Bottomless Chum Bucket

While one would certainly expect to encounter stench in the gutter discourse of the likes of Limbaugh and O’Reilly (as well as Hannity, Krauthammer, Liddy, Coulter and Malkin–to name a few), we were somewhat–but mind you only somewhat–surprised to see that George Will has stuck his arm full to the shoulder in the bottomless chum bucket that constitutes much of the conservative discussion of Cindy Sheehan’s request for a meeting with the President:

>Since her first meeting with the president, she has called him a “lying bastard,” “filth spewer,” “evil maniac,” “fuehrer” and the world’s “biggest terrorist” who is committing “blatant genocide” and “waging a nuclear war” in Iraq. Even leaving aside her not entirely persuasive contention that someone else concocted the obviously anti-Israel and inferentially anti-Semitic elements of one of her recent e-mails — elements of a sort nowadays often found woven into ferocious left-wing rhetoric — it is difficult to imagine how the dialogue would get going.

Never mind also the implication that the President of the United States is too thin-skinned to meet with someone who has called him names, or has, God forbid, expressed disatisfaction with his protean justifications for the war in Iraq. What’s interesting about Will’s remark is the claim that Sheehan is “*inferentially*” anti-Semitic apparently for (unquoted here) anti-Israel remarks. What, however, does “*inferentially* anti-Semitic” mean? Who draws the inference? On what grounds? Is the inference correctly drawn–or is it, as is more likely the case, drawn fallaciously in the service of character assassination? Anti-Semitism, a form of racism, is too serious a charge to be drawn “inferentially.”

Had Will stopped at “inferential” racism, he would only have been guilty of wallowing neck-deep in the rancid tripe of irrelevant character assassination. Whatever your position on the personal political views of Mrs. Sheehan, she continues (despite Will’s claim that she has “has already been largely erased from the national memory by new waves of media fickleness in the service of the public’s summer ennui”) to occupy the front pages of newspapers. Not to mention the fact that George Will favors her with a column in the *Washington Post*. Beyond that, he promotes her to Michael Moore:

>Do Democrats really want to embrace her variation of the Michael Moore and “Fahrenheit 9/11” school of political discourse? Evidently, yes, judging by the attendance of 12 Democratic senators at that movie’s D.C. premiere in June 2004, and by the lionizing of Moore at the Democratic Convention — the ovation, the seating of him with Jimmy Carter.

This just doesn’t make any sense. That 12 Democratic senators attended the opening of a documentary (one milder in tone, more solidly based in fact, and more cogently argued than many of the accuser’s columns) in 2004 (among other things) can have nothing to do with whether they will embrace *Sheehan’s* variation on it (which shows up in 2005–a year after 2004 by our count).

The logically and temporally impossible connection between Moore and Sheehan is only a set-up for Will’s sneering dismissal of the Democrats’ political position:

>It is showing signs of becoming an exhausted volcano. Regarding Iraq, it is mistaking truculent asperity and tiresome repetition for Churchillian wartime eloquence. Regarding domestic policy, intellectual anemia has given rise to behavioral patterns not easily distinguished from corruption, as with the energy and transportation bills. Yet the Democratic Party, which by now can hardly remember the far-distant past when it was a volcano not of molten rhetoric but of serious thought, seems preoccupied with the chafing around its neck. The chafing is caused by the leashes firmly gripped and impudently jerked by various groups such as that insist the party adopt hysteria as a policy by treating the Supreme Court nomination of John G. Roberts Jr. as a dire threat to liberty.

As is usually the case with the ever clever Will, some of these phrases have a nice lilt (however irrelevant, Churchillian [the analogy fails here–the one who should sound Churchillian is the current war leader, Mr.Bush] always sounds nice)–but they would be more interesting if they were arguments (or at least parts of arguments) rather than simply hyperbolic–and therefore likely to be false or at best (“inferentially”) misleading–*assertions*, more appropriate (therefore not appropriate at all) for “TV’s bottomless chum bucket” than the op-ed page of even of the *Washington Post*.

Offending comparisons

One place in life where a lot of good could be done through a clearer understanding of logic arises in cases of offense. We sometimes seem to believe that to be the cause of someone taking offense is by itself a wrong. But this ignores the fact that people can be mistaken in their offense: Someone might not intend the offense that another feels. In some cases, the offended may simply misunderstand what is being said. The feeling of offense, however, is as bewitching of our rational faculty as is most outrage and indignation. (A classic on the philosophical dificulties here is Joel Feinberg’s
Offense to Others).

Tim Wise in a recent article, “Animal Whites” in the leftist journal “Counterpunch” uses a battery of arguments to show that certain members of the animal right’s community, especially PETA and its founder Ingrid Newkirk have a race problem. Much of the article is flippant and progresses by a series of truly awful arguments, but along the way a couple of interesting issues are raised concerning the use of comparisons in arguments and the nature of offense.

Wise accuses animal rights proponents of “misanthropy” for the comparison between the suffering of animals and humans. The idea seems to be that if you care about animal suffering you therefore do not care about human suffering (or you hate humans). Perhaps this is true in some cases, but it certainly does not follow from the fact that someone devotes their efforts to ending animals suffering that they therefore don’t care about all of the millions of human beings who are suffering.

But this fallacious argument leads us to what matters most to Wise–the comparison of human suffering and animal suffering, or more specifically his offense at the PETA photo-display “Are Animals the New Slaves?”

>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking.

Wise seems to think that if you compare two things in regard to one similar attribute (My car is the same color as my shirt), you imply that they are similar in all attributes (My car is my shirt), or in other attributes (My car would be comfortable wrapped around my body). Thus, if PETA shows that the treatment of African-American slaves in the past and the treatment of animals in the present are similar in some regards (use similar technologies, for example), then PETA is saying that African-Americans are animals, or are similar to animals in ways that would legitimate offense (e.g., the outrageous and shameful history of racist attempts to demean African-Americans (and other people) through comparisons with animals). But this, of course, does not follow from the original comparison.

>The “New Slaves” exhibition, currently making its way around 42 cities over a 10-week period has drawn outrage, understandably, from African Americans. And, typically, representatives of the blindingly white, middle class and affluent animal rights establishment, show no signs of understanding whence the anger emanates.

>To wit, Dawn Carr, PETA’s Director of Special Projects, who has admitted that lots of folks are upset about her group “comparing black people to animals,” but who, in PETA’s defense, doesn’t deny that that is what PETA is doing, but rather insists it’s OK, because the exhibit also compares factory farming to other injustices, “like denying women the vote or using child labor.” In other words, don’t worry black people: you’re not the only ones we’re comparing to animals!

Here we see that Wise is clearly committing the logical mistake in the last clause. The point might be made more clearly by saying that PETA is not comparing people to animals so much as comparing treatments. To say that someone was “hunted like an animal” is not to say that the hunting was right, that they are an animal.

But Wise imagines the animal rights proponent defending this comparison on the following grounds:

>Now I’m sure there will be some animal liberationists who read this and who think that since animals are sentient beings too, and since they have the right not to be exploited for human benefit (positions with which I don’t disagree), that comparisons with the Holocaust, or lynching are perfectly fair. To think otherwise, they might argue, is to engage in an anthropocentric favoring of Homo sapiens over other species.

Wise acknowledges that because animals and humans are similarly sentient, comparing their suffering seems reasonable. But he rejects this argument:

>But of course, whether they admit it or not, most all believers in animal rights do recognize a moral and practical difference between people and animals: after all, virtually none would suggest that if you run over a squirrel when driving drunk, that you should be prosecuted for vehicular homicide, the way you would be if you ran over a small child. The only basis for a distinction in these cases is, at root, recognition of a fundamental difference between a child and a squirrel.

>Oh, and not to put too fine a point on it, but if the folks at PETA really think that factory farming and eating the products of factory farming are literally the equivalent to human genocide, then, to be consistent, they would have to argue for the criminal prosecution of all meat-eaters, and War Crimes Tribunals for anyone even remotely connected to the process. After all, if you consume a factory-farmed chicken, you are, by this logic, implicated in mass murder, the same way many whites were in the lynching of blacks, by purchasing the amputated body parts of the latest victims of white rage.

>To draw any distinction at all–and to not support criminal incarceration of meat-eaters the way one would for a cannibal the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer, indeed, draws that distinction–is to admit, whether openly or not, that there is a difference between a cow and a person. That difference may be quite a bit smaller than we realize, and that difference certainly doesn’t justify cruelty to the cow–and it may indeed be so small that we really should opt for vegetarianism–but it is a difference nonetheless.

But in his attempted refutation, Wise has shifted the “refutandum” from the plausible claim that there is a moral similarity between harming animals and humans because of an objective similarity in their character as sentient beings. Now he is arguing against the implausible claim that there is no moral or practical difference between animals and humans. This is a straw man.

These arguments have been addressed in the voluminous literature on animals and ethics. The essential point, I think, rests on Peter Singer’s distinction between “equal consideration” and “equal treatment.” To argue that animals and human beings deserve equal moral consideration does not imply that they deserve the same or “equal” treatment.

As an aside, I would point out that in the first case the essential difference is that we have good reason to believe that the cause of killing the squirrel was not negligence on the part of the driver but far more likely “negligence” on the part of the squirrel (If I leap in front of a car, the driver is presumably not prosecuted for killing me). The other two are more complicated, though again the fact that there are some moral and practical differences between animals and humans does not imply that the comparison between animal suffering and human suffering is illegitimate, which was the claim that Wise should be addressing.

Having failed to make the argument that there is good reason to be offended by this comparison, Wise turns to an extended ad hominem tirade against the “whiteness” of PETA. Being unable to offer an adequate argument he tries to implicate the position in racist motivations or blindness and thus to dismiss the substantive claims that PETA is making (The following paragraphs are unedited and are the actual conclusion of the article).

>That PETA can’t understand what it means for a black person to be compared to an animal, given a history of having been thought of in exactly those terms, isn’t the least bit shocking. After all, the movement is perhaps the whitest of all progressive or radical movements on the planet, for reasons owing to the privilege one must possess in order to focus on animal rights as opposed to, say, surviving oneself from institutional oppression.

>Perhaps if animal liberationists weren’t so thoroughly white and middle-class, and so removed from the harsh realities of both the class system and white supremacy, they would be able to find more sympathy from the folks of color who rightly castigate them for their most recent outrage.

>Perhaps if PETA activists had ever demonstrated a commitment to fighting racism and the ongoing cruelty that humans face every day, they would find more sympathy from those who, for reasons that are understandable given their own lives, view animal rights activism as the equivalent of fiddling while Rome burns, rather than as a struggle for greater compassion for all.

>But then again, if the animal rights movement wasn’t so white and so rich, it would never have thought to make such specious and obviously offensive analogies in the first place.

If my analysis of the logic of the comparison is correct, then we can understand why this comparison can seem offensive to some without that offense being legitimate since it rests, like Wise’s article in general, on a logical mistake.

But there is I think another ground for affront that seems to be lurking unclearly in the back of Wise’s mind and might be more reasonable–the suggestion that the suffering endured through the shameful institution of slavery, or the genocidal policies of Germany, is being trivialized through this comparison.

>The very legitimate goal of stopping the immense horror of factory farming–which horror should be able to stand on its own as an unacceptable cruelty, in need of immediate action–gets conflated with the extermination of millions of people in two separate Holocausts (that of the Middle Passage and that in Europe), thereby ensuring that damn near everyone who hears the analogy will conclude that PETA is either completely insensitive, at best, or bull-goose-loony, at worst: no offense meant to geese, by the way.

Wise confuses comparison and conflation here, but I take the mention of insensitivity to be a suggestion, however inchoate, that the comparison is taken to dishonor the suffering in the two holocausts, by not recognizing the distinctive character of these “two separate Holocausts.”

Whether this is reasonable will depend upon whether one takes the similarity between animal and human suffering to be valid. If one believes that the suffering of animals is less significant than the suffering of human beings then one will find this comparison perhaps offensive. Whether one is right–and in what precise sense it is true, if it is true–to think that animal suffering is less signficant than human suffering is a question that must be answered by careful ethical reflection.

But, we might at least make appeal to intention here. If it is the case that someone intends to trivialize the human suffering, offense would be legitimate. But if we have no reason to think that this is the point of their comparision, then it does not seem reasonable to find this offensive. I don’t think that this settles the question, but it does, at lesat, allow us to differentiate a substantive disagreement from the confusions that arise from the feeling of outrage and that plague Wise’s article.

There is, perhaps, also a third possible reason for taking offense at the exhibit, and althogh Wise doesn’t address this, it seems plausible to me that it is the ultimate motivation for many who are offended. For some, the use of images of racial violence appears as an appropriation of this suffering for political ends not shared by those who feel racial solidarity with the victims of that violence. There is a feeling of ownership of the suffering, and therefore a feeling that the use of this suffering for what appears to be an extrinsic political goal is illegitimate. To be honest I don’t know what I think about this objection, but it is an entirely different objection that anything Wise has raised in his article, and would need separate and careful consideration

There are ultimately difficult and troubling issues here that confront the animal rights movement when it attempts provocatively to cause awareness of the magnitude of animal suffering. There are, however, two important questions: First, whether the offense that some people feel is justified; Second, whether the offense that some people feel is too high a strategic cost for the activists.

One could not, however, do better than to read the very thoughtful foreword to Marjorie Spiegel’s The Dreaded Comparison: Human and Animal Slavery by Alice Walker before taking offense.

Abortion writers

Despite their opposing positions on abortion, John Tierney and George Will each subscribe to some version of the never more popular view that abortion is not or should not be a question of constitutional rights. What better way to circumvent those pesky constitutional questions–questions about which, suprisingly, people seriously disagree–than to deny the relevance of the question to constitutional law. At least, so Tierney argues:

The abortion debate, unlike the civil rights debate, can’t be resolved by appealing to any widely held moral or legal principles. In Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court discovered a right in the Constitution for pregnant women to be left alone by the government. But that just ducked the question – what about the fetus’s right to be left alone? – and angered huge numbers of Americans.

For starters, *Roe v. Wade* doesn’t duck the question at all; it (rightly or wrongly) clearly maintains that the fetus has no legal rights (at least in the first two trimesters). Second, evidence of a conflict of rights (mother-fetus) or sincere disagreement of a vocal number of Americans does not mean that it (1) is not, or should not be, a civil rights issue, or (2) that the justices were wrong. Finally, a conflict of views about the status of the fetus does not demonstrate that the issue “cannot be resolved by appealing to any widely held moral or legal principles” unless by “resolved” Tierney means “subject to wide consensus” in which case he would be saying the abortion issue cannot be resolved (subject to wide consensus) until it’s resolved (subject to wide consensus). But that’s nonsense. Supreme Court cases, whatever their outcome, resolve (answer for some span of time) legal questions concerning constitutional rights; they do not, so it seems, end moral debate about the same questions.

The idea that abortion might constitute a right entailed by the Constitution appears so ridiculous to George Will, that he can muster only a barely intelligible drunken parody of the “Ride of Paul Revere.”

Judging by the river of rhetoric that has flowed in response to the court vacancy, contemporary liberalism’s narrative of American constitutional history goes something like this:

“On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere galloped through the Massachusetts countryside, and to every Middlesex village and farm went his famous cry of alarm, ‘The British are coming! The British are coming to menace the ancient British right to abortion!’ The next morning, by the rude bridge that arched the flood, their flag to April’s breeze unfurled, the embattled farmers stood and fired the shot heard round the world in defense of the right to abortion. The Articles of Confederation, ratified near the end of the Revolutionary War to Defend Abortion Rights, proved unsatisfactory, so in the summer of 1787, 55 framers gathered here to draft a Constitution. Even though this city was sweltering, the framers kept the windows of Independence Hall closed. Some say that was to keep out the horseflies. Actually, it was to preserve secrecy conducive to calm deliberations about how to craft a more perfect abortion right. The Constitution was ratified after the state conventions vigorously debated the right to abortion. But 74 years later, a great Civil War had to be fought to defend the Constitution against states that would secede from the Union rather than acknowledge that a privacy right to abortion is an emanation loitering in the penumbra of other rights. And so on.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this. On the one hand, it seems like a version of the obtuse constitutional originalism that claims there are no other rights in Constitution than those explicitly mentioned by the framers or somehow consequent upon the attitudes of the founders.
On the other hand, it suggests that opponents to the Roberts nomination can think of only one thing. That’s true of some opponents–but geez Louise–that’s true of some of his supporters. But in any case it doesn’t absolve Will of the need for an *argument*. If Will wants to use the pages of the *Washington Post* to lampoon *some* liberal groups, rather than argue against them, then we suggest his purpose would be better served on the Rush Limbaugh show, where no one will fault him for not having any good reasons for his conclusions. Granted a slight difference in vocabulary, the level of discourse is about the same.

The exhibits at the National Constitution Center can correct the monomania of some liberals by reminding them that the Constitution expresses the philosophy of natural rights: People have various rights, including and especially the right to property and self-government. These rights are not created by government, which exists to balance and protect the rights in their variety.

But such bland truisms about the constitution don’t resolve anything. Whatever the source of rights–nature, God, or social contract–there always remains the question as to what is entailed by them. Determining their source doesn’t resolve this question; it only pushes it back one step further.

Confusing Criminals

It isn’t always clear, and often is, perhaps, not the case, that pundits are trying to deceive by their fallacious arguments. Sometimes the flaws in the argument suggest more basic incoherences and confusions in their thought. This seems to be the case with David Brooks’ “Two Steps Towards a Sensible Immigration Policy” (NYT 8/4/5), in which he employs a literary device that ultimately undermines the argument that he is trying to make about immigration reform.

Imagining a “working class guy from the south side of San Antonio” as his interlocutor, he sketches the problem of immigration:

>He’s no racist. Many of his favorite neighbors are kind, neat and hard-working Latinos. But his neighborhood now has homes with five cars rotting in the front yard and 12 single men living in one house. Now there are loud parties until 2 a.m. and gang graffiti on the walls. He read in the local paper last week that Anglos are now a minority in Texas and wonders if anybody is in charge of this social experiment.

The problem with immigration for this guy seems to be that some immigrants are “bad” and the minority status of Anglos. The latter is a population problem, i.e., the sheer number of immigrants entering Texas (and suggests a more “racial” concern that Brooks admits), the former a crime problem, i.e., the failure of our immigration policy to prevent “bad” immigrants (gang members or other unruly people) from entering the country. But, it is also significantly more than that, since none of the behaviors that trouble this guy are particularly serious crimes, but are closer to “socially disruptive behavior” (I mean something like behavior that does not conform to certain prevalent social expectations, e.g., size of households, disposal of non-functional cars, appropriate party times and forms). There is thus a sort of conflation of crime and “anti-social” behavior. This latter defined relative to norms that are supposedly prevalent among Anglos.

Unfortunately getting “tough” on immigration doesn’t seem to solve the population problem as Brooks notes:

>But we can’t just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don’t do the job. Since 1986, we’ve tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven’t made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here.

Presumably if we can’t regulate the flow of immigrants we can’t regulate the flow of “bad” immigrants either.

Instead, by controlling economically necessary immigration we will be able to lessen the number of illegal immigrants.

>The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can’t build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow.

This is the real point of his column: to argue for two bills before the senate, one allowing for a temporary worker program and the other for tougher boarder controls.

But he has just finished telling the guy from San Antonio that the latter aren’t effective in addressing his concerns. There is only one way that we can make Brooks’ argument coherent. We must supply something like one of the two following concealed premises:

A) Illegal immigrants are likely to commit other crimes.

B) It is harder to prevent crimes committed by illegal immigrants than legal immigrants.

It is tautological that illegal immigrants are “criminals” by breaking immigration laws. But Brooks and the guy from San Antonio seem to be more concerned with the “subculture of criminality across America” supposedly caused by illegal immigration. But unless A or B are true, there is no reason to think that the bills before the Senate will effectively address this problem, or for that matter that illegal immigration is the cause of increased criminality (beyond the tautological sense).

I don’t know which of the two premises Brooks or the guy from San Antonio would prefer to accept, and I don’t know whether there is any reason to think that either of these is true. I suspect that the real problem here is that the policies for which Brooks is arguing will not address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio, who seems to confuse criminal behavior with disruptive behavior. Add to that a confusion between the criminality of illegal immigration and other forms of criminal behavior and we see how Brooks can suggest that these policies will address the guy from San Antonio’s concerns.

1. These policies will address criminality (of illegal immigration).
2. Addressing criminality (of illegal immigration) will address criminal behavior. (By A or B perhaps)
3. Addressing criminal behavior will address disruptive behavior. (The guy from San Antonio might assume).

Therefore, these policies will address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio.

Nonetheless Brooks would seem to admit that these bills will not solve all the problems.

>So here’s the bottom line for the guy in San Antonio: Everybody’s expecting a big blowup on this issue, but we’ve got a great chance of enacting serious immigration reform. It won’t solve all problems. There will still be wage pressures and late-night parties.

But it seems that he should add one more: criminals. Having confused the criminality of illegal immigration with other forms of criminality he cannot do this.

> But right now immigration chaos is spreading a subculture of criminality across America. What we can do is re-establish law and order, so immigrants can bring their energy to this country without destroying the social fabric while they’re here.

As usual we are not evaluating the truth of Brooks’ conclusion. It may be the case that these two bills are good and beneficial. But it is important to note that Brooks’ has not given us or his friend in San Antonio reason to believe this.
And along the way he seems to have missed the point of his own argument.

Cultural equality

Multiculturalism seems to be the topic of the week. In USNews Michael Barone writes a column called “Cultures aren’t equal” and in The New York Times David Brooks writes a piece called “All Cultures are not Equal.” As the titles suggest, the point of these pieces is to argue that multiculturalism is bad. For Barone, the view bears some responsibility for the London bombings; For Brooks, multiculturalism obscures intelligent discourse.

First, Barone writes,

Multiculturalism is based on the lie that all cultures are morally equal. In practice, that soon degenerates to: All cultures all morally equal, except ours, which is worse. But all cultures are not equal in respecting representative government, guaranteed liberties, and the rule of law. And those things arose not simultaneously and in all cultures but in certain specific times and places–mostly in Britain and America but also in other parts of Europe.

In addition to the obvious slippery slope (“soon degenerates . . . “), Barone is guilty of the non causa pro causa or the wrong cause fallacy; the cause of the London bombing has something to do with the bombers buying the idea that divinely sanctioned mass murder is a legitimate way of advancing your political position–the recently jailed Eric Rudolph, homophobic abortion clinic bomber, knows something of this view–rather than say the tolerance of cultural difference.

For Brooks, on the other hand,

The gospel of multiculturalism preaches that all groups and cultures are equally wonderful. There are a certain number of close-minded thugs, especially on university campuses, who accuse anybody who asks intelligent questions about groups and enduring traits of being racist or sexist. The economists and scientists tend to assume that material factors drive history – resources and brain chemistry – because that’s what they can measure and count.

These poorly reasoned quips about multiculturalism (it appears to be the case that economists and scientists don’t work at universities, they’re racists and sexists, or they don’t ask intelligent questions) serve as a springboard for his more ambitious sociological project; according to him, multiculturalism inhibits understanding of the sorts of human events–such as terrorism–that should concern the inquisitive mind. That’s a bold claim–one which, as far as we can tell, he does nothing to establish. But the unarged assertion is becoming standard repertory.

Such excursions into grand theory raise more troubling questions. The attentive reader will not swallow the strawman (and just incoherent) description of multiculturalism of these two pieces–few I think would affirm the extreme moral relativism implicit in Brooks’s and Barone’s pieces. If anything, if notions are to blame, then the culprit of recent terrorism on British soil is that all too fancy notion of freedom of speech. But in the end, the attentive reader will wonder why Brooks and Barone have taken to such broad sociological categories to explain the homicidal actions of individuals. There is a word for such hasty cultural and racial generalizations, but it’s not coming to mind.

Polar Bears for Global Warming

Most op-ed writers seem to have a fingerprint argument or rhetorical device. Whether it is David Brook’s penchant for dichotomous sociological classifications or George Will’s beloved Bartlett’s Quotations after a while the style gives away the author. A couple of weeks ago I analyzed one of John Tierney’s columns (Source) and uncovered his fingerprint argument. We can see precisely the same argument form in his most recent column, “The Good News Bears” (Source: NYT 8/6/5).

The characteristic pattern of Tierney’s opinion pieces is anecdotal evidence for substantive conclusions. In this column he suggests that global warming–if it is occurring–may in fact be a good thing:

>But I can see why Mr. Kalluk doesn’t mind the idea of a little climate change. “The ice is always going to freeze in the winter,” he said, “but it would be better for us if we had a longer summer. We’d have more time to use our boats. There would be more jobs and a longer tourist season.” The bears would be still around, and their charisma would be making more money for the locals, not just for the WWF fund-raisers down south.

Mr. Kalluk, an inuit who lives in Resolute Bay Nunavut, has visions of eco-tourism dollars in his eyes and so seems content with the prospect of climate change. More importantly, for Tierney’s argument, the climate change *may* not have any harmful effects for polar bears. Commenting on the 20% increase in polar bear populations, Tierney says.

> The chief reason for the rise is probably restrictions on hunting (for which conservationists deserve credit). In this village of fewer than 200 residents, Mr. Kalluk and the other hunters are limited each year to three dozen bears, which they allocate by drawing names out of a hat.

>But the increase might also be related to the recent warming, which could be helping bears in some places.

No evidence is offered for this last hypothesis other than that polar bears have survived in warmer climates before.

But even if we were inclined to accept this speculation from a non-expert, Tierney’s argument misses the point entirely. Even if environmental groups use “charismatic mega-fauna” like the polar bear to drum up support to fight global warming, this does not mean that that is the only or even the primary reason for trying to avoid climate change in the arctic. So even if it is true that the polar bears benefit from warmer climate, this would not suggest that warmer climate in the arctic is a good thing. Tierney has entirely missed the point.

Of course, that brings us back to his underlying argument–some guy in the arctic could make money from climate change, so maybe its not such a bad thing afterall.

Failures of Composition

I have now come to see that the post below is mistaken. The fallacy is not one of composition, but is simply a hasty generalization. The reason I am wrong about the composition is that the argument does not assert that each liberal is weak on terrorism and therefore the Left as a whole is weak on terrorism. Instead, the fallacy lies in arguing that the Left is weak on terrorism on the basis that a few members of the left are weak on terrorism. We decided to leave this up, despite its flaws because the overall point that a fallacy is occuring here seems correct, even if I mis-diagnosed it at first. 8/8/5

>The denial of the peril facing America remains a staple of the left.

One of the cheapest rhetorical moves available to the pundit showcases the fallacies of composition and division. In these fallacies, the arguer claims that since X is a property of the whole (division) or a part (composition), therefore it is a property of the part (division) or the whole (composition): If table salt is a good seasoning, then its constituents Sodium and Chlorine are good seasonings; If Sodium and Chlorine are poisonous, then table salt is poisonous.

The fallacy of composition is often very close to the fallacy of hasty generalization, in which the attribution of a property to some members of a set is taken too quickly as evidence that the whole set possesses that property. Similarly the fallacy of division is often very close to the fallacy of accident, in which a generalization that is accidentally true of a collection is applied to an instance where it is untrue. The the argument that I am going to analyze is for mthe most part implicit, it will be hard to disentangle and identify precisely the fallacy that it commits.

This argument is a favorite of the talk show pundits–and any conscious viewer, I suspect, is aware of the fallacy even if she or he is not able to identify it precisely. It is usually combined with a straw man fallacy to create its persuasive effect. At the risk of belaboring the obvious here’s the logical analysis.

John Leo in a muddled column in the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 8/805) argues that the liberal Left does not take terrorism seriously.

>In the wake of the London bombings, New York City is now searching the bags of subway riders. As you might expect, this is provoking the usual cluster of perverse reactions. Someone on Air America, the liberal talk radio network, suggested that riders carry many bags to confuse and irritate the cops.

Far more troubling than the anonymous source in journalism is the uncredited, unsourced, and unexplained “someone” or “some argue” that is the staple of sloppy punditry. This allows the writer to attribute a view (often one they can’t find a credited source for) to someone vaguely associated with their real targets.

>From the first moments after the attacks of 9/11, we had indicators that the left would not be able to take terrorism seriously. Instead of resolve, we got concern about emotional closure and “root causes,” warnings about the allegedly great danger of a backlash against Muslim Americans, arguments that violence directed at America is our own fault, and suggestions that we must not use force, because violence never solves anything. “We can’t bomb our way to justice,” said Ralph Nader.

What’s important here is that Leo picks and chooses a series of seemingly idiosyncratic responses to terrorism from people who may be on the “left,”(but without doing his job and identifying these people). These views, or the unseriousness of them, are then attributed to the whole, i.e., the liberal left. We are given two more pieces of evidence. The first a series on the BBC (“a perennial leader in foolish leftism,”) which claimed:

>arguing that terrorism is vastly exaggerated. Al Qaeda barely exists at all, the series argued, except as an idea that uses religious violence to achieve its ends. Besides, the series said, a dirty bomb would not kill many people and may not even kill anyone.

The second, an unnamed writer, in the NYRB who claims:

>that the real weapons of mass destruction are world poverty and environmental abuse.

So here we have it. The evidence that the left is unserious about terrorism. But can we infer this from particular beliefs held by the left? We would have to consider more closely the meaning of this “collective term.” But let this suffice for the time being: it seems clear that there are many beliefs and attitudes held by people who are in general “on the left” that are not held by all. Thus, any argument would need to show that these beliefs are held prominently on the left, or even universally. Did significant members of Congress on the left assert these things? Did the major publications on the left argue for these positions? Do most of the core members of the left accept these views?

Depending upon how we state the argument there seems either to be a fallacy of composition or a “hasty generalization.” Either way, the conclusion does not seem to be justified.

In Leo’s column, we don’t find this argument displayed with the full force that we find on the “O’Reilly Factor,” or in a great deal of what Ann Coulter writes. The next two steps of the argument are generally to then impute these claims to particular members of the left (as a sort of fallacy of division) and then argue against them. This is taken then as a refutation of the particular person’s views whatever they in fact are.

Will on Frist’s stem cell flip flop

We can’t be all negative all of the time. Sometimes praise should be given where it is due. Today, suprisingly, George Will takes on those on the extreme right who would challenge what he takes to be Bill Frist’s eminently reasonable and (as it turns out) scarcely modified position on stem cell research. According to Will,

many thoughtful people fear that the House-passed legislation puts the nation’s foot on a slippery slope leading to such a commodification of life.

This is not a thoughtful way to argue, as Will correctly points out:

Life, however, is lived on a slippery slope: Taxation could become confiscation; police could become gestapos. But the benefits from taxation and police make us willing to wager that our judgment can stop slides down dangerous slopes.

Good points all of them. We might add that the slippery slope is not some kind of physical or logical law; it’s a fallacious form of argument, an error in reasoning, and therefore a form of deception.

Unfortunately, Will cannot sustain this positive momentum; he is quick to return to battle the straw men that populate the imaginary cohorts of his argumentative opposition. In the first place, he cannot help himself from quoting a doctored version of a John Edwards quote about stem cell research under a Kerry presidency. Will says,

It is carelessly said, and hence widely believed, that in 2001 President Bush halted ongoing stem cell research — “banned” it — thereby denying suffering Americans imminent medical marvels. Remember John Edwards’s fantasy that “when John Kerry is president, people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk, get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.”

First, probably few people believed that. Second, John Edwards never said that. What he said was this:

Christopher Reeve just passed away. And America just lost a great champion for this cause. Somebody who is a powerful voice for the need to do stem cell research and change the lives of people like him, who have gone through the tragedy. Well, if we can do the work that we can do in this country — the work we will do when John Kerry is president — people like Christopher Reeve are going to walk. Get up out of that wheelchair and walk again.

Which is more or less what Bill Frist is saying. In the second place, Will takes issue with those who would question the motives of either Frist or Bush on the matter of stem cells (or for any question of deeply held beliefs).

The minor disagreement between Bush and Frist refutes the crackpot realism of those who cannot fathom the fact that people in public life often do what they do because they think it is right. Both Bush and Frist have thought seriously about this subject and come to mildly divergent conclusions. But neither conclusion crosses the scarlet line of supporting the creation of embryos to be mere sources of cells. And neither conclusion is the result of the sort of slapdash thinking that exaggerates the differences between them and explains those differences in terms of banal political calculations.

Will is certainly correct to point out that one should critique an opponent’s views on their merits, not on the motivations for them. But Will should also know–and he relished the Kerry flip-flop talk as much as the next conservative–that politicians do very little by accident (isn’t that what their media advisors are for?); so people are rightly skeptical. Besides, even though he is returning to his original position on the matter, Frist has stopped supporting the President’s position of stem cell research (he even apprised the President of this fact in a phone call before the change became public). It makes perfect sense then to ask that, if the facts surrounding the President’s policy have not changed, why has Frist stopped supporting it (or why has he returned to his original position)? In the end Will’s insistence on the principle of charity–on considering the stated justifications for someone’s position–for such thoughtful people as *Bush and Frist* (but not, mind you, for academics) raises another more important question: how do we decide when to apply, as Will has here, the principle of charity? I suggest we do so all of the time.

The White Choice

Charles Krauthammer of the *Washington Post* and David Brooks of the *New York Times* must have been mind-melding just after the nomination of John Roberts for the recently opened Supreme Court vacancy. They each make the same preposterous claim about Roberts’ ethnicity. Brooks (sorry we cannot link the article) writes,

President Bush consulted widely, moved beyond the tokenism of identity politics and selected a nominee based on substance, brains, careful judgment and good character.

The next day,
Charles Krauthammer
follows him:

And there were two kinds of history available to him — ethnic or ideological: nominating the first Hispanic, which is a history of sorts, or nominating a young judge who would move the court to the right for the next 25 years. President Bush eschewed the more superficial option and went for the real thing.

Each of these claims rests on the fallaciously dichotomous, however tacit, assumption that the choice Bush faced was one between qualified and male white or unqualified but “ethnic” or perhaps “someone with a racial identity”. In Brooks’ case, the very choice of a white man constitutes “moving beyond the tokenism of identity politics.” “Anglo-white” and “conservative catholic” do not for some reason constitute an identity for Brooks. In a similar fashion, Krauthammer does not wonder whether a non-white candidate could have “moved the court to the right”; the choice was for him, as it was for Brooks, between two exclusive categories of thing: a qualified white-male candidate, or a superficial or politically motivated choice of a non-white candidate. Perhaps before making such a ludicrous claim, Brooks and Krauthammer might establish, which they do not, that no non-white male was qualified for the job.

Rules for the breaking

Despite the originary fallaciousness of the whole affair–a schoolyard ad hominem attack on Joseph Wilson–we haven’t bothered to comment on all of the silliness surrounding the Judith Miller jailing. No *serious* person would argue that Judith Miller deserves to be jailed *now* for her shoddy Iraq WMD coverage (as with much of the media, perhaps far below what might be considered minimally competent source and fact research), but that doesn’t stop the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen from bravely taking on some in the blogosphere who would argue as much. What Cohen does in much of today’s piece is not really fallacioius, it’s just silly. Why waste precious space in a newspaper of national circulation refuting the opinions of people who refute themselves? Cohen’s failures lie elsewhere. In particular, it consists in his insistence on the absolute applicability of the confidentiality pledge:

Whatever her politics, whatever her journalistic sins (if any), whatever the whatevers, she is in jail officially for keeping her pledge not to reveal the identity of a confidential source. (If that’s not the case, then we don’t know otherwise.) That pledge is no different than the one Bob Woodward made to Mark (Deep Throat) Felt or, if you will, the one I made to my sources back when I was revealing some unsavory facts about Vice President Spiro T. Agnew. Only Agnew’s unexpected, but deeply appreciated, resignation saved me from going to jail. Like Miller, I thought my word was my word. Jail was something a journalist had to endure on occasion. It is, to quote “The Godfather’s” Hyman Roth, “the business we have chosen.”

The problem is that not all confidentiality pledges are the same–nor should the be. No one–not even a journalist–should be bound to a confidentiality pledge made to someone who is planning to murder someone, for instance. The question, obscured by many (including Bill Keller at the *New York Times*) is whether *in this instance* a confidentiality pledge applies. Inalienable rights have exceptions, one would think that professional standards of journalists would have exceptions as well (the alternative is the fallacy of accident). Cohen should discuss–or should at least be aware of the fact–that some have argued convincingly (the leaking was a crime, for instance) that this case is a very obvious exception.