Kang or Kodos

Normally the slippery-slope style argument predicts (sometimes but not always fallaciously) a kind of political or moral disaster if a certain kind of thing is allowed.  For this reason I sometimes wonder whether such an argument should be called "argument from permissiveness."  For, if we permit gay marriage, then all manner of things must also be allowed (triple marriage, quadruple marriage, limited liability companies, etc.).  They serve usually as a warning against something relatively minor and incremental: if they get their foot in the door, then you will have to contend with consequences x, y, and dreaded z!  

On this topic, the blogosphere is a aflame with Orrin Hatch's dire warning about the consequences of socialized medicine:

HATCH: That’s their goal. Move people into government that way. Do it in increments. They’ve actually said it. They’ve said it out loud.

Q: This is a step-by-step approach —

HATCH: A step-by-step approach to socialized medicine. And if they get there, of course, you’re going to have a very rough time having a two-party system in this country, because almost everybody’s going to say, “All we ever were, all we ever are, all we ever hope to be depends on the Democratic Party.”

Q: They’ll have reduced the American people to dependency on the federal government.

HATCH: Yeah, you got that right. That’s their goal. That’s what keeps Democrats in power.

There is also a little bit of "you're only saying that because. . . " in here: the Democrats only want health care reform because it keeps them in power.  I think there are more pressing reasons to want it, such as the fact that our current system is killing us, but maybe I'm naive.  

The weird thing about this particular slippery slope is that the consequence Hatch warns against is that people are going to like the Democratic party.  Such will be their adoration that they abolish by their votes the two-party system.

In the first place I think that's very unlikely, but if it were likely–and if Hatch weren't just lying–he'd see that he has just admitted that people would embrace the idea of "socialized medicine"–if they didn't like it,they wouldn't continue in Hatch's fantasy scenario to vote for Democrats.

Reagan quoque

Now that there has been a decisive ideological shift in American politics, I'm beginning to see a huge proliferation of "arguments from hypocrisy," i.e., arguments that accuse people of hypocrisy.  In a very general sense, such arguments can take two forms: good and bad.  The good ones point out some real case of hypocrisy, the bad ones a specious one.  One variety of bad argument from hypocrisy is the ad hominem tu quoque–this is when you accuse someone of hypocrisy when such a charge is irrelevant.

We've seen plenty of ad hominem tu quoques here.  What makes for a good argument from hypocrisy, however?  Is there some kind of expiration date?  Consider along these lines the following from the Washington Monthly

Right-wing leaders continue to find the strangest things to get upset about.

President Obama paid his respects to fallen U.S. soldiers. This doesn't seem like an especially controversial thing to do. President Bush chose not to greet returning caskets during his two terms, and didn't even want journalists to take photographs of the events, but nevertheless went out of his way to advertise private meetings with the families of the fallen. Was this "narcissistic," too?

For that matter, when 16 Americans were killed in an attack on the U. S. Embassy in Beirut, then-President Reagan not only appeared at Andrews Air Force Base to greet the flag-draped coffins, he brought the First Lady and the media, and then talked about his appearance in a weekly radio address. Did that make it a "photo-op"?

To be a hypocrite, one has to hold the beliefs one criticizes in others or one has to have ideological commitments to beliefs one criticizes in others.  The present case is of the latter variety.  The hypocrisy is inferential, since no is charging Bush or Reagan with hypocrisy, just people who purportedly adore them. 

There are two routes out of this charge, I think.  One is to deny they are adored.  For many of the chatterboxes who make these arguments, however, this is hard to do in the Bush case.  Their silence then would impugn them: they adored Bush, and most never criticized him.

The Reagan case, however, is a bit more difficult.  It happened so long ago, I think, that one might wonder whether the expiration date has passed.  One might wonder this, if it weren't for the canonization of St.Reagan.  So I think "Reagan did it too" or "Reagan quoque" still counts.  So given Reagan's stature within the current Republican worldview, one can use him in charges from hypocrisy.  Nixon, on the other hand, probably not–but that doesn't mean former employees of Nixon can accuse others of being Nixonian.  That expiration date has surely not passed.

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.