Under a description

Here’s a way you can straw man someone.  Pick out a bad decision she made, then say she chose that bad part of the decision.  For example, say my wife and I are  trying to decide where to vacation.  She wants to go to a cabin in the woods – something rustic and woodsy.  But we get there, and the cabin’s filled with spiders and there’s a raccoon in the fireplace.  Angrily, I say: We could have gone to Chicago, but you preferred a cabin filled with arachnids and vermin! Yes, that’s the choice she made, but not what she chose as she chose it.  What she chose was rustic vacation… what that choice yielded was spiders and a hissing varmit.  The lesson: our desires are propositional attitudes, and those attitudes represent what we desire or choose under a specific description.  Again, she chose rustic cabin… and it happened to have spiders.  She didn’t prefer the spiders.  She just chose something that turned out had them.  That’s not choosing spiders.  So it’s a straw man – you’re misrepresenting the intentions of your interlocutor by describing them under the description of their worst consequences.

OK.  So now the point about choice under a description and straw-manning is clear, let’s turn to the way George Neumayr over at AmSpec is handling his portrayal of the Obama Administration’s turn on foreign policy.  His view is not just that they make bad decisions, but that they choose terrible things.

Ho Chi Minh once said that he won the Vietnam War not in the jungles of Asia but on the streets of America. Islamic terrorists could make a similar claim: from Libya to Egypt to Syria, they rose to power not in spite of American leaders but because of them. Obama and McCain preferred Morsi to Mubarak, the assassins of Christopher Stevens to Gaddafi, and now the enforcers of sharia to Assad.

The final point about Syria is a familiar one.  (If you haven’t, take a quick look at John Dickerson’s Slate overview of the various arguments regarding Syria.)  The point is that there would be an unintended consequence of destabilizing Assad – the opposition’s not a bunch of liberal-minded democrats, but radical Islamists.  But it’s not that with the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration chose to support a member of the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt or that there would be a terrorist attack on a consulate in Libya.  Those were the consequences of the choices, but, again, choices are under descriptions, and not all consequences are the descriptions.

5 thoughts on “Under a description”

  1. Cracking commentary here. Another way to look at this would involve alleging one is committed to the foreseeable logical consequences of one’s propositional attitudes. So I can attack the commitments of government shrinkers as granny starvers, as that’s what that view entails. It certainly seems like, in some cases, I’m on the hook for these consequences. So your wife’s choice of the spider cabin isn’t wrong because it chooses spiders (that’s the distortion), it’s wrong because it failed to consider the foreseeable consequences.

  2. Thanks, John. I like your point about foreseeable consequences being something one chooses (or at least chooses to risk). But I’d weaken the notion of ‘foreseeable.’ Consider the spider cabin choice. Spiders are foreseeable in one sense, in that it is possible that there are spiders in a woodsy cabin. But they weren’t in another sense, in that one has positive evidence that there are spiders and it’s a matter of considering that evidence or not. For sure, afterwards, we’ve got hidsight bias and attribute the latter kind of ‘foreseeable’ to the one we accuse, but it’s more likely that we’ve got a case of the former kind. Even then, I’d still call it straw-manning. (It’ll have to be a discussion in the book, yes?)

  3. Indeed. Walton and Macagno discussed this sense of straw manning in a paper on the manipulation of commitments.

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