Ignorantia juris

Sometimes we run across arguments so incoherent that they are nearly impossible to categorize. For this reason, some time ago we added the category “plain bad arguments” alongside the list of commonly known logical fallacies. David Brooks most recent column (4/21/05) in the *New York Times* is a perfect example of the need for this new category.

In a very general sense, the argument is a causal one. Brooks argues that the cause of the current vitriolic atmosphere in the Senate is *Roe v. Wade* and therefore the only way to save the Senate is to “overturn *Roe v. Wade*.” But to point out–as we will in a moment–the ridiculousness of this claim would not do this awful piece justice. For in making the basic causal argument, Brooks interweaves so many other dubious, misleading and fallacious arguments that we fear not being able to capture them all. What follows is our attempt to make sense of what has to be one of the worst arguments to appear in the pages of the *New York Times* in recent months.

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George Will and the Metaphysics of Personhood

George Will in his “Eugenics by Abortion” (Source: WaPo 4/14/05) argues in favor of a bill proposed by Senator Brownback–The Prenatally Diagnosed Condition Awareness Act.:

> Its purpose is “to increase the provision of scientifically sound information and support services to patients” who receive positive test diagnoses for Down syndrome, spina bifida and other conditions. Under this bill, parents could learn, for example, that there is a waiting list of families eager to adopt children with Down syndrome.

What troubles Will is that up to 80% of fetuses that are diagnosed with Down’s Syndrome are aborted in the US. We should note that this test occurs at roughly 16 weeks, well within the scope of the right of the mother to choose to terminate the pregnancy.

But Will wants to be able to judge the reasons for an abortion, and he seems to believe that the desire not to have a child with a significant disability is a matter of “inconvenience.”

>determined not by its impact on the disabled person’s life chances but by the parents’ reluctance to be inconvenienced by it.

This, Will argues is “Eugenics by Abortion.”

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Dichotomies are not always fallacious

Continuing the examination of “good arguments,” I thought I’d consider David Brook’s recent seeming attempt to provide reasons in favor of John Bolton’s nomination, “Loudly, with a Big Stick (Source: NYT 04/14/05).

What is refreshing in Brooks’ column, is that he at least attempts to present an argument for his conclusion that does not depend on the simple fallacies that we spend our time identifying. This doesn’t mean, of course, that his conclusion is true. But at least he is playing the game of arguing for his conclusion. He is at least offering hsi readers an attempt at justifying his opinion.

Brooks begins by his usual dichotomous clarification:

> The Bolton controversy isn’t about whether we believe in the U.N. mission. It’s about which U.N. mission we believe in.

>From the start, the U.N. has had two rival missions. Some people saw it as a place where sovereign nations could work together to solve problems. But other people saw it as the beginnings of a world government.

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Showing them how it’s done

As we have said from the beginning, we analyze the logic of arguments here. We do not claim to decide, in most cases, the truth of the many complicated matters that come before the pundits. We try, however, to evaluate whether the reasons advanced by the pundits provide justification for their conclusions. We also attempt to catch as many of their cheap tricks as we can along the way.

Not all pundits are as scandalously fallacious as some of our favorite subjects. It might be good occasionally to examine a good opinion piece, to remind ourselves what our standards for reasoned discourse should look like.

One the pundits whom we watch carefully is Paul Krugman. Krugman’s opinion pieces stand out on the pages of the NYT for their clarity and rigor. His arguments are clearly developed and precisely articulated. He rarely claims to have shown more than his argument justifies and he never seems to stoop to the fallacious glibness that characterizes most, or at least many, of his fellow editorialists. One reason for this may be his willingness to develop his arguments over a long series of columns rather than trying to fit for example a critique of all other alternatives to his view in a single 700 word column. There is patience here that is a sign of good academic training.

Just this week he has inaugurated a new topic: the crisis in our health care system (Source: NYT 4/11/05).

>America does face a real crisis – but it’s in health care, not Social Security.

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