Tag Archives: john holbo

David Brooks has taken it easy for all of us sinners

Our dystopian future

John Holbo at Crooked Timber reads David Brooks’ recent column on marijuana and has a request we’ve had for a long time:

Why is this interesting? I’ve said it before, and this column is a good example.In US politics, the conservative imagination is so loopily half-utopian. Prominent liberal pundits, by contrast, don’t go in for this sort of half-baked (no pun intended!) goofiness. (Maybe that’s why they don’t get invited onto the Sunday morning shows. They are less entertaining.) But maybe this is just my liberal bias. A challenge for our conservatives readers. Can you provide examples of liberal pundits who are as prominent as Brooks, who are as goofy as Brooks?That is, they defend some concrete policy proposal by sort of half-flying off to some vague Cloud Cuckooland, based on principles they would never seriously propose ratifying in the real world, because they obviously don’t even believe those principles?

As an empirical matter, I think Holbo is right on the money.  We have, on the one hand, a very vibrant argumentative culture in the United States; you don’t have to go very far to find vigorous dialectical exchanges on any number of topics (see, the Internet).  At the same time, however, this culture is dominated by the likes of Brooks (and Kathleen Parker).

Brooks, the particular case at hand, argues the following:

For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I smoked marijuana. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.

Only to conclude:

The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of drug use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.

But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being stoned.

In legalizing weed, citizens of Colorado are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.

Skipping the obvious rejoinder of the legality of alchohol and workahol, smoking weed was good for Brooks, morally good actually (it deepened his friendships, didn’t it?), but it ought to be illegal for others (with, I imagine, all of the consequences of being illegal–jail, fines, war on drugs, etc.) because nature and the arts are better.  I think you’d have to be high to cite those two particular examples of alternatives to weed.  And so maybe we’re reading this all wrong.  Brooks is enacting his argument against  legal weed by getting high before writing it.

Nothing to fear, they’re nihilists

"Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it was an ethos."  That was Walter Sobchek of the Big Lebowski.  One finds a similar thought in a recent discussion:*

Say what you will about the prosperity gospel and the cult of the God Within and the other theologies I criticize in Bad Religion, but at least they have a metaphysically coherent picture of the universe to justify their claims. Whereas much of today’s liberalism expects me to respect its moral fervor even as it denies the revelation that once justified that fervor in the first place. It insists that it is a purely secular and scientific enterprise even as it grounds its politics in metaphysical claims.

That's Ross Douthat, New York Times' pious columnist.  For a discussion of the Euthyphro Problem-denying angles to this, see John Holbo at Crooked Timber (my source for the passage above). 

My quibble would be that "secular" and "scientific" enterprises cannot have "methaphysical" claims.  Seems that insofar as they make claims about what sorts of things are real, or not, they do.

*edited this sentence to make it clear I'm not going Godwin on Douthat.

Fun with new fallacies–The ab homine

Here is an interesting item from John Holbo at Crooked Timber:

No, I don’t mean: arguing fair. I think it should be ab homine. A moving (irrationally) away from the man. It’s a fallacy.

Here’s the context. Matthew Yglesias and Jonathan Chait have a diavlog in the course of which Chait takes the scrupulous high-road position that, when it comes to charges of racism, you really have to be slow to accuse. He rolls out the standard fair-play-in-debate considerations: if the person is saying something wrong, but not explicitly racist, you can just point out the wrongness, without speculating, additionally, that they said the wrong thing out of racism. There is, he implies, no real loss in not being able to delve into dark motive.

But here’s the problem with that. In an environment in which creative and speculative accusations of bad motives are, otherwise, flying back and forth in free and easy style, a social norm against accusing people of one sin in particular is actively misleading. It inevitably generates the strong impression that this bad motive – out of the whole colorful range of diseases and infirmities of the mind and spirit – is an especially unlikely motive. Which, in the sorts of cases Chait and Yglesias happened to be discussing, is not true. So, contra Chait, an inconsistent semi-norm against ad hominem arguments encourages an ab homine error that may be less angry (that’s not nothing) but is significantly more confused tha[n] what excessive – but even-handedly excessive! – hermeneutics of suspicion would produce.

I seem to remember talking about something like this before.  I'd call this an error of excessive scrupulousity.  Philosopher types fall prey to this one out of an overabundance of charity: Sure this argument really blows, but maybe there really is a good one in here somewhere.  (Sometimes, I think, philosopher types do not want to trouble their beautiful minds with silly arguments, so they just deny their existence or refuse to discuss them).

Nonetheless, I still think one ought to be especially careful in attributing motives, including racist ones, to other arguers.  In the first place, those motives are hard to know (and therefore easily disputed); second, they are hard to define (and therefore easily disputed); third, and most importantly (and tragically) they are come across as illegitimate ad hominems (and are therefore easily disputed).  The ease of dispute of imputation of racism places a heavy practical burden on the accuser.  Does one really want, in other words, to go through the necessary evidence in order to make a point likely to be only tangentially related to the discussion at hand (even if true)?

So this is mostly a pragmatic objection to Holbo's point.  Unfortunately, what makes these sorts of accusations difficult (even if true and relevant) is the deeply entrenched presence of the fallacy fallacy.  This is the view that the very criticizing of someone else–especially in accusing them of fallacies–is itself a kind of fallacy.  The rules of our dumb discourse prevent legitimate criticism.  The only thing that counts, I still maintain this week, is consistency.  This is why Pat Buchanan, despite his Hitler apologetics, is constantly on TV.  He's consistent.