Give me more absurdum on that reductio!

The philosophical lexicon is an old and funny web resource, and one of the most famous entries on it is the rhetorical strategy of "outsmarting" a dialectical opponent:

outsmart, v. To embrace the conclusion of one's opponent's reductio ad absurdum argument. "They thought they had me, but I outsmarted them. I agreed that it was sometimes just to hang an innocent man."

It's in reference to J.J.C. Smart's famous concession that Utilitarianism does entail that consequence, and so it should be just to do so.  In my department, we regularly make reference to the move.  Your view about perceptual justification entails external world skepticism?  Embrace skepticism – you never really know anything!  This view about justice requires that some people can be made slaves?  Embrace slavery as just – of course there are natural slaves!  Congratulations, you just outsmarted your critics.

A new case of outsmarting was just sent along to me by a colleague.  It goes like this.  Suppose that an asteroid is heading toward earth, surely to destroy it.  Does libertarianism make room for the use of tax money to be used to destroy the asteroid and save the world?  Or would that be excessively paternalistic about how we want to meet our end?  Or would it be theft, nevertheless? The Onion did a spoof on how Republicans would reject the plan on the basis of how the government's actions would get in the way of a free enterprise solution.  That was parody, but Sasha Volokh, over at the Volokh Conspiracy, has a different sort of reason, but of the same spirit and leading to the same conclusion:

I don’t speak for all libertarians, but I think there’s a good case to be made that taxing people to protect the Earth from an asteroid, while within Congress’s powers, is an illegitimate function of government from a moral perspective. I think it’s O.K. to violate people’s rights (e.g. through taxation) if the result is that you protect people’s rights to some greater extent (e.g. through police, courts, the military). But it’s not obvious to me that the Earth being hit by an asteroid (or, say, someone being hit by lightning or a falling tree) violates anyone’s rights; if that’s so, then I’m not sure I can justify preventing it through taxation.

Crooked Timber's already made the Poe's Law observation about this (too bad, because Poe's my thing these days), but this does seem the sort of reduction to absurdity that should make the full-bore libertarian hesitate.  Even J.J. Smart has a moment "which makes [him] wonder whether after all [he] really is a utilitarian."  Volokh, too, notes that "this does make me uncomfortable."   Yeah, me too. 

Nanny State Bingo

I've always been a bit put off by the Nanny-metaphor used by libertarian-leaning conservatives to evoke outrage over some policy of governmental overreaching.  Regulations for salt in fast food?  The "nanny-state" dictates what we eat and our salt-intake.  Rise up, salt patriots!  Raise taxes on unhealthy food?  The "nanny-state" has instituted a fat tax, that nudges us away from the unhealthy foods we want and love.  Fast food diners unite!  I get it.

The point of the metaphor is that it invokes the paternalism of a caretaker who micromanages a youngster's day in a way that interferes with the child's growing autonomy.  The child ends up healthy, but browbeaten.  An overbearing Mary Poppins — "Smile Children.  Eat your brussels sprouts and then we'll all sing a round of 'Row, Row, Row Your Boat!'"  Sometimes, as George Lakoff said, it's all in the metaphors you use.

But now the "Nanny State" metaphor has come unhinged from that original usage.  See, as a particularly weird example, Michele Bachmann's use of the metaphor in saying that tax deductions for breast pumps as medical supplies are evidence of nanny state:

I’ve given birth to five babies, and I’ve breastfed every single one of these babies. To think that government has to go out and buy my breast pump for my babies, I mean, you wanna talk about the nanny state — I think you just got the new definition of the nanny state.

First, why is the fact that she breastfed her children relevant?  Is it that she's making a contrast between her breastfeeding and pumping?  If that's her game, I"ll let working mothers the world over at her.

Second, tthe government isn't going out and buying the pumps.  The people who use them are.  The government then gives them a tax break — just as the government would give you a tax break for buying any medical technology.  I thought Bachmann would be for tax breaks.  Huh.  But I don't see how a tax break ammounts to the same intrusion as a tax hike, like with the former.  In those cases, the government nudges with taxation (a negative reinforcement) citizens away from harmful choices (salt and fat).  In this case, the government incentivizes positively good choices.  It doesn't mandate them and it doesn't punish those who don't take part.  It just seems very different.  On this model, isn't every government program nanny state? Meat inspection?  Nannies who won't let us eat a  little poo in our sausage!  Law enforcement?  Nanny police.  Military protection?  Nanny state with guns! 

The point, of course, is that once you start doing your political thinking just with catchwords, you lose sight of the core metaphors they got their power from. Did 'nanny state' just jump the shark?


Sometimes things get framed in a funny way.  Here's the way an article from today's Chicago Tribune framed the debate–I know, what debate?–about building a mosque and Islamic Center in the Chicago suburbs:

On one side, the issue is about the right to have a sacred space where believers can pray. On the other, it's about preventing religious institutions from crowding residential neighborhoods.

The only evidence in favor of the second part of this dilemma are the claims of people who oppose the mosque.  No evidence, in other words, is offered in the article to suggest that non-Muslim "religious institutions" are being "prevented from crowding residential neighborhoods" in this area.

So, judging by the rest of the article, which deals exclusively with matters related to Muslims, the first sentence ought to read:

On the one side, the issue is about the right of Muslims to build mosques where they want, on the other, it's about preventing Muslims from bulding mosques where they want with disingenuous arguments about zoning and traffic.

Nice job Tribune. 

Low expectations

Bill O'Reilly will be interviewing President Obama before the Superbowl.  O'Reilly doesn't want us to expect too much from him.  Interviewing the President is, like, hard.  For one, you've got all these rules about being respectful.  You don't get to cut the President's mic if you don't like what he's saying, or interrupt him and call him a pinhead.  Well, that's it:

That's because the rules are different when it comes to interviewing the president of the United States. . . . For example, he is addressed as "Mr. President." No one says "Yo, Barack, how you doin'?" There is a respect for the office that formalizes all conversation.

Right.  You don't open with 'Yo.' But the point is that you don't undermine the dignity of the office, instead of make some lame attempt at racializing the president.  Seriously, 'Yo'.  Yo.  Right, so were the president Irish, you make a big deal about not starting your conversation with President O'Malley with "Blarney!" or asking where he keeps his leprechauns.  Methinks the pundit doth protest too much.

Regardless, O'Reilly prepares us for a subpar interview and a round of critical beatings of his interview.  Instead of preparing his questions, he's preparing his rationalizations.

I fully expect to get hammered after the interview. Depending on how you feel about the president, the questions will either be too soft or too intrusive.

Nope.  False dilemma. O'Reilly can't even rationalize properly.  The questions will not be either too soft or too intrusive.  They will be too improperly formed.  Too ideologically obtuse.  Too pandering to an audience on the other side of the camera and not to the person to whom they are posed.  Too… Fox.  And they will be insufficiently intelligent, serious, or intelligible.  They will be exactly what we expect from Bill O'Reilly.  Which means that our expectations will be low.  Just as O'Reilly has asked us to set them.  Except for different reasons.  Oh well, at least we're all prepared for his journalistic failure.  The only problem is that too many will blame the President and his office for O'Reilly's failure, not the interviewer.  Sheesh, if O'Reilly knew already that this interview wouldn't portray him in a good light, why did he agree to it in the first place?  Doesn't the President know that O'Reilly is important and that interviewing Presidents is hard on him and puts his career in danger?  It is such a sacrifice, you know, interviewing a President when you know that you just can't win. 

I won’t forget to place roses on your grave

Tu Quoque arguments, it seems to me, have a statute of limitations on when the first of the two inconsistent acts can be relevantly inconsistent with the second. (See my long article in Informal Logic for the full story)  For example, someone may express appropriate surprise at the fact that the altarboy later became an atheist when he was a grownup, but that's not inconsistency in the relevant sense for an accusation of hypocrisy.  The two acts need to be close enough in time for them to be relevant to each other.  And so it's usual when someone runs an argument from inconsistency, she will say something like:

Person S says we should not do X, but then she turns right around and does X.

The important thing is that S turns right around and does it.  If she did X years ago, perhaps S has learned her lesson.  Or she's changed her mind.  Or maybe the facts regarding X have changed.  X may be the best option, nowadays.  The lesson: with charges of hypocrisy, time's relevant.

With that in mind, let's look at Jonah Goldberg's commentary on the (albeit grudging) praise of Ronald Reagan's presidency from liberals.  This is part of a trend he sees. Barry Goldwater, after being demonized by LBJ, was later portrayed as an "avuncular and sage grandfather type." William F. Buckley, too, went from being called a Nazi to later being an actual defender of liberalism.  Reagan, now:

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Gipper is enjoying yet another status upgrade among liberals. Barack Obama took a Reagan biography with him on his vacation. A slew of liberals and mainstream journalists (but I repeat myself) complimented Obama’s State of the Union address as “Reaganesque.” Time magazine recently featured the cover story “Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan.” Meanwhile, the usual suspects are rewriting the same columns about how Reagan was a pragmatist who couldn’t run for president today because he was too nice, too reasonable, too (shudder) liberal for today’s Republican party.

Trouble is, while Reagan was alive, liberals didn't have too high an opinion of him:

[My] favorite comes from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, which in 1982 held a vote for the most hated people of all time. The winners: Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Dracula.

Now, first, note that these are cases where we're looking at things said in 1982 and 2011.  Almost thirty years difference.  Second, note that these inconsistencies are ones distributed over a group, Liberals, not individual people.  Regardless, it's almost as though Goldberg isn't paying attention to the subtext of these retrospectives:  that despite the fact that liberals disagreed with these conservatives, liberals could nevertheless see their virtues as people in retrospect.  And one of the reasons why those virtues are worth mentioning now is that current conservatives so clearly fail to have them.  I take it back.  Goldberg gets that part:

[S]o much of the effort to build up conservatives of the past is little more than a feint to tear down the conservatives of the present.

But, for some reason,  he thinks instead this is a point he's scoring on liberals by showing how they're inconsistent.  Again, in cases where time's changed the variables, sometimes what you've inveighed against earlier becomes the best choice.  Ask any liberal: would you take  Reagan or Buckley over Palin or Goldberg for a decent conversation about government and political norms?  You know the answer.  Goldberg thinks this means that liberals think that the only good conservative is a dead conservative. He's missed the point.  The point, instead, is sadly that all the good conservatives are dead.


Chicago (where I live) just had a fairly large blizzard (20 or so inches or about 51 cm) .  This, as you might imagine, causes problems for transportation.  Despite a robust system of public transportation, Chicago is a car city.  When it snows, these cars–often parked on the streets, get buried beneath mountains of plowed snow.  This creates a unique sort of property problem. 

It goes like this.  You spend four hours liberating your car from its snow tomb, or creating a parking spot where before there was just piled snow, so you conclude that on account of your mixing your labor with that parking spot, that you can call "dibs" on it; you worked it, it's yours.

Having just liberated my own vehicle from a snow tomb, I have a bit of sympathy for this approach.  Nonetheless, I'd prefer an honor system.  A student of mine this morning put it like this: if you are looking for parking, then you have yourself worked to free your car from a spot, which is now open.  Not a bad idea, though it needs some filling out.  

Another student forwarded me the following argument against dibs (from Time Out Chicago):

Why is dibs a bad thing? While snowfall can be a magical thing, snow doesn't magically turn public spaces into private property. It's a very un-Chicagolike tradition: When snow falls, all of a sudden neighbors become vehement and territorial.

If someone puts in the effort to shovel a spot, they don't deserve a claim on that space? If you push someone's car out of the snow, you don't say you own their car, do you? I also question how much sweat people put in. The snow that fell [in mid-December] was not enough that people had to dig their cars out, yet there are chairs all over.

Is there evidence that dibs is a problem? There's a thinly veiled threat of violence associated with dibs. People who've violated dibs have gotten their cars keyed. I once heard a story about someone breaking the back window of someone's car and putting a hose in there and turning it on.

Doesn't tradition carry some weight? Not all traditions are good. Political corruption is another Chicago tradition.

Even though I'm leaning against dibs, these are really terrible reasons.  The second one, especially.  The principle works on the Lockean (or something like it) theory of property.  If you mix your labor with it, you've earned it.  In this case you earn it temporarily, and no, it's not like claiming someone's car is yours.  


on dibs from the New York, I mean, Huffington Post.

What about quests?

So Bill O'Reilly, cable TV blowhard hardly worth commenting on, has advanced the argumentum ad aestum (ex aesto?  ab aesto?–ideas anyone), or the argument from the tides, for the existence of God.  The thought goes something like this:

O'REILLY: I'll tell you why [religion's] not a scam, in my opinion: tide goes in, tide goes out. Never a miscommunication. You can't explain that.

SILVERMAN: Tide goes in, tide goes out?

O'REILLY: See, the water, the tide comes in and it goes out, Mr. Silverman. It always comes in, and always goes out. You can't explain that.

You can explain it–moon, gravity, etc. (from the same link as above):

Tides are the rise and fall of sea levels caused by the combined effects of the gravitational forces exerted by the Moon and the Sun and the rotation of the Earth.

Most places in the ocean usually experience two high tides and two low tides each day (semidiurnal tide), but some locations experience only one high and one low tide each day (diurnal tide). The times and amplitude of the tides at the coast are influenced by the alignment of the Sun and Moon, by the pattern of tides in the deep ocean (see figure 4) and by the shape of the coastline and near-shore bathymetry.

O'Reilly remains unconvinced.  He replies:

Okay, how did the Moon get there? How'd the Moon get there? Look, you pinheads who attacked me for this, you guys are just desperate. How'd the Moon get there? How'd the Sun get there? How'd it get there? Can you explain that to me? How come we have that and Mars doesn't have it? Venus doesn't have it. How come? Why not? How'd it get here?

Now now Bill, there's no reason to throw around the insults.  There's a perfectly adequate explanation for all of this.  Besides, the original argument had to do with the regular behavior of the tides (a sign, I'd say, of an obsessive-compulsive deity), not with the existence of objects. 

In all seriousness, O'Reilly displays an unfortunate characteristic of the cable TV blowhard (print pundit, etc.)–the near constant attempt to make the closing argument.  It's not just that his objectors are wrong (they're not); it's that the argument with them (pinheads) is over; they're "desparate," they have nothing to contribute.  A mind such as O'Reilly's, however, will never use the closer alone, he'll use it in conjunction with some variety of straw man or other fallacy.  Here I think he's changed the subject, and then accused the objector with not having an answer to his new argument (in their old argument).  I suppose this is a representational straw man, as that wasn't the point in the first place of the objector's argument. 

*For the title: watch this, the greatest review of any kind anywhere.

He forgot to mention that he is fat

We got twenty feet of snow around here, complete with thundersnow, so what better day could there be for a global warming post.

"Al Gore is fat" is shorthand for all of the ad hominem (meanie-meanie-bo-beanie variety) that people have heaped up on Al Gore for his attempt to explain the science of global warming to a science-disliking nation. 

Now our new Senator, Mark Kirk, has found a new way to achieve the same basic goal:

Another Republican blasted from both sides of the spectrum for his record on emissions, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois, said he is "not terribly concerned" about taking heat from green groups for his criticism of EPA action on carbon emissions.

"The consensus behind the climate change bill collapsed and then further deteriorated with the personal and political collapse of Vice President [Al] Gore," Kirk said in a brief interview last week.

The thought goes something like this.  Al Gore's (personal characteristic) makes me doubt the scientific consensus behind global warming, because who would believe something that a (personal characteristic of Al Gore) believes.  


Then, FWIW, there's this funny item.

Ever tried red herring?

Some people think gun control is a good idea.  But "gun control" could mean any number of things.  It might mean, for instance, a complete ban on guns.  Some people want that.  It might also mean a ban on military-style weapons.  Seems more sensible to me.  This might make it more difficult for some solitary crazy person to kill a lot of people at once.  You would have thought that, of course, until you consulted history:

(1) THE (NON) EFFECT ON PUBLIC SAFETY: Set aside the fact that criminals don’t obey any law. Set aside too the fact that even if all firearms could be magically disintegrated by appropriate legislation, the murderous would simply use other more time-tested methods of killing. It should not be forgotten that some 7000 were killed in a single day at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 using the available hand weapons, which did not include firearms. At the Civil War battle of Gettysburg in 1863, both sides suffered approximately 51,000 casualties in three days of fighting using primarily single shot, breech loading rifles and muzzle loading cannon quite crude by contemporary standards. Some 5000 horses were also killed. The problem, in 1066, 1863 and today is human nature, not the tools employed.

The little number there will tell you the author of this argument is presenting a convergent case.  The unique ridiculousness of this claim, therefore, may not be representative of the whole argument.  If I were to engage in a bit of weak-manning, I might argue that a person who would advance such a claim doesn't need to be listened to any longer.  But that's not fair play.  You can read the rest of the argument for yourself. 

This one is just uniquely hilarious, as it seems completely to miss the point that high-capacity magazines (assault weapons, etc.) make it easier for lone nutcases to kill a lot of people in a very short amount of time.  It doesn't, of course, end our inhumanity to each other in the form of war.  To invoke this, I think, is a textbook worthy instance of the red herring technique.  In case you're not familiar with that technique, here's another example:

It's not the case that the oil spill caused tons of environmental damage in the Gulf, have you ever tried red herring?  They're excellent and they're on the menu at your local Swedish restaurant. 

link courtesy of balloon juice.