What’s a non sequitur?

A non sequitur is another general cover all term for logical fallacy.  It’s not true that every instance of failed reasoning (of premises that fail to reach their conclusion) is a non sequitur.  Sometimes the premises are false (which happens to me all of the time, by the way).  Sometimes the premises simply aren’t strong enough to support the conclusion–they’re not false, but they’re aren’t enough of them.  When the premises are absurdly weak, or when their completely irrelevant, or otherwise contorted, then you have what logicians call a "non sequitur."  To call something a non sequitur is a fairly serious charge.  To level it means you think a person guilty of deception–either on account of ignorance or dishonesty.  Now of course we do this all of the time, the name of this site, after all, is "TheNonSequitur" (someone owned the other domain).  For the very large part, people we accuse of "non sequiturs" (for what that means for us precisely see here) fall into the latter category.  They ought to know better.  Many of them have had the best educations money can buy.  Most of them have somehow been granted positions of prominence in national or even international publications.  

So after all of that throat clearing, let’s get to today’s point.  Charles Krauthammer, the man who thinks "slippery slope" is a bonafide form of reasoning, accuses someone (I’m not sure who) of one of "the great non sequiturs of modern American politics."  Funny isn’t it.  Because of course that accusation turns out itself to be a non sequitur.  Here it is:

How did Obama pull that off? By riding one of the great non sequiturs of modern American politics.

goes like this
. Because Obama transcends race, it is therefore assumed
that he will transcend everything else — divisions of region, class,
party, generation and ideology.

The premise here is true — Obama
does transcend race; he has not run as a candidate of minority
grievance; his vision of America is unmistakably post-racial — but the
conclusion does not necessarily follow. It is merely suggested in
Obama’s rhetorically brilliant celebration of American unity: "young
and old, rich and poor, black and white, Latino and Asian — who are
tired of a politics that divides us." Hence "the choice in this
election is not between regions or religions or genders. It’s not about
rich versus poor; young versus old; and it is not about black versus
white. It’s about the past versus the future."

The effect of such
sweeping invocations of unity is electric, particularly because race is
the deepest and most tragic of all American divisions, and this
invocation is being delivered by a man who takes us powerfully beyond
it. The implication is that he is therefore uniquely qualified to
transcend all our other divisions.

It is not an idle suggestion.
It could be true. The problem is that Obama’s own history suggests
that, in his case at least, it is not. Indeed, his Senate record belies
the implication.

I love the passive "it is assumed" as it suggests such grave intellectual irresponsibility–especially because of the issue of Obama’s race that precedes it.  As even the partially informed voter can tell you, no one makes that argument.  And Krauthammer doesn’t even bother to pin it on anyone.  That’s what you call a "straw man."  This happens when you either (1) pick the weakest form of an argument, knock it down, and claim to have knocked down the stronger version; or (2) you make up out of whole cloth (I always wanted to use that phrase) an absurdly weak argument for some position x, proceed to knock it down, and claim to have defeated any argument for position x.  Krauthammer here is guilty of the second variety (unless he wants to scour the globe for the person who holds the "racial" view).

In all fairness, someone at the Post ought to stop him from doing this–he seems incapable on his own.  Really.  After all, he seems like an educated person, he’s got to know that you can’t go about making stuff up.  It’s not so hard really.  When he says "argument x is a huge non sequitur" he ought to ask himself "who makes it?"  If the answer is "no one," then it’s not really anyone’s non sequitur (certainly not the greatest in American politics!).

7 thoughts on “What’s a non sequitur?”

  1. GK Chesterton said it best: "Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions."When Krauthammer, and others like him, think they can convince people of whatever they want us to be convinced using faulty logic, they are insulting their readers. What’s worst is that some of the readers don’t even realize it.

  2. Some slopes really are slippery. You take that first step and next thing you know you’re on your ass at the bottom of the hill. But this argument is just fatuous. Even with maximal charity, it seems that we might allow C.K. to be suggesting that this is a sort of implicit connection that some supporters draw. They see Obama not using race in a divisive way and that makes them feel all warm, fuzzy, and hopeful that he will unify the country. Perhaps. . .. If anyone does follow this line of implicit reasoning, C.K. might be right that it is a bad justification. But presumably the reason people think that Obama is a unifier is that his rhetoric across the board seems to claim so. So, the real reason that people believe Obama will unify is because he has made a persuasive presentation of his intentions. This, of course, does not imply that a) he will unify or b) that he can unify or even c) that he should unify. Just that he has made a persuasive case that he intends to unify. 

  3. the real reason that people believe Obama will unify is because he has made a persuasive presentation of his intentions. And that’s just it–that this is the view held by, in my estimation, a large portion of Obama’s supporters, is never allowed to surface. The petty mind-reading of the punditry has alreadt decided that no one could possibly support any candidate based on a principled stance; we’re all just victims of clever rhetoric and pultroonery.

  4. A "persuasive presentation of his intentions" can be criticized, and it is a perilous form of argumentation. I find myself always perplexed by how we judge intentions based on inferences of character and assertions about those intentions–not just in politicians. C.K. doesn’t deign to address that of course.But, the "I’d have a beer with Bush" crowd and the "I love Obama" crowd are not perhaps so different in terms of logic. What that suggests about political discourse isn’t clear to me, except that the weight of the phrase above is in the word "persuasive." Perhaps it is a question best addressed by psychologists. But yes, Krauthammer is either doing some arm chair psychologizing, or some argument criticism. In the first case his analysis is woefully unsupported, in the second case it is a straw man.    

  5. re: the Beer With Bush and I Like Barack crowds. Can we just accept that some large portion of the electorate makes decisions like this and move on? The "average voter" in this country is not making logical, substantive, or fact-based judgments about the candidates. They’re not making sober decisions after carefully considering the merits of competing platforms. Most people are watching 30-second Headline News-style soundbites and making some sort of affective, possibly-not-even-conscious decision based on "personality", charisma, or like-ability. OK. We get it.
    While CK doesn’t bother with the intricacies of doing research or citing sources, had he bothered to do so he could have found a lot of academic work to justify the characterization of the electorate which underlies his entire column: the Halo Effect. Because people like Obama, they impute other desirable characteristics to him. To which I’d respond, Yeah. And. So. What. Thanks for the newsflash, Chuck.
    Apparently CK believes that this started 6 months ago and owes its existence to Barack Obama. Apparently a lot of other conservatives agree. From the party that canonizes Ronald Reagan, the archetypical empty vessel who Seems Like A Nice Guy To Have a Beer With, I find this misrepresentation of the "novelty" of this phenomenon to be intellectually dishonest. Eleven percent of high-school graduates in this country can’t find Canada on a map; stop boring us with mock indignation and shocking non-revelations about the idea that some people who support Obama do so for reasons that have nothing to do with policy.

  6. Good points Ed.  I guess I’m thinking that when one sits down and writes an op-ed, one has in mind as one’s audience the crowd that studies the issues.  Otherwise, it’s so much wasted paper: "You people who don’t read this column don’t read this column."  The argument of people with no argument–they exist in vast numbers–isn’t an argument.

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