Jan 152003

1. No psychologizing. Rachel Lucas was widely praised for this analysis of Michael Moore’s inner life. It was funny, and it might even be true. But it is irrelevant to Michael Moore’s arguments, which are bad, and even to Michael Moore’s behavior, which is worse. By their fruits shall ye know them. There is a scene in the very funny movie Office Space where one character, having been drawn by another into an absurd criminal scheme, turns to him and says, “You are a very bad person, Peter.” That’s what I think of Michael Moore: he’s a very bad person, who believes very stupid things. There the matter ends.

2. No attribution of motives. This is a related matter, and I’ve discussed it on a large scale with Bush and Iraq. Many of the loonier anti-war arguments, like the accusations about Bush avenging his father or setting up his Houston cronies with a sweet deal, rely on attribution of motives and can be dismissed out of hand. On a tiny scale it happened to me just yesterday. The usually superb Colby Cosh and I were arguing about Pulp Fiction and he accused me of pretending not to like it to be au courant. Now how would he know? And even if he were right the fact would neither strengthen Colby’s argument nor weaken mine.

3. No tribal pleading. Nothing is more tiresome than constant shilling for one party or the other. The lesson of Sid Blumenthal, once a respected and interesting journalist, later a Democratic party shill, and finally a hired flack, has been lost on such people. (Paul Krugman is at stage 2 of the Blumenthal trajectory.) Whoever is tempted to this should remember that it was his loyalty to certain ideas, one hopes, that made him loyal to a party, not the other way around.

  9 Responses to “Rules for Argument”

  1. I usually vote Republican too. But considering that the most lefty President of the last fifty years, far and away, was Nixon, and the most damaging piece of legislation was the Americans with Disabilities Act, pushed through by Bush 41, I can’t share your enthusiasm.

  2. Psychologizing sometimes has some argumentative merit. If you have given good evidence against the opponent’s thesis, then you may psychologize, and it makes sense for the following reason. We assume that people don’t normally believe things for no good reason. After you’ve given evidence against your opponent’s thesis, we wonder, Why did he believe his thesis if the evidence ran against it? We worry that he might in fact have good reasons for believing it that have not come to the fore. By bringing out the psychologism, you can let us rest assured, that no, the causes of his belief were not good reasons but mere psychological quirks (perverse motives or, more innocently, reasons that are no good but that can seem to be good).

  3. What entitles us to assume that bad motives exclude good arguments?

  4. Right, the case is still not airtight. It could be that the opponent has both and that his taking his position is causally overdetermined. But as a rule of thumb, in seeking explanations, we should assume that overdetermination is unusual and rest when we have found one quite satisfactory explanation. My point is that psychologizing adds some evidence to the case against the opponent. I admit that it doesn’t yeild utter certainty.

  5. I am anything but a shill for Conservatives and the G.O.P.!
    We don’t need shills, because Conservatives and Republicans tend to base their platform and policies on what’s true and what’s in the philosophy of the Founding Fathers, as embodied in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, and not Das Kapital like the Liberals!

  6. Jim: I think such parsimony is usually a good rule of thumb, but in explanations of people’s beliefs I’m inclined to the very opposite rule — that people’s views are _usually_ causally overdetermined.

    A person’s upbringing, peer group, and personal reflection are all separate factors, but they often point toward the same beliefs. In fact people are always adjusting every element to maintain the harmony, so that together they end up forming a web of mutual causation.

    Perhaps the arguments for a belief, and the arguments about the motivation of the arguer, are of such different kinds that it is a logical fallacy even to explain one by the other? This speculation can be extended ad absurdum, but it may be the truth that is reflected in Aaron’s "No Pychology" rule, which embodies a kind of politeness.

    We pretend to see only someone’s argument as the reason for his beliefs, in exchange for him doing us the same courtesy, just as we pretend not to see his failings or his acne.

  7. Aaron–Don’t you see a tension between point 3 and the other two? Paul Krugman may be partisan–the question is whether his arguments are any good.

  8. Matt, one need not speculate about Krugman’s inner life to note that he nearly always adopts the Democratic party line. I think the tension between strictures two and three is more apparent than real, because they apply to different stages of the argument — two to what you write, and three to what you should consider before you write.

  9. And similarly, the problem with Jennie Talliaferro is not that she shills for the GOP, but that her arguments–well, damn.

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