One of the relentless talking points of conservative pundits and many Republicans is that Obama is divisive. Perhaps even the most divisive president in American history. It is, in fact, a common practice to engage in a point-by-point analysis of Obama’s alleged divisiveness. As should be expected, supporters of Obama deny that he is divisive; or at least claim he is not the most divisive president.
It is almost certainly pointless to try to argue about the issue of whether Obama is divisive or not. Since this is a matter of political identity, the vast majority of people cannot be influenced by any amount of evidence or argumentation against their position. However, one of the purposes of philosophy is the rational assessment of beliefs even when doing so will convince no one to change their views. That said, this endeavor is not pointless: while I do not expect to change any hearts (for this is a matter of feeling and not reason) it is still worthwhile to advance our understanding of divisiveness and accusations about it.
Since analogies are often useful to enhancing understanding, I will make a comparison with fright. This requires a story from my own past. When I was in high school, our English teacher suggested a class trip to Europe. As with just about anything involving education, fundraising was necessary and this included what amounted to begging (with permission) at the local Shop N’ Save grocery store. As beggars, we worked in teams of two and I was paired up with Gopal. When the teacher found out about this (and our failure to secure much, if any, cash) she was horrified: we were frightening the old people; hence they were not inclined to even approach us, let alone donate to send us to Europe. As I recall, she said the old folks saw us as “thugs.”
I have no reason to doubt that some of the old folks were, in fact, frightened of us. As such, it is true that we were frightening. The same can be said about Obama: it is obviously true that many people see him as divisive and thus he is divisive. This is also analogous to being offensive: if a person is offended by, for example, a person’s Christian faith or her heterosexuality, then those things are offensive. To use another analogy, if a Christian is hired into a philosophy department composed mainly of devout atheists and they dislike her for her faith and it causes trouble in the department, the she is divisive. After all, the department would not be divided but for her being Christian.
While it is tempting to leave it at this, there seems more to the charge of divisiveness than a mere assertion about how other people respond to a person. After all, when Obama is accused of being divisive, the flaw is supposed to lie with Obama—he is condemned for this. As such, the charge of divisiveness involves placing blame on the divider. This leads to the obvious question about whether or not the response is justified.
Turning back to my perceived thuggery at Shop N’ Save, while it was true that Gopal and I frightened some old people, the question is whether or not they were justified in their fear. I would say not, but since I am biased in my own favor I need to support this claim. While Gopal and I were both young men (and thus a source of fear to some), we were hardly thugs. In fact, we were hardcore nerds: we played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, we were on the debate team, and we did the nerdiest of sports—track. For teenagers, we were polite and well behaved. We were certainly not inclined to engage in any thuggery towards older folks in the grocery store. As such, the fear was unwarranted. In fairness, the old people might not have known this.
In the case of Obama, the question is whether or not his alleged divisiveness has a foundation. This would involve assessing his words and deeds to determine if an objective observer would regard them as divisive. In this case, divisive words and deeds would be such that initially neutral and unbiased Americans would be moved apart and inclined to regard each other with hostility. There is, of course, an almost insurmountable obstacle here: those who regard Obama as divisive will perceive his words and deeds as having these qualities and will insist that a truly objective observer would see things as they do. His supporters will, of course, contend the opposite. While Obama has spoken more honestly and openly about such subjects as race than past presidents, his words and deeds do not seem to be such that a neutral person would be turned against other Americans on their basis. He does not, for example, make sweeping and hateful claims based on race and religion. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will think I am merely expressing my alleged liberal biases while they regard themselves as gazing upon his divisiveness via the illumination of the light of pure truth. Should Trump win in 2016, the Democrats will certainly accuse him of being divisive—and his supporters will insist that he is a uniter and not a divider. While whether or not a claim of divisiveness is well founded is a matter of concern, there is also the matter of intent. It is to this I now turn.
Continuing the analogy, a person could have qualities that frighten others and legitimately do so; yet the person might have no intention of creating such fear. For example, a person might not understand social rules about how close he should get to other people and when he can and cannot tough others. His behavior might thus scare people, but acting from ignorance rather than malice, he has no intention to scare others—in fact, he might intend quite the opposite. Such a person could be blamed for the fear he creates to the degree that he should know better, but intent would certainly matter. After all, to frighten through ignorance is rather different from intentionally frightening people.
The same can be true of divisiveness: a person might divide in ignorance and perhaps do so while attempting to bring about greater unity. If the divisive person does not intend to be divisive, then the appropriate response would be (to borrow from Socrates) take the person aside and assist them in correcting their behavior. If a person intends to be divisive, then they would deserve blame for whatever success they achieve and whatever harm they cause. While intent can be difficult to establish (since the minds of others are inaccessible), consideration of what a person does can go a long way in making this determination. In the case of Obama, his intent does not seem to be to divide Americans. Naturally, those who think Obama is divisive will tend to also accept that he is an intentionally divider (rather than an accidental divider) and will attribute nefarious motives to him. Those who support him will do the opposite. There is, of course, almost no possibility of reason and evidence changing the minds of the committed about this matter. However, it is certainly worth the effort to try to consider the evidence or lack of evidence for the claim that Obama is an intentional divider. I do not believe that he is the most divisive president ever or even particularly divisive in a sense that is blameworthy. It is true that some disagree with him and dislike him; but it is their choice to expand the divide rather than close it. It is like a person who runs away, all the while insisting the other person is the one to blame for the growing distance. In closing, what I have written will change no minds—those who think Obama is divisive still think that. Those who think otherwise, still think as they did before. This is, after all, a matter of how people feel rather than a matter of reason.
Like everyone else, how I look at the world is shaped by my psychological backstory. While, as a professional philosopher, I have an excellent logical toolkit, my use of these tools is shaped by how I feel about things. Since the matter of guns is a rather emotional issue, I need to sort out how my backstory influences how I assess arguments regarding guns.
Academics, especially philosophers, are often cast as latte sipping effeminate liberals who would get the vapors if they so much as caught sight of a piece of manly steel. The positive version of this stereotype is that an academic is far too civil to have any truck with something as barbarous as guns and far too intelligent to believe that guns have any value. A true intellectual, or so the stereotype goes, should dismiss all pro-gun prattle with the wave of a hand, a bemused smile and a remark about people clinging to God and guns. This slides nicely into a rather negative stereotype of gun owners.
Gun owners are all too often stereotyped as slack jawed ignoramuses, upper lips sweaty with thoughts of killing God’s creatures and who secretly stroke their shooting iron to fantasies of mass murder. The positive reverse of this negative stereotype is that gun owners are practical folks who believe in God, guns and country and want nothing to do with those ivory tower intellectuals and their bemused smiles.
Being a gun toting philosopher, I have been subject to these stereotypes. If an academic colleague or a fellow intellectual learns that I am a gun person (and especially that I have hunted), they tend to react with shock and dismay. Surely, they say, I am too smart and too decent to have anything to do with monstrous guns. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my gun history as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person.
Gun folks who find out I am an academic are often surprised by this—especially when they learn I am a philosopher. They often think of academics as elitist liberals who swoon at the sight of…well, you get the picture. Once they get to know me, they tend to look at my being a philosopher as a small aberration in an otherwise fine person. As is true of everyone else, I am who I am today because of who I was. So, on to my gun related backstory.
Like many American boys of my time, my first gun was a BB gun. It was a Daisy BB gun, but not a Red Ryder. It would, however, put an eye out. As boys, we would shoot the hell out of each other with our guns, so it is a wonder that we all made it out of childhood with both eyes. This was the gun I used for my first kill.
While the mists of time have obscured many memories, I clearly recall taking aim at a songbird perched on a powerline by what we called “the frog pond.” Carelessly I shot, not thinking I would hit it. The bird fell, striking the ground as a corpse. Though I was a kid, I knew I had done something terrible—a needless, senseless killing. I had straight up murdered that bird. I was not protecting myself (obviously) and I did not need it for food. That callous and careless murder shaped my view of guns for the rest of my life—my young mind grasped that it is all too easy to silence a song forever.
Eventually I got my first real guns—a Marlin .22 and a single shot .410-gauge shotgun. My father made sure that I knew all the safety rules and he taught me two of the great truths about guns. The first is that a gun is always loaded. The second is that you never point a gun at anything or anyone unless you mean to kill them. The safety lessons stuck—I have never been injured by my own gun and I have never harmed another being without intending to do so.
Once I was old enough, I went hunting with my father. I had to get up at some ungodly hour of the day—I remember feeling very cold. We’d then drive down to the land we owned in Lamoine. On the way we’d get Dunkin Donuts—my favorite part. Sometimes we’d cook up bacon and eggs by the ocean. Sometimes we’d go down the night before—that meant Dinty Moore Beef Stew from the can. These are all positive memories—no one got hurt. Well, no one but the ducks.
While hunters are sometimes cast as bloodthirsty, callous or trophy lusting egomaniacs, nothing could be further from my experiences. My father taught me to respect the animals we hunted and also the natural world. He also taught me a lesson that has shaped my character ever since.
While a duck usually drops immediately when hit, sometimes they just catch enough pellets to badly wound them. These birds are sometimes able to fly some distance before being forced down. They are, no doubt, terrified and in great pain while they struggle to escape. While it might be thought that the right thing to do would be to let such a bird escape, the truth is that it will most likely suffer from an infection and die horribly and slowly. Once, when we were hunting, this happened—the bird made it a good distance, then plummeted into the water, wounded but not dead. My father got the boat into the water and went after the duck, shooting it and retrieving it. The reason was not to avoid losing the duck. The reason was a moral responsibility to that duck. To leave it to suffer and die would be wrong; the duck was his responsibility. This reinforced my belief in the responsibility that comes from using a gun and the moral necessity of being fully accountable for one’s actions.
Some might say that this tale is all well and good, but that the real lesson is that a person should not be out there shooting animals in the first place. As a philosopher, I do agree there are excellent moral arguments against harming animals (I have, of course, read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation-which is why I no longer eat veal). However, to hunt for the sake of food and to do so with respect for the animal is to accept that I am part of the natural world. That is, I am a hunter and the duck is prey. Someday, I too shall pass and my mortal shell will be consumed. As I see it, it is morally acceptable to kill the duck for food, provided that the kill is clean and that if it is not the matter is set right.
Those who embrace vegetarianism can raise very reasonable moral objections against killing even for food—why kill an animal that can suffer instead of eating a plant that (supposedly) cannot? I do find considerable merit in these arguments and accept that killing animals for food is morally worse than killing plants. However, I accept the moral weight of my actions and this makes me reluctant to kill. In fact, I would so only for defense or true hunger.
When I went to college and then to graduate school, I learned a great deal about ethics. It is, in fact, a subject I teach. Interestingly, what I learned about ethics did not radically change my views of guns (or hunting). Mainly it gave me a better theoretical framework in which to discuss the issues.
While I have not been hunting in many years, I still engage in target shooting with friends. We go to a gun range, follow all the safety protocols (and watch out for the fools who do not) and usually get lunch afterwards. We get, I think, the same enjoyment from this that people get from playing golf. While there is some risk of injury, that is true of many activities—so I have never regarded target shooting as immoral.
While assault rifles are the big news these days, the hottest field in guns is concealed carry. Some states allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon while others require a license. When I got my first permit in Maine, the process was very easy and was handled by the local police. When I got a permit in Florida, I had to take a safety course (which was a bit weird, since I had been shooting for almost 40 years) and pass a fairly thorough background check.
When I was in Maine, I had the permit mainly as a matter of convenience—so I could carry my .357 under my jacket while hunting (it was a backup in case my rifle malfunctioned and I had to finish off a wounded deer (a fellow I know once had to finish off a deer with a small knife, which was horrifying) and to go to target shoot. I got the permit in Florida mainly for convenience in taking a gun to the range and also to be legally safe in regards to carrying a knife (being from Maine, I always have a knife—pretty sure that is some sort of natural law).
Some people get permits because of fear of being attacked. While I am aware that this could happen, I am not particularly afraid that I will be attacked—I understand how statistics work. I also understand how being afraid actually creates more danger—a person whose mind is shaped by fear is far more likely to overreact violently. I practice a casual alertness: I know that some people I encounter will be friendly, the vast majority will be neutral and the odds of encountering an attacker are incredibly low. But, it is unwise to be unaware. I have been in a few situations that could have gone very badly, but my preferred resolution is talking—that has worked so far.
I do, however, believe that a person has a moral obligation to be capable of self-defense. To expect others to bear the burden of defense is moral selfishness, worse than expecting someone else to do one’s cooking and cleaning. After all, defending a person can result in death. Naturally, I do accept that the helpless and those who are less capable should be protected; but being willfully helpless is a moral failing. I am not, however, claiming that everyone should get a gun. A gun is a great responsibility and should, as a matter of ethics, only be entrusted with those of the right character who are willing to learn to use the weapon properly and responsibly. I think the same way about all dangerous machines, including automobiles. While there is the right to be armed, not everyone is up to exercising that right properly. This is, of course, distinct from the legality of the matter. To use an analogy, I think there are people who should not have children because they are awful parents. However, they have every legal right to do so—until they cross certain boundaries. The same applies to guns.
That, then, is my gun backstory that shapes the lens through which I see gun issues. Naturally, I expect people to have moral criticisms of my backstory as well as the position I take as the result of reasoning colored by this backstory. But, those who disagree with me should consider their own backstories and how they impact their views. As should those who agree with me.
Listening to one of Trump’s speeches, I tried to remember when I had heard this style of rhetoric before. While negative rhetoric is a stock part of modern American politics, he had created a brand that stands out in its negative magnificence. My first thought was it reminded me a great deal of the incoherent hate spewing I recall from gaming on Xbox Live. Then I realized it matched much earlier memories, that of the bullying and name calling of junior high school and earlier. I realized then that Trump’s main rhetorical style was a more polished version of that deployed by angry children.
One tactic that most people should recall from their youth is that of name calling. Kids would call each other things like “Stinky Susan” or “Fat Fred” in order to mock and insult each other. As people grew up, their name calling and mockery tended to become more sophisticated—at least in terms of the vocabulary.
Trump, however, seems to instinctively grasp the appeal of schoolyard level name calling, insults and mockery. He gives his foes (and almost everyone gets to be a foe of Trump) names such as “crooked Hillary”, “Lying Ted Cruz”, “Goofy Elizabeth”, and “Crazy Bernie.”
While name calling has no logical force (it proves nothing), it can have considerable rhetorical force. One obvious intended effect is to persuade the audience that the person given the insulting name is thus “bad” or “failed” as Trump loves to say. Perhaps the most important effect is how it impacts status: giving someone an insulting name is, at the core, a power play about relative status. The insulting name is intended to lower the targets status (from Senator Ted Cruz to “lying Ted) and thus raise the relative status of the attacker. Trump has used this with great effect against foes such as “low energy George Bush” and “Little lightweight Marco Rubio.” While these men were both professional politicians, they never seemed to hit on an effective counter to this attack. Trying to engage Trump in a battle of naming, insults and mockery is rather like trying to out squeeze a python—so it is no wonder this did not work. Trying to elevate the battle to the usual political style of negative rhetoric also proved ineffective—Trump’s schoolyard bullying seems to have won the hearts of many Americans who were not inclined to accept a change of rhetorical venue. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Trump swept aside his Republican foes like a bully swats aside the smaller and weaker children. Trump won the status battle by playing the schoolyard status game with his usual skill. His opponents were playing politics as usual, which was the wrong game to play with a population largely tired of that game.
From a logical standpoint, no one should be convinced by name calling. It has, obviously enough, no function as evidence or reasons for a claim. Calling Elizabeth Warren “goofy” does nothing to refute her claims. As such, the defense against being swayed by name calling is to be aware of this, to think “that is an insulting name…that proves nothing.”
If one is the target of an insulting or mocking name calling, then the defense is a bit more challenging. This is because what tends to matter is how other people are influenced by the name calling. While it is tempting to think about “sticks and stones”, Trump has established that name calling can hurt—at least in terms of a person’s status. Which means it hurts a lot. We are, after all, status obsessed monkeys in pants.
One way to reply is to respond with crude name calling, insults and mockery. From a logical standpoint, this proves nothing. From a practical standpoint, the main question is whether or not it will work. Part of the concern is whether or not one can engage and “beat” the name caller using this tactic. That is, whether one can out-insult the person and lower his status in the eyes of the other primates. Another part of the concern is whether or not this is the right tactic to use in terms of getting the desired result. A person might, for example, get in good shots at the name caller, yet end up losing in the long term. As might be imagined, people vary in their ability to name call as well as the impact name calling will have on how they are perceived. People expect Trump to be vulgar and insulting, so he loses nothing with this tactic. While people tend to think Hillary Clinton is corrupt, they also expect her to have a much higher degree of class and professionalism than Trump: playing his game would be a loss for her, even if she “won.”
Another way to reply is with more sophisticated name calling, insults and mockery. This, of course, is still logically empty—but can be combined with actual arguments. Hillary Clinton, for example, presented a speech aimed at mocking Trump. While she used the same basic tactic as Trump, trying to lower his status, her attacks were far more refined. To use an analogy, Trump is a barbarian hacking away with a great axe, while Hillary is fencing. The goal is the same (kill the other person) but one is crude and the other rather more elegant. The question is, of course, which will work. In the case of the rhetorical battle, the outcome is decided by the audience—do American voters prefer the axe of Trump or the rapier of Hillary? Or neither?
It is also possible to engage name calling with logic and counter with actual arguments. While this can work with some people, those who are subject to logic would tend to already reject such tactics and those who are not so amendable to logic will be unaffected. In fact, they would probably regard the use of such a method as confirming the bestowed name. Aristotle was among the first to point out the weakness of logic as a persuasive device and nothing has proven him wrong.
When supporters of Donald Trump are asked why they back him, the most common answers are that Trump “tells it like it is” and that he is “authentic.” When people who dislike Hillary are asked why, they often refer to her ever shifting positions and that she just says what she thinks people want to hear.
Given that Trump has, at best, a distant relation with the truth it is somewhat odd that he is seen as telling it like it is. He may be authentic, but he is most assuredly telling it like it is not. While Hillary has shifted positions, she has a far closer relationship to the truth (although still not a committed one). Those who oppose Hillary tend to focus on these shifts in making the case against her. Her defenders endeavor to minimize the impact of these claims or boldly try to make a virtue of said shifting. Given the importance of the shifting, this a matter well worth considering.
While the extent of Hillary’s shifting can be debated, the fact that she has shifted on major issues is a matter of fact. Good examples of shifts include the second Iraq War, free trade, same-sex marriage and law enforcement. While many are tempted to claim that the fact that she has shifted her views on such issues proves she is wrong now, doing this would be to fall victim to the classic ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which it is inferred that a person’s current view or claim is mistaken because they have held to a different view or claim in the past. While two inconsistent claims cannot be true at the same time, pointing out that a person’s current claim is inconsistent with a past claim does not prove which claim is not true (and both could actually be false). After all, the person could have been wrong then while being right now. Or vice versa. Or wrong in both cases. Because of this, it cannot be inferred that Hillary’s views are wrong now simply because she held opposite views in the past.
While truth is important, the main criticism of Hillary’s shifting is not that she has moved from a correct view to an erroneous view. Rather, the criticism is that she is shifting her expressed views to match whatever she thinks the voters want to hear. That is, she is engaged in pandering.
Since pandering is a common practice in politics, it seems reasonable to hold that it is unfair to single Hillary out for special criticism. This does not, of course defend the practice. To accept that being common justifies a practice would be to fall victim to the common practice fallacy. This is an error in reasoning in which a practice is defended by asserting it is a common one. Obviously enough, the mere fact that something is commonly done does not entail that it is good or justified. That said, if a practice is common yet wrong, it is still unfair to single out a specific person for special criticism for engaging in that practice. Rather, all those that engage in the practice should be criticized.
It could be argued that while pandering is a common practice, Hillary does warrant special criticism because her shifting differs in relevant and significant ways from the shifting of others. This could be a matter of volume (she shifts more than others), content (she shifts on more important issues), extent (she shifts to a greater degree) or some other factors. While judging the nature and extent of shifts does involve some subjective assessment, these factors can be evaluated with a reasonable degree of objectivity—although partisan influences can interfere with this. Since Hillary is generally viewed through the lenses of intense partisanship, I will not endeavor to address this matter—it is unlikely that anything I could write would sway partisan opinions. I will, however, address the ethics of shifting.
While there is a tendency to regard position shifting with suspicion, there are cases in which is not only acceptable, but laudable. These are cases in which the shift is justified by evidence or reasoning that warrants such a shift. For example, I was a theoretical anarchist for a while in college: I believed that the best government was the least government and preferably none at all. However, reading Locke, Hobbes and others as well as gaining a better understanding of how humans actually behave resulted in a shift in my position. I am no longer an anarchist on the grounds that the position is not well supported. To use another example, I went through a phase in which I was certain in my atheism. However, arguments made by Hume and Kant changed my view regarding the possibility of such certainty. As a final example, I used to believe in magical beings like the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus. However, the evidence of their nonexistence convinced me to shift my view. In all these cases the shifts are laudable: I changed my view because of considered evidence and argumentation. While there can be considerable debate about what counts as good evidence or reasoning for a shift, the basic principle seems sound. A person should believe what is best supported by evidence and reasoning and this often changes over time.
Turning back to Hillary, if she has shifted her views on the basis of evidence and reasoning that justly support her new views, then she should not be condemned for the shift. For example, if she believed in the approach to crime taken by her husband when he was President, but has changed her view in the face of evidence that this view is flawed, then her change would be quite reasonable. As might be expected, her supporters tend to claim this is why she changes her views. The challenge is to show that this is the case. Her critics typically claim that the reason for her shifts is to match what she thinks will get her the most votes, which leads to the question of whether this is a bad thing or not.
A very reasonable concern about a politician who just says what she thinks the voters want to hear is that the person lacks principles, so that the voters do not really know who they are voting for. As such, they cannot make a good decision regarding what the politician would actually do in office.
A possible reply to this is that a politician who shifts her views to match those of the voters is exactly what people should want in a representative democracy: the elected officials should act in accord with the will of the people. This does raise the broad subject of the proper function of an elected official: to do the will of the people, to do what they said they would do, to act in accord with their character and principles or something else. This goes beyond the limited scope of the essay, but the answer is rather critical to determining whether Hillary’s shifting is a good or bad thing. If politicians should act on their own principles and views rather than doing what the people want them to do, then there would seem to be good grounds for criticizing any politician whose own views are not those of the people.
A final interesting point is to argue that Hillary should not be criticized for shifting her views to match those that are now held by the majority of people (or majority of Democrats). If other people can shift their views on these matters over time in ways that are acceptable, then the same should apply to Hillary. For example, when Hillary was against same-sex marriage that was the common view in the country. Now, most Americans are fine with it—and so is Hillary. Her defenders assert that she, like most Americans, has changed her views over time in the face of changing social conditions. Her detractors claim she is merely pandering and has no commitment beyond achieving power. This is a factual matter, albeit one that is hard to settle without evidence as to what is really going on in her mind. After all, a mere change in her view to match the general view is consistent with both unprincipled pandering and a reasoned change in a position that has evolved with the times.
As this is being written, Donald Trump is the last surviving Republican presidential candidate. His final opponents, Cruz and Kasich, suspended their campaigns, though perhaps visions of a contested convention still haunt their dreams.
Cruz left the field of battle with a bizarre Trump arrow lodged in his buttocks: Trump had attacked Cruz by alleging that Ted Cruz’ father was associated with Lee Harvey Oswald. The basis for this claim was an article in the National Enquirer, a tabloid that has claimed Justice Scalia was assassinated by a hooker working for the CIA. While this tabloid has no credibility, the fact that Trump used it as a source necessitated an investigation into the claim about Cruz’ father. As should be expected, Politifact ranked it as Pants on Fire. I almost suspect that Trump is trolling the media and laughing about how he has forced them to seriously consider and thoroughly investigate claims that are utterly lacking in evidence (such as his claims about televised celebrations in America after the 9/11 attacks).
When confronted about his claim about an Oswald-Cruz connection, Trump followed his winning strategy: he refused to apologize and engaged in some Trump-Fu as his “defense.” When interviewed on ABC, his defense was as follows: “What I was doing was referring to a picture reported and in a magazine, and I think they didn’t deny it. I don’t think anybody denied it. No, I don’t know what it was exactly, but it was a major story and a major publication, and it was picked up by many other publications. …I’m just referring to an article that appeared. I mean, it has nothing to do with me.”
This response begins with what appears to be a fallacy: he is asserting that if a claim is not denied, then it is therefore true (I am guessing the “they” is either the Cruz folks or the National Enquirer folks. This can be seen as a variation on the classic appeal to ignorance fallacy. In this fallacy, a person infers that if there is a lack of evidence against a claim, then the claim is true. However, proving a claim requires that there be adequate evidence for the claim, not just a lack of evidence against it. There is no evidence that I do not have a magical undetectable pet dragon that only I can sense. This, however, does not prove that I have such a pet.
While a failure to deny a claim might be regarded as suspicious, not denying a claim is not proof the claim is true. It might not even be known that a claim has been made (so it would not be denied). For example, Kanye West is not denying that he plans to become master of the Pan flute—but this is not proof he intends to do this. It can also be a good idea to not lend a claim psychological credence by denial—some people think that denial of a claim is evidence it is true. Naturally, Cruz did end up denying the claim.
Trump next appears to be asserting the claim is true because it was “major” and repeated. He failed to note the “major” publication is a tabloid that is lacking in credibility. As such, Trump could be seen as engaging in a fallacious appeal to authority. In this case, the National Enquirer lacks the credibility needed to serve as the basis for a non-fallacious argument from authority. Roughly put, a good argument from authority is such that the credibility of the authority provides good grounds for accepting a claim. Trump did not have a good argument from authority.
Trump also uses a fascinating technique of “own and deny.” He does this by launching an attack and then both “owning” and denying it. It is as if he punched Cruz in the face and then said, “it wasn’t me, someone else did the punching. But I will punch Cruz again. Although it wasn’t me.” I am not sure if this is a rhetorical technique or a pathological condition. However, it does allow him the best of both worlds: he can appear tough and authentic by “owning it” yet also appear to not be responsible for the attack. This seems to be quite appealing to his followers, although it is obviously logically problematic: one must either own or deny, both cannot be true.
He also makes use of an established technique: he gets media attention drawn to a story and then uses this attention to “prove” the story is true (because it is “major” and repeated). While effective, this technique does not prove a claim is true.
Trump was also interviewed on NBC and asked why he attacked Cruz in the face of almost certain victory in Indiana. In response, he said, “Well, because I didn’t know I had it in the grasp. …I had no idea early in the morning that was — the voting booths just starting — the voting booths were practically not even opened when I made this call. It was a call to a show. And they ran a clip of some terrible remarks made by the father about me. And all I did is refer him to these articles that appeared about his picture. And — you know, not such a bad thing.”
This does provide something of a defense for Trump. As he rightly says, he did not know he would win and he hoped that his attack would help his chances. While the fact that a practice is common does not justify it (this would be the common practice fallacy), Trump seems to be playing within the rules of negative campaigning. That said, the use of the National Enquirer as a source is a new twist as is linking an opponent to the JFK assassination. This is not to say that Trump is acting in a morally laudable manner, just that he is operating within the rules of the game. To use an analogy, while the brutal hits of football might be regarded as morally problematic, they are within the rules of the game. Likewise, such attacks are within the rules of politics.
However, Trump goes on to commit the “two wrongs make a right” fallacy: since bad things were said about Trump, he concludes that he has the right to strike back. While Trump has every right to respond to attacks, he does not have a right to respond with a completely fabricated accusation.
Trump then moves to downplaying what he did and engages in one of his signature moves: he is not really to blame (he just pointed out the articles). So, his defense is essentially “I am just punching the guy back. But, I really didn’t punch him. I just pointed out that someone else punched him. And that punching was not a bad thing.”
While my husky, Isis, and I have both slowed down since we teamed up in 2004, she is doing remarkably well these days. As I often say, pulling so many years will slow down man and dog. While Isis faced a crisis, most likely due to the wear of time on her spine, the steroids seemed to have addressed the pain and inflammation so that we have resumed our usual adventures. Tail up and bright eyed is the way she is now and the way she should be.
In my previous essay I looked at using causal reasoning on a small sale by applying the methods of difference and agreement. In this essay I will look at thinking critically about experiments and studies.
The gold standard in science is the controlled cause to effect experiment. The objective of this experiment is to determine the effect of a cause. As such, the question is “I wonder what this does?” While the actual conducting of such an experiment can be complicated and difficult, the basic idea is rather simple. The first step is to have a question about a causal agent. For example, it might be wondered what effect steroids have on arthritis in elderly dogs. The second step is to determine the target population, which might already be taken care of in the first step—for example, elderly dogs would be the target population. The third step is to pull a random sample from the target population. This sample needs to be representative (that is, it needs to be like the target population and should ideally be a perfect match in miniature). For example, a sample from the population of elderly dogs would ideally include all breeds of dogs, male dogs, female dogs, and so on for all relevant qualities of dogs. The problem with a biased sample is that the inference drawn from the experiment will be weak because the sample might not be adequately like the general population. The sample also needs to be large enough—a sample that is too small will also fail to adequately support the inference drawn from the experiment.
The fourth step involves splitting the sample into the control group and the experimental group. These groups need to be as similar as possible (and can actually be made of the same individuals). The reason they need to be alike is because in the fifth step the experimenters introduce the cause (such as steroids) to the experimental group and the experiment is run to see what difference this makes between the two groups. The final step is getting the results and determining if the difference is statistically significant. This occurs when the difference between the two groups can be confidently attributed to the presence of the cause (as opposed to chance or other factors). While calculating this properly can be complicated, when assessing an experiment (such as a clinical trial) it is easy enough to compare the number of individuals in the sample to the difference between the experimental and control groups. This handy table from Critical Thinking makes this quite easy and also shows the importance of having a large enough sample.
|Number in Experimental Group
(with similarly sized control group)
|Approximate Figure That the difference Must Exceed
To Be Statistically Significant
(in percentage points)
Many “clinical trials” mentioned in articles and blog posts have very small samples sizes and this often makes their results meaningless. This table also shows why anecdotal evidence is fallacious: a sample size of one is all but completely useless when it comes to an experiment.
The above table also assumes that the experiment is run correctly: the sample was representative, the control group was adequately matched to the experimental group, the experimenters were not biased, and so on for all the relevant factors. As such, when considering the results of an experiment it is important to consider those factors as well. If, for example, you are reading an article about an herbal supplement for arthritic dogs and it mentions a clinical trial, you would want to check on the sample size, the difference between the two groups and determine whether the experiment was also properly conducted. Without this information, you would need to rely entirely on the credibility of the source. If the source is credible and claims that the experiment was conducted properly, then it would be reasonable to trust the results. If the source’s credibility is in question, then trust should be withheld. Assessing credibility is a matter of determining expertise and the goal is to avoid being a victim of a fallacious appeal to authority. Here is a short checklist for determining whether a person (or source) is an expert or not:
- The person has sufficient expertise in the subject matter in question.
- The claim being made by the person is within her area(s) of expertise.
- There is an adequate degree of agreement among the other experts in the subject in question.
- The person in question is not significantly biased.
- The area of expertise is a legitimate area or discipline.
- The authority in question must be identified.
While the experiment is the gold standard, there are times when it cannot be used. In some cases, this is a matter of ethics: exposing people or animals to something potentially dangerous might be deemed morally unacceptable. In other cases, it is a matter of practicality or necessity. In such cases, studies are used.
One type of study is the non-experimental cause to effect study. This is identical to the cause to effect experiment with one rather critical difference: the experimental group is not exposed to the cause by those running the study. For example, a study might be conducted of dogs who recovered from Lyme disease to see what long term effects it has on them.
The study, as would be expected, runs in the same basic way as the experiment and if there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups (and it has been adequately conducted) then it is reasonable to make the relevant inference about the effect of the cause in question.
While useful, this sort of study is weaker than the experiment. This is because those conducting the study have to take what they get—the experimental group is already exposed to the cause and this can create problems in properly sorting out the effect of the cause in question. As such, while a properly run experiment can still get erroneous results, a properly run study is even more likely to have issues.
A second type of study is the effect to cause study. It differs from the cause to effect experiment and study in that the effect is known but the cause is not. Hence, the goal is to infer an unknown cause from the known effect. It also differs from the experiment in that those conducting the study obviously do not introduce the cause.
This study is conducted by comparing the experimental group and the control group (which are, ideally, as similar as possible) to sort out a likely cause by considering the differences between them. As would be expected, this method is far less reliable than the others since those doing the study are trying to backtrack from an effect to a cause. If considerable time has passed since the suspected cause, this can make the matter even more difficult to sort out. The conducting the study also have to work with the experimental group they happen to get and this can introduce many complications into the study, making a strong inference problematic.
An example of this would be a study of elderly dogs who suffer from paw knuckling (the paw flips over so the dog is walking on the top of the paw) to determine the cause of this effect. As one might suspect, finding the cause would be challenging—there would be a multitude of potential causes in the history of the dogs ranging from injury to disease. It is also quite likely that there are many causes in play here, and this would require sorting out the different causes for this same effect. Because of such factors, the effect to cause study is the weakest of the three and supports the lowest level of confidence in its results even when conducted properly. This explains why it can be so difficult for researchers to determine the causes of many problems that, for example, elderly dogs suffer from.
In the case of Isis, the steroids that she is taking have been well-studied, so it is quite reasonable for me to believe that they are a causal factor in her remarkable recovery. I do not, however, know for sure what caused her knuckling—there are so many potential causes for that effect. However, the important thing is that she is now walking normally about 90% of the time and her tail is back in the air, showing that she is a happy husky.
As mentioned in my previous essay, Isis (my Siberian husky) fell victim to the ravages of time. Once a fast sprinting and long running blur of fur, she now merely saunters along. Still, lesser beasts fear her (and to a husky, all creatures are lesser beasts) and the sun is warm—so her life is still good.
Faced with the challenge of keeping her healthy and happy, I have relied a great deal on what I learned as a philosopher. As noted in the preceding essay, I learned to avoid falling victim to the post hoc fallacy and the fallacy of anecdotal evidence. In this essay I will focus on two basic, but extremely useful methods of causal reasoning.
One of the most useful tool for causal reasoning is the method of difference. This method was famously developed by the philosopher John Stuart Mill and has been a staple in critical thinking classes since way before my time. The purpose of the method is figuring out the cause of an effect, such as a husky suffering from a knuckling paw (a paw that folds over, so the dog is walking on the top of the foot rather than the bottom). The method can also be used to try to sort out the effect of a suspected cause, such as the efficacy of an herbal supplement in treating canine arthritis.
Fortunately, the method is quite simple. To use it, you need at least two cases: one in which the effect has occurred and one in which it has not. In terms of working out the cause, more cases are better—although more cases of something bad (like arthritis pain) would certainly be undesirable from other standpoints. The two cases can actually involve the same individual at different times—it need not be different individuals (though it also works in those cases as well). For example, when sorting out Isis’ knuckling problem the case in which the effect occurred was when Isis was suffering from knuckling and the case in which it did not was when Isis was not suffering from this problem. I also looked into other cases in which dogs suffered from knuckling issues and when they did not.
The cases in which the effect is present and those in which it is absent are then compared in order to determine the difference between the cases. The goal is to sort out which factor or factors made the difference. When doing this, it is important to keep in mind that it is easy to fall victim to the post hoc fallacy—to conclude without adequate evidence that a difference is a cause because the effect occurred after that difference. Avoiding this mistake requires considering that the “connection” between the suspected cause and the effect might be purely a matter of coincidence. For example, Isis ate some peanut butter the day she started knuckling, but it is unlikely that had any effect—especially since she has been eating peanut butter her whole life. It is also important to consider that an alleged cause might actually be an effect caused by a factor that is also producing the effect one is concerned about. For example, a person might think that a dog’s limping is causing the knuckling, but they might both be effects of a third factor, such as arthritis or nerve damage. You must also keep in mind the possibility of reversed causation—that the alleged cause is actually the effect. For example, a person might think that the limping is causing the knuckling, but it might turn out that the knuckling is the cause of the limping.
In some cases, sorting out the cause can be very easy. For example, if a dog slips and falls, then has trouble walking, then the most likely cause is the fall (but it could still be something else—perhaps the fall and walking trouble were caused by something else). In other cases, sorting out the cause can be very difficult. It might be because there are many possible causal factors. For example, knuckling can be caused by many things (apparently even Lyme disease). It might also be because there are no clear differences (such as when a dog starts limping with no clear preceding event). One useful approach is to do research using reliable sources. Another, which is a good idea with pet problems, is to refer to an expert—such as a vet. Medical tests, for example, are useful for sorting out the difference and finding a likely cause.
The same basic method can also be used in reverse, such as determining the effectiveness of a dietary supplement for treating canine arthritis. For example, when Isis started slowing down and showing signs of some soreness, I started giving her senior dog food, glucosamine and some extra protein. What followed was an improvement in her mobility and the absence of the signs of soreness. While the change might have been a mere coincidence, it is reasonable to consider that one or more of these factors helped her. After all, there is some scientific evidence that diet can have an influence on these things. From a practical standpoint, I decided to keep to this plan since the cost of the extras is low, they have no harmful side effects, and there is some indication that they work. I do consider that I could be wrong. Fortunately, I do have good evidence that the steroids Isis has been prescribed work—she made a remarkable improvement after starting the steroids and there is solid scientific evidence that they are effective at treating pain and inflammation. As such, it is rational to accept that the steroids are the cause of her improvement—though this could also be a coincidence.
The second method is the method of agreement. Like difference, this requires at least two cases. Unlike difference, the effect is present in all the cases. In this method, the cases exhibiting the effect (such as knuckling) are considered in order to find a common thread in all the cases. For example, each incident of knuckling would be examined to determine what they all have in common. The common factor (or factors) that is the most plausible cause of the effect is what should be taken as the likely cause. As with the method of difference, it is important to consider such factors as coincidence so as to avoid falling into a post hoc fallacy.
The method of agreement is most often used to form a hypothesis about a likely cause. The next step is, if possible, to apply the method of difference by comparing similar cases in which the effect did not occur. Roughly put, the approach would be to ask what all the cases have in common, then determine if that common factor is absent in cases in which the effect is also absent. For example, a person investigating knuckling might begin by considering what all the knuckling cases have in common and then see if that common factor is absent in cases in which knuckling did not occur.
One of the main weaknesses of these methods is that they tend to have very small sample sizes—sometimes just one individual, such as my husky. While these methods are quite useful, they can be supplemented by general causal reasoning in the form of experiments and studies—the subject of the next essay in this series.
As of March, 2016 Donald Trump has continued as the leading Republican presidential candidate. Before his string of victories, Trump was regarded by most pundits as a joke candidate, one that would burn out like a hair fire. After his victories, the Republican establishment and its allies launched a massive (and massively expensive) attack on Trump. So far, this attack has failed and the Republican elite have been unable to dump Trump.
It would be foolish to claim that Trump’s nomination is inevitable. But, it would be equally foolish to cling to the belief that Trump will be taken down by the establishment or that he will gaffe himself to political death. While I have examined how Trump magnificently filled a niche crafted by the Republican party, in this essay I will examine why Trump can probably not be dumped.
As I have argued before, the Republican party is largely responsible for creating the opening for Trump. They have also made it very difficult for attacks on Trump to succeed. This is because the party has systematically undermined (at least for many Republicans) the institutions that could effectively criticize Trump. These include the media, the political establishment, the academy, and the church (broadly construed).
Since about the time of Nixon, the Republican party has engaged in a systematic campaign to cast the mainstream media as liberal and biased. This has been a rather effective campaign (thanks, in part, to the media itself) and there is considerable distrust and distaste regarding the media among Republicans. Trump has worked hard to reinforce this view—lashing out at the media that has enabled him to grow so very fat politically.
While this sustained demolition of the media has paid handsome dividends for the Republicans, the Republicans who oppose Trump now find themselves a victim of their own successful tactic: Trump is effectively immune to criticism coming from the media. When attacked, even by conservative media, he can simply avail himself of the well-worn Republican talking points. This result is exactly as should be expected: degrading an important public institution cannot be good for the health of a democratic state.
While modern Republicans have preached small government, the party firmly embraced the anti-establishment position in recent years. In the past, this approach has been rather ironic: well-entrenched Republicans would wax poetically about their outsider status in order to get re-elected to term after term. While the establishment no doubt hoped it could keep milking the inconsistent cow of outside insiders, Trump has taken advantage of this rhetoric against the established insiders. This time, the insiders are the Republicans.
This provides Trump with a readymade set of tools to counter criticisms and attacks from the Republican establishment—tools that this establishment forged. As such, Trump has little to fear from the attacks of the establishment Republicans. In fact, he should welcome their attacks: each criticism can be melted down and remade as support for Trump being an anti-establishment outsider.
While there were some significant conservative intellectuals and scholars, the Republican party has made a practice of bashing the academy (colleges, universities and intellectuals in general) as being a foul pit of liberalism. There has also been a sustained campaign against reason and expertise—with Republicans actually making ludicrous claims that ignorance is better than knowledge and that expertise is a mark of incompetence.
This approach served the Republicans fairly well when it came to certain political matters, such as climate change. However, this discrediting of the academy in the eyes of many Republican voters has served to protect Trump. Any criticism of Trump from academics or intellectuals can be dismissed with the same rhetorical weapons deployed so often in the past by the same Republicans who now weep at the prospect of a Trump victory. While the sleep of reason breeds monsters, the attack on reason has allowed Trump to flourish. This should be taken as a warning sign of what can follow Trump: when the rational defenses of society are weakened, monsters are free to take the stage.
While the Republican party often embraces religion, this embrace is often limited to anti-abortion, anti-contraception and anti-gay matters. When religious leaders, such as Pope Francis, stray beyond this zone and start taking God’s command to love each other as He loves us seriously, the Republican party generally reacts with hostility. Witness, for example, the incredibly ironic calls of the Republicans for the Pope to keep religion out of politics.
In general, the Republican party has been fine with religion that matches a conservative social agenda and does not stray into positive ethics of social responsibility and moral criticism of an ethics of selfishness (what philosophers call ethical egoism). Straying beyond this, as noted above, results in hostile attacks. To this end, the party has taken steps to undermine these aspects of religion.
One impact of this has been that Trump is able to use these same tools against religious and moral criticisms. He has even been able to go head-to-head with the Pope, thus showing that even religion cannot oppose Trump. Interestingly, many evangelical leaders have condemned Trump—although their flocks seem to rather like him. Since the conservatives like to cast the left as being the foe of religion and ethics, there is considerable irony here.
In addition to taking advantage of the systematic degrading of critical institutions, Trump can also count on the fact that the methods used against him will most likely be ineffective. Some pundits and some establishment members have endeavored to use rational argumentation against Trump. Mitt Romney, for example, has presented a well-reasoned critique of Trump that is right on the mark. Trump responded by asserting that Romney would have been happy to blow him in 2012.
The argumentation approach is not working and will almost certainly not work. As Aristotle argued, the vast majority of people are not convinced by “arguments and fine ideals” but are ruled by their emotions. In fact, all the people are ruled by emotions some of the time and some of the people are ruled by emotions all the time. As such, it is no surprise that philosophers have established that reason is largely ineffective as a tool of persuasion—it is trumped by rhetoric and fallacies (that is, no logic and bad logic). Bringing logic to an emotion fight is a losing proposition.
There is also the fact that the Republican party has, as noted above, consistently bashed intellectualism and expertise—thus making it even less likely that reasoning will be effective against Trump in regards to turning his supporters against him.
Political commitment, like being a sports fan, is also more a matter of irrational feeling than of considered logic. Just as one is unlikely to get a dedicated Cubs fan to abandon her team via syllogisms, one is not going to turn a Trump supporter by logic. Ditto for Sanders and Hillary supporters. This is not to say their supporters are stupid, just that politics is a not a game of logic.
Since Trump is effectively immune to argumentation, his opponents might try to use rhetoric and emotion against him. His Republican opponents face a serious challenge here: they are simply not as good at it as Trump. Trump has also managed to get the battle for the nomination down to the level of basic cable stand-up comedy or a junior high locker room: dick jokes, blow job innuendo, and other presidential subjects. Trump is a master, albeit short-fingered, vulgarian. Only fellow masters and fools go up against a master vulgarian in vulgarity. While Rubio has tried some stand-up against Trump, he cannot match the man. Cruz and Kasich also lack what it takes to get into the pit with Trump and if they do, it will simply be a case of grabbing a fecal-baby (like the metaphorical tar baby, but worse).
One avenue is to avoid the pit and employ high road rhetoric and emotion against Trump. Unfortunately, the Republican contenders seem utterly inept at doing this and Trump is quite skilled at throwing rhetorical feces on anything that catches his eye. As such, it seems that Trump will not be dumped. What remains to be seen is whether or not these factors will be as effective in the general election against Hillary or Sanders. Assuming, of course, that Trump gets the nomination.
“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”
While Stephen Colbert ended up as a successful comedian, he originally planned to major in philosophy. His past occasionally returns to haunt him with digressions from the land of comedy into the realm of philosophy (though detractors might claim that philosophy is comedy without humor; but that is actually law). Colbert has what seems to be an odd epistemology: he regularly claims that he believes in things he knows are not true, such as guardian angels. While it would be easy enough to dismiss this claim as merely comedic, it does raise many interesting philosophical issues. The main and most obvious issue is whether a person can believe in something they know is not true.
While a thorough examination of this issue would require a deep examination of the concepts of belief, truth and knowledge, I will take a shortcut and go with intuitively plausible stock accounts of these concepts. To believe something is to hold the opinion that it is true. A belief is true, in the common sense view, when it gets reality right—this is the often maligned correspondence theory of truth. The stock simple account of knowledge in philosophy is that a person knows that P when the person believes P, P is true, and the belief in P is properly justified. The justified true belief account of knowledge has been savagely blooded by countless attacks, but shall suffice for this discussion.
Given this basic analysis, it would seem impossible for a person to believe in something they know is not true. This would require that the person believes something is true when they also believe it is false. To use the example of God, a person would need to believe that it is true that God exists and false that God exists. This would seem to commit the person to believing that a contradiction is true, which is problematic because a contradiction is always false.
One possible response is to point out that the human mind is not beholden to the rules of logic—while a contradiction cannot be true, there are many ways a person can hold to contradictory beliefs. One possibility is that the person does not realize that the beliefs contradict one another and hence they can hold to both. This might be due to an ability to compartmentalize the beliefs so they are never in the consciousness at the same time or due to a failure to recognize the contradiction. Another possibility is that the person does not grasp the notion of contradiction and hence does not realize that they cannot logically accept the truth of two beliefs that are contradictory.
While these responses do have considerable appeal, they do not appear to work in cases in which the person actually claims, as Colbert does, that they believe something they know is not true. After all, making this claim does require considering both beliefs in the same context and, if the claim of knowledge is taken seriously, that the person is aware that the rejection of the belief is justified sufficiently to qualify as knowledge. As such, when a person claims that they belief something they know is not true, then that person would seem to either not telling to truth or ignorant of what the words mean. Or perhaps there are other alternatives.
One possibility is to consider the power of cognitive dissonance management—a person could know that a cherished belief is not true, yet refuse to reject the belief while being fully aware that this is a problem. I will explore this possibility in the context of comfort beliefs in a later essay.
Another possibility is to consider that the term “knowledge” is not being used in the strict philosophical sense of a justified true belief. Rather, it could be taken to refer to strongly believing that something is true—even when it is not. For example, a person might say “I know I turned off the stove” when, in fact, they did not. As another example, a person might say “I knew she loved me, but I was wrong.” What they mean is that they really believed she loved him, but that belief was false.
Using this weaker account of knowledge, then a person can believe in something that they know is not true. This just involves believing in something that one also strongly believes is not true. In some cases, this is quite rational. For example, when I roll a twenty sided die, I strongly believe that a will not roll a 20. However, I do also believe that I will roll a 20 and my belief has a 5% chance of being true. As such, I can believe what I know is not true—assuming that this means that I can believe in something that I believe is less likely than another belief.
People are also strongly influenced by emotional and other factors that are not based in a rational assessment. For example, a gambler might know that their odds of winning are extremely low and thus know they will lose (that is, have a strongly supported belief that they will lose) yet also strongly believe they will win (that is, feel strongly about a weakly supported belief). Likewise, a person could accept that the weight of the evidence is against the existence of God and thus know that God does not exist (that is, have a strongly supported belief that God does not exist) while also believing strongly that God does exist (that is, having considerable faith that is not based in evidence.