Category Archives: Good Arguments


Many readers of this site know that the fallacious variety of ad hominem argument admits of many different types–the abusive, the circumstantial, the tu quoque, and much much more.  Some friends of The Non Sequitur, Scott Aikin and Bob Talisse, have written an illuminating and entertaining piece on the tu quoque variety for the magazine Scientific American Mind.  Read it here.

For those who don't remember, one is guilty of the the ad hominem tu quoque variety of fallacy when one charges one's opponent with hyprocrisy when such hypocrisy is irrelevant to the strength, cogency, validity or whatever of the opponent's argument.  Al Gore's riding in a private jet does not make Al Gore's claims about global warming false. Sure, it's rhetorically effective to talk about Al Gore's private jet riding, it's even fun, but so are a lot of sophistries.  That's why they're called "sophistries."  But, like all informal fallacies, it's a kind of cheating–and cheating is a kind of stealing in that one claims to have demonstrated what one clearly has not–and, as the mindless dogma of liberal academia has it, stealing is wrong.  In this case, one claims to have shown something about climate change by showing something about Al Gore.  To say anything worthwhile about climate change, however, you have to do the necessary work–pointing out Al Gore's electricity usage does not count.  

In addition to discussing the general questions of relevance central to the definition of the ad hominem tu quoque argument, Aikin and Talisse also point out that sometimes the hyprocisy may underscore rather than contradict the hypocrite's point. So, for instance, if a smoker recommends someone quit or not start for health reasons, we might look at that apparent hypocrisy more creatively.  Their not being able to quit underscores one of the dangers of smoking.

In addition to that insightful point, what is most interesting about the article are the clueless and unhinged responses in the comment section.  Some people simply cannot read the four letter string G-O-R-E without losing it.  

Sobriety test

Normally nominally liberal Richard Cohen finds a way to stink up the Post's editorial page.  Today, however, he's discovered an interest in facts and logic–one which, by the way, we wholeheartedly endorse.  He writes:

In her debate against Joe Biden last week, she mischaracterized Barack Obama's tax plan and his offer to meet with foreign adversaries of the United States. She found whole new powers for the vice president by misreading the Constitution, if she ever read it at all. She called one moment for the federal government to virtually disappear and a moment later lamented the lack of its oversight of the financial markets. She asserted that she "may not answer the questions the way that either the moderator or you [Biden] want to hear" because, apparently, the rules don't apply to her on account of her being a hockey mom. Fer sure.

Not enough? Okay. Palin also said that she "and others in the legislature" had called for the state of Alaska to divest itself of investments in companies that do business with Sudan. But, as the indefatigable truth-hunter at The Post found out, the divestiture effort was not led by Palin. In fact, her administration opposed the initiative, and Palin herself only came around to it after the bill had died.

In spite of it all, much of the media saw a credible performance. I could quote the hosannas of some of my colleagues, but I spare them the infamy that will surely follow them to their graves. (The debate's moderator, Gwen Ifill, used the occasion to catch up on some sleep.) Many of my colleagues judged Palin simply as a performer and inferred that her performance would go over well in homes with aboveground swimming pools.

A perfect example is the Wall Street Journal, whose (conservative) editorial page has been absolutely fixated on a strict (Scalian) reading of the Constitution. Did it wonder what in the world Palin meant by the authority she found in the Constitution to increase the role of "the vice president if that vice president so chose to exert it in working with the Senate"? What? Oh, never mind. The Journal chivalrously ignored the matter. Palin is excused from knowing the limits of the office she seeks.

In effect, columnists, bloggers, talk-show hosts and digital lamplighters have adopted the ethic of the political consultant: what works, works. It did not matter what Palin said. It only mattered how she said it — all those doggones, references to her working-class status (net worth in excess of $2 million), promiscuous use of the word "maverick," repeated mentions of "greed and corruption on Wall Street" (Who? Be specific. Give examples. Didn't anyone here go to school?) and, of course, that manic good cheer. Palin knows that the standard is not right or wrong, truth or lie, but the graph that ran under both debaters on CNN, measuring approval, disapproval or, maybe, the blood sugar levels of certain people in their focus group. Things have changed. Might used to make right. Now a wink does.

I think we've seen several of these columnists over here–I'm looking at you David Broder–claiming the only thing that mattered, as John Stewart remarked last night on the Daily Show, was that Palin pass a sobriety test.

Why We Fight

I'm reminded today of a set of arguments that I find both compelling and well-executed, a set of arguments that is sadly under-appreciated (in my view, anyway). And while much of what we do here is criticism, today we turn our attentions to some good arguments. We've commented recently on certain views on American patriotism, as well as on various uses and abuses of the term "fascism," especially as they are applied to those who might offer up dissent to the policies of the current administration. A troubling trend in recent political op-eds is that fascism–and its (erroneously so-called) cousins, communism and terrorism–has been posited as the binary opposite of patriotism. So, today we discuss dissent. And there could no more fitting day than the anniversary of this manifesto of dissent. The men and women who founded this country were concerned about dissent. After all, its very founding was an act of dissent. And so, once it was born, they worried what might happen if some recalcitrant groups of citizens decided to up and overthrow them.  One of them had an answer:

By a faction, I understand a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or a minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

I'd like to note two things here: one, Madison begins by clearly defining his terms. He avoids any equivocation and the likelihood of misinterpretation by getting his terms clear from the start. Two, the argument here is clearly and deftly stated. No tricks, no semantic sleight-of-hand, just premises and conclusions. Read it through, please. It's a wonderful piece of argument. On a deeper level though, notice that differing opinions are not only to be tolerated by the government, but cultivated by the government. As Madison will go on to argue, it is only the effects of faction that need to be controlled, and this will happen naturally, as a function of widely differing opinions. This is not the language of fealty and demagoguery; it is the language of free expression and independent thought.

Here's our bit: this was written in a newspaper. It is no small shame that such elevated and concise discourse does not occupy the op-ed pages of today's newspapers. Instead we have partisan-baiting, ad hominem attacks, and rhetorical trickery. Our national discourse is in shambles and we bear the burden of bringing it back up. Don't settle. Demand something better. That's why we do what we do here. Not because we like to titillate ourselves with the cleverness of our ratiocinations, nor because we think the refutation of some pundit's stance on a particular issue proves the veracity of our own privately-held view. We do it because it is in the best American spirit to speak out. So, we'll be here, gentle reader, keeping up the fight. We wish you and yours the very best on this Fourth of July.

Clever ignoramus

It's hard to believe George Will wrote these words:

The day after the Supreme Court ruled that detainees imprisoned at Guantanamo are entitled to seek habeas corpus hearings, John McCain called it "one of the worst decisions in the history of this country." Well.

Does it rank with Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857), which concocted a constitutional right, unmentioned in the document, to own slaves and held that black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect? With Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which affirmed the constitutionality of legally enforced racial segregation? With Korematsu v. United States (1944), which affirmed the wartime right to sweep American citizens of Japanese ancestry into concentration camps?

Did McCain's extravagant condemnation of the court's habeas ruling result from his reading the 126 pages of opinions and dissents? More likely, some clever ignoramus convinced him that this decision could make the Supreme Court — meaning, which candidate would select the best judicial nominees — a campaign issue.

The decision, however, was 5 to 4. The nine justices are of varying quality, but there are not five fools or knaves. The question of the detainees' — and the government's — rights is a matter about which intelligent people of good will can differ.

Hard to believe because he normally treats people who disagree with his faux constitutional originalism as clueless college socialists bent on remaking American society through the courts.  

Here at least the ignoramus is "clever."  But besides, even though he falls on (what I would consider) the right side of the issue of habeas corpus (i.e., habeas corpus good! not habeas corpus bad!), his technique for making his point, save a few conciliatory words, remains essentially the same: opponent is fool with no knowledge or good sense.  Since the arguments against the High Court's ruling have little to do, obviously, with any legal knowledge about the court, the notion of habeas corpus, or the Constitution, this time Will is right.   

We will be interested to see if in the future "intelligent people of good will can differ." 

New fallacies

Courtesy of George Will, here’s a new fallacy (one he doesn’t commit, by the way):

U.S. policy toward Cuba should, however, be conditioned, and perhaps haunted, by U.S. policy toward China.
That policy was supposed to result in steady, slow-motion regime change
through candid subversion in broad daylight. The premise has been that
the cure for communism is commerce with the capitalist world. The
assumption is that capitalism brings, because it requires, an ethic of
trust and the rule of law in the form of promise-keeping (contracts).
Also, the protection of private property gives individuals a sphere of
sovereignty and whets their appetites for a politics of popular

This has been called "the Starbucks
(see James Mann’s book "The China Fantasy"): When people
become accustomed to many choices of coffee, they will demand many
political choices. This doctrine may be being refuted by the emergence
of a China that has become wealthier without becoming less

In addition to this self-effacing tidbit, the rest of his op-ed today seemed a model of reasonableness.  It’s not so hard to do, really.




Paul Krugman asks an important question:

>But here’s what I don’t understand: Why isn’t Mr. Giuliani’s behavior here considered not just a case of bad policy analysis but a character issue?

What’s Giuliani’s behavior? Constructing fallacious arguments against health care reform.

School bells ringing

This (from Paul Krugman) strikes me as a fairly reasonable argument:

>The truth is that there’s no difference in principle between saying that every American child is entitled to an education and saying that every American child is entitled to adequate health care. It’s just a matter of historical accident that we think of access to free K-12 education as a basic right, but consider having the government pay children’s medical bills “welfare,“ with all the negative connotations that go with that term.


At long last, a response

Not often does one see columnists argue openly with each other–especially columnists of the same newspaper. The best they can usually muster is the straw man “some say . . “. That’s why it’s refreshing to read the following from Sebastian Mallaby of the Washington Post:

>Some say the bank isn’t worth rescuing. My colleague George F. Will asserts that 90 percent of the bank’s loans go to 27 middle-income countries that can get all the development finance they need from private capital markets. But this statistic leaves out the bank’s soft-loan and grant-making arm, which serves countries with gross domestic products of less than $965 per capita. Counting that, just under half of the bank’s money went to poor countries in 2006. The middle-income countries that received the rest of the cash include such places as China and Brazil, which are home to millions of poor people.

>The bank’s critics ought to understand that while capital markets are marvelous things, they can’t be expected to do everything. Private investors won’t provide loans in the midst of a crisis, as the World Bank did during the East Asian meltdown a decade ago. Private investors tend not to finance global public goods — projects that are important for the world but not a priority for any one country. The world needs to curb carbon emissions, for example, but an individual country won’t capture all the benefits of a clean coal plant, since these benefits are shared globally. Because of this “externality” problem, there is a role for the World Bank in subsidizing anti-carbon policies.

We were struck by that same op-ed (for a different reason). Notice two things. Mallaby names his opponent specifically and he provides a link to the original argument (rather than a partial contextless quotation (so often the hoist by your own petard strategy employed by Will) or an unfriendly synopsis). If you have a question about Mallaby’s fairness (which you might) he tells you where to look. It’s almost as if Mallaby were some kind of media critic blogger. Now one can hardly expect the op-ed page to turn into the debate page. But a little awareness of each other seems to be a step in the direction of actual intellectual engagement.


So often I hear people admit that while the argument in some op-ed is wrong, "the point" is somehow still good. To some extent, such an attitude is due to the principle of charity. Too much charity, in my book, because the point of the op-ed is an admitted failure. To this end, Simon Maloy of makes an indispensable, um, point:

Here's a quick lesson for Poe on the relationship between "facts" and "points": When making a "point," one must rely on "facts." When one's "facts" turn out to be false, one no longer has a "point." The "facts" Theodoracopoulos used in his article turned out to be false — a "fact" Poe acknowledged — which means Theodoracopoulos ceased to have a "point."

We would say the same thing. We would also add, when one's argument turns out to be weak, one ceases also then to have a point.

Krugman Challenge Day 2 (I heart Krugman edition)

Today we’ll take another stab at the logic of Paul Krugman’s column (Times Select). Once again, the Krugman Challenge is an attempt to examine whether Paul Krugman commits fewer egregious logical sins than some of his colleagues. We are looking strictly speaking for commission of traditional logical fallacies, though considering along the way how his arguments work and whether they are made adequately explicit.

Krugman offers an argument for universal health care on two grounds:

>If we had a universal system — Medicare for everyone — there would be no more horror stories like those reported by The Los Angeles Times. And we’d almost certainly spend less on health care than we do now.

The first of these grounds is his concern for the majority of the column. The story from the L.A. Times provides some details of cases where people have purchased individual insurance, become sick, and then found their insurance company revoking coverage for various technical reasons. Krugman cites only 1 case and then asserts:

>This trend helps explain something that has been puzzling me: why is the health insurance industry growing rapidly, even as it covers fewer Americans?

Of course, Krugman has only cited one anecdote with a reference to the LA Times article on Sunday.

The original article claims that these cancellations–or at least the complaints and lawsuits that issue from them–have been suffered by people with individual insurance plans (of which there are 2 million in California) rather than group plans.

So is there evidence of a “trend” that can explain (or help explain) the rapid growth of the health industry? Well that’s hard for me to judge based on the data before me, and I will have to leave that to someone with access to relevant data. But it seems reasonable to take, in this case, the evidence of a series of lawsuits including depositions that show (“But an employee said in a deposition last year that a special department considers as many as 1,500 cases for cancellation each week in California alone. A consumer lawyer who saw Blue Cross’ cancellation tally sheets described the department as a rescission factory,” and coupled with regulators interest in these practices to suggest the existence of a “trend” (even though none of this evidence is directly cited in the article, the reference to its source seems more than adequate).

Can this trend provide explanation of the growth of the industry? Krugman doesn’t give us any particulars. However, immediately after this he talks about the growth of the industry as measured by employment, dazzling the reader with a series of statistics whose relevance to the question seems tenuous.
>Health care is poised to become America’s largest industry. Employment in manufacturing, which once dominated the
economy, has fallen 18 percent since 2000, to 14.2 million.

To which he adds:

>Yet even as health care becomes the core of the American economy, our system of paying for health care remains sick, and is getting sicker.

The sickness of health care is reflected in the decline of employment based coverage forcing either people to remain uninsured or seeking individual insurance. This coupled with the trend of jettisoning costly coverage where possible results in a trend towards only the healthiest and wealthiest having good insurance.

We will leave his comparison of the inefficiency of private health providers and the efficiency of government systems for another time when he offers a fuller argument for it.

So, how should we assess his argument? Once again Krugman avoids any glaringly fallacious argumentation. His argument is under-developed, but not in an obviously flawed way. There is a little bit of fuzziness connecting the “trend” of revoking coverage and the claim that it “helps explain” the growth of the industry. We have no real sense of the magnitude of the effects of this trend, or whether there are better explanations for the growth (such as providing increased services (as evidenced by increased employment?) to increased markets?). But, if the companies are interested in jettisoning costs (in some cases illegitimately) we must assume with Krugman that they are doing this as a result of “market pressures.” And so it must have some effect on their profitabiliy.

Nevertheless, since Krugman’s conclusion is that a public health care system would avoid cases like the one’s reported in the LA Times and cost less money, the part of his argument supporting the first claim seems adequately defended. (These cases are caused by the profit motive. In a public system profit motive is absent. Therefore these cases wouldn’t occur.)

Seems we will be returning for Krugman Challenge, Day 3!