Not only but also

Fox Nation–I just sort of ended up there (thanks a lot Media Matters)–notes the following about the Obama Birth Certificate affair:

With a father like this, it is little wonder President Obama did not want to release his full birth certificate.

Though the proof that he was actually born in Hawaii may silence some critics, a new, rather more interesting side of his life has emerged – that his father Barack Obama senior was a serial womaniser and polygamist who government and university officials were trying to force out of the country.

Obama senior married Stanley Ann Dunham, a white student from Kansas, not only when he was said to have already been married to a woman in Kenya, but at a time when interracial marriages were still illegal in many parts of the U.S.

Documents obtained from the U.S. immigration service paint a picture of a man who 'had an eye for the ladies' and, according to his file, had to be warned several times to stay away from girls at the university.

I don't get what that bolded remark has to do with the rest of the story.  The rest of the story paints a picture of a serial Newt Gingrich-style womanizer.  Does the illegality of interracial marriage in parts of the US at the time add to that fact?

A circular argument against begging the question

A puzzle for the readers of the NonSequitur

Colin, John and I will be attending the upcoming Ontario Society for the Study of Argumentation (OSSA) conference in the coming weeks.  We're presenting a version of the Subjunctive Tu Quoque argument (Colin blazed the trail here). 

To the point, I'm slated to comment on a paper with the thesis that there are virtuous circular arguments.  I've posed a challenge to the author, with the following argument:

P1: There are no virtuous circular arguments.

C: Therefore, there are no virtuous circular arguments.

The challenge is to explain, if there are virtuous circular arguments, what is wrong with P1 being used to support C. Of course, the author doesn't get to say that P1 begs the question.

Is this out of bounds?  Moreover, if the challenge can't be met, what follows?

Abandon all hope

In yet another argument undermining the wisdom of the New York Times' paywall, Ross Douthat, resident prude, argues that hell must exist.  His argument hinges on the reality of human choices.  Human choices, without the possibility of eternal damnation, just wouldn't be real.  He writes:

Doing away with hell, then, is a natural way for pastors and theologians to make their God seem more humane. The problem is that this move also threatens to make human life less fully human.

Atheists have license to scoff at damnation, but to believe in God and not in hell is ultimately to disbelieve in the reality of human choices. If there’s no possibility of saying no to paradise then none of our no’s have any real meaning either. They’re like home runs or strikeouts in a children’s game where nobody’s keeping score.

In this sense, a doctrine of universal salvation turns out to be as deterministic as the more strident forms of scientific materialism. Instead of making us prisoners of our glands and genes, it makes us prisoners of God himself. We can check out any time we want, but we can never really leave.

The doctrine of hell, by contrast, assumes that our choices are real, and, indeed, that we are the choices that we make. The miser can become his greed, the murderer can lose himself inside his violence, and their freedom to turn and be forgiven is inseparable from their freedom not to do so.

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death … salvation or damnation.”

There are other ways our choices are real, I'd argue.  In the first place, our choices create our character right now.  Our choices also affect other people right now.  That, I think, is probably punishment enough.  Meditating on eternal damnation before deciding whether you want to have carnal knowledge of chunky Reese Witherspoon seems a bit much.

Not to be facile, but Douthat also seems to offer one key reason for not thinking there's a hell:

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?

Seems like if there were a hell, and if there were a just overseer of it, we'd have an absolutely unequivocal answer to this question.  Turns out, however, we don't.  So maybe our choices have eternal reality in hell, which just can't determine which ones will send us there.


It's Easter Monday (or Pasquetta), so let's have a contest.  In traditional term logic, a syllogism whose conclusion distributes the minor term but whose minor premise does not is guilty of the fallacy of the illicit minor, or the Father O'Malley Fallacy.  A student of mine today suggested another name, the Father McPheeley Fallacy. 

Anyone have any other suggestions?

And in the tradition of making up gestures descriptive of the fallacies, the one for this one is moon walking.


That’s nonscience

Chris Mooney (coauthor of the Republican War on Science) has an article in Mother Jones called "The Science of Why We Don't Believe Science."  A sample:

 In other words, when we think we're reasoning, we may instead be rationalizing. Or to use an analogy offered by University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt: We may think we're being scientists, but we're actually being lawyers (PDF). Our "reasoning" is a means to a predetermined end—winning our "case"—and is shot through with biases. They include "confirmation bias," in which we give greater heed to evidence and arguments that bolster our beliefs, and "disconfirmation bias," in which we expend disproportionate energy trying to debunk or refute views and arguments that we find uncongenial.

Read the whole thing.  Read it and despair.

Tax quoque

Time to pay your federal taxes, so it's time for people to complain about how much we're taxed, or, alternatively, how little some people are taxed relative to their income, etc.  Now comes Gregg Easterbrook, whose work I do not know (and now I know why, if this is a measure of his intellect).  It is well known now that Barack Obama is for reductions in revenue expenditures–i.e., he's for increasing taxes (a phrase for which he was justly lampooned by Jon Stewart).  But, Easterbrook spies a problem:

President Barack Obama wants to increase taxes on the wealthy, and surely is correct that this must be part of any serious plan to control the national debt. Consider the case of a wealthy couple who made $1.7 million in 2010, yet paid only 26.2 percent in federal income taxes — though the top rate supposedly is 35 percent, and the president says that figure should rise to 39.6 percent. The well-off couple in question is Barack and Michelle Obama, whose tax returns, just released, show they paid substantially less than the president says others should pay.

If Obama is in earnest about wanting increased taxes on the wealthy, then he should send the United States Treasury $182,998. That’s the difference between his Form 1040 Line 60 (“This is your total tax”) and what he would have owed at the higher rate (plus limits on itemized deductions) he himself advocates.

So why doesn’t he tax himself more? The Form 1040, after all, only stipulates the minimum tax an American must pay. More is always welcome. Obama should write a check to the United States Treasury for $182,998.

Wealthy people who say the rich should pay higher taxes — Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have joined Obama in declaring this — are free to tax themselves. If you believe the top rate should rise to 39.6 percent (Obama) or 50 percent (Buffett), then calculate the difference and send a check for that amount to the Treasury. Of course no one individual doing this, even a billionaire, would have much impact on the deficit. But if rich people who say they believe in higher taxes were willing to practice what they preach, this would prove their sincerity, making legislation on the point more likely.

This argument is so dumb that Megan McArdle made it (can't remember where I read the refutation).  Normally, accusations of hypocrisy need to posit some actual or hypothetical (counterfactual) hypocrisy.

On Easterbrook's view, Obama is a hypocrite for not unilaterally taxing himself.  He's rich, he advocates higher taxes for the rich, ergo, ipso fatso.  But of course he's not a hypocrite, because he's advocating a tax policy he'll obey if given the chance.

As a practical matter, a bunch of rich people donating to the Treasury will likely delay tax increases on the wealthy–see, for instance, the free rider problem.


Link via Mother Jones via Atrios.

And, BTW, happy Charles Krauthammer Day!

Cal Thomas and the politics of made-for-TV movies

Cal Thomas just finished watching a movie on the Hallmark channel. Yep.  Now, I, too, love me some Hallmark Channel, as they have been known to play old repeats of Columbo on Sundays (my TiVo knows when).  But Thomas watches Hallmark channel for the movies. 

Today, Hallmark's commitment to quality television hasn't change (sic); it even has its own cable channel, which shows films that affirm the values most of us hold dear.

Well, the movie Thomas saw was called "Beyond the Blackboard," which was a movie about a teacher. I know, a teacher.

It's one of those "based on a true story" projects about a young woman (Stacey Bess) who desperately wants to teach, but finds there are no jobs available in her Salt Lake City school district. There is, however, an experimental program and Bess (played by Emily VanCamp), eagerly accepts the job. There's a problem, though. She is to teach homeless children in a rundown warehouse.

Okay, so this is a movie about the good done by a school and its teachers for the least-well-off.  Perhaps it could even be a case for more experimental programs like this to be started.  Perhaps it could be a case for supporting the programs out there right now that need financial backing.  Perhaps it could be a dramatization of how hard teachers work and how they deserve respect.  Alright, now, I don't think I'd like this movie as a movie (I'll admit, I don't like movies unless there are aliens or zombies), but I endorse its values.  Oh, wait, Thomas sees another set of values on offer.

[T]he film could easily veer off into a political diatribe and a call for more government spending on education. It is a tribute to the restraint of the creators that it does not. What it does depict is the power of one person to make a difference in other people's lives, not with government funds, but with the currency of a loving and dedicated heart.

So, I didn't see the movie, but this is weird.  Where Thomas sees the power of a loving heart to do what it can, I, just from what Thomas has said, see the need for government programs.  The poorest of this community don't have access to public education?  What is wrong here?  A capable teacher can't find work in a school district as big as Salt Lake?  Wuh?  And then the other shoe drops.  Thomas quotes the real Stacey Bess approvingly:

[Y]ou don't have to be sophisticated to love somebody, you don't have to have grand skills, you don't have to have a degree, you just have to want to care just a little bit further than what's expected.

Ah, you don't have to have a degree to be a teacher.  You just have to care a lot.  Remind me to go crazy when Thomas complains that teachers don't teach anything in school.

Bully for false dilemmas

Thomas Sowell thinks most of the contemporary rhetoric about school bullying is nonsense.  Empty rhetoric, says he.

There is a lot of talk from many people about bullying in school. The problem is that it is all talk. There is no sign that anybody is going to do anything that is likely to reduce bullying.

The trouble, as Sowell sees it, is that teachers can't decisively respond to bullies in the classroom.  Why is that?  Because the courts are more interested in protecting the rights of the bullies.  And you see, when the courts are all over the teachers, when the government interferes with how discipline in the classroom is handled, nobody can be in charge.  And then there are bullies. 

Might educators abuse their power, if the courts did not step in? Of course they could. Any power exercised by human beings can be abused. But, without the ability to exercise power, there is anarchy.

And so there are two choices: anarchy consequent of judicial meddling to preserve the rights of bullies or . . .  What?

For years, there have been stories in New York and Philadelphia newspapers about black kids beating up Asian classmates. But do not expect anybody to do anything that is likely to put a stop to it.

If these were white kids beating up Hispanic kids, cries of outrage would ring out across the land from the media, the politicians, the churches and civic groups. But it is not politically correct to make a fuss when black kids beat up Asian kids.

I am going to take a shot at what Sowell's suggestion is:  racial profiling for bullying.  Alright, that's crazy.  How about not being worried about the racial politics of identifying violent individuals, regardless of the color of their skin?  That seems plausible, but is that outlawed by the courts?  No.  So that's not a different option. Okay, I don't know what the proposal is. Certainly not about how teachers should run class, now.

Sowell isn't very clear about what he sees as the alternative.  Fine, maybe we can see his alternative in the way he handles a contrast case: 

Britain was once one of the most law-abiding nations on earth. But the reluctance of the left to put some serious punishment on criminals has been carried so far there that only 7 percent of convicted criminals actually spend any time behind bars. Britain has now overtaken the United States in various crime rates.

Ah, so it is the state punishing criminals, but more severely?  How does that have anything to do with teachers in classrooms?  Or bullies?  Now it's about crime rates.  Huh.  Some false dilemmas derive from there being two options posed, but the best third option suppressed.  This false dilemma has one option posed (and rejected), and then no clear alternative offered.  Maybe should be called the 'false whatever-lemma'. 

Who’s wearing the pants?

A student of mine read Harry Frankfurt's "On Bullshit" a while back, and he came to me interested in thinking more about the phenomenon.  I'd suggested he read Gerald Cohen's "Deeper into Bullshit".  He liked the essay, but he was troubled because Cohen kept using a metaphor he didn't understand.  Cohen kept using expressions like:  "the bull wears the semantic trousers" and "bullshit wears the trousers, not the bullshitting".  My student had no idea what these meant.

The metaphor is an invocation of the old expression "Who wears the pants around here?" Which is supposed to invoke the natural superiority and sovereignty of men over women, especially in a marriage.  And so 'wearing the pants' means 'is the man,' which means 'is in charge'

This isn't to charge Cohen with sexism.  The funny thing is that the metaphor was totally invisible to me, too.  But to get the metaphor, you have to have been brought up in a language that uses that expression naturally.  How many other expressions with this kind of sexist heritage are still around in our language?  It seems a genetic fallacy to say that those who use them are sexist or that the language is sexist in its usage, but wouldn't we rather not have those sort of expressions?

I have to say, I am starting to feel the same way about similar animal-killing metaphors in ordinary parlance: More than one way to skin a cat, killing two birds with one stone, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush….