Ad Hominem; Or, Bad Reasoning in the Real World Part 12

Sisters and Brothers,

Once again Australian politics has shown itself to be fertile ground for those of us who like to point bad reasoning when we see it (I’m shocked). For those who don’t know the climate change “debate” in Australia is essentially a running joke, with frankly bizarre conspiracy theories getting mainstream press, and many prominent politicians repeatedly claiming that either the climate isn’t changing, or that it is but Human activity has nothing to do with it. Or most amusingly that we shouldn’t have wind farms because they’re ugly (that is actually their best reason, not a shovel article).

Within this context Senator Larissa Waters yesterday asked whether the Prime Minister Tony Abbott had a response to the Pope’s recent comments on climate change. This was also an attempt, I suspect, for Waters and her party the Greens — who are traditionally much better at communicating with those who self-identify as atheist — to highlight common ground with the Catholic Church. None-the-less the question is relevant because the Prime Minister strongly self-identifies as Catholic and so the Pope’s position may well lead to the Prime Minister changing his mind on climate change.

Now the response to Waters in the Senate is what I’d like to focus on here. Aside from some expected name calling (“bloody bigot” “disgusting”), Senator Barry O’Sullivan interjected asking Waters if she was married. How this is supposed to function as an attack on her escapes me, but none-the-less that was clearly the intent. Apparently we should not listen to women who aren’t married (this is a long running strategy from the Prime Minister’s, in fact conservative, Liberal Party who questioned former Prime Minister Gillard’s capacity to love because she was unmarried and had no children).

This argument is a prime example of what we call an Ad Hominem Fallacy. This fallacy takes the form of highlighting some irrelevant feature of a person, in this case their marital status, an using that to attack their argument, or question, or conclusion. When laid out like this the argument is clear fallacious:

Question: will the Prime Minister be changing his position on climate change in light of the Pope’s teachings?

Response: we shouldn’t answer that because the asker is not married.

Not only fallacious of course, but catastrophically sexist (male senators never have their questions rejected on the grounds that they aren’t married).

It’s important to distinguish the Ad Hominem Fallacy from some other arguments we see in the public sphere which sometimes look superficially similar. It is not committing the Ad Hominem Fallacy to question someone’s trustworthiness when you have specific grounds for thinking they might be lying. This is most relevant in cases of testimony. For example, we don’t ask the goalkeeper if the ball crossed the goal line because of well known biases that come with perceiving sport when a member of a team. In this case we treat the goalkeeper’s testimony that the ball didn’t cross the line as untrustworthy because we have good reason to suppose that their perception is biased (even if we don’t think they’re lying about what they saw). Similarly, despite what Joe Hockey would have us believe it is not committing the Ad Hominem fallacy to question someone’s qualifications to perform a specific professional job when they show evidence that they are not qualified for the job in question. Neither of these cases are instances of the fallacy because they deploy specific evidence regarding a person’s capacity to make a particular judgement or to complete a specific task.

Instances of the fallacy, in contrast, highlight some irrelevant, but apparently undesirable, feature of person to attack a question, argument or conclusion when stands independently of the person asking, arguing or concluding. Anyone could have asked Water’s question and it would have been relevant regardless of whether or not they where married.

with love, DrNPC

Once last note: to my mind the Ad Hominem Fallacy is the most basic mistake one can make in argument. It’s essentially responding to everything by saying “so’s your face”. If we are in an instance when Senator’s, who are presumably well educated, still think that this is an appropriate way to conduct themselves when discussing important issues like climate change, faith and leadership in the Catholic Church one really has to wonder if our education system is achieving the goals we, as a society, want it to. Perhaps it is time to properly fund education, end the absurd private/public division and the end the over the top political interference in the content of course we’ve seen this century.

Abbott’s shrinking circle

Human Beings of Australia our Prime Minister has reached a new level of detachment from the people he is supposed to govern. We have all been crying out for some actual leadership, some vision from a Prime Minister who wants to improve our home and perhaps even (though this is controversial) the rest of the world as well. Obviously this has been too much to ask from this Prime Minister. But, if we are not to have any sort of actual leadership, the very least we can expect is that the Prime Minister grant his people some basic human regard.

It is one thing for him to dehumanise and attack vulnerable “foreigners”. After all they have committed the egregious crime of running for their lives. Well, really they’re just not us, they are out-group, other and so less worthy of protection. At any rate that’s a difficult aspect of human psychology to overcome, the feeling we have that “others” are less than “us”. It is another thing entirely for the Prime Minister to dehumanise his own people.

Yet this is exactly what he has done in declaring that employers should be able to try before they buy. Despite what it sounds like he was not referring to a new model of espresso machine, nor even a new printer. Instead he was referring to you. The people of Australia. The key word there is people. Our Prime Minister discussed other human beings, people he is supposed to be governing, as though they were property. But, Human Beings of Australia, you are not property, mere things, you are people and you deserve to be treated as such.

What we see is Abbott attempting to shrink the circle around himself, to reduce the number of people worthy of his protection and governance. Business owners are fine, but workers, not so much… and certainly not the long term unemployed. They are not enough like him to worthy of governance.

The language Abbott used here is not a slip of the tongue, or a bad joke, or even misuse of an idiom. If it were maybe we could all just laugh it off. Rather, it is a deliberate attempt to make the long term unemployed sound less like people and more like property. How do we know this? Because of the goals Abbott was trying to achieve, namely free labour. He was suggesting that employers get a month of free labour from an employee. It is, of course, obviously wrong to not pay someone for working. As expensive as they are to buy, it is perfectly acceptable to not pay your espresso machine or printer.

Dehumanisation has licensed the most exploitative practices imaginable, all the way up to full blown slavery; the literal ownership of people. These are no “mere words” that we ought not get worked up about. These comments are the latest salvo in the class war perpetuated by Abbott and the neo-aristocracy in an attempt to create a new class of surfs, of people, like you, but so disadvantaged as to have no choice but to work for two dollars a day. We see this not only in the rhetoric of neo-aristocrats like Abbott and Rinehart, but in their actions as well. From assaults on a minimum wage, to a royal commission into the organisations of people who disagree with him, to bypassing the competitive grants process in order to reward political allies with university research centres, the actions of the Prime Minister speak loud and clear: Only some people in Abbott’s Australia matter.

It cannot be economic theory that leads to our Prime Minister acting this way, for reducing the amount of money available to workers to spend reduces the amount of money moving through the economy. Vacuumming cash out of our economy to sit in the bank accounts and investment portfolios of a few people just means everyone else makes less. Which means they spend less. And the system we have chosen, for better or worse, depends on as many people as possible continuing to spend.

Instead our Prime Minister’s behaviour is part of a broader pattern of dividing Australia on the grounds of race (the attacks on refugees and closure of aboriginal communities), religion (only Christian chaplains in schools) and class. This is a pattern that has never worked. Dividing France into three estates lead to revolution and the rise of one of the most deplorable dictators the world has ever known. Taxing citizens whilst at the same time denying them representation in government lead to the American Revolution. Only violence has ever come from dividing a people into those who count and those who don’t in the government’s eyes.

But, the last thing we need is revolution and more violence. Instead we need leaders who understand that we are all in this together. Who understand that every person counts, regardless of how much they are “like them” or whether or not they’d like to get together to skol a beer. And who understand that a unified nation is a prosperous, happy and productive nation. This can never be achieved so long as we degrade each other and act as though our only value is to make someone else money.

Abbott is the Prime Minister of Australia. With that comes the opportunity to unite the people of Australia. He is our Prime Minister after all and the very least we can ask is that he is Prime Minister for all of us. We wait in hope, Human Beings of Australia.

With love

DrNPC

& Dr Elizabeth Schier

Meditations on Moral Failure and Growth

A meditation is a funny thing to write. Not least because it is fundamentally unscholarly. That always bugged me reading Descartes, no sourcing of ideas, only the vaguest sense of who he’s responding to – without a historian to hand anyway. I don’t like that; being unscholarly. A bit of harder work, well a few months, and I could contribute something significant to the genuinely philosophical attempts to understand ourselves. I have no reason not to do that, except I sleep a lot.

Moral Failure”. That sounds funny too. It reminds me of the signs up in Sydney’s Hyde Park telling us to stay away during storms, in case of “Tree Failure”. What they mean, of course, is falling branches. I don’t know why they don’t just say that. What I mean is the failure of good people, and people who are trying to be good, to act morally.

The essence of moral failure is a lack of regard for the welfare, needs, desires, wishes, freedom and interests of other persons. At least that’s the kind I’m meditating on. I’m interested in this as a matter of personal growth. When I have failed to act morally – and it is at this point that my meditation runs the risk of becoming a suicide note – it has been a lack of regard for other persons which has made my actions wrong.

That’s not why I acted immorally of course. I acted immorally out of misdirected anger and feelings of powerlessness. It feels as if everything that is easy for other people is hard for me and so I lash out. But it is not merely being motivated by anger that makes it wrong; even if that is a sign I should have been able to pick up on that I was at risk of doing something wrong. What makes it wrong is a failure to respect other persons as persons. If I where in a scholarly mood I’d call them “moral subjects”. Beings worthy of the full range of moral protections.

So I’m worried about the failure of people who are trying to be good – perhaps rather arrogantly I’ll include myself in that group – to act with regard for others. But why ‘good people’ and ‘people trying to be good’? Well, because that’s all of us. Contrary Catholic Doctrine and the evidence of the 20th century, humans aren’t born evil. Perhaps, even, as Yeshua tells Pilate in The Master and Margarita ‘There are no evil people in the world.’ It is our very essence to be social, if we were born with a lack of regard for other persons – at least those in our immediate groups – we surely wouldn’t have survived long enough for any of us to meditate on anything. Let alone morality.

Although we are born good, that goodness doesn’t easily extend to regard for all persons. The circle of people who’s interests we will naturally respect is really very small, for some of us as small as one, but most will include their family or football team. To extend the in group takes more than a little effort. It seems to me at least that the tendency to divide the world of persons into an in group who’s interests we respect and an out group who’s interests we don’t is the biggest flaw in humanity. Metaphorically it’s God’s biggest mistake and it’s a mistake because it makes acting morally effortful and invites moral failures.

Just as the history of the moral failure of myself and of good people is a history of failing to have regard for persons; the history of moral growth, of going from doing something obviously wrong to doing something obviously right strikes me as the history of expanding the set of people to whom we have regard. Persons are excluded from the group of people we protect at our convenience, because we can use them for something, and more often then not we know it’s wrong. We can tell that we know it’s wrong because these exclusions are accompanied by the most bizarre post hoc justifications. It was ok to enslave Africans because they supposedly lacked a soul, women could be excluded from science because they supposedly lacked intellectual capacity and refugees can be excluded from society because they are dangerous criminals and probably terrorists. Certainly they are not “us” enough.

We grow morally when we expand the group of those who we have regard for. We drop the absurd excuses for excluding them from the group of “us”, real people, who are worth protecting and we welcome them with open arms. This is what I need to do to stop treating people disrespectfully when I am angry at them or someone like them, and it’s what we need to do as a society, as a people, to grow beyond our moral failures. Big things give me hope that we can do this, we no longer endorse slavery (even if we make use of it in ignorance) and we have women scientists (even if they do face systemic disadvantages). Little things give me hope that we can do this too, #Teamhumanity is much more inclusive than Abbott’s team Australia.

But big things also punch back against hope. As I write this Scott Morrison has been promoted from the Minister for Torturing Refugees to the Minister for Disadvantaging Poor People. I’m desperately hoping that in a few months time I’ll look like a divisive partisan knob for the second title. But, I’m not optimistic. Morrison’s work on Asylum Seekers has been to make us see people running for their lives as a dangerous out-group, and thus not worthy of moral protections. His first act in social services was to set up poor people, presumably the dole bludgers the Telegraph et al wish us to exclude from the group of people who’s needs count for something, against people living with disabilities.

When people like Morrison are repeatedly elected to positions of power it makes the entire endeavor of avoiding moral failures seem worthless. Why should I, even in my limited personal sphere, bother trying to avoid moral failures when failing to act morally is encouraged and rewarded in our leaders? Because, trying is the right thing to do. There is no better reason to do something than that.

The Principle of Charity; or: bad reasoning in the real world Part 10

In having a debate aimed to get at the truth, some important truth, such as a morally and economically sound taxation policy for example, one of the worst mistakes you can make is to misrepresent others views. Aside from not being very nice it takes us further from our goal of discovering (or convincing others) of the truth. Why? Because it means that perfectly sensible views get lumped in with, and disregarded alongside, absurd views. Sometimes this happens by accident. In philosophy, for example, Daniel Dennett’s theory of consciousness is really hard to understand and so sometimes perfectly reasonable and smart people misrepresent his view. Saying things like he denies the existence of consciousness and what not. This is a shame but it happens. And if it happens in academia (with some exceptions, health research for example) there generally isn’t much lost in taking a few years to clear things up. At other times, however, it seems to be done on purpose, in attempt to, presumably, not find the truth, but “win” the argument for the sake of winning.

I honestly don’t know which of these possibilities, or some combination of the two, is at play in Amanda Vanstone’s recent opinion piece for the SMH. Nonetheless it seems Vanstone has not met her burden under “the principle of charity”. Simply put this principle asks us to go to as much effort as possible to accurately represent the views of those we disagree with and to not irresponsibly attribute to them false claims or bad arguments without very good reason. In other words we should assume, failing evidence to the contrary, that those we disagree with are also engaged in the activity of attempting to determine the truth.

This doesn’t seem to have been done by Vanstone in her claim that those who are critical of the amount of tax payed by the largest companies and income inequality are over-generalizing from the existence of tax cheats. If we consider the actual positions of those who do advocate higher tax rates on the largest companies and who push for income equality we find arguments that income inequality and low tax on large companies is bad for the economy. Robert Reich famously makes the argument that income inequality reduces the spending power of the middle class thus considerably reducing the amount of money moving through the economy. Other arguments exist in public discourse as well of course. Some advocates of the “mining tax” (resource minerals rent tax) made a moral argument that seeing that resources belong to a nation and are mined at the bequest of the government that it is only fair that the profits from such mining be shared.

Without needing to endorse these arguments we can see that Vanstone has not engaged with them whatsoever, whilst at the same time dismissing their conclusions as supposedly grounded in a bad over-generalization. This is a shame as seeing as the bad over-generalization doesn’t, in fact, underlie the conclusion that large companies should be taxed more than they are at present or that we should push for greater income equality, Vanstone’s argument doesn’t give us reason to deny these claims. Yet Vanstone’s misrepresentation of the views of those she disagrees with creates the appearance that her argument does give us reason to deny them.

In sum we need to be charitable in interpreting each others arguments, we need to if we are to determine important truths. In other words, it’s fine to disagree with me, but please disagree with what I actually say, not some weird caricature of it.

with love

DrNPC

On Abbott’s Purported Mandate to Repeal the ‘Carbon Tax’

“Kick this mob out!” was the vaguely sooky revolutionary cry of public supporters of a change in government. Never was the call “get this mob in!” nor even “give them a chance”. The very movement for change was never sold as a policy based change. This may well seem a perfectly good political strategy. Policy as presented by the LNP was either pathetically disappointing, racist, destructive or a shambles to name just a few. The statements themselves no doubt speak to a conservative base, but it seems that many who changed their votes did so because of distaste with the farce that Kevin Rudd had made out of the Labor party. This I don’t think was just a face saving line for election night, every day in the week leading up to the election radio national had a swarm of voters to interview declaring themselves fed up with the ALP. At any rate the ALP could have gone on the attack election night- questioning Abbott’s right to lead the LNP given how much of a drag on their vote he had been.

If this is right, that we changed government because of distaste with the previous government rather than excitement for a new one, then Abbott’s claim of a mandate to repeal the Carbon tax begins to look a little silly — it is implausible to claim that the LNP victory is a public endorsement of their policies. Not only does this ignore the will of the majority who did not preference his party first, but it ignores the reason why he has become prime minister. Simply being elected to government is no grounds for a claim that everyone should now vote with you or allow any old law through without critical scrutiny. We should expect Abbott and the LNP to make such claims, but these are not claims to be taken seriously.

with love

DrNPC

Selecting evidence to fit convictions; or, bad reasoning in the everyday world part 7

Political op-ed pieces are a goldmine for those seeking to identify instances of poor reasoning and “Abbott, the thinking person’s Prime Minister” by Nicolle Flint is no exception. This piece seems to have pissed a lot of people off today- mostly for its political content- but as, so often is the case, the problem isn’t just agenda pushing but the fundamental flaws in the thinking behind the agenda pushing.

The flaw I want to highlight today is the manner in which examples are selected to fit a pre-determined conviction. Instead the author ought to examine all relevant evidence and have the evidence drive the conclusion. This can be extremely difficult to do, because of well known selection biases which lead people to seek evidence consistent with what they already believe and discount problematic facts. We see in this article no attempt by the author to overcome such biases and the result is a series of conclusions supported by single examples and ignoring what have been very public counter examples.

Ok so let’s look at instance number one:

Flint says “Charges of sexism and misogyny appear truly farcical when measured against the care and respect expressed in these opening pages for his wife Margie, former girlfriend Kathy and her biological son Daniel, whom Abbott and Kathy long believed to be their biological son.”

What Flint does here is argue to the conclusion that Abbott is not sexist or Misogynist because he clearly loves his family. You might also note that this is a poorly chosen example on Flint’s part as believing in gender equality doesn’t have much to do with whether or not you love your family, but rather whether you treat all people as persons regardless of gender, but that’s not my main point today. The bigger problem here is that one example for the conclusion is chosen, where-as many well known counter examples are ignored. For example, as many have reported Abbott once said this:

“‘What the housewives of Australia need to understand as they do the ironing is that if they get it done commercially it’s going to go up in price and their own power bills when they switch the iron on are going to go up, every year…’”

On this face of it this is a very sexist comment. Now it might be possible for Flint to suggest that this statement is misused if taken as evidence of sexism (perhaps it was sarcasm?) but instead of considering this evidence it is ignored. Thus, we see Flint’s argument relies on selecting examples which fit the conclusion.

The second instance I want to note today is that Flint suggests that Abbott is a sensitive and compassionate person and cites as evidence of this his discussion of Christopher Pearson. However, other public statements from Abbott such as repeated statements to “turn the boats back” (eg) suggest otherwise, or at least that his compassion are not universal. again instead of taking  this evidence seriously as a potential counter example Flint simply ignores it.

In order to support a conclusion all relevant evidence must be considered and the author of this piece hasn’t done so. By selecting evidence which supports a prior conviction and ignoring well known counter examples the author fails to support their conclusions.

with love

DrNPC