Category Archives: Critical Thinking

The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.


In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.


The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.


As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.


If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.


The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.


Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.


An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.


In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

[My Amazon author page]

Kim Davis & Rule of Law

Those critical of Kim Davis, the county clerk who refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and was jailed for being in contempt of court, often appeal to a rule of law principle. The main principle used seems to be that individual belief cannot be used to trump the law.

Some of those who support Davis have made the point that some state and local governments are ignoring federal laws in regards to drugs and immigration. To be more specific, it is pointed out that some states have legalized (or decriminalized) marijuana despite the fact that federal law still defines it as a controlled substance. It is also pointed out that some local governments are ignoring federal immigration law and acting on their own—such as issuing identification to illegal immigrants and providing services.

Some of Davis’ supporters even note that some of the same people who insist that Davis follow the law tolerate or even support state and local governments ignoring the federal drug an immigration laws.

One way to respond to the assertions is to claim that Davis’ defenders are committing the red herring fallacy. This is a fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic. If the issue is whether or not Davis should follow the law, the failure of some states and local governments to enforce federal law is irrelevant. This is like a speeder who has been pulled over and argues that she should not get a ticket because another officer did not ticket someone else for speeding. What some other officer did or did not do to some other speeder is clearly not relevant in this case. As such, this approach would fail to defend Davis.

In regards to the people who say Davis should follow the law, yet are seemingly fine with the federal drug and immigration laws being ignored, to assert that they are wrong about Davis because of what they think about the other laws would be to commit the tu quoque ad hominem. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said. Since fallacies are arguments whose premises fail to logically support the conclusion, this tactic would not logically defend Davis.

Those who wish to defend Davis can, however, make an appeal to consistency and fairness: if it is acceptable for the states and local governments to ignore federal laws without punishment, then it would thus seem acceptable for Kim Davis to also ignore these laws without being punished. Those not interested in defending Davis could also make the point that consistency does require that if Davis is compelled to obey the law regarding same-sex marriage, then the same principle must be applied in regards to the drug and immigration laws. As such, the states and local governments that are not enforcing these laws should be compelled to enforce them and failure to do so should result in legal action against the state officials who fail to do their jobs.

This line of reasoning is certainly plausible, but it can be countered by attempting to show a relevant difference (or differences) between the laws in question. In practice most people do not use this approach—rather, they have the “principle” that the laws they like should be enforced and the laws they oppose should not be enforced. This is, obviously enough, not a legitimate legal or moral principle.  This applies to those who like same-sex marriage (and think the law should be obeyed) and those who dislike it (and think the law should be ignored). It also applies to those who like marijuana (and think the laws should be ignored) and those who dislike it (and think the laws should be obeyed).

In terms of making the relevant difference argument, there are many possible approaches depending on which difference is regarded as relevant. Those who wish to defend Davis might argue that her resistance to the law is based on her religious views and hence her disobedience can be justified on the grounds of religious liberty. Of course, there are those who oppose the immigration laws on religious grounds and even some who oppose the laws against drugs on theological grounds. As such, if the religious liberty argument is used in one case, it can also be applied to the others.

Those who want Davis to follow the law but who oppose the enforcement of certain drug and immigration laws could contend that Davis’ is violating the constitutional rights of citizens and that this is a sufficient difference to justify a difference in enforcement. The challenge is, obviously enough, working out why this difference justifies not enforcing the drug and immigration laws in question.

Another option is to argue that the violation of moral rights suffices to warrant not enforcing a law and protecting rights warrants enforcing a law. The challenge is showing that the rights of the same-sex couples override Davis’ claim to a right to religious liberty and also showing the moral right to use certain drugs and to immigrate even when it is illegal to do so. These things can be done, but go beyond the scope of this essay.

My own view is that consistency requires the enforcement of laws. If the laws are such that they should not be enforced, then they need to be removed from the books. I do, however, recognize the legitimacy of civil disobedience in the face of laws that a person of informed conscience regards as unjust. But, as those who developed the theory of civil disobedience were well aware, there are consequences to such disobedience.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Davis & Ad Hominems

Kim Davis, a county clerk in Kentucky, has been the focus of national media because of her refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. As this is being written, Davis has been sent to jail for disobeying a court order.

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film)

The Scarlet Letter (1926 film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As should be expected, opponents of same-sex marriage have tended to focus on the claim that Davis’ religious liberty is being violated. As should also be expected, her critics sought and found evidence of what seems to be her hypocrisy: Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth marriage. Some bloggers, eager to attack her, have claimed that she is guilty of adultery. These attacks can be relevant to certain issues, but they are also irrelevant in important ways. It is certainly worth sorting between the relevant and the irrelevant.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is consistent in her professed religious values, then her actions are clearly relevant. After all, if a person claims to have a set of values and acts in ways that violate those values, then this provides legitimate grounds for accusations of hypocrisy and even of claims that the person does not really hold to that belief set. That said, there can be many reasons why a person acts in violation of her professed values. One obvious reason is moral weakness—most people, myself included, do act in violation of their principle due to the many flaws and frailties that we all possess. Since none of us is without sin, we should not be hasty in judging the perceived failings of others.  However, it is reasonable to consider a person’s actions when assessing whether or not she is acting in a manner consistent with her professed values.

If Davis is, in fact, operating on the principle that marriage licenses should not be issued to people who have violated the rules of God (presumably as presented in the bible), then she would have to accept that she should not have been issued a marriage license (after all, there is a wealth of scriptural condemnation of adultery and divorce). If she accepts that she should have been issued her license despite her violations of religious rules, then consistency would seem to require that the same treatment be afforded to everyone—including same-sex couples. After all, adultery makes God’s top ten list while homosexuality is only mentioned in a single line (and one that also marks shellfish as an abomination). So, if adulterers can get licenses, it would be rather difficult to justify denying same-sex couples licenses on the grounds of a Christian faith.

If the issue at hand is whether or not Davis is right in her professed view and her refusal to grant licenses to same-sex couples, then references to her divorce and alleged adultery are logically irrelevant. If a person claims that Davis is wrong in her view or acted wrongly in denying licenses because she has been divorced or has (allegedly) committed adultery, then this would be a mere personal attack ad hominem. A personal attack is committed when a person substitutes abusive remarks for evidence when attacking another person’s claim or claims. This line of “reasoning” is fallacious because the attack is directed at the person making the claim and not the claim itself. The truth value of a claim is independent of the person making the claim. After all, no matter how repugnant an individual might be, he or she can still make true claims.

If a critic of Davis asserts that her claim about same-sex marriage is in error because of her own alleged hypocrisy, then the critic is engaged in an ad hominem tu quoque.  This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim she makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with her actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove her claims are false. As such, Davis’ behavior has no bearing on the truth of her claims or the rightness of her decision to deny marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

Dan Savage and others have also made the claim that Davis is motivated by her desire to profit from the fame she is garnering from her actions. Savage asserts that “But no one is stating the obvious: this isn’t about Kim Davis standing up for her supposed principles—proof of that in a moment—it’s about Kim Davis cashing in.” Given, as Savage notes, the monetary windfall received by the pizza parlor owners who refused to cate a same-sex wedding, this has some plausibility.

If the issue at hand is Davis’ sincerity and the morality of her motivations, then whether or not she is motivated by hopes of profit or sincere belief does matter. If she is opposing same-sex marriage based on her informed conscience or, at the least, on a sincerely held principle, then that is a rather different matter than being motivated by a desire for fame and profit. A person motivated by principle to take a moral stand is at least attempting to act rightly—whether or not her principle is actually good or not. Claiming to be acting from principle while being motivated by fame and fortune would be to engage in deceit.

However, if the issue is whether or not Davis is right about her claim regarding same-sex marriage, then her motivations are not relevant. To think otherwise would be to fall victim to yet another ad hominem, the circumstantial ad hominem. This is a fallacy in which one attempts to attack a claim by asserting that the person making the claim is making it simply out of self-interest. In some cases, this fallacy involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.). This ad hominem is a fallacy because a person’s interests and circumstances have no bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made. While a person’s interests will provide them with motives to support certain claims, the claims stand or fall on their own. It is also the case that a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Christian, so his claim is false.” Or, if someone claimed that Dan Savage was wrong simply because of his beliefs.

Thus, Davis’ behavior, beliefs, and motivations are relevant to certain issues. However, they are not relevant to the truth (or falsity) of her claims regarding same-sex marriage.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Philosophy versus science versus politics

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

We might hope that good arguments will eventually drive out bad arguments – in what Timothy Williamson calls “a reverse analogue of Gresham’s Law” – and we might want (almost?) complete freedom for ideas and arguments, rather than suppressing potentially valuable ones.

Unfortunately, it takes honesty and effort before the good arguments can defeat the bad.

Williamson on philosophy and science

In a field such as philosophy, the reverse Gresham’s Law analogue may be too optimistic, as Williamson suggests.

Williamson points out that very often a philosopher profoundly wants one answer rather than another to be the right one. He or she may thus be predisposed to accept certain arguments and to reject others. If the level of obscurity is high in a particular field of discussion (as will almost always be the case with philosophical controversies), “wishful thinking may be more powerful than the ability to distinguish good arguments from bad”. So much so “that convergence in the evaluation of arguments never occurs.”

Williamson has a compelling point. Part of the seemingly intractable dissensus in philosophy comes from motivated reasoning about the issues. There is a potential for intellectual disaster in the combination of: 1) strong preferences for certain conclusions; and 2) very broad latitude for disagreement about the evidence and the arguments.

This helps to explain why many philosophical disagreements appear to be, for practical purposes, intractable. In such cases, rival philosophical theories may become increasingly sophisticated, and yet none can obtain a conclusive victory over its rivals. As a result, philosophical investigation does not converge on robust findings. A sort of progress may result, but not in the same way as in the natural sciences.

By way of comparison, Williamson imagines a difficult scientific dispute. Two rival theories may have committed proponents “who have invested much time, energy, and emotion”, and only high-order experimental skills can decide which theory is correct. If the standards of the relevant scientific community are high enough in terms of conscientiousness and accuracy, the truth will eventually prevail. But if the scientific community is just a bit more tolerant of what Williamson calls “sloppiness and rhetorical obfuscation” both rival theories may survive indefinitely, with neither ever being decisively refuted.

All that’s required for things to go wrong is a bit less care in protecting samples from impurity, a bit more preparedness to accept ad hoc hypotheses, a bit more swiftness in dismissing opposing arguments as question-begging. “A small difference in how carefully standards are applied can make a large difference between eventual convergence and eventual divergence”, he says.

For Williamson, the moral of the story is that philosophy has more chance of making progress if philosophers are rigorous and more demanding of themselves, and if they are open to being wrong. Much philosophical work, he thinks, is shoddy, vague, impatient and careless in checking details.

It may be protected from refutation by rhetorical techniques such as “pretentiousness, allusiveness, gnomic concision, or winning informality.” Williamson prefers philosophy that is patient, precise, rigorously argued, and carefully explained, even at the risk of seeming boring or pedantic. As he puts it, “Pedantry is a fault on the right side.”

An aspiration for philosophy

I think there’s something in this – an element of truth in Williamson’s analysis. Admittedly, the kind of work that he is advocating may not be easily accessible to the general educated public (although any difficulty of style would be from the real complexities of the subject matter, rather than an attempt to impress with a dazzling performance).

It’s also possible that there are other and deeper problems for philosophy that hinder its progress. Nonetheless, the discipline is marked by emotional investments in many proposed conclusions, together with characteristics that make it easy for emotionally motivated reasoners to evade refutation.

If we want to make more obvious progress in philosophy, we had better try to counter these factors. At a minimum that will involve openness to being wrong and to changing our minds. It will mean avoiding bluster, rhetorical zingers, general sloppiness and the protection that comes from making vague or equivocal claims.

This can all be difficult. Even with the best of intentions, we will often fail to meet the highest available standards, but we can at least try to do so. Imperfection is inevitable, but we needn’t indulge our urges to protect emotionally favoured theories. We can aspire to something better.

Politics, intellectual honesty, and discussion in the public square

There is one obvious area of discussion in modern democracies where the intellectual rigour commended by Williamson – which he sees as prevalent in the sciences and as a worthy aspiration for philosophers – is given almost no credence. I’m referring to the claims made by rivals in democratic party politics.

Here, the aim is usually to survive and prevail at all costs. Ideas are protected through sloppiness, rhetoric and even outright distortion of the facts, and opponents are viewed as enemies to be defeated. Purity of adherence to a “party line” is frequently enforced, and internal dissenters are treated as heretics. All too often, they are thought to deserve the most personal, microscopic and embarrassing scrutiny. It may culminate in ostracism, orchestrated smearing and other punishments.

This is clearly not a recipe for finding the truth. Whatever failures of intellectual dishonesty are shown by philosophers, they are usually very subtle compared to those exhibited during party political struggles.

I doubt that we can greatly change the nature of party political debate, though we can certainly call for more intellectual honesty and for less of the distortion that comes from political Manichaeism. Even identifying the prevalence of political Manichaeism – and making it more widely known – is a worthwhile start.

Greatly changing the nature of party political debate may be difficult because emotions run high. Losing may be seen as socially catastrophic, and comprehensive worldviews are engaged. By its very nature, this sort of debate is aimed at obtaining power rather than inquiring into the truth. Political rhetoric appeals to the hearts and minds – but especially the hearts – of mass electorates. It has an inevitable tendency in the direction of propaganda.

To some extent, we are forced to accept robust, even brutal, debate over party political issues. When we do so, however, we can at least recognise it as exceptional, rather than as a model for debate in other areas. It should not become the template for more general cultural and moral discussions – or even broadly political discussions – and we are right to protest when we see it becoming so.

It’s an ugly spectacle when party politics proceeds with each side attempting to claim scalps – demonizing opponents, attempting to embarrass them or to present them as somehow disgraced, forcing them, if at all possible, to resign from office – rather than seeking the truth.

It’s an even more worrying spectacle when wider debate in the public square is carried on in much the same way. We should be dissatisfied when journalists, literary and cultural critics, supposedly serious bloggers, and academics – and other contributors to the public culture who are not party politicians – mimic party politicians’ standards.

If anything, our politicians need to be nudged toward better standards. But even if that is unrealistic, we don’t have to adopt them as role models. Instead, we can seek standards of care, patience, rigour and honesty. We can avoid engaging in the daily pile-ons, ostracisms, smear campaigns, and all the other tactics that amount to taking scalps rather than honestly discussing issues and examining arguments. We can, furthermore, look for ways to support individuals who have been isolated and unfairly targeted.

High standards

At election time, we may have to vote for one political party or another, or else not vote (formally) at all. But in the rest of our lives, we can often suspend judgement on genuinely difficult issues. We can take intellectual opponents’ arguments seriously, and we can develop views that don’t align with any of the various off-the-shelf ones currently available.

More plainly, we can think for ourselves on matters of philosophical, moral, cultural and political controversy. Importantly, we can encourage others to do the same, rather than trying to punish them for disagreeing with us.

Party politicians are necessary, or at least they are better than any obvious alternatives (hereditary despots, anyone?). But they should never be regarded as role models for the rest of us.

Timothy Williamson asks for extremely high intellectual standards that may not be fully achievable even within philosophy, let alone in broader public discussion. We can, however, aspire to something like them, rather than indulging in the worst – in tribal and Manichaean – alternatives.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford is Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny?I: Preliminaries

Anti abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Decemb...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.

While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women.  As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.

The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.

This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
  3. Therefore X is false.

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.

A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue I: Selling for Profit?

Thanks to undercover videos released by an anti-abortion group, Planned Parenthood is once again the focus of public and media attention. This situation has brought up many moral issues that are well worth considering.

One matter of concern is the claim that Planned Parenthood has engaged in selling aborted fetuses for profit. The edited videos certainly seem crafted to create the impression that Planned Parenthood was haggling over the payments it would receive for aborted fetuses to be used in research and also considering changing the methods of abortion to ensure higher quality “product.” Since clever editing can make almost anything seem rather bad, it is a good general rule of critical thinking to look beyond such video.

In this case the unedited video is also available, thus allowing people to get the context of the remarks. There is, however, still reasonable general concerns about what happened off camera as well as the impact of crafting and shaping the context of the recorded conversation. That said, even the unedited video does present what could reasonably regarded as moral awfulness. To be specific, there is certainly something horrible in casually discussing fees for human remains over wine (I will discuss the ethics of fetal tissue research later).

The defenders of Planned Parenthood have pointed out that while the organization does receive fees to cover the costs associated with the fetal tissue (or human remains, if one prefers) it does not make a profit from this and it does not sell the tissue. As such, the charge that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for a profit seems to be false. Interestingly, making a profit off something that is immoral strikes some as morally worse than doing something wrong that fails to make a profit (which is a reversal of the usual notion that making a profit is generally laudable).

It could be replied that this is a matter of mere semantics that misses the real point. The claim that the organization does not make a profit would seem to be a matter of saying that what it receives in income for fetal tissue does not exceed its claimed expenses for this process. What really matters, one might argue, is not whether it is rocking the free market with its tissue sales, but that it is engaged in selling what should not be sold. This leads to the second matter, which is whether or not Planned Parenthood is selling fetal tissue.

As with the matter of profit, it could be contended that the organization’s claim that it is receiving fees to cover expenses and is not selling fetal tissues is semantic trickery. To use an analogy, a drug dealer might claim that he is not selling drugs. Rather, he is receiving fees to cover his expenses for providing the drugs. To use another analogy, a slaver might claim that she is not selling human beings. Rather, she is receiving fees to cover her transportation and manacle expenses.

This argument has considerable appeal, but can be responded to. One plausible response is that there can be a real moral distinction between covering expenses and selling something. This is similar to the distinction between hiring a person and covering her expenses. To use an example, if I am being paid to move a person, then I have been hired to move her. But, if I help a friend move and she covers the cost of the gas I use in transporting her stuff, I have not been hired. There does seem to be a meaningful distinction here. If I agree to help a friend move and then give her a moving bill covering my expenses and my hourly pay for moving, then I seem to be doing something rather different than if I just asked her to cover the cost of gas.

To use a selling sort of example, if I pick up a pizza for the guys and they pay what the pizza cost me to get (minus my share), then I have not sold them a pizza. They have merely covered the cost of the pizza. If I charge them extra for the pizza (that is, beyond what it cost me), then I would seem to be doing something meaningfully different—I have sold them a pizza.

Returning to the Planned Parenthood situation, a similar argument can be advanced: the organization is not selling the fetal tissue, it is merely having its expenses covered. This does seem to matter morally. I suspect that one worry people have about tissue selling is that the selling would seem to provide an incentive to engage in morally problematic behavior to acquire more tissue to sell. To be specific, if the expense of providing the tissue for research is being covered, then there is no financial incentive to increase the amount of “product” via morally dubious means. After all, if one is merely “breaking even” there is no financial incentive to do more of that. But, if the tissue is being sold, then there would be a financial motive to get more “product” to sell—which would incentivize pushing abortions.

Going with the moving analogy, if I am selling moving services, then I want to sell as much as I can. I might even engage in dubious behavior to get more business.  If I am just getting my gas covered, I have no financial incentive to engage in more moves. In fact, the hassle of moving would give me a disincentive to seek more moving opportunities.

This, obviously enough, might be regarded by some as merely more semantic trickery. Whether it is mere semantics or not does rest on whether or not there is a meaningful distinction between selling something and having the expenses for something covered, which seems to come down to one’s intuitions about the matter. Naturally, intuitions tend to vary greatly based on the specific issue—those who dislike Planned Parenthood will tend to think that there is no distinction in this case. Those same people are quite likely to “see” the distinction as meaningful in cases in which the entity receiving fees is one they like. Obviously, a comparable bias of intuitions applies to supporters of Planned Parenthood.

Even if one agrees that there is a moral distinction between selling and having one’s expenses covered, there are still at least two moral issues remaining. One is whether or not it is morally acceptable to provide fetal tissues for research (whether one is selling them or merely having expenses covered). The second is whether or not it is morally acceptable to engage in fetal tissue research. These issues will be covered in the next essay.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The “Two Bads” Fallacy & Racism

The murder of nine people in the Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina ignited an intense discussion of race and violence. While there has been near-universal condemnation of the murders, some people take effort to argue that these killings are part of a broader problem of racism in America. This claim is supported by reference to the well-known history of systematic violence against blacks in America as well as consideration of data from today. Interestingly, some people respond to this approach by asserting that more blacks are killed by blacks than by whites. Some even seem obligated to add the extra fact that more whites are killed by blacks than blacks are killed by whites.

While these points are often just “thrown out there” without being forged into part of a coherent argument, presumably the intent of such claims is to somehow disprove or at least diminish the significance of claims regarding violence against blacks by whites. To be fair, there might be other reasons for bringing up such claims—perhaps the person is engaged in an effort to broaden the discussion to all violence out of a genuine concern for the well-being of all people.

In cases in which the claims about the number of blacks killed by blacks are brought forth in response to incidents such as the church shooting, this tactic appears to be a specific form of a red herring. This fallacy in which an irrelevant topic is presented in order to divert attention from the original issue. The basic idea is to “win” an argument by leading attention away from the argument and to another topic.

This sort of “reasoning” has the following form:

  1. Topic A is under discussion.
  2. Topic B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to topic A (when topic B is actually not relevant to topic A).
  3. Topic A is abandoned.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The topic of racist violence against blacks is being discussed, specifically the church shooting.
  2. The topic of blacks killing other blacks is brought up.
  3. The topic of racist violence against blacks is abandoned in favor of focusing on blacks killing other blacks.


This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because merely changing the topic of discussion hardly counts as an argument against a claim. In the specific case at hand, switching the topic to black on black violence does nothing to address the topic of racist violence against blacks.

While the red herring label would certainly suffice for these cases, it is certainly appealing to craft a more specific sort of fallacy for cases in which something bad is “countered” by bringing up another bad. The obvious name for this fallacy is the “two bads fallacy.” This is a fallacy in which a second bad thing is presented in response to a bad thing with the intent of distracting attention from the first bad thing (or with the intent of diminishing the badness of the first bad thing).

This fallacy has the following pattern:

  1. Bad thing A is under discussion.
  2. Bad thing B is introduced under the guise of being relevant to A (when B is actually not relevant to A in this context).
  3. Bad thing A is ignored, or the badness of A is regarded as diminished or refuted.

In the case of the church shooting, the pattern would be as follows:

  1. The murder of nine people in the AME church, which is bad, is being discussed.
  2. Blacks killing other blacks, which is bad, is brought up.
  3. The badness of the murder of the nine people is abandoned, or its badness is regarded as diminished or refuted.

This sort of “reasoning” is fallacious because the mere fact that something else is bad does not entail that another bad thing thus has its badness lessened or refuted. After all, the fact that there are worse things than something does not entail that it is not bad. In cases in which there is not an emotional or ideological factor, the poorness of this reasoning is usually evident:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Well, some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “Yeah, so much for your broken arm being bad. You are just fine. Get back to work.”

What seems to lend this sort of “reasoning” some legitimacy is that comparing two things that are bad is relevant to determining relative badness. If a person is arguing about how bad something is, it is certainly reasonable to consider it in the context of other bad things. For example, the following would not be fallacious reasoning:

Sam: “I broke my arm, which is bad.”
Bill: “Some people have two broken arms and two broken legs.”
Joe: “That is worse than one broken arm.”
Sam: “Indeed it is.”
Joe: “But having a broken arm must still suck.”
Sam: “Indeed it does.”

Because of this, it is important to distinguish between cases of the fallacy (X is bad, but Y is also bad, so X is not bad) and cases in which a legitimate comparison is being made (X is bad, but Y is worse, so X is less bad than Y, but still bad).

Are Anti-Vaccination People Stupid?

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of sma...

Poster from before the 1979 eradication of smallpox, promoting vaccination. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The United States recently saw an outbreak of the measles (644 cases in 27 states) with the overwhelming majority of victims being people who had not been vaccinated. Critics of the anti-vaccination movement have pointed to this as clear proof that the movement is not only misinformed but also actually dangerous. Not surprisingly, those who take the anti-vaccination position are often derided as stupid. After all, there is no evidence that vaccines cause the harms that the anti-vaccination people refer to when justifying their position. For example, one common claim is that vaccines cause autism, but this seems to be clearly untrue. There is also the fact that vaccinations have been rather conclusively shown to prevent diseases (though not perfectly, of course).

It is, of course, tempting for those who disagree with the anti-vaccination people to dismiss them uniformly as stupid people who lack the brains to understand science. This, however, is a mistake. One reason it is a mistake is purely pragmatic: those who are pro-vaccination want the anti-vaccination people to change their minds and calling them stupid, mocking and insulting them will merely cause them to entrench. Another reason it is a mistake is that the anti-vaccination people are not, in general, stupid. There are, in fact, grounds for people to be skeptical or concerned about matters of health and science. To show this, I will briefly present some points of concern.

One point of rational concern is the fact that scientific research has been plagued with a disturbing amount of corruption, fraud and errors. For example, the percentage of scientific articles retracted for fraud is ten times what it was in 1975. Once lauded studies and theories, such as those driving the pushing of antioxidants and omega-3, have been shown to be riddled with inaccuracies. As such, it is hardly stupid to be concerned that scientific research might not be accurate. Somewhat ironically, the study that started the belief that vaccines cause autism is a paradigm example of bad science. However, it is not stupid to consider that the studies that show vaccines are safe might have flaws as well.

Another matter of concern is the influence of corporate lobbyists on matters relating to health. For example, the dietary guidelines and recommendations set forth by the United States Government should be set on the basis of the best science. However, the reality is that these matters are influenced quite strongly by industry lobbyists, such as the dairy industry. Given the influence of the corporate lobbyists, it is not foolish to think that the recommendations and guidelines given by the state might not be quite right.

A third point of concern is the fact that the dietary and health guidelines and recommendations undo what seems to be relentless and unwarranted change. For example, the government has warned us of the dangers of cholesterol for decades, but this recommendation is being changed. It would, of course, be one thing if the changes were the result of steady improvements in knowledge. However, the recommendations often seem to lack a proper foundation. John P.A. Ioannidis, a professor of medicine and statistics at Stanford, has noted “Almost every single nutrient imaginable has peer reviewed publications associating it with almost any outcome. In this literature of epidemic proportions, how many results are correct?” Given such criticism from experts in the field, it hardly seems stupid of people to have doubts and concerns.

There is also the fact that people do suffer adverse drug reactions that can lead to serious medical issues and even death. While the reported numbers vary (one FDA page puts the number of deaths at 100,000 per year) this is certainly a matter of concern. In an interesting coincidence, I was thinking about this essay while watching the Daily Show on Hulu this morning and one of my “ad experiences” was for Januvia, a diabetes drug. As required by law, the ad mentioned all the side effects of the drug and these include some rather serious things, including death. Given that the FDA has approved drugs with dangerous side effects, it is hardly stupid to be concerned about the potential side effects from any medicine or vaccine.

Given the above points, it would certainly not be stupid to be concerned about vaccines. At this point, the reader might suspect that I am about to defend an anti-vaccine position. I will not—in fact, I am a pro-vaccination person. This might seem somewhat surprising given the points I just made. However, I can rationally reconcile these points with my position on vaccines.

The above points do show that there are rational grounds for taking a general critical and skeptical approach to matters of health, medicine and science. However, this general skepticism needs to be properly rational. That is, it should not be a rejection of science but rather the adoption of a critical approach to these matters in which one considers the best available evidence, assesses experts by the proper standards (those of a good argument from authority), and so on. Also, it is rather important to note that the general skepticism does not automatically justify accepting or rejecting specific claims. For example, the fact that there have been flawed studies does not prove that the specific studies about vaccines as flawed. As another example, the fact that lobbyists influence the dietary recommendations does not prove that vaccines are harmful drugs being pushed on Americans by greedy corporations. As a final example, the fact that some medicines have serious and dangerous side effects does not prove that the measles vaccine is dangerous or causes autism. Just as one should be rationally skeptical about pro-vaccination claims one should also be rationally skeptical about ant-vaccination claims.

To use an obvious analogy, it is rational to have a general skepticism about the honesty and goodness of people. After all, people do lie and there are bad people. However, this general skepticism does not automatically prove that a specific person is dishonest or evil—that is a matter that must be addressed on the individual level.

To use another analogy, it is rational to have a general concern about engineering. After all, there have been plenty of engineering disasters. However, this general concern does not warrant believing that a specific engineering project is defective or that engineering itself is defective. The specific project would need to be examined and engineering is, in general, the most rational approach to building stuff.

So, the people who are anti-vaccine are not, in general, stupid. However, they do seem to be making the mistake of not rationally considering the specific vaccines and the evidence for their safety and efficacy. It is quite rational to be concerned about medicine in general, just as it is rational to be concerned about the honesty of people in general. However, just as one should not infer that a friend is a liar because there are people who lie, one should not infer that a vaccine must be bad because there is bad science and bad medicine.

Convincing anti-vaccination people to accept vaccination is certainly challenging. One reason is that the issue has become politicized into a battle of values and identity. This is partially due to the fact that the anti-vaccine people have been mocked and attacked, thus leading them to entrench and double down. Another reason is that, as argued above, they do have well-founded concerns about the trustworthiness of the state, the accuracy of scientific studies, and the goodness of corporations. A third reason is that people tend to give more weight to the negative and also tend to weigh potential loss more than potential gain. As such, people would tend to give more weight to negative reasons against vaccines and fear the alleged dangers of vaccines more than they would value their benefits.

Given the importance of vaccinations, it is rather critical that the anti-vaccination movement be addressed. Calling people stupid, mocking them and attacking them are certainly not effective ways of convincing people that vaccines are generally safe and effective. A more rational and hopefully more effective approach is to address their legitimate concerns and consider their fears. After all, the goal should be the health of people and not scoring points.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter


With the start of a new semester, I have gotten a bit behind on my blogging. But, since I am working on a book on rhetorical devices, I have an easy solution; here is an example from the book:

When I was a kid, people bought used cars. These days, people buy fine pre-owned vehicles. There is (usually) no difference between the meanings of “used car” and “pre-owned” car—both refer to the same thing, namely a car someone else has owned and used. However, “used” sounds a bit nasty, perhaps suggesting that the car might be a bit sticky in places. By substituting “pre-owned” for “used”, the car sounds somehow better, although it is the same car whether it is described as used or pre-owned.

If you need to make something that is negative sound positive without actually making it better, then a euphemism would be your tool of choice. A euphemism is a pleasant or at least inoffensive word or phrase that is substituted for a word or phrase that means the same thing but is unpleasant, offensive otherwise negative in terms of its connotation. To use an analogy, using a euphemism is like coating a bitter pill with sugar, making it easier to swallow.

Euphemisms and some other rhetorical devices make use of the fact that words or phrases have connotations as well as denotations. Put a bit simply, the denotation of a term is the literal meaning of the term. The connotation of the term is its emotional association. Terms can have the same denotation but very different connotations. For example “child” and “rug rat” have rather different emotional associations.

The way to use a euphemism is to replace the key words or phrases that are negative in their connotation with those that are positive (or at least neutral). Naturally, it helps to know what the target audience regards as positive words, but generically positive words can do the trick quite well.

The defense against a euphemism is to replace the positive term with a neutral term that has the same meaning. For example, for “an American citizen was inadvertently neutralized during a drone strike”, the neutral presentation would be “An American citizen was killed during a drone strike.” While “killed” does have a negative connotation, it does describe the situation with more neutrality.

In some cases, euphemisms are used for commendable reasons, such as being polite in social situations or to avoid exposing children to “adult” concepts. For example, at a funeral it is considered polite to refer the dead person as “the departed” rather than “the corpse.”



“Pre-owned” for “used.”

“Neutralization” for “killing.”

“Freedom fighter” for “terrorist”

“Revenue enhancement” for “tax increase.”

“Down-sized” for “fired.”

“Between jobs” for “unemployed.”

“Passed” for “dead.”

“Office manager” for “secretary.”

“Custodian” for “janitor.”

“Detainee” for “prisoner.”

“Enhanced interrogation” for “torture.”

“Self-injurious behavior incidents” for “suicide attempts.”

“Adult entertainment” or “adult material” for “pornography.”

“Sanitation engineer” for “garbage man.”

“Escort”, “call girl”, or “lady of the evening” for “prostitute.”

“Gentlemen’s club” for “strip club.”

“Exotic dancer” for “stripper”

“A little thin on top” for “bald.”

“In a family way” for “pregnant.”

“Sleeping with” for “having sex with.”

“Police action” for “undeclared war.”

“Downsized” for “fired.”

“Wardrobe malfunction” for “exposure.”

“Commandeer” for “steal.”

“Modify the odds in my favor” for “cheat.”

Of Lies & Disagreements

When people disagree on controversial issues it is not uncommon for one person to accuse another of lying. In some cases this accusation is clearly warranted and in others it is clearly not. Discerning between these cases is clearly a matter of legitimate concern. There is also some confusion of what should count as a lie and what should not.

While this might seem like a matter of mere semantics, the distinction between what is a lie and what is not actually matters. The main reason for this is that to accuse a person of lying is, in general, to lay a moral charge against the person. It is not merely to claim that the person is in error but to claim that the person is engaged in something that is morally wrong. While some people do use “lie” interchangeably with “untruth”, there is clearly a difference.

To use an easy and obvious example, imagine a student who is asked which year the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The student thinks it was in 1944 and writes that down. She has made an untrue claim, but it would clearly not do for the teacher to accuse her of being a liar.

Now, imagine that one student, Sally, is asking another student, Jane, about when the United States bombed Hiroshima. Jane does not like Sally and wants her to do badly on her exam, so she tells her that the year was 1944, though she knows it was 1945. If Sally tells another student that it was 1944 and also puts that down on her test, Sally could not justly be accused of lying. Jane, however, can be fairly accused. While Sally is saying and writing something untrue, she believes the claim and is not acting with any malicious intent. In contrast, Jane believes she is saying something untrue and is acting from malice. This suggests some important distinctions between lying and making untrue claims.

One obvious distinction is that a lie requires that the person believe she is making an untrue claim. Naturally, there is the practical problem of determining whether a person really believes what she is claiming, but this is not relevant to the abstract distinction: if the person believes the claim, then she would not be lying when she makes that claim.

It can, of course, be argued that a person can be lying even when she believes what she claims—that what matters is whether the claim is true or not. The obvious problem with this is that the accusation of lying is not just a claim the person is wrong, it is also a moral condemnation of wrongdoing. While “lie” could be taken to apply to any untrue claim, there would be a need for a new word to convey not just a statement of error but also of condemnation.

It can also be argued that a person can lie by telling the truth, but by doing so in such a way as to mislead a person into believing something untrue. This does have a certain appeal in that it includes the intent to deceive, but differs from the “stock” lie in that the claim is true (or at least believed to be true).

A second obvious distinction is that the person must have a malicious intent. This is a key factor that distinguishes the untruths of the fictions of movies, stories and shows from lies. When the actor playing Darth Vader says to Luke “No. I am your father.”, he is saying something untrue, yet it would be unfair to say that the actor is thus a liar. Likewise, the references to dragons, hobbits and elves in the Hobbit are all untrue—yet one would not brand Tolkien a liar for these words.

The obvious reply to this is that there is a category of lies that lack a malicious intent. These lies are often told with good intentions, such as a compliment about a person’s appearance that is not true or when parents tell their children about Santa Claus. As such, it would seem that there are lies that are not malicious—these are often called “white lies.” If intent matters, then this sort of lie would seem rather less bad than the malicious lie; although they do meet a general definition of “lie” which involves making an untrue claim with the intent to deceive. In this case, the deceit is supposed to be a positive one. Naturally, there are those who would argue that such deceits are still wrong, even if the intent is a good one. The matter is also complicated by the fact that there seem to be untrue claims aimed at deceit that intuitively seem morally acceptable. The classic case is, of course, misleading a person who is out to commit murder.

In some cases one person will accuse another of lying because the person disagrees with a claim made by the other person. For example, a person might claim that Obamacare will help Americans and be accused of lying about this by a person who is opposed to Obamacare.

In this sort of context, the accusation that the person is lying seems to rest on three clear points. The first is that the accuser thinks that the person does not actually believe his claim. That is, he is engaged in an intentional deceit. The accuser also thinks that the claim is not true. The second is that the accuser believes that the accused intends to deceive—that is, he expects people to believe him. The third is that the accuser thinks that the accused has some malicious intent. This might be merely limited to the intent to deceive, but it typically goes beyond this. For example, the proponent of Obamacare might be suspected of employing his alleged deceit to spread socialism and damage businesses. Or it might be that the person is trolling.

So, in order to be justified in accusing a person of lying, it needs to be shown that the person does not really believe his claim, that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent. Arguing against the claim can show that it is untrue, but this would not be sufficient to show that the person is lying—unless one takes a lie to merely be a claim that is not true (so, if someone made a mistake in a math problem and got the wrong answer, he would be a liar). What would be needed would be adequate evidence that the person is insincere in his claim (that is, he believes he is saying the untrue), that he intends to deceive and that there is some malicious intent.

Naturally, effective criticism of a claim does not require showing that the person making the claim is a liar—this is a matter of arguing about the claim. In fact, the truth or falsity of a claim has no connection to the intent of the person making the claim or what he actually believes about it. An accusation of lying, rather, moves from the issue of whether the claim is true or not to a moral dispute about the character of the person making the claim. That is, whether he is a liar or not. It can, of course, be a useful persuasive device to call someone a liar, but it (by itself) does nothing to prove or disprove the claim under dispute.


My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter