Category Archives: Argument Analysis

A catch all category for posts which analyze arguments without diagnosing specific failures of logic.

Amoral Scientists or Ethically Serious Presidents

Krauthammer enters into this week's stem cell fooferaw  today. Krauthammer has consistently generated more serious commentary on embryonic stem cell research than his fellow wapo-cons, Will and Gerson. His view on the issue is measured and reasoned–he engages the moral, scientific, and political questions on this issue with a seriousness so often lacking on op-ed pages. He reproduces his position here:

I am not religious. I do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix. Moreover, given the protean power of embryonic manipulation, the temptation it presents to science and the well-recorded human propensity for evil even in the pursuit of good, lines must be drawn. I suggested the bright line prohibiting the deliberate creation of human embryos solely for the instrumental purpose of research — a clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end.

This led him to argue that Bush was right to draw a moral line, permitting the 20 or so (Bush claimed 60) existing stem cell lines derived from destroyed embyros to be used in federally funded research, while denying the use of funds for the creation of new lines (either from discarded embryos or research cloning). Krauthammer, however, disagreed with where the line was drawn, holding that research involving new lines from discarded embryos should be able to be federally funded. (Though the Dickey-Wicker amendment is the real force behind this "ban" and neither Bush nor Obama have the authority to revoke the ban against federal funds for the research involving the destruction of embryos–for Bush to suggest that he was the real authority on this question was false).

Obama however is "morally unserious" in his executive order when he turns the decision over to the scientists.

On this, Obama has nothing to say. He leaves it entirely to the scientists. This is more than moral abdication. It is acquiescence to the mystique of "science" and its inherent moral benevolence. How anyone as sophisticated as Obama can believe this within living memory of Mengele and Tuskegee and the fake (and coercive) South Korean stem cell research is hard to fathom.

He repeats the argument that we've examined this week that scientists are a-moral and so can't be trusted to devise reasonable and responsible policies. Once again I'll note my hesitation in regards to this inference. Unless the President is the only person who can make ethical judgments on this matter, or scientists (Sec of H&HS and Director of NIH) are incapable of ethical consideration in their judgments it wouldn't seem to me to follow from this:

Sec. 2.  Research.  The Secretary of Health and Human Services (Secretary), through the Director of NIH, may support and conduct responsible, scientifically worthy human stem cell research, including human embryonic stem cell research, to the extent permitted by law.

 But, setting that aside for the time being, Krauthammer takes offense at the less reported memorandum signed at the same ceremony.

That part of the ceremony, watched from the safe distance of my office, made me uneasy. The other part — the ostentatious issuance of a memorandum on "restoring scientific integrity to government decision-making" — would have made me walk out.

Restoring? The implication, of course, is that while Obama is guided solely by science, Bush was driven by dogma, ideology and politics.

What an outrage. Bush's nationally televised stem cell speech was the most morally serious address on medical ethics ever given by an American president. It was so scrupulous in presenting the best case for both his view and the contrary view that until the last few minutes, the listener had no idea where Bush would come out. 

Obama's address was morally unserious in the extreme. It was populated, as his didactic discourses always are, with a forest of straw men. Such as his admonition that we must resist the "false choice between sound science and moral values."

The contrast between Bush's televised speech and Obama's address is striking. Of course, we might remember that Bush was presenting the results of the policy process, and Obama is initiating a process. The real disagreement, however, seems to be on the question whether the President should decide this issue himself (on the basis of his moral beliefs) or delegate the formulation of policy to others (with presumably the authority to intervene or reject their policies).

I'll leave the question of whether Krauthammer has correctly identifed a straw man aside here. But Krauthammer smells a contradiction between resisting the "false choice between sound science and moral values" and Obama's view on cloning for human reproduction.

Yet, exactly 2 minutes and 12 seconds later he went on to declare that he would never open the door to the "use of cloning for human reproduction."

Does he not think that a cloned human would be of extraordinary scientific interest? And yet he banned it.

Is he so obtuse as not to see that he had just made a choice of ethics over science? Yet, unlike Bush, who painstakingly explained the balance of ethical and scientific goods he was trying to achieve, Obama did not even pretend to make the case why some practices are morally permissible and others not.

This is not just intellectual laziness. It is the moral arrogance of a man who continuously dismisses his critics as ideological while he is guided exclusively by pragmatism (in economics, social policy, foreign policy) and science in medical ethics.

Science has everything to say about what is possible. Science has nothing to say about what is permissible. Obama's pretense that he will "restore science to its rightful place" and make science, not ideology, dispositive in moral debates is yet more rhetorical sleight of hand — this time to abdicate decision-making and color his own ideological preferences as authentically "scientific."

This seems a bit forced. To claim that there is a "false choice between sound science and moral values" may be an unfair characterization of Bush's embryonic stem cell policy, but it would seem to claim that sound science and moral values can be made consistent with one another, not that moral values should never limit science. Obama's orders and address argue that the balance between scientific aims and moral values should be differently drawn, not erased entirely. Thus, there is no contradiction as far as I can see here:

I can also promise that we will never undertake this research lightly. We will support it only when it is both scientifically worthy and responsibly conducted. We will develop strict guidelines, which we will rigorously enforce, because we cannot ever tolerate misuse or abuse. And we will ensure that our government never opens the door to the use of cloning for human reproduction. It is dangerous, profoundly wrong, and has no place in our society, or any society.

The last two sentences are troublingly open: Obama opens to the door to a policy that allows the cloning of embryos and their destruction for research and therapeutic purposes. What is meant by "cloning for human reproduction" is not entirely clear, but it seems to only rule out making new human beings (i.e., new "people"?). There are moral arguments that can justify these conclusions. Krauthammer seems to think that there are not and so describes them as the result of a sort of amoral pragmatism devoid of ethical considerations. I'm not sure I've gotten to the hearts of the matter here, but it seems as though we are circling around a dichotomy that depending upon how it is formulated and used may either be a false one, or may be an important piece of an argument about the dangers of allowing ethical decisions to be made by beauraucrats and scientists, and therefore a possible criticism of Obama's open-ended delegation of ethical policy.

But, even if it is the latter it needs to be more rigorously formulated than it is here. Krauthammer has argued the slippery slope before–if we allow scientists to decide to what uses embyros should be put, it is likely that we will end up with policies that are significantly beyond most of our moral intuitions and considered beliefs about the use of human life. As I've said  before, I think this argument can be reasonably made.  For the conclusion to be follow,  does not, however, require the premise that scientists are amoral pragmatists and must be restrained by ethically minded Presidents. The weaker premise that enthusiasm for scientific goals might lead scientists to ignore moral considerations is adequate for the inductive conclusion the argument advances and is plausibly true.Krauthammer's hyperbolic and false dichotomy between science and ethics goes much further than that. The weaker premise something that Obama is advocating be done by the relevant branches and offices of our government, and which on the issue of stem cells at least, Bush decided to do himself. 



Coercion and Complicity

I'm not quite sure that I understand the complicity argument that has sprung up among some of those who lost the election and who are upset at Obama's policies. Gerson gave a particularly virulent formulation of it today:

There is a common thread running through President Obama's pro-choice agenda: the coercion of those who disagree with it.

. . . .

Now, taxpayers are likely to fund not only research on the "spare" embryos from in vitro fertilization but also on human lives produced and ended for the sole purpose of scientific exploitation. Biotechnicians have been freed from the vulgar moralism of the masses, so they can operate according to the vulgar utilitarianism of their own social clique — the belief that some human lives can be planted, plucked and processed for the benefit of others. It is the incurable itch of pro-choice activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda. Somehow, getting "politics out of science" translates into taxpayer funding for embryo experimentation. "Choice" becomes a demand on doctors and nurses to violate their deepest beliefs or face discrimination.

The argument seems to be that the fact that some people of conscience disagree with a certain policy on moral grounds presumptively legitimates the conclusion that the policy should not be enacted. The argument seems to be

1. People of conscience are free to have their own moral beliefs.

2. Freedom of moral belief entails (requires) that one is not "forced" to act counter to one's moral belief.

3. Therefore a policy that "forces" you to act indirectly against your moral belief is wrong.

4. Paying taxes to support an activity that runs counter to your moral beliefs is being "forced" to act counter to your moral beliefs.

5. [Therefore the government is wrong to spend money on activities that run counter to some people's moral belief.]

Gerson, being the moral relativist that he is, relativizes the difference in moral views to "social cliques" and then suggests that the government has no business intervening in this matter of taste–non disputandum gustibus I guess. Gerson makes that Nietzschean mistake of confusing sneering at those who disagree with you with argument against their position.Gerson and others can, of course, take the route many others of serious moral conscience have gone before. But, I can't see how it follows that a government cannot make any law legitimately that would be conscientiously objected to by a "social clique" even if we drink the radical relativist kool-aid with Gerson.

But, it seems to me that there is ultimatley something worrisome about Gerson's notions of "coercion" and "complicity" here. This argument may not seem fallacious as such. He is, of cousre, entitled to define coercion this broadly. But it overloads his premises, and, because he does not make explicit the real claim that he is making here, it seems to come close to begging the question. He is at least using emotionally loaded terms in order to persuade the reader without adequate justification of the wrongness of Obama's order. (Begging the question seems too strong here, better would be a fallacy of loading the key term of the argument.)

I'm really fascinated by the concept of complicity, though I can't say that I understand what the conditions for complicity would be. At the same time I don't think we can do without a fairly robust notion, at least, in our moral thinking. But, the sort of argument that Gerson is trotting out here, seems to be the argument of the defeated: No longer able to argue against fairly overwhelming democratic and popular support for the policy, no longer able to enforce their view by fiat, they claim that any policy is the result of an "incurable itch of [pro-choice] activists to compel everyone's complicity in their agenda."

I’m probably missing something here

Amity Shlaes seems to be the anti-Roosevelt scholar du jour.Today she explains why Roosevelt's economic policy should not be the model for Obama's recovery efforts.

Beginning with an anecdote about the continued economic woes in 1937, she raises the question of the effectiveness of Roosevelt's policies, given that there were still economic problems 4 years after his policies began. But she gives us two reasons for the concern with Roosevelt's economics.

But Roosevelt the economist is unworthy of emulation. His first goal was to reduce unemployment. Of his own great stimulus package, the National Industrial Recovery Act, he said: "The law I have just signed was passed to put people back to work." Here, FDR failed abysmally. In the 1920s, unemployment had averaged below 5 percent. Blundering when they knew better, Herbert Hoover, his Treasury, the Federal Reserve and Congress drove that rate up to 25 percent. Roosevelt pulled unemployment down, but nowhere near enough to claim sustained recovery. From 1933 to 1940, FDR's first two terms, it averaged in the high teens. Even if you add in all the work relief jobs, as some economists do, Roosevelt-era unemployment averages well above 10 percent. That's a level Obama has referred to once or twice — as a nightmare. 

Maybe I'm missing something really important here, but isn't a 30% drop in the unemployment rate a success? Never mind a 120% drop, if you count in work relief? What am I missing here? Is it unreasonable to expect that a stimulus bill of the same magnitude (proportional to GDP) would effect a proportional decrease in unemployment? The numbers that I think I saw the last couple of weeks from the CBO suggested as much. So what is the argument here? That, stimulus spending can make improve things, but perhaps not fix everything? Is that a reason to not emulate Roosevelt? Starting from 25% unemployment and getting it down to 10% cannot be compared to Obama worrying about 10% and presumably spending to decrease it to 6-7%.

This seems to be a version of the argument, if policy x aims to address problem y, and policy x does not fix problem y, then policy x should not be undertaken. This may be a good argument in some cases (where we have a choice between two policies and one will solve y and one won't), or, if it were combined with evidence that some other policy z would better affect problem y. But as it stands it seems a bit bizarre.

But that's not all:

The second goal of the New Deal was to stimulate the private sector. Instead, it supplanted it. To justify their own work, New Dealers attacked not merely those guilty of white-collar crimes but the entire business community — the "princes of property," FDR called them. Washington's policy evolved into a lethal combo of spending and retribution. Never did either U.S. investors or foreigners get a sense that the United States was now open for business. As a result, the Depression lasted half a decade longer than it had to, from 1929 to 1940 rather than, say, 1929 to 1936. The Dow Jones industrial average didn't return to its summer 1929 high until 1954. The monetary shock of the first years of the Depression was immense, but it was this duration that made the Depression Great. 

It's hard to judge this assertion. It isn't really an argument. Rather than justify the claim that the New Deal crowded out the private sector, she suggests that the New Deal was motivated by hostility to the private sector ("went after. . . the entire business community"). Next she asserts that because of this hostility to business, investors did not invest in the US, and so the Depression lasted longer than it would have on some other Deal.

She finds several cautionary tales in the Roosevelt record (short term vs. long term job growth, and possible problems with public investment in utilities), but ultimately the history seems to be less than is needed to support her assertion.

What about spending? The Depression tells us that public works are probably less effective than improving the environment for entrepreneurs and new companies. The president has already put forward a big tax cut for lower earners. He might offer a commensurate one for higher earners. He might expand the tax advantages he is currently offering to companies — wider expensing of losses, for example — and make them permanent. A discussion that permits the word "trillion" might also include the possibility of bringing down U.S. corporate taxes, taxes on interest, dividend and capital gains — again, permanently. The cash that a relatively competitive United States draws from abroad will move the country forward faster than any stimulus.

Economic arguments like this seem to require more than just history to justify the conclusion. It's not clear to me how the depression could tell us what she thinks it tells us, at most we would need to compare it to some other Great Depression in which tax cuts were tried and in which the economy recovered more effectively. It seems to me that the arguments about how to understand the Great Depression ultimately rely on economic theory or hypothesis, more than historical anecdote.

 I'm not sure that I would call this fallacious (though there is a specter of several fallacies haunting the piece). but it seems to me that the history she draws our attention to, at best would illustrate a theoretical view (spending is less effective than tax cuts at stimulus) that she holds on the basis of some other evidence which she has chosen not to make explicit. She suggests however that the historical record provides good reason to hold that theoretical view.

I’m not an economist

Since I'm not an economist, I can't easily judge the content of the Krugman's arguments against anti-stimulus arguments. But what makes Krugman stand head and shoulders above the rest of his fellow pundits, is that he makes arguments.

Next, write off anyone who asserts that it’s always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here’s how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats. If that would mean lots of midair collisions, hey, stuff happens.

The point is that nobody really believes that a dollar of tax cuts is always better than a dollar of public spending. Meanwhile, it’s clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts — and therefore costs less per job created (see the previous fraudulent argument) — because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved.

This suggests that public spending rather than tax cuts should be the core of any stimulus plan. But rather than accept that implication, conservatives take refuge in a nonsensical argument against public spending in general.

Now to be fair, we can criticize the argument in a couple of ways–first, air traffic control involves a task of coordination and it isn't clear that priming the economic pump does in the same way. It isn't just that centralized air traffic control is more efficient than a "free market" equivalent. So we might ask whether the analogy holds.

Second, we might ask whether the claim that "taxpayer are the best judges of how to spend their money" (see last paragraph here) implies that all public spending should be replaced with private spending. A more moderate position might be to argue that when it comes to something like economic stimulus this principle holds true. However, Krugman is arguing against some of the simplistic and fallacious dismissals of stimulus spending, and so aims to free the discussion for substantive arguments from economists and policy makers rather than from the ideological hacks.

By the way, what is the fallacy in the argument he is attacking? Is it a fallacy? Accident, perhaps? Seems to involve the universalization of a principle that probably holds true in many cases (better to let me choose whether to spend my money on a Squeezebox Duet rather than a Sonos System, than have the government choose for me. Maybe something like "When there's no compelling public need, it is preferable to allow citizens to choose how to spend their money than have government choose." What counts as a compelling need is a political question–in the case of the stimulus plan Krugman makes the case that the public need is stimulating the economy and government spending is just much more effective than private spending in doing that.

The "fallacy" seems to work by arguing:

1. We accept principle x.

2. Principle x entails we should not do y.

3. Therefore we should not do y.

However, principle x is either a) not accepted as stated or b) when qualified does not apply to case y.

1. It is wrong to kill.

2. If it is wrong to kill then we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

3. Therefore we should not use lethal force to defend ourselves.

 But, either a) it is not wrong (always to kill) or b) it is only wrong to kill without justification.

The fallacy seems to arise when the principle is taken to be persuasive because on the surface it seems true.

Same sex marriage and begging the question

This is a bit of a departure from our usual analysis of particular arguments in the media, but because these arguments are fairly common and because we've been hashing these issues out in the comments to the earlier post "5,000 Years," I thought I'd try to synthesize the analysis of the argument as I see it.

Is there a non-question begging (secular) argument for the following claim?

C: Same-sex relationships cannot be considered "marriage."

Setting aside certain circular arguments about tradition (like Rick Warren's which was originally being commented on), the best argument seems to rest on the premise:

P: A necessary condition of marriage is the biological possibility of procreation.

Here biological possibility has to be understood as satisfying the counter-factual condition:

BP: If the functional organs of procreation are working in a species typical way, procreation would be biologically possible.

This condition is meant to include infertile and older couples within the scope of the condition, while still excluding same sex couples. I am not, of course, endorsing this exclusion: the question is whether a good argument can be constructed for C, as a matter of logic, that could justify arguments against same-sex marriage. I am tempted to claim that there cannot be any such argument after considering the various arguments.

Because the argument is trading in essences and definitions it would seem to be deductive: That is, it argues for the impossibility of same-sex marriage by appeal to a definition/essence. It has the form of:

1. X is a necessary condition of Y.

2. Necessarily, Z does not have X.

3. Therefore, necessarily, Z is not Y.

Triangles must have straight sides. Necessarily, Circles do not have straight sides. Therefore, necessarily, circles are not Triangles. Or, Nougaty filling is a necessary condition of being a Three Musketeers bar. Necessarily, Toffee does not have a nougaty filling. Therefore, necessarily, toffee is not a Three Musketeer's bar.

As such this looks like a valid deductive argument. But, a critic might wonder whether P understood in the light of BP really says anything more the following implicit premise.

IP: Only heterosexual couples can be married.

If this is so, then the argument might reasonably be accused of begging the question. But determining when the question is begged needs to be handled carefully, since a begged question can always be resolved by appealing to some further argument that independently justifies the problematic premise.

So, the question then becomes, what independent reason can be provided for P/BP? What sort of "warrant" can be given to claim that marriage has an essential link to the biological possibility of procreation?

In the comments, we identified two distinct strategies:

a) Appeal to tradition/Generalization from past practices–this can range from some sort of descriptive anthropological claim, to some sort of generalization to a normative claim, or a most often a simple stipulation on the basis of past stipulation.

b) Appeal to social function of marriage as defining its essence (coupled with an argument that marriage is the best means for attaining the relevant goals).

It seems to me that (a) either begs the question if it appeals to tradition, or, fails to attain the universality that seems to be needed to underwrite P/BP (at most the generalization can show is that marriage has been understood to have an essential connection to the possibility of procreation, not that this is essential for it. And counter-examples are too many to make the universalization possible (old people getting married, infertile couples etc. And it's no good saying that marriage has just been socially constructed this way, since we are aiming for an essential connection.)

The appeal to tradition seems to me to beg the question insofar as it takes the following form: 

1.  Marriage has been understood (in the past) to require P/BP.

2. Therefore, P/BP

[I probably don't have the logic right here. I'm realizing as I write that I'm not quite clear on how "appeals to tradition" really work, though I think that they are typically bad arguments. I guess they're a sort of temporally dispersed ad populum.]

Even if we can avoid begging the question here, the problem with this argument is that insofar as it appeals to people's opinions about marriage, it relies on a convention, which doesn't seem to be able to underwrite a claim about essence. At most it underwrites a sort of stipulation which isn't adequate to the purposes of this argument.

The strategy of (b) fails for slightly different reasons. The argument seems to run something like this:

1. Marriages provide for stable procreative units.

2. Society has an interest in stable procreative units.

3. Therefore, Society has an interest in recognizing marriages that are means to stable procreative unit


4. Therefore, Society does not have an interest in recognizing relationships as marriages that are not means to stable procreative units.

This is a fine argument as it stands, but it doesn't get close to showing that there is some sort of essential incoherence in the notion of a marriage for some other purpose (adoptive child-rearing for example). It needs to conclude something much stronger than this, something that would suggest that recognizing same-sex marriages is incoherent, since it aims at establishing P/BP. At most it has shown that from the perspective of society, whether there are same-sex marriages or not is a matter of ambivalence. I think typically the argument seems to succeed because it trades the elision of biological function and social function. A little dose of evolution seems to suggest that this necessity is somehow a species necessity, but I think those arguments are pretty empty. (That is, I don't think we can deduce the "right" social institutions from biology, though I certainly grant that there are lots of ways in which biological truths affect which institutions are desirable and which not). 

I'm not at all sure about much of this, and I'm sure there are strategies that I've missed. And certainly it is always open to the arguer to appeal to the Bible or personal communications with God to justify P/BP. But, as far as I can see, I cannot find a viable strategy to make the argument non-question begging. The problem is that the opponent of same-sex marriage must offer a very very strong argument that concludes impossibility if they want to trade on an putative "essence" of marriage. But, the arguments that would establish this putative "essence" of marriage seem to be either too weak to do so, or end up begging the question. The problem is that the "tradition" of heterosexual marriage might have arisen because it was socially useful (and perhaps still is) for managing procreation and the family, but that does not enail the necessary link between marriage and procreation. If this is so, then the whole strategy needs to be rethought, as it is doomed to failure. But, maybe I'm missing something obvious.

Krauthammer and Krugman

I began writing this thinking that I was going to accuse Krauthammer of suppressing evidence when he  argues for drilling in ANWR and lifting the moratorium on outer continental shelf drilling since at first glance he seems to completely ignore the environmental argument based on global warming.

His argument runs like this:

  1. Reducing dependence on foreign oil is in the national interest.
  2. Opening up domestic energy resources for development will reduce dependence on foreign oil.
  3. Therefore we should open up ANWR and the outer continental shelf for development.

Notice that this isn't McCain's silly and discredited argument that opening up these resources will address pump prices. Instead it looks like perfectly nice argument: A practical syllogism arguing for a means to an end. Presumably he is arguing that 2 is the best means to achieve 1. If that's so, then he should consider alternatives such as reducing our consumption of oil.

Consider: 25 years ago, nearly 60 percent of U.S. petroleum was produced domestically. Today it's 25 percent. From its peak in 1970, U.S. production has declined a staggering 47 percent. The world consumes 86 million barrels a day, the United States, roughly 20 million. We need the stuff to run our cars and planes and economy. Where does it come from? 

Skipping the results of several hours of reading DOE reports on the oil resources (see comments) it looks like the best case from opening up both of ANWR and OCS is around 1 million barrels of oil per day in the late 2020's. That's pretty significant given our current imports of 15 million barrels a day (7%)–roughly equivalent to the imports from Nigeria this year). So, it seems that we must grant as plausible that these measures would reduce dependence on foreign oil.

But the interesting part of the argument is this

The net environmental effect of Pelosi's no-drilling willfulness is negative. Outsourcing U.S. oil production does nothing to lessen worldwide environmental despoliation. It simply exports it to more corrupt, less efficient, more unstable parts of the world — thereby increasing net planetary damage. 

I had thought that he was just ignoring Pelosi's real concern with opening up these resources, that is, I believe, their contribution to anthropogenic global warming. He only focuses on "environmental despoiliation" which looks at first like the effects local to the extraction and transportation of oil, and not its consumption.

The assumption he makes is that the rate of consumption of oil will be unaffected whether we open up these resources or not. The question then is merely one of where the oil is extracted. And, if opening up these resources has as little effect on price as opponents of drilling say, then it can't be argued that not exploiting these resources will contribute to a reduction in consumption.

The argument opposed to drilling has three options it seems to me:

1. NIMBY (we just don't want to mess up our environment–we're happy to let others do it).

2. Detailed argumentation that opening up ANWR and OCS have a likelihood of greater local environmental damage than drilling in Nigeria etc.

3. The total carbon consumption argument. Any increase in access to carbon based fuels is undesirable because of the the dangers of climate change.

I probably believe that 3 is a good argument (1 is probably a good argument though it might have moral difficulties, and I don't know enough to judge 2). But, if we really believed it (generally) we would probably have to support capping of imports or bans on importing oil from new developments. We would have to either accept that oil prices should continue to increase or that the rest of the world should stop developing. 

Krugman attacks McCain's ridiculous claims linking the moratoria on OCS development and gas prices. But he draws a more significant lesson from this.

Hence my concern: if a completely bogus claim that environmental protection is raising energy prices can get this much political traction, what are the chances of getting serious action against global warming? After all, a cap-and-trade system would in effect be a tax on carbon (though Mr. McCain apparently doesn’t know that), and really would raise energy prices.

The only way we’re going to get action, I’d suggest, is if those who stand in the way of action come to be perceived as not just wrong but immoral. Incidentally, that’s why I was disappointed with Barack Obama’s response to Mr. McCain’s energy posturing — that it was “the same old politics.” Mr. Obama was dismissive when he should have been outraged.

This doesn't address Krauthammer's security based argument, but it does point out that we are still far from ready to defend never mind implement the consequences of the total carbon consumption argument. To oppose ANWR and OCS exploitation on these grounds commits us to an argument that no new carbon fuel resources should be developed and that the only way to address rising fuel costs is to reduce demand worldwide.

If there is a flaw in the argument it is this: The argument that Krauthammer needs to address, however, is whether it would be a better means to energy independence to reduce consumption by those same 1 million barrels a day in 2030 than to open ANWR and OCS to drilling. 


Religious experience

Just as my lawyer friends cannot watch "Law and Order," my doctor friends cannot watch "ER," and my military friends cannot watch "Missing in Action," I find it hard to read things like the following meditation on the philosophy of mind from David Brooks.  He writes:

In 1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called “Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died,” in which he captured the militant materialism of some modern scientists.

To these self-confident researchers, the idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape behavior. Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an illusion. Human beings are “hard-wired” to do this or that. Religion is an accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God’s existence because their brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having a spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they will show signs of hyperreligiosity, an overexcitement of the brain tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking: Everything is material and “the soul is dead.” He anticipated the way the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate. They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God exists.

That could be any number of views known as materialism (or compatible with it).  Brooks contrasts this view with the following:

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It does not operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain (people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

That's still materialism of a fairly decisive variety.  On the strength of this, he erroneously concludes:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Notice these descriptions are all brain-sided.  Intuitions, experience, "love," etc., all are all, on the view Brooks is describing, neurologically based.  That's still a variety of materialism. 

With or Without Yoo

Two interesting quotations from Ruth Marcus’s Washington Post column–One pro John Yoo, tortured torture memo writer, one contra.  The first one, from Columbia University law Professor Scott Horton, addresses someone (Elder) who does not find Yoo’s legal work grounds for discipline or revocation of his tenure at Berkeley.  He says that Elder

"is appropriately concerned about freedom of expression for his
faculty. But he should be much more concerned about the message that
all of this sends to his students. Lawyers who act on the public stage
can have an enormous impact on their society and the world around them.
. . . Does Dean Edley really imagine that their work is subject to no
principle of accountability because they are mere drones dispensing
legal analysis

There’s a wide gulf between "not punishable in this instance by the University" and "subject to no principle of accountability."  Horton sets up a false dichotomy–accountable or not.

On the pro-Yoo side:

The most useful analogy I’ve read on this subject comes from Princeton
professor Deborah Pearlstein, who asked what Berkeley would do if a
molecular biology professor "had written a medical opinion while in
government employ disclaiming the truth of evolution," and continued to
dispute the theory of evolution once he resumed teaching.

a human rights lawyer, found Yoo’s memo "blatantly, embarrassingly
wrong under the law," but she conceded that legal conclusions lack the
hard certainty of scientific truth. Yoo should no more be removed from
a teaching job than a Supreme Court justice who writes a despicable
opinion — upholding slavery, allowing separate but equal facilities,
permitting the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II —
should be impeached.

I’m confused by the analogy in the first paragraph.  If that’s the case, then indeed Yoo ought to be fired for not having competence in his subject matter.  Academic freedom ought not be a cover for incompetence.  But I doubt he would have gotten that far anyway. 

The second paragraph rings odd.  And it hardly makes the point that Yoo ought to be protected from firing.  Any Supreme Court judge who argues for slavery ought to be impeached–now (and probably back then as well).  Even though legal opinions lack the "hard certainty" of scientific truth (whatever that means), it doesn’t mean that some legal opinions are simply beyond the pale.  

By most accounts–even friendly ones–Yoo’s opinions were beyond the pale.  The fact is, however, that was a different job.  This seems to me to be the key difference that’s being overlooked here.  Berkeley was dumb enough to hire him and give him tenure.  They ought to be ashamed.  But it’s too late now. 

Of course, if he broke the law and is found to have committed war crimes, then indeed, he ought to be fired.  But that’s a matter for, er, the law.  


Fish hook

Stanley Fish laments:

The difference between making arguments and analyzing them is not
always recognized, and when it is missed, readers get outraged about
things I never said.

Denying such subtle philosophical distinctions–obvious to all–is what Stanley Fish often does in his columns.  I don’t mean this as an argumentum ad hominem tu quoque–you’re wrong Stanley because you do it  too–because, after all, he’s right, after all, about this.  Such distinctions ought to be a little more frequent in his columns (and radio "appearances"), especially when he critiques the arguments of others.  Here’s an example from today’s column:

He proceeds to write:

This distinction between tribal identity politics and policy or
interest identity politics could of course be challenged (as it was by
many posters), but the challenge would be to its cogency or adequacy,
not to its agenda, because it has none. The distinction is descriptive,
not normative
. In offering it, I do not say, “practice identity
I only say that those who do take identity into
consideration either by voting for someone on the basis of an identity
affiliation or choosing a candidate because he or she is perceived to
be friendly to identity interests are not doing something patently

Get that–he doesn’t say "practice identity politics," he says "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics."  For those who practice identity politics, "it’s not wrong to practice identity politics" is the same as "keep practicing identity politics–it’s ok really"  He’s making a distinction that regards what one ought to do (or ought not to do). 

But more to the point, Fish’s distinction in this passage regards–and I think we wrote about this a bit ago–the kind of non-distinction drawing about "identity politics" he complains about in others.  Fish asserts that any interest voting is "identity" politics.  That seems fine, but it has the air of a truism.  Besides, that’s not the kind of "identity politics" that people are talking about.  So calling every interest "identity" does nothing to address the issue that most people have with identity politics.  It’s like saying "everything is political."  May be true, but it’s uninformative.

Maledetti Toscani

Augustinus docet:

"This," I said, "has become what they call a Tuscan argument: for this is the name they gave to an argument when instead of answering a difficulty, a man proposes another.  It was this that our poet. . . in his Ecologues judged fairly to be rustic and downright countryish: when one asks the other, where the heavens are no more than three ells broad, the other replies:

In what land do flowers grow engraved with the names of kings?" 

Against the Academics (O'Meara trans).  Or, if you prefer:

[3.4.9] Hoc est, inquam, Tuscum illud iurgium, quod dici solet, cum quaestioni intentatae non eius solutio, sed alterius obiectio uidetur mederi. Quod etiam poeta noster — ut me aliquantum Licentii auribus dedam — decenter in Bucolico carmine hoc rusticanum et plane pastoricium esse iudicauit, cum alter alterum interrogat, ubi caeli spatium non amplius quam tres ulnas pateat, ille autem "quibus in terris inscripti nomina regum nascantur flores".