Category Archives: Ignoratio Elenchi

Ignorance of the proof–general cluelessness as to what the evidence shows.

War, Hypocrites, and Islam

Tu quoque arguments are posited on finding a contradiction or tension in the other side's position with regard to the matter at issue, and then holding on that basis that the other side is wrong or at least not qualified to speak to the issue.  I've argued elsewhere ("Tu quoque arguments and the significance of Hypocrisy" and "The truth about hypocrisy," with Robert Talisse) that sometimes these arguments are acceptable — e.g., if someone keeps contradicting himself, that's evidence he doesn't know what he's talking about.  Other times, the inconsistency of the other side is simply irrelevant to the issue (the classic example: even if your father smokes, he's right that you shouldn't smoke, and the fact that he is a smoker is at best irrelevant to the issue, and perhaps actually improves his case, as he, himself, is a testament to how addictive it is).

The tu quoque comes in a variety of forms.  The most significant differentiation to make is between the inconsistencies of speech and speech and speech and act.  The first is about a person who can't keep his story straight.  The second is about hypocrites.  Often the hypocrisy is actual — the person really says "do X" and they turn around and do not-X.  But sometimes, the inconsistency of the other side isn't something that's an actual inconsistency, just one that's likely.  One that would happen….  That is, sometimes the other side may not now be inconsistent, but if things were a little different, the other side would be singing a different tune.  So you say, "You say that now, under these circumstances, but were the shoe on the other foot…"  Colin called this phenomenon subjunctive tu quoque.

I've been on the lookout for it and for a few varieties, and I've found an interesting one in Sam Harris's The End of Faith (Norton, 2004).  Harris makes the case that we (in the West) shouldn't be too hard on ourselves for all the just war norms that we bend when we fight against Muslims.  His reasoning is perfectly subjunctive tu quoque.  First, in defending the way Israel deals with Palestinian aggression:

Ask yourself, what are the chances that the Palestinians would show the same restraint in killing Jews were a powerless minority living under their occupation and disposed to acts of suicidal terrorism? (2004, 135)

Harris uses the same form of reasoning when mitigating blame for disproportionate use of force in Iraq:

If the situation had been reversed, what are the chances that the Iraqi Revolutionary Guard, attempting to execute a regime change on the Potomac, would have taken the same degree of care to minimize civilian casualties? What are the chances that Iraqi forces would have been deterred by our use of human shields? (2004, 146)

The reasoning is appealing, but it doesn't support the conclusion that it's OK to be more cavalier in war with Muslims.  Jus in bello isn't affected by how the other side would be treating you, if they had the upper hand.  If it's unjust to wage war indiscriminately, it's unjust; and the fact that the other side has a clear inclination toward injustice may be a good reason to be at war with them, but it is not a reason to break the rules of war.

This said, I do want to retrieve what's appealing about the reasoning.  It does seem wrong for someone to insist on the rules of war when it's also clear that they, themselves, would not feel bound by them were they the dominant power.  It seems, first, dishonest.  And second, it seems like the use of moral argument is strictly strategic, instead of moral.  The most that would follow from the Harris arguments would be that there is a member of the discussion who is not an honest arbiter. 

One final thing is that these subjunctive moves carry a weird burden of proof, that it seems, is difficult to satisfy.  It's one thing to show that someone's a hypocrite — all you need to show is that he said "Do X" and then show that he did not-X.  But how do you show that the person, after having said "Do X" would nevertheless would, if circumstances were different, would do not X?

Gusher

So by now everyone knows that oil is being spilled into the Gulf of Mexico at a rate higher than 0 gallons.  That's bad for all involved.  What lessons do we draw from BP's epic failure to be regulated?  Let's ask David Brooks:

Everybody is comparing the oil spill to Hurricane Katrina, but the real parallel could be the Iranian hostage crisis. In the late 1970s, the hostage crisis became a symbol of America’s inability to take decisive action in the face of pervasive problems. In the same way, the uncontrolled oil plume could become the objective correlative of the country’s inability to govern itself.

Well if by "everybody" David Brooks means "everybody on Fox News and in the Right Wing think tanks David Brooks listens to," then, yes, everyone is comparing this unrelated thing to Hurricane Katrina.  In any case, the real parallel doesn't seem to be the Hostage Crisis either.  By all accounts, the Iranians had something to do with that (and it wasn't an accident).  (Funny thing: the other day George Will said that BP's failure demonstrates the failure of the regulatory system–rather than the failure of specific regulators). 

Brooks is drawing, I think, some pretty weird conclusions from the tandem failure of BP to control their own mess and of the government to make sure they don't make a mess in the first place.  What this fiasco tells me is this: BP ought to have to get some kind of permit and submit to some kind of honest inspection if they are to put everyone's oysters at risk. 

Indeed, perhaps it's time for the extreme socialism Obama has been advocating.

(For the humorless, the last sentence is a joke) 

Personal virtue

Charles Krauthammer wonders:

Here's my question: Why were we drilling in 5,000 feet of water in the first place?

Ooo, Ooo [note–how does one write that Horshack noise?] pick me: "because oil, an increasingly scarce, difficult to procure, and fundamentally dangerous commodity must be the basis of our energy policy."  Or perhaps I could put this another way:

 Conservation may be a sign of personal virtue, but it is not the basis for a sound energy policy

That's Dick Cheney, mocking the idea that our energy policy (in May of 2001) ought to consist entirely in fossil fuel procurement.  Anyway, it's echoed in Krauthammer's attitude toward environmentalism:

Many reasons, but this one goes unmentioned: Environmental chic has driven us out there. As production from the shallower Gulf of Mexico wells declines, we go deep (1,000 feet and more) and ultra deep (5,000 feet and more), in part because environmentalists have succeeded in rendering the Pacific and nearly all the Atlantic coast off-limits to oil production. (President Obama's tentative, selective opening of some Atlantic and offshore Alaska sites is now dead.) And of course, in the safest of all places, on land, we've had a 30-year ban on drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

That's right.  Blame those same environmentalists who have been saying, for quite a while now, that "conservation" (only one aspect, by the way, of the view mocked by Cheney–no one argued that conservation was the basis of a sound energy policy) is a public virtue–precisely because of spills such as these.  

*made some minor edits.

You have a right to be wrong

True story.  A few years back one of my students had confused some minor matter about a text of Plato.  When I pointed that out, another student commented: "He has a right to be wrong."  That odd justification comes out in a George Will op-ed where he, unlike his usual, argues for new rights not enumerated in the constitution.  Now of course he probably thinks he can get there with a series of individually valid inferences.  Fine, but you have to understand that any other time one maintains a right not specifically enumerated in the Constitution, Will will shout "judicial activism" or some other synonym.  Don't get me wrong, I believe in the concept of inferential rights, I just think it's funny that Will doesn't, until he does.

This is not to say, however, that Will does not have a point.  He may, but I think, as is perhaps no surprise, that his argument for it sucks.  He maintains as a kind of premise one that liberals want to coerce others to believe like they do–this is their MO, which is a word the very pretentious Will would likely spell out: Modus operandi.  It's a little ironic, since the specific topic in question concerns the desire of some (not the liberals) to limit the rights of others to engage in private, self-regarding behavior.  Some people, not happy with the structure of our democracy (where fundamental rights get interpreted out of the Constitution sometimes), gather signatures to put such matters on the ballot.  This raises an important question: are signatures on referendums like voting and therefore private? 

I think it's fair to say that such a question admits of no easy answer.  But just because it doesn't admit of an easy answer, does not mean any answer, such as the following one offered by Will, will suffice:

The Supreme Court has held that disclosure requirements serve three government interests: They provide information about the flow of political money, they deter corruption and avoid the appearance thereof by revealing large contributions, and they facilitate enforcement of contribution limits. These pertain only to financial information in candidate elections. These cannot justify compelled disclosures regarding referendums because referendums raise no issues of officials' future performance in office — being corruptly responsive to financial contributors. The only relevant information about referendums is in the text of the propositions.

In 1973, Washington's secretary of state ruled that signing an initiative or referendum petition is "a form of voting" and that violating voters' privacy could have adverse "political ramifications" for those signing. In 2009, some advocates of disclosure plan to put signers' names on the Internet in order to force "uncomfortable" conversations.

In the interest of fairness, something I'm always interested in by the way, the above two paragraphs make some attempt at arguing for the position that referendum signatures ought to be private.  I think their attempt fails: The first is irrelevant to the particular issue and the second cites the irrelevant precedent of the secretary of state.  A referendum petition by any standard is not a vote: you sign your name and put your address on it for the purposes of public inspection of its authenticity.  You do not sign your vote. 

In any case, the following arguments for the above proposition really blow:

Larry Stickney, a social conservative and president of the Washington Values Alliance, says that disclosure of the identities of petitioners will enable "ideological background checks" that will have a chilling effect on political participation. He frequently encounters people who flinch from involvement with the referendum when they learn that disclosure of their involvement is possible. He has received abusive e-mails and late-night telephone calls and has seen a stranger on his front lawn taking pictures of his house.

The Wall Street Journal's John Fund reports that some Californians who gave financial support to last year's successful campaign for Proposition 8 — it declared marriage to be only between a man and a woman — subsequently suffered significant harm. For example, the director of the Los Angeles Film Festival, who contributed $1,500, was forced to resign. So was the manager of a fashionable Los Angeles restaurant who contributed just $100.

The first paragraph offers evidence that vociferous advocates may suffer the paranoia that comes along with taking an unpopular position on a matter of public interest.  It does not establish that a private citizen whose only action was signing a petition may suffer these things.  The second paragraph shows that people who have given financial support, something about which disclosure has been determined to be legitimate (and admitted to by Will himself only a three paragraphs before) have suffered harm.  I don't think one can be fired for one's political affiliations–there are laws against that I believe.

Charles Bouley, a gay columnist, has honorably protested such bullying. He says that people "have the right to be wrong," and reminds gay activists: "Even Barack Obama said marriage was between a man and a woman at a time when we needed his voice on our side on equality. He let us down, too, remember, and many of you still gave him a job."

Indeed, people do have a right to be wrong, and others have a duty to point that out.

Dubious is as dubious does

Apparently, John's latest foray into the entangling brambles of Will's global warming denial struck a chord.  In particular, his questioning the expertise of Will and Mark Steyn to one, deny global warming, and two, to properly adjudicate what qualifies as adequate evidence for their denials seemed to have aroused the ire of none less than Steyn himself. To wit:

In a column about "the environment" the other day, George Will quoted yours truly, and has received a lot of grief ever since for relying on a notorious know-nothing.

As he should.  Part of constructing a refutation of a given position is making sure the expertise of the sources one cites in said refutation is commensurate to level of expertise one is seeking to refute.  In short, you don't go ask a carpenter to cut you a porterhouse.  But rather than acknowledge the dubious nature of his source, Steyn lapses into some dubious rhetorical trickery of his own, quoting Thomas Friedman's (neatly deprived of context) admonition to further reduce carbon footprints, then providing a picture of Friedman's ample estate. The conclusion we're meant to draw?

Well, obviously, being a renowned expert, Thomas Friedman, like Al Gore and the Prince of Wales, needs a supersized carbon footprint.

Ah, yes.  They're all hypocrites.  We've touched on this favorite hobby horse of the global warming deniers before (here and here).  What we said then bears repeating now.  Al Gore, Thomas Friedman and a whole host of pocket-mulching hippies could be the biggest hypocrites that ever walked the face of the earth: they drive the biggest trucks, own the biggest houses, fly to conferences in jets fueled with Ozone Penentrator 2.0 while tossing styrofoam plates out of the plane and it would not matter one whit, in so far as the facts of global warming are concerned.  But you see, it's always easier to attack the arguer than the argument. Moreover, Steyn's not done reasoning like a lazy freshman:

But you don't [need a huge carbon footprint]- you can get by beating your laundry on the rocks down by the river with the native women all day long.

"Environmentalism" is a government restraint on economic advance and, therefore, social mobility. In other words, it's a way to ensure you'll never live like Tom Friedman.

Maybe it's just the fact that I've misplaced my tinfoil hat, but a more bizarre and unwarranted conclusion, I cannot imagine.  Especially in light of the fact that governments the world over have long been among the most vehement opponents of environmental movement.  Of particular note, our own.

Iron Justice

Today the Washington Post features a column by the "liberal" Richard Cohen.  He writes:

In the meantime, Sotomayor will do, and will do very nicely, as a personification of what ails the American left. She is, as everyone has pointed out, in the mainstream of American liberalism, a stream both intellectually shallow and preoccupied with the past. We have a neat summary of it in the recent remarks of Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who said he wanted a Supreme Court justice "who will continue to move the court forward in protecting . . . important civil rights." He cited the shooting of a gay youth, the gang rape of a lesbian and the murder of a black man — in other words, violence based on homophobia and racism. Yes. But who nowadays disagrees? 

No really.  His problem, so it seems, is that Sotomayor may be boring (unlike Scalia):

From Sotomayor, though, came not one whimper of regret about the current legality of capital punishment. Innocent men may die, the cause of humanism may stall, but she will follow the jot and tittle of the law, with which she has no quarrel anyway. Little wonder moderate conservative senators are enamored.

Contrast her approach to this and other problems with what Antonin Scalia has done with issues close to his own heart. Where in all of Sotomayor's opinions, speeches and now testimony is there anything approaching Scalia's dissent in Morrison v. Olson, in which, alone, he not only found fault with the law creating special prosecutors but warned about how it would someday be abused? "Frequently an issue of this sort will come before the court clad, so to speak, in sheep's clothing," he wrote. "But this wolf comes as a wolf."

My admiration for Scalia is constrained by the fact that I frequently believe him to be wrong. But his thinking is often fresh, his writing is often bracing; and, more to my point, he has no counterpart on the left. His liberal and moderate brethren wallow in bromides; they can sometimes outvote him, but they cannot outthink him.

It's not Iron Chef, it's the Supreme Court of the United States: boring yet principled predictability and meticulous correctness matter.

He’s an Arab

Among the various fallacies of irrelevance is the "ignoratio elenchi."  This often has the very unhelpful and imprecise role of being a catch-all category for any relevance problem not covered by another more precise description (It's other more usual role covers arguments whose extreme conclusions are unwarranted by the evidence).  Along these lines, Ross Douthat considers the following evidence:

This ideal has had a tough 10 months. It’s been tarnished by Palin herself, obviously. With her missteps, scandals, dreadful interviews and self-pitying monologues, she’s botched an essential democratic role — the ordinary citizen who takes on the elites, the up-by-your-bootstraps role embodied by politicians from Andrew Jackson down to Harry Truman.  

And concludes:

But Sarah Palin represents the democratic ideal — that anyone can grow up to be a great success story without graduating from Columbia and Harvard.

What's the success story now?  Sheleft Wasilia in financial ruin, lost in a national election, and quit the governorship of Alaska after 30 months for reasons no one can decipher.

But here's another round of complete nincompoopery from the author of this piece:

Here are lessons of the Sarah Palin experience, for any aspiring politician who shares her background and her sex. Your children will go through the tabloid wringer. Your religion will be mocked and misrepresented. Your political record will be distorted, to better parody your family and your faith. (And no, gentle reader, Palin did not insist on abstinence-only sex education, slash funds for special-needs children or inject creationism into public schools.)

This was also not the lesson of the Obama experience?  Only Obama's political record (and by obvious implication his citizenship, patriotism, political record, etc.) was gleefully distorted by Palin.

Judgement at Nuremberg

Kathleen Parker cluelessly asks:

When did we start punishing lawyers for producing opinions with which we disagree? And where does that road lead?

The answer: Nuremberg

And that's not the dumbest part of her argument.  This inexplicably moronic assertion (seen by now all over the place, e.g., here) shows up as well:

Moreover, the same technique is used to train our own military personnel, who do not suffer severe physical pain or prolonged mental harm. 

The logic of this claim is completely baffling.  If we use the technique known as waterboarding in order to prepare our military personnel for the kinds of torture that the enemy might use against them, then on that account it's not torture if we use it against the enemy.  But if it's not torture, then we are either tormenting our soldiers for no good reason or we are giving the enemy a pass in virtue of our using it as training.  

More enhanced logical techniques

Ethics is full of thought experiments.  The Trolley problem, for instance.  Such thought experiments allow one to articulate one's moral principles.  They do not serve, however, as definitions of morally permissible conduct.  The ticking time bomb scenario, a favorite among consumers of torture pornography, might be a useful way to think about "what we would do if. . . " But it's sheer unlikelihood makes it unhelpful as an everyday guide.  Just because it can happen, and perhaps has happened, does not mean that we structure ou