Category Archives: Paul Krugman

Of explanations and equivocations

Source: NYT 09/07/04 and Source: NYT 09/07/04: I suspect Paul Krugman and David Brooks were not attending the same Labor Day celebration when they decided to write today on the same theme. Nevertheless both the NYT’s editorials today address a question that is of special interest: How is it that people come to believe such obviously irrational, false, immoral, or simply contradictory things. There are profound questions here that transcend the strict scope of logic and require some dabbling in the philosophy of action and perhaps even raising the question of evil. Nonetheless, have no fear, Brooks does not disappoint: With a little bit of preparation we will discover at the heart of Brooks’ argument an illustrative case of concealed equivocation.

But we should start with Krugman who focuses on a discussion of the psychology of war by war correspondant Chris Hedges. It is Krugman’s claim that the impression of a perpetual state of war that the Bush administration works so assiduously to maintain is about the only thing that keeps Bush’s poll numbers from plummetting. “War psychology” disposes people to faith in their leaders even when the leaders are undeserving of it.

The administration creates a climate of war. This climate leads to a unreasonable over-estimation of our leaders. Bush’s lead in the polls is a result of the war climate.

Strictly speaking this is not an argument, but rather an attempt at explaining what to Krugman and others seems obviously irrational–Bush’s persistence in the election when by every objective measure (economy, jobs, war on terror, war in Iraq, never mind scandal after scandal) he should be plummeting in the polls.

Explanations are interesting creatures: They possess the same structure as an argument (This fact is true because this other fact is true), yet they are evaluated according to different criteria. Arguments proceed from supposedly well established facts (the premises) and justify the conclusion which is generally less well-established than the premises (and hence in need of argument). Explanations, however, begin from a commonly recongized fact (Bush is persisting or even gaining in the polls) and attempt to provide some means of understanding that fact on the basis of other less well known facts (war psychology).

This isn’t, of course, to say that explanations cannot fail in ways analogous to argument. In fact, many explanations are themselves the conclusion of an implicit argument–the argument being that the proposed explanation is the best available explanation of the given fact. For explanations themselves, we can assess the degree to which the explanation integrates with our other beliefs, has a relevant degree of explanatory scope, and is clear, testable, frugal, and precise. (A nice discussion that goes beyond the scope of these brief comments can be found in Thomas McKay’s Reasons, Explanations, and Decision. (Wadsworth publishing) from which I draw here especially Chapter 7). I will leave the evaluation of this explanation for another time and place.

Now where Krugman utilizes psychology to articulate a plausible reason for what he believes to be irrational conviction, Brooks does something entirely different with the same problem. Brooks takes as his subject the morally repugnant and perverse decision to use terrorist tactics. At first glance, the whole point of his editorial seems to be to sustain his moral outrage at terrorism for 750 words or so. To do so he uses a metaphor of a “cult of death,” under which description he includes the radicals and extremists at the “fringe of the Muslim world.” The cult of death “loves death,” Brooks sententiously informs us, and is motivated by nothing but the “joy of sadism and suicide” and “massacring people while in a state of spiritual loftiness.”

This is the cult that sent waves of defenseless children to be mowed down on the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, that trains kindergarteners to become bombs, that fetishizes death, that sends people off joyfully to commit mass murder.

Whether there is a single factual claim in this sentence is not something we can or need to consider right now because the trope does not need any factual basis in order to focus our moral outrage. Brooks is trying to argue against the possibility of any explanation of terrorism, by rejecting any attempt to “understand” it.

His metaphorical indulgence obscures the argument, but not enough to conceal its basic fallacy.

1. To understand terrorism is to understand its reasons.
2. If terrorism has reasons, then it is justifiable.
3. But terrorism is unjustifiable.
4. Therefore terrorism has no motivation or reason (it is simply a perverse nihilistic cult of death).

This, of course, is to provide Brooks’ meandering and at times self-contradictory editorial with a basic rational, even if fallacious, structure. But imposing on this op-ed the formal inference of modus tollens, allows us to highlight the basic flaw in his reasoning.

The flaw is a very common instance of equivocation on the notions of reason and motivation: Specifically, the argument collapses the distinction between a causal or psychological sense of “reason” and an evaluative or moral sense. This amounts to claiming that:

To claim that terrorists had a “motivation” to commit a particular act, is to claim that the terrorists had a “good motivation” to do that act.

However, to recognize that human beings act necessarily out of their conception of what is best is not to claim that they are right about what is best: Nor is it to claim that they are not morally responsible for what they think (erroneously) to be best. A psychological explanation does not imply moral justification.

Once we see this, Brooks’ editorial falls into place. He can assert his moral consternation at the Boston Globe and the Dutch Foreign Minisiter (?!?) who suggest that Russian authorities may have mishandled the events. Ever aiming at clarity, or at least simplicity Brooks reminds us, “And it wasn’t Russian authorities who stuffed basketball nets with explosives and shot children in the back as they tried to run away.”

But if we remove the basic fallacy in his reasoning we can see that the hypothesis of a “death cult” in order to explain terrorism is unnecessary and moreover a poor explanation. First, it conflicts with our basic understanding, stretching back to Aristotle, of human agency. Second, it is in fact a vacuous explanation–(Why do terrorists kill? Because they like to kill.) Third, the explanation is obfuscatory. It proceeds by lumping together all sorts of disparate groups and their motivations. Fourth, is imprecise and does not explain differences among particular acts of terrorism.

Once we dispose of the basic equivocation in Brooks view his explanation can be seen to be the empty metaphor that it is.