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

When arguments from analogy aren’t arguments from analogy; Or bad reasoning in the real world part 6

In light of Minister Conroy’s proposed new media laws we all got to see this great front page from the daily telegraph:

images_article_2013_03_13_Daily-Telegraph-Front-Page 4569440-16x9-940x529

Now as we know it’s typically hard to distill an argument from political opinion pieces, but here (surprisingly) is an argument. The argument goes like this:

P1. Conroy displays an essential feature of being a fascist – i.e. wanting to control the media.

P2. By showing this property he can be classed as a fascist.

C: By analogy he likely shares other properties of being a fascist.

This is indeed a disturbing conclusion, but it is easily challenged by attacking P1, are the proposed changes really that much like the laws under Kim? There are, of course numerous other ways in which we might challenge this or any other argument from analogy, and it may be possible to defend it from specific attacks.

What defenders of the analogy can’t do, however, is both defend the analogy and deny it at the same time. Well obviously! Who would do such a thing?

Well the answer is Piers Ackerman on ABC’s the Insiders this morning. The video is available here. Unfortunately the typed transcript isn’t up yet for me to quote from, I’ll link to it when it is.

So what do we see here from Ackerman? First is a return to the fascist analogy, with specific reference to the DDR, but then, in a response to challenges a denial of the analogy. The challenges, although glibly phrased, are interesting. The initial analogy itself is derided as an overreaction and the link to “murderous despots” described as silly. These objections can be read in two ways, first as the kind of challenge suggested above- the changes just aren’t that big-most likely in the form of the overreaction challenge, or second, as the presentation of a dis-analogy, regardless of the nature of the proposed media laws Conroy doesn’t show the other essential feature of being a fascist, namely murdering people, so contra P2 he can’t be classed as a fascist after all.

There are a number of plausible responses here (like giving up the analogy…), but Ackerman’s responses truly baffling. He says “I’m talking about free speech, I’m not [cut off]” around 7:50 then more clearly “What this whole thing was talking about was free speech, they weren’t talking about people in death camps and so forth…” around 11:30. In effect agreeing that the analogy doesn’t hold, but still trying to make use of it. If The argument isn’t meant to suggest that Conroy is a fascist then just work can it be doing? Well, nothing, that I can see. So why doesn’t Ackerman give up the analogy? Maybe he just hasn’t thought through his concession that Conroy isn’t showing other properties of fascists. So let’s put the implication generally. Arguments from analogy go like this:

P1g. X shows property Y which is essential for falling under class T

P2g. X can be classed under T

Cg. X will show other properties of class T.

Now P2g has been challenged by adding

R1. X doesn’t show property Z which is essential for falling under class T.

Now if R1 is true then P2g is false. Thus the argument from analogy fails and the conclusion (Cg) is unjustified and so must be given up. What Ackerman does on the insiders, however, is accept a version of R1, namely that Conroy isn’t going around killing people, but fail to realise that this falsifies P2. Ackerman thus holds an inconsistent position and shows an inability to think through a fairly straight forward analogy.

with love

DrNPC

More philosophy! Or; Bad reasoning in the real world pt1.

One way in which learning philosophy is supposed benefit the student is in the ability to tell good reasons from bad. This is a skill that would greatly benefit public discourse. Here is an example from today. Senator Hanson-Young posted the following two tweets this afternoon:

1. Govt has said they will use whatever force is “reasonably necessary” to remove refugees to Nauru. #senate #qt

2. What does “reasonably necessary” force actually mean? Frankly, no force used against refugee children who have fled war is reasonable

The second recieved this response from a facebook user:

“It means the minimum force necessary. Actually, I’m not sure it’s possible to put it any more simply.

Look, the fact that you don’t think refugees should be relocated is a separate issue from trying to figure out what words mean.

I am actually offended by the fact that a national politician stoops to this sort of emotional crap, to be honest. I might use “necessary force” to stop a 5 year old running in front of a truck. The fact that I used “force” against a child doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster, though.

And the emotional crap thing may explain why the Greens did so badly in the local elections in NSW last weekend.”

First and most obviously this comment contains the kind of emotional manipulation which the user is accusing the Senator of using (I’m offended… doesn’t make me some kind of cruel monster…). In a way that’s hardly surprising, politics, and group identification in general, hardly brings out the best in people.

Looking at the post we do see one attempt at an argument, that being the analogy to using force to stop a child running in front of a truck. This argument is supposed to work by drawing an analogy from one instance where the use of physical force is necessary and moral (the child) to another ambiguous case (the refugees) and suggest that the use of force is also necessary and moral. However, the example is extremely poorly chosen as there are significant disanalogies between the cases. To be fair we should also state the analogies between the scenarios, the two most significant being that:

A1: Force is used

A2: It is used against someone under the care of the user of the force.

It is good that the example shares this feature with the refugee case. However, the disanalogy between the scenarios means that the inference that the force is justified and moral in both cases does not go through. Let us assume (because it is true) that force is justified in the scenario involving the child. The analogy can only work if the reasons justfying force in the child’s case also apply to the refugee scenario. Force is justified in the child’s case by a number of considerations: it is in the childs interests to use force to protect them from some greater harm, the child due to age may not be able to percieve the danger they are in, the user of force is fulfilling a duty of care to the child (and truck driver) and so on. But this is not at all like the refugee case as:

DA1: in the refugee case their welfare is not benefitted by being forcibly moved, nor is it intended to benfit them

DA2: the refugees are not in danger of falling to some greater harm if they are not moved.

DA3: the refugees are fully capable as recognising what is in their own interests

DA4: there is no duty of care which requires that they be moved.

All in all then it is clear that this argument by analogy does not justify the use of force against refugees. What is concerning is that someone, even a single person, apparently thinks it does.

You might think it’s cruel to pick on some guy on the internet like this, but the bigger picture I have in mind here is to consider bad reasoning that people actually do. The agenda is to promote education that trains people how to think.

Cheers

DrNPC