riots. No one other than a mind as nimble as Will’s would think that such things would follow from the assertion of a general right of privacy (or for that matter, would think that someone else thinks so). But for the sake of clarity and completeness, to draw such conclusions would be to commit the fallacy of accident–the clueless misapplication of a general rule.

But in a more general sense (this is our second example), Will woefully invents Feinstein’s main argument (the thesis of which we quoted above):

But the crux of Feinstein’s case against Roberts concerns not the adjective “general” but his general deficiency of empathy. Specifically, she faults his failure to talk to her “as a son, a husband, a father,” and to understand “the importance of reaching out.”

Exploring Roberts’s “temperament and values,” Feinstein asked him about “end of life” decisions, urging him to talk to her “as a son, a husband, a father.” Instead, she says disapprovingly, he “gave a very detached response.”

It’s difficult to look this stuff up (see the above link), so we were able to see if Will accurately quoted Feinstein. Nope, here is what she actually said:

Then when I couldn’t get a sense of his judicial philosophy, I attempted to get a sense of his temperament and values. And I asked him about end of life decisions – clearly, decisions that are gut-wrenching, difficult, and extremely personal.

Rather than talking to me as a son, a husband, a father – which I specifically requested that he do. He gave a very detached response.

The reader will notice what’s missing from Will’s selective quotation. Feinstein specifically asked that Roberts respond to that question because he failed to respond (to Feinstein’s satisfaction) to other more relevant questions about his judicial philosophy. In the end, Feinstein may have a terrible argument, perhaps George Will should direct his efforts at that. Then again, why bother? The confirmation of Judge Roberts is a forgone conclusion. Picking on Feinstein at this point is almost like a late hit in a football game.