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In Which Everybody Is Wrong

This post is about framework arguments, discourse, and ad hominem tu quoque.

There’s been a few posts over the history of the League/Ordinary Times where we’ve had discussions that have turned into discussions about how we discuss.

A conversation on Facebook was the seed for this post. You can skip this paragraph if you’re not a regular around here… but to provide context for the regulars, it was a conversation between former OT/Leaguer James Hanley and Sam Wilkinson. Neither Sam nor James was particularly nice to each other on that thread and they wound up arguing about each other rather than even arguing about the argument they thought they were having (which wasn’t the argument they thought they were having, I’ll get to that in a second). Anyway, this isn’t about either of them, really, but previous discussion between Sam and James/Jason are relevant to this post for illustration purposes.

So what’s this problem?

It’s a problem that we have as Americans in our social discourse, and one we don’t do a good job of discussing generally.

So I’m going to try and fix it, right now. (Which probably means everybody is going to disagree with this post, so feel free to let me have it in the comments.)

I’ll use this post in particular, as a case study, but there have been others (and I stress this isn’t because I think either anybody in particular is a poopyhead).

Essentially, we have a public policy conversation, and the rightness or the wrongness of a policy proposal boils down to us discussing something other than the policy proposal in question… instead we’re arguing about the folks who are making the policy proposals in the first place.

In one of (yet another ex-League/OTer) Jason’s comments on Sam’s post, Jason said:

Whenever anyone makes an argument, pretend simply that you’ve found the argument carved on stone tablets in the desert. You have no idea who made it, or why, or when, or how. It’s just a set of propositions. Discuss those, not the messenger.

Why? Because messengers have nothing to do with the truth or falsehood of the argument itself. They don’t change the relationship, if any, between the words on the tablet and the facts of reality. Those statements are either true or false.

From a classic logician standpoint, this is correct. It’s called the Ad Hominem Tu Quoque Fallacy (link also provided by Jason in that comment). Anybody who has studied formal logic knows about it.

Now, Sam’s position is that this is ridiculous when discussing public policy, that motivations matter. His argument for his position isn’t polished, because Sam argues with his gut, not like a classical logician, so if you were scoring points in a debate you would probably hand the victory to Jason.

Here’s the thing: Sam’s not wrong.

Or, precisely, he’s exactly as wrong as James and Jason are, because they’re talking about different things.

I want to stress this again: Jason and James are correct from a classic logician standpoint.

If an argument is axiomatically correct, the argument is axiomatically correct regardless of who is making it.

If Hitler says “2 + 2 = 4”, then Hitler is either correct or incorrect regardless of whether or not we like Hitler.

In fact, to argue that “2 + 2 = something other than 4” because we really don’t like Hitler makes us idiots.

But here’s the thing: policy arguments are virtually never arguments in an axiomatic system, and if we delude ourselves into thinking that they are, we have already lost the ability to communicate.

If you accept the axioms of basic algebraic mathematics to be true, then yes, “2 + 2 = 4”. Arguing with Hitler that he’s incorrect would indeed make you stupid.

But I can very easily show you that using a slightly different set of the basic axioms of algebraic mathematics, “2 + 2 = 1” (if I define addition using modular arithmetic). Which I can do. Because in mathematics, the axioms are what we say that they are. In that case, arguing with Hitler that he’s incorrect may actually be the right thing to do.

Because the question isn’t “does 2 + 2 = 4” any more.

The relevant question is now, “What does ‘+’ mean?”

This is what I mean when I talk about framework arguments. And it’s important because virtually every conversation is modern American political discourse isn’t about what is axiomatically true or false (and thus trying to dissect them that way is intellectually interesting but not terribly productive, I’ll freely admit this is a very bad addiction of mine, so I get the impulse).

The conversation is instead about which framework we’re going to accept to discuss the topic.

And one of the reasons why political partisans love this approach to discourse so much is because if I can get you to accept my framework, I win without having to do much in the way of real work (this is why all-liberal or all-conservative blogs usually turn into echo chambers, because everybody is running around patting each other on the back about how obviously correct every single argument is).

Outside the blogosphere, generally, we (the Americans) are sitting there shouting about fiscal responsibility or personal responsibility or justice or rights or whatever, but basically all we’re trying to do is convince folks out there that our way of thinking about problems is the right one… or, to continue the math analogy, we are the ones who get to decide what “+” means … which means, usually, “we win”, because OBVIOUSLY THE ANSwER IS 4.

… And of course the inevitable consequence of that is it gets very easy to stop talking about our way of thinking and start talking about why their way of thinking about problems is horrible, because… well… then we don’t even have to make a positive affirmative case for our own framework.

We just point out how shitty the other one is. Who wants to think like those bozos?

Furthermore, there is a wrinkle!

Most folks do not actually have the strong set of principles that they claim to have. They adopt a framework, they identify it as theirs, they often claim that they really feel that way, but when push comes to shove, they are remarkably fluid about suddenly deciding that no, this new thing that you say they have been arguing against for years has actually been part and parcel of what they’ve thought of this whole time. Chris can talk about the brain science behind this, or I can get around to following up on this thread with a boatload of links when I have the time…

But the basic reason is that people aren’t rational animals, they are rationalizing ones.

Or, to be pithy: because folks be tribal, yo.

And this is why Sam is right (or, again, just as wrong as James and Jason are), because Sam’s not arguing about whether or not it is axiomatically correct that gay marriage is a good thing or a bad thing (although it is evident he thinks it is a good thing).

What Sam is arguing (in posts like the linked one) is that the folks who claim to hold a framework don’t actually believe that their framework is true, so any truth claim that depends upon their framework being correct can be discarded as irrelevant. It may be true, it may not be true, to be sure! But if it is true, it is not true for the reasons they are claiming it is true, so their *argument* can be discarded.

And this is pretty accurate, because in order for their claim to be true, their framework has to be true *first*. Or, Sam’s gone all meta on Jason/James and they’re still arguing at a different layer of abstraction.

We’ve had other conversations that have alluded to this phenomenon recently, mostly driven by Tod, because Tod is actively trying to understand tribalism from a non-cog-sci standpoint. For example, Tod’s post here.

And you can see the same symptoms I’m talking about above in the comments here, here, here, here… etc.

So, what’s my takeaway on all this?

Well, if you have no principles at all, you’re useless to me and I really don’t have the time to try and argue with you. Say what you will about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.

If you have some principles but you haven’t really spent a lot of time thinking about how they conflict with each other and what that means in a practical sense and how you are going to deal with the conflicts between your principals when it comes to trying to enact public policy then… well… you’re probably almost everybody. I think it would probably be better for our public discourse if you actually spent some time trying to figure out how you deal with your own conflicts before you start joining in the shouting match about how right (or wrong) your side or the other side actually is. Figure out if you **really** believe “+” always means what you claim say it means (I suspect you’ll wind up like me, and you’ll spend all of your time distrusting your own principles, but that might be a good thing in the long run for our political discourse.)

If you have some principles and you think they provide you some perspective that is outside the mainstream… but you constantly find a reason to choose a fairly mainstream result, then probably you’re faking yourself out. I see this a lot in the folks who claim to be “more liberal” or “more conservative” or “more libertarian” than the party they claim not to really support, but when push comes to shove they pretty much always pull the same lever (because folks be tribal, yo). I’m seeing them all right now on Facebook. Folks – on both sides – are talking about how Hilary is progressive… because they’d rather bullshit themselves about what Hilary *is* than accept the fact that their decision to support someone doesn’t automatically make that person what they want deep down for them to be… or their decision to hate them is based entirely upon a fiction of them in their head rather than the person that they are (see also: Obama, Romney).

And finally, if you’re going to tell me what your principles are, that’s fine. But if you’re not going to inform me ahead of time how you deal with your principles when they conflict with other principles, I’m going to agree with Tod, here.

You almost certainly don’t actually believe what you claim to believe, you’re almost certainly just rationalizing (the brain science backs me up, here).

So the argument you made about some public policy decision that depended upon me accepting your framework in order for it to be true? That argument was bunk.

You want to convince me you’re right anyway? Don’t ask me to adopt your framework.

Work backwards to convince me that your proposal might be true in mine.

(image credit; Creative Commons w/attribution)

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78 thoughts on “In Which Everybody Is Wrong

  1. A few quick thoughts:

    1. This was a great post.

    2. I’m doing a post on education right now that will be much easier to state now that this post is already up, so thanks for that.

    3. I’m a little disappointed in the fourth to last paragraph you didn’t put a link in the “I agree with Tod, here.” It’s so seldom anyone around here agrees with me about anything these days, I’m curious to know where I finally got a bite.


  2. I remember a very long time ago you told me that, by your own direct observation, and on this site in particular, who it is that says what matters.
    I was making the argument that it should not at the time, much as the example in your post.
    Since that time, I have noticed that it does indeed, and I have been fairly restrained of sorts in communications.

    When writing a song, not one is going to stop you and say, “But that’s not what you were saying in that last song!!!
    All the world’s a stage, and your break time will be spent there as well.

    Additionally, Hanley gone?
    I e-mailed him one time a long, long time ago, after he decided to have a diminished presence here, to encourage him to greater presence here.
    I feel like I’ve spent my token.


    • When the right is willing to run on “veterans benefits are the next welfare” then I can judge their policy prescriptions fairly. When they’re not willing to have policy for fear that it might offend someone, anyone, I can’t really have an intelligible debate with cowards, now can i?

      Nor can I have an intelligible debate with someone who says “God will provide” for any issue whatsoever (Shas). Can we please try not to elect delusional people????


      • Ya know, , we were talking in class the other day about something called the “responsible party model” system of governance. It’s based on a document written in 1950, and basically advocates for something akin to a parliamentary system in American governance.
        And since 1950, just about everything (and then some!) that the authors of that document advocated for has come to pass. And essentially, that is the underlying reason for the current state of polarization and partisanship..
        You see, the American system was founded on a “single-member district” system. This promotes greater individual accountability than in a proportional representation system, and diminishes the strength of majoritarian factions (i.e., political parties).

        Now, please point out which ones of my representatives are “willing to run on ‘veterans benefits are the next welfare.'” Who are these persons “not willing to have policy for fear that it might offend someone, anyone”? Where is “someone who says ‘God will provide’ for any issue whatsoever?”

        Here’s a hint:
        I was supposed to meet with this lady today. That is my representative. I didn’t go because I have a research project that I’m working on (charting posts from HuffPo & Drudge Report on Mazlow’s pyramid of needs & BF Skinner’s motivational factors), and it’s due next week. But that’s ok. I’ll have another opportunity.
        But since she is my representative, I’m writing her a long letter telling her how much I disagree with her proposals. I was actually spending so much time on the internet today, because I was looking for Speagle v. Ferguson, 852 F.Supp.2d 1096 (C.D. Ill. 2012) on WestlawNext. Finally found it.
        You see, I volunteer for the Innocence Project. As such, I have serious reservations about this. A lot of that comes from reading so much caselaw.

        Now then, while I have gone out of my way to state, time and again, that I have no thought or care for right-wing partisanship, in no way should that be taken as proclivity toward left-wing partisanship.
        I find the left-wing variety even more disgusting that the right-wing kind.

        I simply have no interest in partisanship whatever.

        FWIW, I’m not the organizations director.
        I’m an issues man, and I deal with people.
        Organizations I tend to deal with only through their people; not “the people” generally, but so-and-so whose favorite color is yellow, or who has relations in West Kansas, or who has a birthday coming up, and the like.

        And in general, I find that people generally digress to generalizations where no valid specific is available, for whatever reason– and I say that in specific.


        • Will,
          I spoke of the Shas party above, because I’m familiar with their policies. Perhaps if you wish to discount the evidence that I’m citing, you’d be better served by figuring out what evidence I’m citing FIRST?

          As for people unwilling to craft a decent budget, Ryan’s a decent example of the type.


          • I don’t know of any Shas party.
            I don’t know their secret handshake, and I don’t wear one of their hats.

            Sometimes I wish I could figure out what you’re talking about.
            The other half of the time, I think I might be better off not knowing.

            I haven’t looked at Ryan’s budget. I don’t know diddley-squat about Ryan’s budget.
            There are too many things happening at the state level to draw my attention: right-to-work (which I support, not categorically, but in this instance), budget cuts (some of which could affect me adversely), judicial reform (including the criminal justice system– mandatory minimum procedures for eyewitness identification has recently passed), taxation issues, energy policy, water use, and the list goes on– all of which I conceive\ably have some manner of influence in.
            On the national level, I have an open ear where I can voice my concerns. It’s just that, on almost every occasion, he supports the same positions as I do anyway. On that small handful of issues where we differ, I see it as a principled difference of opinion– it doesn’t bother me when someone else disagrees with me.
            Now, sometimes when someone disagrees with me, the grounds of that disagreement I see as reprehensible; but that’s not the same thing as being bothered by disagreement per se.


            • Will,
              yeah, i’m kinda glad that you don’t wear their hats:

              Anyway, we do have our share of crazy pants Republicans, who were willing to tell all their backers to go to hell, because “god will provide” in the event of a government shutdown or failing to keep up our debt obligations.

              I appreciate that you’re looking on this from a very different level than I am (I see the people behind the politicians, and what their agenda is), and I apologize. I figure you’ve probably got some reasonably decent people around you, and that’s a good thing.


  3. I think that’s entirely fair – and would no doubt work just fine between actual-me and actual-you with your actual framework, which I don’t always agree with, but which has never been actively painful for me to contemplate.

    But it fails as a strategy that I should adopt, when “your” framework is very painful to me. I shouldn’t have to accept even for the sake of argument, for example, a framework that says I am an abomination, or that I have behaved abominably (when I see those behaviors as treasured personal history), just to convince the holder of said framework that they still shouldn’t put their conviction that I’m an abomination into the actual laws. It might be more pragmatic, more effective, more logical – but at the point where a framework is emotionally harmful (not just uncomfortable) to the interlocutor, they don’t need to adopt it. They may be enough of a martyr to their cause to make the effort and do it anyway – and it’s probable that many of the rights and freedoms I enjoy depended to some extent on such martyrs making those emotional sacrifices – but it’s never an argument strategy that can be *required* of someone.

    I think that’s where the “I don’t have to argue with you, I can just refuse to engage with you” pose actually makes *sense* and is deeply humane.

    The trouble of course, is that there are edge cases where it feels like trying to empathize with someone will set your heart on fire, and really it’s just annoying – but the presence of those edge cases doesn’t mean people should have to chew themselves up *just in case* they aren’t asking enough of themselves.

    This might seem like nitpicking, but since my experiences of abuse mostly seem to have had a fundamental undertone of someone insisting that I Must Align Myself With Their Framework (no matter how broken or hurtful it is) Or I Am Wrong And Need Not Be Heard, it seems like an important nuance to add to the discussion.


    • This is a good point, Maribou.

      Like all things meta, you can go one more layer of meta and the same problems crop up again.

      Now we’re no longer arguing about why the framework is or isn’t wrong, we’re arguing about who gets to decide which framework we’re using, and whether we are using yours or we’re using mine, that’s going to take some discussion in and of itself.

      But I think this is something that is resolvable if both sides actually want to discuss as opposed to yell at each other.


      I shouldn’t have to accept even for the sake of argument, for example, a framework that says I am an abomination

      Correct. If someone’s framework actually does depend upon axioms that are abhorrent (or that tautologically refute your position), you can’t be expected to adopt their framework.

      But it’s certainly cricket to say, “I reject, implicitly, this one tacit (or explicit) principle you hold. I will not accept it as true. So you can either choose to disengage with me, or you can try to make your case in my framework, or you can try to make your case in a framework that is not entirely yours, by making your argument upon principles other than ‘I am by nature an abomination’.”

      And, if the other party is in fact interested in dialogue, you might get somewhere that way.

      Although it’s entirely likely that they’re not interested in dialogue anyway.


  4. Well, I agree with you. Does that make me right?, therefore refuting the title to your piece?, in which case I’m left wondering what principles you hold such that a blatant contradiction is entailed by them?, thereby justifying my attribution of self-serving, undoubtedly tribally-based motivations to your thought processes?

    Good. Then we’re on the same page.


  5. Funny, I just had an argument with my aunt that was a framework argument. She’s a smart person, but very tribal. I recognize this, and so when I went to find evidence that my position was solid, I took the time to find an author (high level academic) from her tribe that was arguing my position. This was because I wanted her to pay attention to someone who was arguing from within her framework.

    I’m not sure that it worked, though, because her reply was to link to me an article written by a clear partisan hack from her tribe. I did call her on that, and expressed that such an article was meaningless to me because the author lacked the qualification or authority to speak on the topic at hand, and was someone who clearly had libertarians living rent-free in his head (and thus would be unlikely to be able to make a cogent argument).

    But if you’re not going to inform me ahead of time how you deal with your principles when they conflict with other principles

    This is something that I think most people fail at. It’s hard to do, especially given how much identity politics plays a role within people. I try to know & acknowledge the weaknesses of my chosen philosophy, and think about how such can be addressed without magical thinking or hand-waving, but it’s tough, especially when it’s not your primary field, but more of a hobby or passing interest. But I try, mostly because if I am talking to someone who has obviously made the effort for their philosophy, I am inclined to grant them a more charitable hearing, and I want the same courtesy extended to me.


  6. So, what are your principles? I think I have been fairly upfront and consistent with mine (though I have evolved on some parts). I’m a public reason neo-classical liberal roughly in the style of Kevin Vallier and Gerald Gaus.


    • That’s a post in and of itself.

      My problem with the framing of the question is that most folks think of principles as behavioral axioms. I’m not sure I have any, any more… or rather, I’m not certain that I believe anything strongly enough to say that I always think that it is necessarily true.

      Maybe I’m turning into a relativist in spite of myself.


      • Well, I’m increasingly suspicious of the idea that principles ought to play the role we intellectual types naturally assume they should. I wrote on another post that the idea a moral scheme ought to be, or must be, axiomatic, consistent, complete, and a priori justified by truth conditions is based on the appeal of certain other formal models (like mathematics). But practice has effectively demonstrated (tho it isn’t a proof!) that such a scheme is impossible. Morality is messy and everchanging, in part because both our world and our understanding of it are everchanging.

        I mean, I’ve never thought in-consistency in the application of principles (in the logical sense of ’em, as necessary and apriori justified, etc) demonstrates that a person’s morality or policy views are incoherent. I reject the framework that they ought to be!

        Seems to me that the truth of most (if not all) moral principles is determined by their efficacy in practice, determined by each of us subjectively (and then, of course, more or less collectively). At best, it’s a code, and the code is more what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules. :)

        To your point in the OP, tho, I agree that a discussion between two people can lead a person to revise their own code in light of new evidence. And *that* ought to be the purpose of engaging in dialogue *with* people, rather than imposing your own framework on them.


        • Is there room within frameworks to treat principles as a guideline while acknowledging that one principle must occasionally bow to another principle in order to arrive at a just conclusion?

          Maybe principles are good when they are mere ideas, but become toxic when elevated to the status of Belief?


          • Is there room within frameworks to treat principles as a guideline while acknowledging that one principle must occasionally bow to another principle in order to arrive at a just conclusion?

            By one conception of a framework, that’s all a framework is. Just a collection of principles. For rabidly ideological types, the principles are apriori, self-evident, necessary, etc. For pragmatists, they’re guidelines that have served us well in the past but can be defeated in certain contexts or in light of new evidence or change in the world.

            Maybe principles are good when they are mere ideas, but become toxic when elevated to the status of Belief?

            Yeah, that’s sorta the direction I’m going with here. The idea that a principle, which in my view is justified by outcomes of application over time, becomes immutable or necessary (or apriori knowable, or justified as self-evident, etc., whatever) in a person’s mind is what I’m resisting, or pushing against. Not only at the first order level (“property rights!”) but at the second order level as well (“you’ve demonstrated your fundamental stupidity by advocating principle P in situation A and not-P in situation B. Idiot!!)


  7. I ask who speaks for one good reason.
    Many who speak cloak their policy prescriptions in lies.
    A slow death is no less a death for all the thousand cuts.

    Haven’t met a man here who’s that deliberately deceptive —
    but there are certainly those willing to mouth malevolent arguments,
    all the while convinced they are singing siren truths.

    That goes just as much for Saul as it does for Brandon, by the way.


  8. He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.

    Having beliefs isn’t good?

    I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier…


  9. 1. James and I don’t like each other. That really doesn’t help things and it makes internet disagreements into two doofuses throwing shit at one another.

    2. I’ve written about my feelings regarding the Tu Quoque elsewhere, but I want to again make the following point – I’m not dismissing the point when pointing out a hypocrisy; I’m dismissing the hypocrite. If somebody who has had four wives and philandered on the first three tells me that marriage is an important institution that must be protected, I don’t believe him, so I don’t care what he has to say afterwards as it relates to marriage. So it isn’t that I’m dismissing 2+2=4 because it’s Hitler saying it. Hitler’s evil wasn’t related to simply understood arithmetic. But if Hitler tells me, “Invading France is bad!” my response is going to be, “Maybe so, maybe not, but I’m not listening to your position on this, because when you had the opportunity to live by what you’re claiming to be a fundamental truth, you didn’t.”

    3. This might be wildly unfair. Heavens knows I’ve been told often enough that it is. I preference actions to words. One matters more to me than the other. Maybe that’s wrong and I’m not suggesting that anybody else does it (although I am happy to advise people to at least consider actions). It just makes more sense to me to understand a person’s beliefs in terms of what they choose to do than it is to trust what they’re claiming. Maybe I owe them more than that. But I don’t really think that I do. Would I really pretend that I don’t know a scumbag car salesman has repeatedly sold lemons when he’s claiming that the car I’m considering is a real peach?

    4. At this point, in regard to people screaming, “BUT YOU HAVE TO THINK THIS WAY!”, I’m just done. I don’t care if I have to think this way, because I don’t think that way and I don’t have any reason to distrust the way that I do think. It might be the case that something comes along which forces me to reconsider my approach toward a speaker’s rank and related hypocrisies, and when it does, I will, but insisting that I am bound by the rules of logic to pretend as if a person’s hypocrisy doesn’t matter is something I am unwilling to be bound by.

    5. What’s that shrugging emoji? I want to end with that. Can I end with that?


    • That you’re dismissing the messenger and not the argument almost never comes through in how you talk about it. Perhaps because you use some hypocritical messengers to dismiss all messengers as hypocritical, effectively dismissing the argument. Or, at least, that’s how it comes across.

      Dominici’s actions leave us with the ability to dismiss Dominici’s argument, if we’re arguing with Dominici. But that’s pretty much all it does. It doesn’t undermine the argument itself, nor does it undermine Santorum making the same argument. Yet your words indicate that you believe that they do. Which is why you get the pushback that you get, even from people who agree with you on the argument itself.


        • This computer has a glich where the cursor taps (as though I hit the left button) randomly. Which leads to accidental submissions (when I hit enter) or going-backs (when I hit backspace).

          Really, really annoying. But not quite as annoying as Linux.


      • Santorum claims that marriage is a hugely important institution that must be defended from the gays at all costs because eww. I wouldn’t respond to him by saying, “But Pete Domenici is a dick!” I might respond to him by saying, “I don’t think you actually believe that marriage is a hugely important institution, because although you’re claiming now the need to defend it, you’ve never aggressively attacked the real things currently undermining marriage: divorce, abuse, etc.”

        The response might be, “BUT YOU HAVEN’T DEALT WITH HOW EWW GAYS ARE!” And that’s true. But that’s because I don’t believe him when he explains his motivations for making the argument. Although actually, if he really did say, “Because EWW!” then I suppose I’d have to take him at his word, because that clearly is his particular issue with gay marriage.

        Again, that might be unfair, but I don’t owe him my faith in the honesty of his claims. Maybe the rules of debate club necessitate that but I wasn’t in debate club.


    • My point, such as it is, is that it’s perfectly legitimate to dismiss the point along with the hypocrite.

      Because many of the truths that people carry around when they’re talking about matters of public policy are nothing more than normative assessments of value, and they have built their entire framework of political thought upon those normative assessments of value, and now here they are trying to convince me (or thee, or some others somewhere) that this Truth is True because it’s True within their framework.

      Showing that they do not accept the truth value of their own framework… that they, themselves, do not actually hold those normative assessments of value that they claim to hold… well, that means they don’t have a point to begin with.

      Because their Truth cannot be true if the rest of their framework isn’t also true, and they don’t believe the rest of their framework…

      … at least, not given what they’ve said, up until this point.

      So they don’t *have* an argument for me to argue *with*, because there’s no “there” there. In a classical logician sense, they have underlying axioms that they themselves do not hold to be true, so the logical consistency of this particular argument inside the framework is irrelevant.

      It doesn’t mean anything, as currently explicated.

      Now, you could say, “Oh, well, when I said before that Marriage was Sacred, what I **meant** was…” and try to reconstruct your framework argument by taking out that axiom and trying to build around it…

      but most folks aren’t very successful at that.


  10. When we argue, I don’t really think we are arguing with each other. Rather I think we are arguing to convince any neutral or undecided third party that might be listening. I think on some unconscious level we basically realize that the person we are arguing with has their mind made up and that is it. “Somebody’s wrong on the Internet” is not about convincing that somebody, it is about “Oh no. I gotta challenge this person so someone doesn’t come along and thing the fucker is right.”

    One way to do this obviously is to dismiss the biography and motivations of our ideological opponents. Hence the “totally destroys” thing that gets on my nerves.


    • It would be a different world if people couldn’t get false information from sites like Alex Jones or NaturalNews without a giant warning about the unreliability of the source on their screen.


      • This is partly a confirmation-bias problem, and partly an education problem (in that most people are not taught how to critically evaluate authority – what Carl Sagan would refer to as a Baloney-Detection Toolkit).

        How much either part plays depends largely on the person. E.G. When I see people with PhDs raving against vaccinations, I can safely assume it’s mostly confirmation bias at play.


    • Saul,

      Re: the arguing to “any neutral or undecided third party that might be listening”:

      I think that approach is self-defeating. Think about it: if you believe the person you’re arguing with won’t change their mind, then why think that anyone else will? Before you answer that! …. and if they will change their mind then isn’t it better to actually give the reasons for your view instead of pummeling a person with your framework? Which is most likely to “get people on your side”?


      • I think Saul is right, for most internet debates that is the motivation.

        That said, it’s better to make a strong argument and leave it at that, than it is to just keep trying to have the last word. Even though having the last word feels good.


        • I actually disagree, Oscar. I don’t think most internet debates are constructed to appeal to the lurker or other readers at all. I think they’re about exactly what Patrick said: demonstrating that a person’s framework is correct. (Especially, I might add, when that person explains away their interlocutors views by providing an account, entailed by the framework!, of why that person believes what they do! O man do I hate that!).

          I’ve seen a few commenters here engage in the practice of speaking to the passive reader (ie., one who isn’t actually engaged in the discussion), and it’s always struck me as a devious form of propaganda and incredibly disingenuous to those of us who are actually speaking to present individuals. One commenter, who no longer posts here, even admitted to doing as much. (I find it insidious, myself.) But I think that for the most part people aren’t being Ideological Evangelizers to that extent.

          Maybe I’m wrong….


          • I probably should have qualified my statement a bit more.

            Debates that carry on & on are usually more about the observer than the opposition. An argument can be very much fleshed out in one or two passes. After that, it’s either a case of two people honestly working back & forth with each other to find the limits, or it’s become a spectator sport.

            Well, both can be a spectator sport.

            Still, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference by how badly they parties start talking past each other.


      • why think that anyone else will?

        Chances are pretty high that the person who is actually arguing a position more firmly believes it than a person who believes it but isn’t actively arguing about it. I do agree that entering every discussion believing that there is no way that the person you’re debating with will change their mind is self-defeating. That being said, I do often debate with people who won’t change their minds for one of three reasons:

        1) For the neutral or less-committed observer

        2) To convince them of a smaller point within the debate. Where they won’t come aboard with the whole argument, but maybe some part of it.

        3) So that they might better understand what the opposing view is, exactly, if they are mischaracterizing it. (If I think that they honestly don’t get it, this ties with #2. If I think they are being dishonest or deliberately obtuse, then it ties in with #1).


      • I admit that I am colored by being a lawyer/litigator. My job is not to convince opposition’s counsel in the case of trial. My job is to convince the judge and/or jury that I am right on matters of law and fact.


        • But there is no opposition’s counsel. There’s just the dude you’re talking to, yes?

          It just seems really bizarre that a person would engage in a dialogue with me (for example) when they never actually speak to me . Something meta-weird about that.

          Like selfies. :)


  11. There are two different issues at play.

    If you are trying to have an honest argument/debate, bringing the motivations of your interlocutor is almost never a good idea. Not only is there the possibility of committing the logical fallacy, but it’s just poor form. I’ve said this before, but attempting to psychoanalyze people with whom you disagree is about the least useful exercise in which you can engage. Most people are spectacularly bad at employing ideological empathy. And the people most likely to feel strongly about political and ideological issues are the worst at it.

    On the other hand, if you are engaged in a good faith exercise in evaluating competing points of view, considering people’s motivations is not only appropriate, but quite useful. The key hear is that you need to be honestly considering different points of view and not rationalizing your way to the answer that you want to get to in the first place.


      • I sort of agree, with the caveat that arguing against people is almost always an exercise in futility. In general, I don’t care what you are. I care what you do.

        To me, the relevant distinction is whether the topic of discussion is something that is objectively verifiable or it is a matter of preference. For objectively verifiable topics, bringing in people’s motivations has almost no value. If you are discussing preferences, however, then motivations are important.


        • Once upon a time I thought this distinction was noteworthy myself (and it’s still not irrelevant, to be sure).

          But as time has passed I’ve found that the argument around objectively verifiable topics very often has the roots back in those normative preferences.

          I mean, I can *argue* the objectively verifiable topics but the folks I’m arguing with usually just decide that the objectively verifiable isn’t, in this case, because reasons.

          They aren’t really experts, not in this case. The experts are suborned. Or they are misrepresenting data (which I understand better than the expert). Or you don’t understand the data. Or there is something else going on.

          Granted, sometimes I keep plugging away at it, but the motivations are still important, because understanding that they’re there keeps me from wanting to cut off my own head in frustration.


    • Maybe in a, “Hey, we’re just debating here at the old debate club!” sense, but in a real world sense, I wouldn’t see why it would be necessary to ignore motivation. If the real issue with opposition to gay marriage is disliking gays (which is absolutely what it is) the person arguing against their inclusion should say so. They don’t because they know that they’re much less likely to win if they say, “The reason I want gays kept out of marriage is because gays are eww!” It has to seem as though the issue is something else. I see no reason to give that ground.

      For instance, if I went around saying that we should ban alcohol, and somebody didn’t mention that I’ve had a drinking problem so bad that sobering up was necessary, I’d just find that weird. In what world isn’t that worth mentioning? (Incidentally, that isn’t a position that I take. Because to take it would be outrageous.)


      • See my comment above. At either end – debating empirical reality or debating preferences – the reasons are pretty clear why motivations do or do not matter. The complications arise, because most issues are some mix of empirical reality and preference. So, that makes it important to know exactly what sort of argument/debate we are having.

        You can say “opposition to gay marriage,” but it’s best to disaggregate the range of beliefs that fall under that rubric. The person who says, “homosexuality is an abomination and I oppose any movement to legitimize the gay lifestyle” is saying something different than the person who says, “I have nothing against homosexuality and support civil unions as a means of giving gays the legal privileges of marriage, but actual marriage is to me a religious institution that is incompatible with two people of the same sex.” You can equally oppose both positions, but it is a mistake to treat both as if they have the same motivations. Unless, of course, your aim is not to have a discussion, but simply to delineate what you define as the acceptable range of positions and banish anyone who happens to fall on the wrong side of that line.


        • J R,

          I agree with you in the abstract. But if we stick to gay marriage as our topic (that’s what started this off more than a year ago), I need that fundamental difference to actually exist in practice. Did the person who says “I have nothing against homosexuality and support civil unions as a means of giving gays the legal privileges of marriage…” actually support candidates that believe that? Because practice is where the rubber meets the road. If the person claiming that respect of gays has repeatedly supported candidates who in fact have the first position – in other words, if that second position haver backed a first position candidate like Rick Santorum – then I’m struggling very much to believe that the 2nd person is being honest with us when those claims are made. (This can go farther I suppose – did the person taking that position advocate that atheists be banned from marriage? Did the person taking that position advocate for positions consistent with the claim?)

          It might be fair to point out that I struggle very much to believe that anyone who wants somebody else treated differently respects that person as much as the one they want treated similarly.

          As for the notion of banishment: I don’t even know how that would work. I don’t propose that the bigots be frogmarched out of the country after all. Is disagreement the same as banishment? Is saying to a person, “Your actions don’t align with your stated beliefs…” the same as banishment?


          • ” Did the person who says “I have nothing against homosexuality and support civil unions as a means of giving gays the legal privileges of marriage…”

            The small sample size of like 4 people I know who have said that to me? Now support marriage equality without caveats.

            So in my limited experience, yes, their opinions are much differently-held than the “You are an abomination,” people.

            Although I know at least two people who thought gay sex was actively sinful (“hate the sinner, not the sin” types) who now support marriage equality without caveats.

            And I know one person who I am pretty sure STILL thinks gay sex is sinful (I try not to ask so that I can maintain hope their views have evolved), who has been a hugely vocal supporter of marriage equality for as long as I have known them, because everyone is a d-g sinner and it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be able to have all the same rights under the state as “the rest of us,” especially because “they” is a group that includes people this person loves fiercely.

            People are complicated, ennit?


      • Sam,

        Sam, I hear what you’re saying, but the objection I would have is that if your interlocutor states reasons X, Y, and Z, and you sincerely believe that his real motivation is W, then arguing against W will entail inferring and exposing your opponent’s inner state. What better way than to shoot down X, Y, and Z leaving him in his original position with no apparent justification other than W?

        Example: I was listening to a piece on NPR this morning that was an interview with an SSM opponent in North Dakota. He started out with stating that his opposition was grounded in his belief in the Bible as inerrant. Okay, whatever. Later he brought out a familiar semi-slippery* slope argument about poly marriage.

        The thing is that the Bible, to my knowledge, never forbade polygamy and I’m pretty sure there’s a law somewhere in Deuteronomy that instructs a man to marry his brother’s widow should he die. No conditional about only if you happen to be unmarried. This would seem to not only allow but actively require, under certain circumstances, polygamy.

        So how does a slippery slope argument work when the bottom of the slope isn’t even necessarily a bad thing? And how can you claim the Bible as your justification?

        * I say semi-slippery because there are people that advocate it, but I doubt that it’s a position held by any large number of SSM proponents.


  12. Incidentally – and again, this might be very wrong – but I’ve found related hypocrisy to be a fairly good rebuttal. “He says he that he believes deeply in the sanctity of marriage, but his understanding apparently includes having a mistress on the side and a secret love child. That isn’t my understanding of sanctity.” I continue to boggle at why it WOULDN’T be relevant/fair/appropriate to point that out.


    • Sam,

      I made only one comment in the post of yours Patrick linked to, and I agreed with you.

      I still agree with you. Attempts to intellectually sanitize the types of arguments you’ve been critical of just don’t make any sense to me. But I accept that the world I live in is messy!


      • I fear that you’re writing this because I have erred in having said something? If so, I certainly didn’t mean to say that we’d disagreed at some point. Maybe I’m reading something poorly?


        • No! I agree with you. Just a shout out that I don’t understand the objections to the post you wrote way back when, and I certainly don’t agree with Jason that eliminating context from certain claims is preferrable, or intellectually required, or whatever. Life just doesn’t work that way. I mean, we’re seeing it right here on this post, what with people admitting left and right that they say things for purely political purposes… :)


  13. that the folks who claim to hold a framework don’t actually believe that their framework is true, so any truth claim that depends upon their framework being correct can be discarded as irrelevant. It may be true, it may not be true, to be sure! But if it is true, it is not true for the reasons they are claiming it is true, so their *argument* can be discarded.

    I’ll commit the rudeness of commenting without reading the other comments (yet), but I’ll ‘fess up to this when it comes to the way I think about such things as the “New Atheism.” I’m not saying it’s right that I do so, but just saying I do.

    By the way, this is a great post. I’m sorry I’ve just now read it.


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