The weak man

The Philosophers' Playground and a commenter point us to an article in Scientific American Mind by two Philosophers (Robert Talisse and Yvonne Raley) on two related logical fallacies–the straw man and, get this, the weak man.  Everyone is familiar with the straw man.  It's what I (perhaps unhappily) tend to call a fallacy of criticism.  In order to defeat an opponent one caricatures the opponent's view, defeats that caricature, and then claims victory over the opponent's real argument.  As the authors correctly point out, it's fairly common.  We have (on our very unscientific survey) identified 109 instances of it.  If we push the fight and defeat analogy a little bit, we might say that the straw man is the equivalent of pummeling someone named "Mike Tyson" (but not the one who is a boxer) and claiming that you beat up the real Mike Tyson.  That's about how relevant your victory will be (even to the Nevada Boxing Commission).  

The weak man works in a related fashion.  Only this time instead of caricaturing an opponent's view, one picks on the weakest of an opponent's arguments, easily defeats it, and claims victory over the opponent's real view.  Here's what the authors of the article say:

In what Talisse dubs a weak man argument, a person sets up the opposition’s weakest (or one of its weakest) arguments or proponents for attack, as opposed to misstating a rival’s position as the straw man argument does.

So rather than fight a fully rested Mike Tyson, you drug him, get him to "agree" to a fight, then beat him up.  There, you beat up Mike Tyson, but it's not a victory to be proud of. 

It seems to me there are two ways to look at this (at least).  In one sense, it's not a fallacy unless you claim that you've defeated a stronger argument than you have.  Defeating a weak argument someone actually makes isn't a crime.  Lots of real arguments offered by real people are bad. 

In another sense, however, the fallacy seems to consist in exchanging the weak argument for the strong argument.  And that seems to be to be just what the straw man does.  The straw man, after all, consists in the switch at the end–you exchange the defeat of a weak argument for the defeat of the strong one.  The only difference is that the opponent in the weak man case gives you the weak version of his argument. 

Perhaps there is another difference I'm overlooking.  Anyone?  A more formal paper (co-authored by Talisse) on the subject can be read here.

14 thoughts on “The weak man”

  1. Thanks for the link to “Getting Duped.” The “more formal” paper (“Two Forms of the Straw Man,” co-authored with Scott Aikin) is of course more detailed. One crucial difference between SM and WM is this: The SM refutes a misrepresentation of one’s opponent’s argument, whereas the WM refutes an accurate portrayal of an opponent’s argument. However, the WM violates a dialectical norm according to which one should take up with the *best* arguments one’s opposition has to offer. Hence, in a WM, if one’s audience does not have first-hand knowledge of the state of play in the dialectic (viz., what the best arguments of the opposition are), one *misleads* one’s audience into thinking that the WM is the best opposing argument. This is dialectically vicious, not only because it is deceptive, but also because it has the effect of suggesting to one’s audience that there’s no need to listen for a rejoinder from the opposition– the *best* they had to offer has been defeated, after all. So the WM has the effect of shutting down argumentation.

  2. Haven’t read the article yet (weekend coming!), but could the difference between the two be expressed by the following false implicit claims?

    SM: This is the reason, and the only reason, offered for the belief that is rejected.

    WM: This is the only reason offered for the belief that is rejected.

    Any time a claim is rejected on the basis of a refutation of a particular argument, it should be asked, what other arguments are there in favor of the claim? Both the straw man and weak man seem to shut down that question with the above implicit claims.

  3. Oddly enough, the distinction between the straw man and the weak man might provide us with a clearer way of understanding what the problem is with non-specialist authors attacking theism (a la Paulos). I especially like this remark in Talisse and Raley’s article (technical):

    A relies on the ignorance of her audience; if A is to elicit their assent with the selection form [weak man] of the straw man fallacy, they must not be familiar with the best arguments made by A’s opposition.

    Thus, the problem with Paulos knocking down the cosmological argument as he presents it (or one of the problems), is that he has not presented the best version of the cosmological argument, and yet succeeds because the ignorance of his audience takes his selection as being THE cosmological argument.

    This gives us a nice way of expressing why popular books written by non-experts can be so misleading, and why we should reject them (the misleading ones) as doing anything other than giving a false sense of accomplishment in both the reader and the arguer.

  4. What strikes me as interesting about the whole thing is that the principle of charity is a logical principle, not a rhetorical one. As such, the strongest argument may not be actually expressed by any of your interlocutors. A weaker one, however, may have a great p.r. man and so be more popular and widely held to be strongest argument, when it is not. The most rhetorically powerful argument might be the weak man. Take any number of the examples here where those with the biggest megaphones peddle lousy arguments. the size of Hannity or Will’s megaphone makes their arguments more important to the actual discourse, but not the argument you would take on if you were being charitable as you ought.

  5. Jem, in a popular book for non-experts is author Paulos required to refute the best version of the cosmological argument, or the one which non-experts most often hear and are most often moved by, if those two things are not the same? In other words, suppose an evangelist vigorously and loudly promotes one of the weaker cosmological arguments in such a way that many non-experts feel themselves to be convinced (perhaps this is done because the stronger arguments are more difficult to follow for non-experts). Should Paulos debate the weaker argument that’s been placed into the debate, or should he introduce the stronger argument and then debate that?

  6. I think David, Jem, and SteveG all make some interesting points here about the place of the weak man argument in popular discourse. In the first place, sometimes, as Steve G points out, people only present weak arguments. The weak arguments presented, however, carry a lot of rhetorical sway. Considering the sheer volume of weak arguments, it’s already a substantial task just to show them to be weak, let alone point out stronger versions of them. And charity, of course, is a lonely word. Not knocking down weak arguments–letting Jonah Goldberg write “Liberal Fascism” without an energetic response gives the uneducated or under or partially informed person the impression of the success of its arguments (or the snobbery of its critics). However appalling the argument is, unfortunately, I think one ought to step up and knock it down.

    I think Jem’s point (and David’s question) concern argument identity. There are weak versions of the cosmological argument, as there are weak versions of every argument. And here I wonder whether we’ve reached an outer limit of the weak man argument. For, what is the stronger version of an argument if one isn’t offered? The weak man might best be viewed as one particularly weak argument among other strong ones. If someone, like the person in David’s example, gives a weak argument, but doesn’t know any better, I don’t see anything wrong with knocking that down–without knocking down a stronger version.

    Arguments, I think, are best understand as particular sets of reasons and conclusions. Knocking down a weak argument, one ought to know, doesn’t amount to knocking down any argument for that conclusion. I think perhaps the scope of the weak man argument is limited by instances where someone makes several arguments for the same conclusion. Otherwise charity would kill us.

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