Chris Bertram at Crooked Timber has some interesting musings on conditional arguments.  Critical point:

Strawser claims that IF drones reduce civilian casualties compared to other means THEN the use of drones is justified (I’m simplifying). Philosophers will typically then say that the argument is merely conditional, and that therefore, if the antecedent is false then the conclusion doesn’t follow. Clearly that’s right. But does it get us off the hook in a world of propaganda, mass media, think tanks and the like? . . . .So, for example, I’ve heard it argued by philosophers that IF sweatshops improve opportunities for poor people in poor countries THEN they are on-balance justified: so people shouldn’t campaign against sweatshop labour. This then gets supplemented with “evidence” that the antecedent is true, but by this time the casual listener has been inclined by the rhetoric to accept the conclusion.

Here we have, I think, a major source for iron-manning: the conditional "arguments" are not really arguments at all.  They're conditional statements.  The real question, as Bertram correctly points out, is whether the claims are true.  As he notices, however, whether the claims are true is a secondary question (in the minds of some people) to conditional statement in question.  How those get evaluated is the more interesting question (to philosophers).  But it's often the wrong question.  And entertaining such arguments might often amount to a form of iron manning.

Here we have an example of this.  Yesterday Todd Akin, Republican Senate candidate from Missouri, remarked that in cases of "legitimate" rape, women cannot get pregnant.  Here's what he said:

"From what I understand from doctors, that's really rare," said Akin said of pregnancy caused by rape. "If it's a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist."

I think it would be very hard to defend this remark, as it has no basis in scientific fact.  Sadly, if you treat the whole thing as conditional, suddenly it appears Akin is making an interesting point worth discussing among rational adults.  Here's Politico's David Catanese (tweeting):

"So perhaps some can agree that all rapes that are reported are not actually rapes? Or are we gonna really deny that for PC sake?" he said. "So looks like he meant to say — 'If a woman was REALLY raped, it's statistically less likely for her to get pregnant.' What's the science?"

Akin is saying something rather different.  He's saying that pregnancy is statistically less likely in cases of "legitimate" rape.  It's more likely when that rape is "illegitimate."  Catanese version has it that Akin is querying after some science.  As I think I've often repeated here (sorry), I think this is a kind of philosopher disease.  You're looking for the thing worth discussing, but in looking for it, you overlook or ignore the awful things before you.  So, yes, maybe there is a scientific question here we discuss, but that's not what Akin's point was.  In fairness to us, and oddly to him, we ought to represent his words and his intention correctly.  How else will he or we learn his "doctors" are wrong?

What's the harm?  Bertram poses an interesting question:

ADDENDUM: it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy. So, for example, are people exposed to the conditional “IF increased inequality ends up making the poorest better off THEN increased inequality is justified” more likely to believe that increased inequality is justified, even when no evidence that increased inequality benefits the poorest is presented?

Anecdotal evidence says this is true.  If that's the case, then I think he might have an interesting point.

5 thoughts on “Conditionalization”

  1. it would be an interesting psychological experiment (which, for all I know someone has done) to test whether people who are exposed to conditional arguments in the total absence of evidence for the truth of the antecedent become more inclined to believe the consequent, perhaps especially for cases where the antecedent is some morally dubious policy.
    Surely a study along those lines has been done for the "ticking time bomb scenario" used to convince people that torture is acceptable?

  2. Hey John,
    I wonder whether you agree that the iron man of Akin's comments yields an example of a conditional fallacy.  Here's the criticism. Iron Akin says: if there were legitimate rapes, distinct from their contrary, and if they didn't have a high pregnancy rate compared to their contrary, then we wouldn't need a special abortion exception for cases of rape.  Now, says Akin above, if that were the case, then we'd still need to have a punishment, but only for the rapist.  Now, by hypothesis, these cases have comparatively low chances of happening, because if this were the case, then the fact that the woman got pregnant from an accused rape could be used as evidence that it was the contrary of a legitimate rape.  So, by this reasoning, the fact of pregnancy is as much reason punish the rapist as it is to find him innocent. 

  3. Intriguing stuff.  The conditional statement can be used as a sleight-of-hand to establish shaky premises which then are later taken as givens.  (CT has discussed similar problems before, including the rigged demo.)  A conditional statement certainly can be offered thoughtfully and in good faith, but I sadly think you and Chris Bertram are right that, for some viewers and arguers, determining the truth of the premises falls by the wayside, and they're off to the races.  In this case, the conditional statements assume that killing someone is moral in some cases, and that killing by drone is moral is some cases (now we just need to determine what they are).  Maybe they are moral, but the conditionals gloss over a helluva lot there.  As Neil Postman pointed out, the specific form of the questions we ask generally determine the answers we receive.  Like John Small Berries, I instantly thought of the torture example as well, especially because torture apologists consistently ignore the actual evidence on torture and its lack of effectiveness (assuming one wants honest intel, that is).  There was also the case for war with Iraq, where the dominant questions were "What if Iraq has WMD?" and "Can we afford not to invade?" and more sober and skeptical questions were largely shouted down.  I'm not sure this is an exact match to the type of argument you're describing, but it's one of my favorites, from 2006, from Iraq war supporter Terry Jeffrey of Human Events (click the image to play the video): 

    Basically, 'Our complete failure is sure sign of our success.'  And verbatim:  "If we can get by this crisis, maybe we can fom a government that does bring stability to Iraq."  In his case, it's probably PR spin. Since this was 2006, his conditional raised the issue of why a stable government hadn't been formed yet in three years, but regardless, Jeffrey wanted to move straight past the harsh realities in Iraq to assume his conditional happy outcome.  His move shut down honest discussion rather than pushing it deeper.   (I also remember someone else saying something like, 'If things get better, then we can look back to this as the turning point," or some such silliness – because the conditional was offered as an assertion that things were getting better.) 

    Getting caught up in a conditional statement can be a form of confirmation bias or wishful thinking, but I think I'm most used to seeing it as a sleight-of-hand.  I'm also reminded of the typical internet libertarian creed: If the government is inherently evil, then we must oppose [X] (such as sexual harrasment laws, as covered in a few excellent CT posts).  The premise is assumed to be absolutely true and never really questioned.  (But I may have moved far afield of your main point…)  

  4. Scott that is very clever; this suggests that sometimes it’s better just to be wrong the simple way.

    Batocchio and JSB, those are great observations. I think the terrorist case is precisely the point here, as what Dick Cheney (and his sophistical fellow travelers, a good band name btw) could be arguing is this: “I said IF it’s the case that torture could stop a terrorists attack, then it’s justified, well, it’s logically possible that it could, so there is a justification for torture.” So their argument appears on the surface to be one about conditionals, so they appear to be making a refined logical point. In reality, however, they’re confusing logical possibility and probability. The conditional they use makes it look like logical possibility is sufficient to verify their conditional, when in reality something much stronger is required.

  5. JC, right you are.  From a review of Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine (bolding mine):

    "The One Percent Doctrine" takes its title from an episode in late November 2001. Amid fears of a "second wave" attack after 9/11, Tenet laid out for Vice President Cheney and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice a stunning trove of new intelligence, much of which Suskind reveals for the first time: Two Pakistani scientists who previously offered to help Libya build a nuclear bomb were known to have met with Osama bin Laden. (Later, Suskind reports, the U.S. government would discover that bin Laden asked pointedly what his next steps should be if he already possessed enriched uranium.) Cheney, by Suskind's account, had been grappling with how to think about "a low-probability, high-impact event." By the time the briefing was over, he had his answer: "If there's a one percent chance that Pakistani scientists are helping al Qaeda build or develop a nuclear weapon, we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response."
    This "Cheney Doctrine" let Bush evade analytic debate, Suskind writes, and "rely on impulse and improvisation to a degree that was without precedent for a modern president." But that approach constricted the mission of the intelligence and counterterrorism professionals whose point of view dominates this book.

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