Category Archives: Equivocation

Confusing Criminals

It isn’t always clear, and often is, perhaps, not the case, that pundits are trying to deceive by their fallacious arguments. Sometimes the flaws in the argument suggest more basic incoherences and confusions in their thought. This seems to be the case with David Brooks’ “Two Steps Towards a Sensible Immigration Policy” (NYT 8/4/5), in which he employs a literary device that ultimately undermines the argument that he is trying to make about immigration reform.

Imagining a “working class guy from the south side of San Antonio” as his interlocutor, he sketches the problem of immigration:

>He’s no racist. Many of his favorite neighbors are kind, neat and hard-working Latinos. But his neighborhood now has homes with five cars rotting in the front yard and 12 single men living in one house. Now there are loud parties until 2 a.m. and gang graffiti on the walls. He read in the local paper last week that Anglos are now a minority in Texas and wonders if anybody is in charge of this social experiment.

The problem with immigration for this guy seems to be that some immigrants are “bad” and the minority status of Anglos. The latter is a population problem, i.e., the sheer number of immigrants entering Texas (and suggests a more “racial” concern that Brooks admits), the former a crime problem, i.e., the failure of our immigration policy to prevent “bad” immigrants (gang members or other unruly people) from entering the country. But, it is also significantly more than that, since none of the behaviors that trouble this guy are particularly serious crimes, but are closer to “socially disruptive behavior” (I mean something like behavior that does not conform to certain prevalent social expectations, e.g., size of households, disposal of non-functional cars, appropriate party times and forms). There is thus a sort of conflation of crime and “anti-social” behavior. This latter defined relative to norms that are supposedly prevalent among Anglos.

Unfortunately getting “tough” on immigration doesn’t seem to solve the population problem as Brooks notes:

>But we can’t just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don’t do the job. Since 1986, we’ve tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven’t made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here.

Presumably if we can’t regulate the flow of immigrants we can’t regulate the flow of “bad” immigrants either.

Instead, by controlling economically necessary immigration we will be able to lessen the number of illegal immigrants.

>The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can’t build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow.

This is the real point of his column: to argue for two bills before the senate, one allowing for a temporary worker program and the other for tougher boarder controls.

But he has just finished telling the guy from San Antonio that the latter aren’t effective in addressing his concerns. There is only one way that we can make Brooks’ argument coherent. We must supply something like one of the two following concealed premises:

A) Illegal immigrants are likely to commit other crimes.

B) It is harder to prevent crimes committed by illegal immigrants than legal immigrants.

It is tautological that illegal immigrants are “criminals” by breaking immigration laws. But Brooks and the guy from San Antonio seem to be more concerned with the “subculture of criminality across America” supposedly caused by illegal immigration. But unless A or B are true, there is no reason to think that the bills before the Senate will effectively address this problem, or for that matter that illegal immigration is the cause of increased criminality (beyond the tautological sense).

I don’t know which of the two premises Brooks or the guy from San Antonio would prefer to accept, and I don’t know whether there is any reason to think that either of these is true. I suspect that the real problem here is that the policies for which Brooks is arguing will not address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio, who seems to confuse criminal behavior with disruptive behavior. Add to that a confusion between the criminality of illegal immigration and other forms of criminal behavior and we see how Brooks can suggest that these policies will address the guy from San Antonio’s concerns.

1. These policies will address criminality (of illegal immigration).
2. Addressing criminality (of illegal immigration) will address criminal behavior. (By A or B perhaps)
3. Addressing criminal behavior will address disruptive behavior. (The guy from San Antonio might assume).

Therefore, these policies will address the concerns of the guy from San Antonio.

Nonetheless Brooks would seem to admit that these bills will not solve all the problems.

>So here’s the bottom line for the guy in San Antonio: Everybody’s expecting a big blowup on this issue, but we’ve got a great chance of enacting serious immigration reform. It won’t solve all problems. There will still be wage pressures and late-night parties.

But it seems that he should add one more: criminals. Having confused the criminality of illegal immigration with other forms of criminality he cannot do this.

> But right now immigration chaos is spreading a subculture of criminality across America. What we can do is re-establish law and order, so immigrants can bring their energy to this country without destroying the social fabric while they’re here.

As usual we are not evaluating the truth of Brooks’ conclusion. It may be the case that these two bills are good and beneficial. But it is important to note that Brooks’ has not given us or his friend in San Antonio reason to believe this.
And along the way he seems to have missed the point of his own argument.

How Many Degrees of Kevin Bacon Justifies Invasion?

Over at the Weekly Standard, Stephen Hayes is making a profession of castigating the mainstream media for denying and ignoring evidence of the connection between al Qaeda and Iraq. In a series of articles based on his not terribly well received 2004 book, The Connection Hayes, along with several other authors and co-authors at the Weekly Standard, has been sifting through various reports of the connection in order to rebut the mainstream media’s supposed denial. His article last month, “Body of Evidence” (Source: Week. Stand. 6/30/05), presents the core of his argument.

>”THERE IS NO EVIDENCE that Saddam Hussein was connected in any way to al Qaeda.” So declared CNN Anchor Carol Costello in an interview yesterday with Representative Robin Hayes (no relation) from North Carolina. Hayes politely challenged her claim. “Ma’am, I’m sorry, but you’re mistaken. There’s evidence everywhere. We get access to it. Unfortunately, others don’t.”

>CNN played the exchange throughout the day. At one point, anchor Daryn Kagan even seemed to correct Rep. Hayes after replaying the clip. “And according to the record, the 9/11 Commission in its final report found no connection between al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein.”

>Conveniently, such analyses ignore statements like this one from Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission. “There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.” Hard to believe reporters just missed it–he made the comments at the press conference held to release the commission’s final report. And that report detailed several “friendly contacts” between Iraq and al Qaeda, and concluded only that there was no proof of Iraqi involvement in al Qaeda terrorist attacks against American interests. Details, details.

That in a nutshell is the dispute.

>The CNN claims are wrong. Not a matter of nuance. Not a matter of interpretation. Just plain incorrect.

But judging whether it is a matter of nuance or not is a different question. The reason that the connection between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden is a matter of interest is that it comprised one of the ever-changing justifications for the invasion of Iraq. The argument was that Saddam Hussein was such a pressing threat to U.S. security that an invasion was justified as a matter of self-defense. In order to make the case for a pressing threat, the administration argued that Iraq’s “connections” with terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda made the invasion a preventive war. If we were not to invade Condoleeza Rice dramatically suggested mushroom clouds might be seen over American cities.

So it was an argument that Iraq’s WMD programs coupled with the right sort of connections with al Qaeda presented a pressing threat to American security.

Having seemingly been wrong about the first premise of this argument (the existence of WMD and their respective programs), it seems to be necessary to develop the case for the second if the war is not to enter history as ultimately based on mistaken reasoning. Interestingly a strong enough argument for the second premise may overshadow the lack of evidence of, or even, if it turns out to be so, the non-existence of WMD. In this case, the connection with al Qaeda coupled with the possibility of developing WMD might satisfy many as a justification for the war.

So it makes some sense that that the Weekly Standard is devoting a series of articles to the evidence for this connection. But, it raises the preliminary question: What sort of connection will make the argument successful. There are, of course, all sorts of connections that we might look for. Representatives of the two organizations might have golfed, for example, or met regularly over coffee and doughnuts to denounce supposed American imperialism. Or, they may have used one another for various limited and particular purposes, like gathering intelligence. Of course, the goal of the authors is to show that the two organizations co-operated in aggressive actions, or even their planning (and perhaps merely the intention to do so), against American interests.

So whether Hayes can see it or not, it seems that it is all a matter of nuance: what precisely do we mean by “connection” between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden?

The only connection that matters for the purposes of the underlying justification for the invasion of Iraq is whether or not the sort of connection existed by which Iraq was enough of a threat that pre-emptive military action was justified. Anything less than this is functionally no “connection” at all. This is not to minimize the possible threats that such a “connection” presented, only to argue that for the purposes of justifying a war of this sort not just any “connection” will do. But, if we fail to respect the distinction between a “war-justifying-connection” and all other sorts of lesser connections, we run the risk of commiting a fallacy of equivocation.

As an aside, we shold note that we might have to entertain the possibility that a “war-justifying-connection” can be composed of many lesser connections–that the totality (or “constellation” of connections, to borrow Hayes’ language) of many lesser connections might provide evidence of an overall “war-justifying-connection.”

Nevertheless, the 9/11 Commission seems to have understood the relevant standard when they concluded that there was no evidence: “indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States” (quoted by Hayes).

We should re-read Hayes’ paragraph.

>Conveniently, such analyses ignore statements like this one from Thomas Kean, chairman of the 9/11 Commission. “There was no question in our minds that there was a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda.” Hard to believe reporters just missed it–he made the comments at the press conference held to release the commission’s final report. And that report detailed several “friendly contacts” between Iraq and al Qaeda, and concluded only that there was no proof of Iraqi involvement in al Qaeda terrorist attacks against American interests. Details, details.

It is hard to know what Hayes means by the last two words of the paragraph, but it suggests, if I read it rightly, that the distinction that I am drawing between there being a “relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda” and a war-justifying-connectionbetween Iraq and al Qaeda does not matter to Hayes, which opens him and anyone who attempts to justify the war on the basis of the connection to the fallacy of equivocation.

Only when we are clear and forthright about what we are looking for, can we adequately and judiciouslessly evaluate the evidence that Hayes and his fellow authors are presenting. Is any contact or co-operation by an Iraqi and a representative of al Qaeda enough for pre-emptive war? Is evidence of the sharing of weapons of mass destruction necessary? Or, must we wait until evidence of co-operation in “developing and carrying out any attacks against the United States” appears?

Political Radicals or Maladjusted Kids?

Oliver Roy, guest opiner in today’s Times treats us to a fuller exposition of a fallacy riddled argument that we have been discussing lately in his “Why do they Hate Us? Not Because of Iraq” (Source: NYT 7/22/05). This provides some occasion to look a little more carefully at some of the questions of historical causality that underlie these arguments.

These arguments have the following form:

1. Either terrorism is caused by specific events and policies, or it is caused by Islamist ideology.
2. Terrorism is not caused by specific events and policies.
3. Therefore, terrorism is caused by Islamist ideology.

There is almost certainly a false dichotomy in the first premise–though this seems to be generally implicit in all of these arguments–since the causal relations underlying terrorism are probably more complex than this dichotomy allows. Nevertheless, most of Roy’s argument is devoted to justifying #2 through a series of arguments.

First, we have the argument from chronology. This argument is based on the seemingly incontrovertible causal principle that a cause must precede its effect. This seems to imply something like the following.

A. If Y exists at a time prior to X, then X cannot be the cause of Y.


B. If Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.) exists at a time prior to the invasion of Iraq, or Afghanistan, etc., then those conflicts cannot be the cause of Islamic terrorism (militant Islamism, etc.).

>First, let’s consider the chronology. The Americans went to Iraq and Afghanistan after 9/11, not before. Mohamed Atta and the other pilots were not driven by Iraq or Afghanistan. Were they then driven by the plight of the Palestinians? It seems unlikely. After all, the attack was plotted well before the second intifada began in September 2000, at a time of relative optimism in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

This argument is, of course, a straw man here. No one, I think, would argue that the cause of 9/11 was our retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan, or the subsequent invasion of Iraq. But, what Roy is going to do in order to make his argument seem more convincing than it should, is switch between general and specific instances of Y in our principle above (9/11, terrorism in general, Islamist mujahdeen in Afghanistan in the 80’s, London bombings). This becomes a fallacy of equivocation and allows him to set up these straw men arguments in order to knock them down.

He shows us that the presence of troops in Saudi Arabia can not be the cause of bin Laden’s radical islamism, since the latter preceded the former.

>Another motivating factor, we are told, was the presence of “infidel” troops in Islam’s holy lands. Yes, Osama Bin Laden was reported to be upset when the Saudi royal family allowed Western troops into the kingdom before the Persian Gulf war. But Mr. bin Laden was by that time a veteran fighter committed to global jihad.

Once again, no one would argue this, I think. Instead, the argument would be that a terrorist movement gains adherents and militants to the degree that populations feel violated, oppressed, and otherwise powerless. So although these events did not cause the existence of the movement, they feed, strengthen, and radicalize these movements.

Roy’s second argument is more interesting. Here he argues that the militants and terrorists are not really concerned about what happens to Afghanis or Iraqis.

>Second, if the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine are at the core of the radicalization, why are there virtually no Afghans, Iraqis or Palestinians among the terrorists? Rather, the bombers are mostly from the Arabian Peninsula, North Africa, Egypt and Pakistan – or they are Western-born converts to Islam. Why would a Pakistani or a Spaniard be more angry than an Afghan about American troops in Afghanistan? It is precisely because they do not care about Afghanistan as such, but see the United States involvement there as part of a global phenomenon of cultural domination.

If it is the case that there are virtually no Iraqis, Afghans, or Palestinians, one wonders what the denotation of “terrorists” includes. The decade and more of suicide bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the insurgency in Iraq and Afghan, all seem to be excluded now from Roy’s argument. Now it suits his purpose to focus not on the broadest phenomena of Islamic militancy, but rather on a much narrower problem which excludes anyone who would cause trouble for Roy’s argument.

>It is also interesting to note that none of the Islamic terrorists captured so far had been active in any legitimate antiwar movements or even in organized political support for the people they claim to be fighting for. They don’t distribute leaflets or collect money for hospitals and schools. They do not have a rational strategy to push for the interests of the Iraqi or Palestinian people.

So there are two reasons for his second argument: (a) the militants and terrorists are foreigners; (b) the militants and terrorists do not have political programs in mind for the populations that they are supposedly fighting for.

>Even their calls for the withdrawal of the European troops from Iraq ring false. After all, the Spanish police have foiled terrorist attempts in Madrid even since the government withdrew its forces. Western-based radicals strike where they are living, not where they are instructed to or where it will have the greatest political effect on behalf of their nominal causes.

Switching back now to the Western militants, Roy claims, quite incredibly and without argument, that the real motivation is a form of “culture shock” rather than politics.

>The Western-based Islamic terrorists are not the militant vanguard of the Muslim community; they are a lost generation, unmoored from traditional societies and cultures, frustrated by a Western society that does not meet their expectations.

The terrorists seem, on Roy’s view, to be maladjusted kids rather than political radicals. Perhaps there is some truth here, but the inadequate arguments presented above does nothing to support this view. Roy would need to spend more time presenting evidence for this curious view, and less time knocking down straw men, if we were to be obligated to take his conclusion seriously.

The motivations for terrorism are sometimes deeply perplexing, and the causes of both the multi-national Islamist movement and individual participation in terrorism for its sake are far more complicated than Roy and these argument’s recent proponents on the right can allow. Although a strong case can be made for the uncontroversial claim that Iraq and Afghanistan are not the sole cause of all acts of Islamist terrorism, the desire of these pundits seems to be exonerating the Bush administration of any causal contribution to the terrorism it is supposedly trying to combat. That argument has certainly not been made by Roy here and the growing body of argument and evidence seems to support the contrary.

Muddling moral claims and causal claims

We have had occasion before to point out a specific confusion of causal claims and moral claims that seems common among conservative commentators. The confusion is at times quite subtle and arises out of deep conceptual connections between some causal claims and moral claims. But there are also many cases of egregious confusions. Cathy Young today provides several in a column comprised of a series of quotations from various sources to show that the liberal “response to terrorism even on the moderate left remains an egregious moral muddle” (Source: BG 7/19/05).

>In a letter to The New York Times published on July 9, one New Yorker proudly described his comments to a Dutch television news crew which interviewed him on the New York subway immediately after the bombings. When asked if he believed New York would be attacked again, he replied in the affirmative. Why? ”Because the US is hated now more than ever. Even some of our allies sort of hate us.” And why is that? ”We invaded Iraq, which has never attacked us or declared war on us.”

>In other words: If we’re attacked again, it will be our fault (just as, presumably, the London bombings are the fault of British Prime Minister Tony Blair for lending his support to the war in Iraq).

The letter writer seems to be quite clearly describing a causal relation, which Young nonetheless interprets as a moral relation. The language of “fault” is probably at fault here, since we can use it to indicate both a causal and a moral relation–nonetheless, it carries in all of its uses a connotation of “wrong” and therefore of justifying the result.

a) It is likely that the U.S. will be attacked because attackers are motivated by hatred and the U.S. is hated more than ever (because of Iraq.

becomes in Young’s translation something close to:

b) It is right that the U.S. will be attacked because attackers are motivated by hatred and the U.S. is hated more than ever.

Of course, this letter writer may be wrong about the causal relationship between future terrorism and the Iraq war, but he is presumably not advancing the claim that Young suggests he is.

But Young has other targets in mind:

>Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan and a leading left-of-center commentator on the Middle East, argues on his website and in an article at that the London bombings are ”blowback” from the US and its allies’ misguided policies. Cole pooh-poohs the idea that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a product of hatred for the West’s democratic values. In his view, it is a response to specific Western policies that are perceived as a war against Muslims, from Israeli oppression of the Palestinians to the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Once again we have a causal claim about the relationship between certain policies and terrorism. But this time Young chooses to address it as a causal claim:

>Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, took place before the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. Cole tries to make the case, citing the 9/11 Commission report, that Sept. 11 was ”punishment on the United States for supporting Ariel Sharon’s iron fist policies toward the Palestinians.” Yet the report makes it clear that planning for the attacks had been underway for about two years before Sharon became prime minister of Israel in March 2001, though Osama bin Laden evidently wanted to move up the operation in response to Sharon’s actions. And the radical Islamic terror network first struck New York City in 1993.

Presumably Cole would argue that the earlier terrorist acts were themselves the response to earlier *particular* policies such as troops stationed in Saudi Arabia, the continual support of Israel’s occupation, etc. Young, however, wants to argue that terrorists are motivated by the hatred of our way of life, rather than particular policies and perceived injustices. This is a difficult question–it is hard to understand what a sufficient cause of suicide bombing is for the terrorists. In addition, there are deep questions here that could be explored about the nature of historical causality–about the identification of necessary and sufficient conditions for historical events–about the relationship between abstractions and the concrete policies that implement these abstractions and make them an affront. But Young wants to cobble together a diatribe against supposed “moral confusions” on the left and not examine the complexities of causal claims. And whatever Cole’s confusions might turn out to be, they do not seem to be “moral” as Young would like.

>Other myopic responses abound. A few commentators insist on a moral equivalence between the deaths of Iraqi civilians in US military operations with the deaths of civilians in the London bombings. Yet the US military and its allies have made every effort to minimize civilian casualties; the deliberate killing of Iraqi civilians is overwhelmingly the work of so-called insurgents who drive explosive-packed cars into crowds of children while American soldiers hand out candy.

Five-hundred, or so, words into her column and Young has finally found a specifically moral claim to adduce as evidence. One wonders, in passing, how widespread this claim is, given that Young vaguely attributes this to a “few commentators” (and all her other cases are specifically attributed). Nonetheless, there seems to be something of a muddle here for those supposed “few commentators.” It seems reasonable to distinguish between first degree murder and second degree murder, and they are not morally equivalent. One might make a case for the claim that there are “moral similarities” between these sorts of deaths, but I suspect Young would be as unhappy about that. But if this is a moral confusion found only within a supposed “few commentators” it seems difficult to find an “egregious moral muddle” that defines the left on its basis.

So without any evidence advanced for her accusation, Young decides she’s finished her job.

>But acknowledging our mistakes and misdeeds should not undercut moral clarity when it comes to terrorism. The jihadists are driven primarily by hatred of Western civilization and its freedom; their primary targets are innocent civilians; and they cannot be defeated except by force.

Having failed to find an egregious moral muddle endemic within the left, Young chooses a simple assertion of her view to close her muddled accusations of moral muddles. Perhaps she is right about these last claims (there is of course no argument to defend them here). Nonetheless, the connection between these claims and the “moral clarity” which she wishes to claim for herself could do with some significant unmuddling.

Smoking or non?

We remarked some time ago that David Brooks of the *New York Times* discovered a new fallacy: the *argumentum pro homine*. It’s a fallacy of relevance akin to the ad hominem argument, though instead of attacking a person, you praise him for traits that have nothing to do with the conclusions you mean to draw about him. One might wonder, however, whether Mr. Brooks employs this sort of praise in a backhanded sort of way. In today’s op-ed, “Mr.Bush, Pick a Genius,” we can’t tell whether Brooks means to malign or praise the poor Michael McConnell, a man who strikes him as a “genius” and a terrific Supreme Court nominee.

>McConnell (whom I have never met) is an honest, judicious scholar. When writing about church and state matters, he begins with the frank admission that religion is a problem in a democracy. Religious people feel a loyalty to God and to the state, and sometimes those loyalties conflict.

To be precise–which is what honest, judicious judicial scholars do–religious people feel a loyalty to what *they* take to be their own religion’s–or better, their own demonination’s–interpretation of Divine requirements. Considering the sheer number and diversity of Christian denominations alone, these loyalties will very likely conflict. The genius, as Brooks describes him, has discovered hot water.

This is all set up for the grand argument.

>So he understands why people from Rousseau and Jefferson on down have believed there should be a wall of separation between church and state.

“Wall of separation” is a suggestive, though wholly and unfortunately imprecise phrase. It’s the kind of phrase that will have the imprecise non-geniuses among us arguing at cross-purposes. In other words, it’s the kind of phrase that cries out for argument, justification, clarification, application, interepretation. But how, one wonders:

>The problem with the Separationist view, he has argued in essays and briefs, is that it’s not *practical.* As government grows and becomes more involved in health, charity, education and culture issues, it begins pushing religion out of those spheres. The Separationist doctrine leads inevitably to discrimination against religion. The state ends up punishing people who are exercising a *constitutional right*. [emphasis added]

It seems like the problem with the separationist view is that it’s *not constitutional*, not that’s it’s not practical. But that’s not the real point. This is:

>McConnell argued that government shouldn’t be *separated* from religion, but, as Madison believed, should be *neutral* about religion. He pointed out that the fire services and the police don’t just protect stores and offices, but churches and synagogues as well. In the same way, he declared in Congressional testimony in 1995, “When speech reflecting a secular viewpoint is permitted, then speech reflecting a religious viewpoint should be permitted on the same basis.” The public square shouldn’t be walled off from religion, but open to a plurality of viewpoints, secular and religious. The state shouldn’t allow school prayer, which privileges religion, but public money should go to religious and secular service agencies alike.

The rest of the article spins out the evidence for this view in the usual fashion–cherry picking cases of misguided or confused local officials discriminating against religious people. We’ve all heard these cases, so we won’t bother going through them in order to point out that much more than these anecdotes would be needed to demonstrate systematic religious discrimination.

But back to the point, notice how “neutral” is an interpretation of “separated.” And notice also how this view is supported by one wickedly specious analogy–the fire department and police have fairly well-defined objectives–property and life. Nonetheless, the problem with McConnell’s view is that he falsely contrasts secular with religious. “Secular” is not religious, or any particular religion; it is not another religion alongside the many religions. Some might even claim that “secular” is a kind of “neutrality” with regard to religion.

“Public” word games and the Establishment Clause

In yesterday’s Washington Post, William Raspberry ceded the job of thinking about the relationship between church and state to Kevin “Seamus” Hasson of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty (Source: WaPo 7/11/05).

According to Hasson, the “problem” with the decision in McCreary County, Kentucky, et al. v. ACLU of Kentucky et al., is that it considers the intention motivating governmental displays of religious objects in deciding whether they violate the first amendment’s establishment clause (Source: Findlaw).

Hasson, like many religious conservatives attempting to find an anti-religious stance in governmental neutrality, when there is little reason to find it, he simply asserts it. For example, he argues against the test for religious purpose as follows:

>”The ‘predominantly religious’ test suggests that anything not predominantly secular must be religious. It in fact has strong anti -religious overtones.”

If it is the case that “secular” here means “non-religious” then, yes, anything not predominantly non-religious must be predominantly religious. How one finds “strong anti-religious overtones” in this tautologically true sentence, however, is a bit mysterious.

But his purpose is to assert that the requirement of neutrality leads precisely to this hostility–not, of course, on the basis of any evidence or argument:

>”There’s nothing in common sense — and certainly nothing in the First Amendment — that requires government hostility to publicly expressed religion, which is where the requirement that government be ‘secular’ takes you,” he says.

Everyone would, I take it, grant that the first amendment does not requires the government to be hostile to publicly expressed religion (since it is, in fact, designed to guarantee that possibility). It obviously does not follow, however, that the “requirement that government be ‘secular’ implies such a hostility (at least not without considerable argument that Hasson neglects to offer). One might as well argue that because umpires are required to maintain neutrality betwen the teams that they are therefore hostile to the teams.

But Raspberry opines:

>Hasson is not just playing word games. He thinks the notion that religion should be expressed only in private — and never in the context of government — is a serious misreading of human nature.

But Raspberry’s protestation aside, we can easily see that Hasson is in fact just “playing word games”–specifically, he is confusing, whether deliberately or not, two senses of “public” (and so also two senses of “private”).

>We don’t believe in private because we don’t live in private,” . . .”This has always been the case. We believe, so we daub paint on prehistoric cave walls, spend generations building cathedrals, sculpt the David, compose the ‘Messiah’ and write ‘The Brothers Karamazov.’ The personal thing to do is, and always has been, not to keep our beliefs private but to express them in culture. . . . It’s how we’re made.”

In one sense, the word means something like displayed/occuring socially (as in, “public drunkenness”)and in the other it means displayed/occuring socially by the government (as in, “public works”). Certainly public (as in drunkenness) religious displays should be protected by the courts. But the First Amendment seems to, fairly clearly, require that the government not engage in public (as in works) displays of religious establishment. And, as the courts have reasonably argued, the display of the ten commandments for non-predominantly secular purposes amounts to such a public establishment.

But Hasson isn’t finished trying to muddy the waters:

>”Religion has a natural role in culture — almost like ethnicity. And both, being categories over which people have killed each other, require scrutiny. But isn’t it interesting that our courts are never clogged with Anglophiles trying to enjoin St. Patrick’s Day parades, or with whites and Asians trying to stop Black History Month? Mayors can — and do — wear green on March 17, while taking no position on the relative merits of being Irish. It should be the same with Christmas and Hanukah.”

This is clearly a bad analogy. Certainly mayors wear green and crosses or whatever else they as individuals would like publicly (as in drunkeness) to display. Setting aside that the holiday is a secular one for most participants–they cannot, establish it as a public (as in works) holiday.


We have never discussed a letter to the editor before, but considering the very impressive medical credentials of the author (whose name we deleted) of the following piece from the June 21st, 2005 *New York Times*, and the fact that he challenges the *logic* of the argument of the supporters of Michael Schiavo, we felt we had no choice.

Here’s the letter in full:

>To the Editor:

>Terri Schiavo’s autopsy report claimed that she was probably blind. Supporters of the decision to starve her to death have hailed this finding as bolstering their argument that withdrawal of her feeding tube was ethical.

>Their reasoning is hard to follow.

>If Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, blindness is a meaningless diagnosis. Only sentient people can see, and only sentient people can be blind. And if she were blind, then she was sentient, and the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state was a genuinely fatal mistake.

>The lapses in logic aside, it’s chilling to assert that it’s more ethical to starve a handicapped person if that person is blind. This is what passes for ethics among advocates for euthanasia.

Now let’s take a closer look.

The author claims that supporters of the decision to remove the feeding tube have mistakenly concluded that evidence of Ms. Schiavo’s blindness bolstered their argument. This argument, however, suffers from a number of fatal lapses in logic.

First, the term “blind” and “blindness” is used in all sorts of ways. Certain bats and moles are referred to as blind in order to indicate their complete inability to see. This is presumably the sense in which the term was meant. Certainly if all that was meant was that Ms. Schiavo was blind, but still conscious, then the case never would have gotten so far. One might think of the blindness claim as evidence against the Fristian and Bushian view that Ms. Schiavo could “see” her mother.

Second, the author of the letter compounds his error by constructing a specious implication. We might restate this as follows: if someone can or cannot see, then that person is sentient, so if someone cannot see, then someone is sentient. That’s fine as it stands, but this means that dead people are sentient–after all, they are blind (in that they cannot see).

Third, it must be the case that by “blind” Dr. Whosits means “sentient, but not able to see” in which case he has simply assumed what was meant to be demonstrated–i.e., that she was sentient. The blindness (understood as it was meant to be) was evidence in support of the clinical diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state. That it can be used, as the doctor uses it here, as evidence of sentience can only be due to a semantic trick.

Finally, it may not be the case that all sentient things are conscious. A doctor of neurosurgery ought to know this.

Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Last Saturday we saw in the New York Times two columns addressing the question of caution: One decrying it in favor of some sort of confusion of middle-aged excess with courage and decisiveness, and the other fretting over the absence of caution in recommending caution among environmentalists. First we will deal with the trivial instance. I am still puzzling over what could possibly have motivated David Brooks to write his "Saturday Night Lite"(Source: NYT 03/12/05). In his column he flails around–in search of self-deprecating humor among other things–while trying to blame facetiously his middle-age caution on anyone but himself. >And yet we live in the age of the lily-livered, in which fretting over things like excessive caffeination is built into the cultural code. Continue reading Middle-Age Caution and the Death of Environmentalism

Nature Wrecked

In the previous post we discussed George Will’s violent reaction to the violent reaction to Larry Summers’–President of Harvard University–foray into *a priori* genetics. On the basis of all of the scientific auctoritas as his armchair will provide, Will continues here and in the following op-ed piece (which we will discuss some time in the near future) to pontificate about the philosophical realities of human nature. Not only did it gall him that academic liberals would dare question the unjustified assertions of the president of Harvard University, but some in the left-wing political media had the temerity to challenge similar claims in the inaugural address of the President of the United States:

>This criticism went beyond doubts about his grandiose aspirations, to rejection of the philosophy that he might think entails such aspirations but actually does not. The philosophy of natural right — the Founders’ philosophy — rests on a single proposition: There is a universal human nature.

Continue reading Nature Wrecked

Illicit contrariness

The debate concerning the “value’s vote” in the election will probably continue for some time. Many pundits have weighed in already, arguing that there was no “value’s vote,” or that the “value’s vote” was misguided, etc. John Leo in the last issue of the U.S. News and World Report (Source: USNWR 11/29/04), seeks to defend the value’s vote from its critics.

>I am struggling to understand the “don’t impose your values” argument. According to this popular belief, it is wrong, and perhaps dangerous, to vote your moral convictions unless everybody else already shares them.

It’s hard to know what argument Leo is unable to understand–the ascription of this view to “popular belief” makes it seem unlikely that he has a particular advocate in mind and so does not feel the need to consider what exactly the argument might involve. Presumably, Leo is trying to capture a sense of the “secular liberal” who adheres to a strict understanding of the separation of church and state and sees religiously motivated “value’s argument” to be as potentially insidious as the installation of the Taliban. But, in the absence of anyone who would actually advance this argument it is hard to take it seriously or Leo’s refutation of it as particularly significant. This is a sort of “straw man fallacy”–the argument that he is actually concerned with is the argument against the place of religious values in political debate, or the rationality of choosing to vote on values rather than economic self-interest.

>Nobody ever explains exactly what constitutes an offense in voting one’s values, but the complaints appear to be aimed almost solely at conservative Christians, who are viewed as divisive when they try to “force their religious opinions on us.”

So Leo seems to be confusing two distinct issues:

1 The argument that a significant number of voters chose to vote on “values” rather than for example economic self-interest etc.
2 The argument that the parochial values of religious sects should not be the grounds for government.

The former is a matter for sociology and political science (and has been discussed in Thomas Franks’ *What’s the Matter with Kansas?*): The latter is a matter of constitutional theory respecting the “establishment clause” of the first amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). But Leo wants to argue against a caricature of #1 in order to suggest that we have grounds for rejecting #2 (which he does not in fact give) and therefore demostrating the contrary of #2:

2a Parochial values of religious sects should or can be the grounds for government.

What he wants to do is refute claim that “values should never enter into politics” in order to justify the inclusion of religious values in politics. But of course the negation of the first does not imply the contrary of the second since the two are not strict contradictories.

The logical form of this argument:

1 Either no values have a place in government or some do.
2 It is not the case that values *do not* have a place in goverment.
3 Therefore, *all* (including religious) values have a place in government.

So in fact, there are two fallacies here: The straw man in #1 and the equivocation on the notion of values that enables him to conclude that religious values have a place in government even though he has only shown that some values have a place in government.

Strictly speaking, however, this is a formal fallacy based on the difference between contrary and contradictory statements. Contradictory statements possess opposite truth values (one is false, the other true): Contrary statements, however, can both be false.

a No S is P. —- a1) All S is P.
b No S is P. —- b1) Some S is P.

In the first case we have contraries–both can be false (when “Some S is P”). In the second we have contradictories since whatever the truth value of one, the other is opposite. (So we can infer from the falsity of “No S is P” that “Some S is P” is true.) Leo seems to commit the formal fallacy of “illicit contrary” here.

> If the “don’t impose” people wish to mount a serious argument, they will have to attack “imposers” on both sides of the issues they discuss–not just their opponents. They will also have to explain why arguments that come from religious beliefs are less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings.

The first of these two claims is eminently reasonable: Logic here demands consisitency, and so the argument–if there ever has been such a one–that values must be entirely excluded from politics would, of course, have to apply to *all values*–assuming, however, that all “values” are on a par in this case.

But of course there is good reason to exclude certain sorts of religious arguments from political debate in a nation that adheres to the “separation of church and state”–these arguments *are* “less worthy than similar arguments that come from secular principles or simply from hunches or personal feelings” in the context with which we are concerned.

To conclude the column, Leo spends some time looking at several cases where the supposedly “anti-values” people will need to argue against their customary positions as a consequence of the logical virtue of consistency. But the massing of examples does not hide the fact that all he can argue is:

1 If you hold the belief that “imposing values is always wrong,” then you must be opposed to the imposition of values in case x.


But this argument is far too weak for Leo’s purposes. What he in fact wants to conclude is:

>No arguments are privileged because they come from secular people, and none are somehow out of bounds because they come from people of faith. Religious arguments have no special authority in the public arena, but the attempt to label those arguments as illegitimate because of their origin is simply a fashionable form of prejudice. Dropping the “don’t impose” argument would be a step toward improving the political climate.

Leo seems to think that he has established that “religious arguments” are legitimate grounds for political decisions. But, the fact that *some* values are legitimate in public discourse does not of course imply that *all* are.

In fact, as an example, when the Colorado Supreme Court was examining Amendment 2 denying “special consideration” to homosexuals, one of the central issues was whether the moral motivation of the amendment was necessarily founded in a particular religion. Conservative advocates argued that the Ancient Greeks had a non-religious disapprobation of homosexuality.

Thus, at least as far as I understand the underlying issue–not of course being a constitutional lawyer–a *merely* religious argument is in fact “illegitimate” in this case precisely because of its orgin. That is, if a particular law or policy is simply designed to enshrine or impose the moral or religious beliefs of an individual sect on the country as a whole, the arguments in its favor are illegitimate.

And this is not, as Leo wants it, a matter of “prejudice.” For the same reason that the biblical calculation of *pi* can be excluded from mathematics textbooks, so moral beliefs based solely in religious principles are not necessarily legitimate for the purpose of policy and political argument.

After exposing these fallacies and the illegitimate conclusion draws from them, let me make one last comment. I think Leo is in fact right that the debate surrounding stem cell research etc. is a debate about “values”–but the rules of this debate are set among other things by the principles contained within constitution and its tradition of interpretation. Presumably to the chagrin of Leo and others, these rules do in fact exclude certain arguments without the exclusion being a matter of “prejudice.”

One last complication to consider. Surely in a democracy it is legitimate to vote on the basis of one’s values–no one, despite Leo’s suggestion, argues that one should not do so. But these values or the intentions and policies of the candidate who reflects these values are not on that basis legitimate as a matter of public policy. In fact, this was precisely what the founding fathers wanted to avoid: The possibility of the local prejudices of various religions from being imposed on all citizens.