Dinesh Does What He Does

Introduction: On the 6th of May, Dinesh D’Souza posted this on twitter.

Key Facts: On January 6th, 2021 Congress met for the purpose of verifying the certified votes of the 2021 Presidential election. Joe Biden had received the majority of certified votes, making him the presumed President elect, though Donald Trump had challenged the election in a number of court cases as well a variety of popular fora. He consistently lost the court challenges before election officials and courts, but successfully developed a significant following of his own base unwilling to accept the legitimacy of the election.

On January 6th, Congressmen from several states challenged the legitimacy of votes reported from their own states Outside, as they were expected to do, thus triggering a debate within Congress. Donald Trump spoke to a rally of his own supporters which he had encouraged to come to Washington DC on the day in question. Following his own speech, Trump supporters stormed the Congressional buildings and shut down Congress. five people were killed and process of confirming the votes was delayed for a time. This is a rather dry description of events, but it must be stressed that the riots included a number of disturbing events, and the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters leading up to the event contained many elements suggesting violence intent all along. Some have suggested that this riot would be better described as an insurrection, an attempted coup, or even domestic terrorism. At least some of the participants do appear to have come prepared to engage in acts which would normally be described as domestic terrorism. In the wake of all this, many have argued that Trump incited the riot himself, and that this is grounds for impeachment.

Dinesh D’Souza is a far right wing political commentator. He plead guilty to a felony charge of making illegal campaign contributions during the 2012 political campaigns. His conviction was pardoned by Donald Trump in 2018.

Text: “Does this look like an insurrection? A riot? A coup attempt? If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: Dinesh D’Souza is far more influential than he ought to be, so he merits attention for reasons unrelated to the quality of his thought.

Statements: This argument requires us to rewrite a rehtorical question as 3 different statements (Sttements 1-3) and supply a missing conclusion (statement 5).

[1] [This does not] look like an insurrection.

[2] [This does not look like] A riot.

[3] [This does not look like a] coup attempt.

[4] If it doesn’t walk like a duck or talk like a duck then it probably isn’t a duck.

[5] [The events of January 6th were not an insurrection, a riot, or a coup attempt.]

Diagram: There are a few ways, you could represent this, but the easiest thing to do here I think is just treat statements 1-3 as the minor premise(s) in a mixed hypothetical argument and 4 as supplying the major premise. We could translate the ‘duck’ metaphor into the language specific to this event, which would create an extra step or two in the reasoning, but that seems unnecessary. This argument is modus ponens with 3 minors instead of one, and also a qualifier (‘probably’). Also, the negatives in the antecedent are a little weird. …Okay, it’s an unusual MP, but hopefully you can see the form.

1+2+3+4 – > [5]

Discussion: This argument presents the following issues: argument from ignorance, cherry-picking, micro-reasoning, missing assertions, modus ponens, qualification, red herring, rhetorical questions.

Ad Ignorantiam: One way of explaining the problem with this argument would be to focus on the misuse of evidence here. D’Souza is calling our attention to the apparently mild nature of the image in the picture. Because this image doesn’t look like a riot, he wants us to conclude that this was not a riot, but that ignores the many other reasons we have to think of this as a riot.

Cherry Picking: While this image may seem fairly unthreatening (although it certainly does document crimes, one of them being theft), this ignores the many images and videos of the incident which depict actual violence quite clearly. D’Souza has chosen a convenient sample which supports his own conclusions while ignoring others.

Micro-Reasoning: As with any other tweet, this argument has a small amount of space to develop the point. Whether or not D’Souza could produce a better argument with more space is another question, but the medium certainly does constrain the possibilities here.

Missing Assertions: D’souza does not spell out his main point in explicit terms, so this argument contains a missing conclusion.

Modus Ponens: This argument has elements of Modus Ponens to it, at least if you ignore the qualifier.

Qualification: D’souza includes the word probably in his major premise, which would seem to transform this largely deductive argument into an instance of inductive reasoning.

Red Herring: Another way of getting at the problem with this argument would be to say that it is simply a red herring. The fact that a couple people don’t seem to be engaging in violent acts at one moment in the events simply does not address questions about violence in others or even the intent of those who planned it. Of course, the ‘argument from ignorance’ and ‘cherry picking’ may give us a better sense of the diversion tactic D’Souza is using, but the bottom line is that this argument is inviting us to focus on a red herring.

Rhetorical Questions: The quest sentence is not really a question of course. D’Souza is implying that the picture does not at all look like an insurrection, a riot, or a coup. He puts his point here in the form of a question for rhetorical effect. Frankly, I don’t think it helps much as the statement does not look true, even as an assertion of probability. It would be worse if D’Souza left this as a categorical statement, but this little qualifier just doesn’t help.

Evaluation: The argument fails by virtue of the irrelevance of the assumptions in question. This is clearly a red herring and an appeal to ignorance; that it takes the form of a modus ponens doesn’t change this. Most likely, the biggest way to address the issue would be to simply deny the truth of premise 4, both in the abstract and as regards this specific subject matter. Just because you can find a relatively peaceful image occurring in the midst of a riot doesn’t mean it isn’t a riot. The consequent does not follow from the antecedent in this statement. not categorically and not probably.

Final Thoughts: If it appears that I have not shown much respect for Dinesh D’Souza, the author of this argument, that is not an accident. Please accept my apologies for the lapse in decorum.

Sarah Silverman Goes to Heaven

Introduction: This clip is part of a stand-up act from Sarah Silverman. her larger point in this segment appears to be that more established religions are as problematic as newer faiths often dismissed as cults. Within that larger argument, she produces a sub-argument against Christianity.

…Okay, Silverman doesn’t say ‘problematic’; she says ‘crazy.’

Key Facts: Sarah Silverman is well-established comedian. She has often specialized in shocking material, and she is frequently critical of religion.

Text: This text is taken directly from the transcript on the Youtube clip provided above.

“Christianity is super 00:26 old but it’s [ __ ] crazy I mean it’s 00:29 you’re born a sinner by being born you 00:34 are a sinner and you’re going to hell 00:38 but you can just apologize and then you 00:40 can go to heaven let me go if you’re a 00:44 murderer same thing it just apologized 00:48 and go to heaven you can be Hitler and 00:51 go to confession and say forgive me 00:53 Father I killed six million Jews and the 00:55 priest would just be like no problems 00:57 say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to 01:03 heaven Hitler goes to heaven is the name 01:09 of my band”

ANALYSIS

Comments: I commonly use this segment in a classroom exercise in which students are expected to pick a point of view they disagree with and explain why. This video is one of the options students may choose to criticize. My own ideas about this argument have thus been shaped by the thoughts of several dozen people who saw fit to take Silverman on, so to speak, in my classoom.

Statements: I have deleted some of the time stamps. Also, I’ve made some corrections. “Let me go” in the transcript should be “No big deal.” ‘It’ in statement 7 should be ‘it’s,’ and I omitted the past tense marker on apologized for this statement. I believe the rest is accurate. I’ve supplied a couple words necessary to render fragments into statement form, but mostly, I left the wording as originally presented in the text. I am leaving the very first comment out of the argument as it is more about the way that this sub-theme connects to Silverman’s larger comparison between established religions and new ones. The last comment is funny as Hell, but it’s not part of the argument.

Christianity is super old

but

[1] it’s crazy.

I mean

[2] you’re born a sinner

[2] by being born you are a sinner

[3] you’re going to hell

but

[4] you can just apologize and then you can go to heaven

[5] [It’s] no big deal.

[6] if you’re a murderer, [it’s] same thing

[7] it’s just apologize and go to heaven.

[8] you can be Hitler and go to confession and say forgive me Father I killed six million Jews and the priest would just be like no problems say ten Hail Marys and Hitler goes to heaven Hitler goes to heaven.

is the name of my band.

Diagram: This is the best way that i can think to represent the flow of logic in this argument.

The passage from statement 3 and 4 (you can just apologize and go to heaven) to statement 5 (it’s no big deal) is tricky. Statement 5 summarizes the significance of 4 i a way that let’s us know what the problem is as far as Silverman is concerned, but the schema (apologies fix everything!) is used in subsequent inferences. This creates a problem. If we see 5 as inferred from 4 and then move on to subsequent images without referring back to 4, then we lose the schema. If on the other hand we treat 5 a separate conclusion, then it seems to be unconnected to the rest of the argument, whereas it is clearly relevant to subsequent points. It is tempting to treat statement 5 as applying to multiple inferences, but that muddles the diagram a bit much. Another solution would be to treat statement 5 as part of the meaning of statement 4, a kind of elaboration. This is one of the problems with reasoning in real life. The question of what is being offered as evidence for what is not always clear in actual speech, so these diagrams can effectively misrepresent the reasoning involved by forcing a choice on a diagram which wasn’t actually clear in the presentation itself.

I think the solution here is found in statement 6 which asserts that murderers get the same treatment. The equivalence asserted in this passage strikes me as applying to the both statement 4 and 5, i.e. the schema and the way the insignificance of immorality under that formula.

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Interactional Eclipse, reductio ad absurdum, motte and bailey doctrine, satire, straw man.

Interactional Eclipse: There are several ways in which the reasoning of this argument is substantially overshadowed by the social interactions at stake. To begin with, the shock value of Silverman’s act overwhelms any sense of the reasoning at stake. Believers may often be too offended to attend to the argument at hand. On the other hand, non-believers may enjoy the schadenfreude too much to think too carefully about the argument. I’ve seen both reactions. This problem is of course compounded by the sense many Christians have that this behavior is simply unacceptable, either because it is too rude, or because it is blasphemous, or both. That response can be all you get, in which case, no account of Silverman’s reasoning will be forthcoming. Likewise, some critics of religion may celebrate the argument simply on account of its subversive message, independent of the reasoning in question. the bottom line, is that a significant number of people will ignore the logic of this argument while focusing on its emotional impact and the social implications of Silverman’s verbal behavior.

Motte and Bailey Doctrine: One interesting question here may relate to the question of whether or not there may be some Christians for whom this is in fact an accurate account, or even whether or not there may be some contexts in which Christians themselves produce an account of their belief that comes close to this. Simply put, Christians themselves may oversimplify their own beliefs in some contexts, bringing out more serious efforts to sort the moral significance of repentance only when pressed to do so. In this case, Silverman’s criticism would apply just fine to some versions of Christianity (those expressed in the Bailey, so to speak) while failing to address others belonging to the Motte.

Reductio ad Absurdum: This argument definitely fits the pattern of of a reductio ad absurdum. Silverman assumes for purposes of argument that an apology is what makes the difference between going to Heaven and going to Hell and infers from this the claim that Hitler could make it to heaven by simply apologizing for all he has done whereas others who have done little wrong in life would go to hell because they simply didn’t believe in God (and failed to apologize for their sins). Silverman, and many others would regard this as an unacceptably absurd approach to morality. The crucial question in this case is whether or not her sub-deduction succeeds, whether or she can really demonstrate that a simple apology gets Hitler into Heaven whereas the lack of it leads decent people to Hell.

Satire: It would be fair to suggest that Silverman’s presentation of Christianity here is satirical. Given this fact, some might suggest that it is a mistake to take her specific argument too seriously, but then how do we take it? There is no obvious reason to think that Silverman does not believe any given part o this argument, and there is no clear alternative to taking the argument as a serious effort to show us what is wrong with religion as she sees it. If Satire often accomplishes its goals by exaggerating tendencies in the object of its abuse, it also works sometimes by simply stripping away pretentious language and adopting alternative narratives which are just as plausible as the stories and language used by those less critical about that object of abuse. Arguably, that is what Silverman is trying to do here; to strip away a flattering narrative and show us what these beliefs mean without the reverent language in which they are normally presented. So, it seems to me that her argument stands or falls on terms pretty much the same as those iof any serious critic. Hell, this is a serious criticism, and it should be treated as such.

Straw Man: Because I include this video in one of my classes, I have had occasion to hear a couple dozen Christians respond to it. At some point or another, they invariably suggest that a simple apology is NOT an accurate description of what they actually believe. Whether this is about confession and contrition or being saved, they always emphasize the necessity of sincere regret accompanied by a substantial change of character and lifestyle. Silverman’s account would seem to suggest that even an insincere apology would get one in to Heaven. Discounting that, she certainly does not talk about the kind of transformation which is central to christian thinking on this subject. So, I do think it’s fair to suggest that Silverman is misrepresenting the beliefs in question.

Evaluation: The biggest problem with this argument falls squarely on statement 4 as a description of actual Christian thoughts about morality and the prospects for getting to Heaven or Hell.

I haven’t addressed the adequacy of this metaphysics. Many Christians might find this to be a childish caricature of their own beliefs. Silverman might respond by suggesting that some Christians (perhaps most) have expressed belief in just such a childish caricature, in which case, her argument may be fairly applied to them with a great deal more validity.

All of which is to say nothing of differences between Protestant and Catholic views on the subject.

The biggest problem lies in the question of whether or not it is fair to suggest that a mere apology is all that is at stake in Christian ideas about repentance. As stated above, I do think this is a straw man, as applied to the more serious thoughts of most Christians, but I do think there are some Christians for whom the criticism may be accurate, and even some contexts in which Christians in general may allow themselves to talk in ways comparable to those Silverman criticizes here.

Final Thoughts: As applied to most Christian thought, the argument is unsound because it amounts to a straw man fallacy. If there are Christians whose beliefs align with Silverman’s description, then frankly, I think the argument is sound.

Scratch A Hasty Handler

Introduction: On March 30th, 2020, Dave Rubin whose talk show, The Rubin Report appears on BlazeTV tweeted the message here in response to tweet by comedian, Chelsea Handler.

Key Facts: Handler is commenting on the trial of Dereck Chauvin, a police officer accused the murder of George Floyd during an arrest in May, 2020. A video of Chauvin pressing his knee onto Floyd’s neck for roughly 9 minutes during the incident went viral shortly thereafter, putting this case in the national spotlight.

BlazeTV the channel which features Dave Rubin’s show was created by Glenn Beck. It is generally considered to be a conservative operation.

Chelsea Handler had her own television show from 2017 to 2015, Chelsea Lately, on the E-Network. Her politics is generally considered liberal to progressive.

Text:

Handler: “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

Rubin: “Scratch a progressive, find a fascist.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: It is entirely possible that either or both of these individuals are engaging in outrage farming.

Statements: As Rubin is using Handler’s comment as evidence for his own comment about progressive politics, the issue is how best represent that argument. We would frame it as an unspoken assumption Rubin, thus spelling out the entire argument as a representation of his own reasoning or we could frame it as a kind Dialectic in which Rubin is responding to Handler.

A second question relates to the significance of Rubin’s conclusion. It seems reasonable to suggest that the terms of the phrasing imply an “if, then” construction, hence option 2b. It also seems reasonable to take Rubin as advancing a general statement about progressive politics, hence 2c. Both of these require some rewriting, raising questions about how accurate the paraphrasing might be.

[1a] “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

[1b] [Chelsea Handler said] “So pathetic that there is a trial to prove that Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd when there is video of him doing so.”

[2a] Scratch a progressive, find a fascist.

[2b] [If you] scratch a progressive, [you] find a fascist.

[2c] [Deep down, progressives are fascists.]

Diagram: Each statement comes in different versions, but the diagram looks the same either way.

1 -> 2

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Ad Hominem, Dialectic, Hasty Generalization, Hyperbole, Micro-Reasoning, Missing Assertions, Outrage Farming.

Ad Hominem: Insofar as Rubin responds to Handler, by using her evidence as grounds for a generalization about progressive politics, his comment is certainly a personal attack, albeit one against a collective target. As he does not appear to be using this as a means of refuting her own claim so much as a means of attacking progressive politics, it seems unlikely that this would qualify as an ad hominem fallacy.

Dialectic: As this argument plays out in an exchange between two different people, it seems reasonable to think of it as a form of dialectic, albeit not a very profound one.

Hasty Generalization: I think, this is the heart of the argument. Rubin is using a single comment from a single progressive celebrity as the basis for a comment about progressives in general. To say that this is a hasty generalization is putting it mildly. There may also be a question about whether or not Handler’s comment, objectionable as it may be, really amounts to fascism, but the inference remains a hasty generalization in any event.

Hyperbole: It seems unlikely that Dave Rubin really thinks Handler’s comment shows us that progressives are fascists, though that is the literal import of his own comment. So, it is probably best to think of this argument as hyperbolic.

Micro-Reasoning: Both Handler’s and Rubin’s posts are single comments. Although there is reasoning here, it is extremely brief, making it hard to assess the actual nature of the reasoning.

Missing Assertions: If we try to represent the entire argument as coming from Rubin, then we have to construct a sentence that represents handler’s own comment as a fact in his own argument. It’s a simple matter of translating the quote function in twitter into the form of a statement containing a quote. This is statement 1b.

Outrage Farming: While I am focusing on Rubin’s argument here, Handler’s own comments are hardly helpful. Many regard Chauvin’s guilt as obvious, but denying someone their day in court is problematic to say the least, and Handler too may be engaging in hyperbole here. It seems likely that both of these figures are engaging in rhetorical brinkmanship with the intention of riling up their critics as well as their fans. In this case, the anger some may feel at Handler for taking an extreme position may be the point. The same may be true of Rubin’s comments.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound as it is a hasty generalization.

Final Thoughts: Twitter does not seem to encourage moderation. Then again, neither do the careers of pundits or political comedians.

Bulverism

This is one of those hyperspecific fallacies that we may not even need a distinct name for, because we can address all the issues that arise with it by means of other fallacies. You can think of Bulverism as an example of circular reasoning or you can think of it as an example of the ad hominem. What makes Bulverism unique is the special way it seems to combine these two more common fallacies into a single mistake.

The genetic fallacy is also in there somewhere.

Bulverism occurs when someone assumes that another person is wrong and sets about explaining why they came to be wrong. It’s easy to mistake this for a reasonable argument, because they are actually explaining the error, but what they are explaining about the error is the personal history of the individual they believe is making it. What they are NOT explaining, is what makes it an error in the first place. That is simply assumed.

The word condescension sometimes comes up in discussions of Bulverism.

For example; when I say that I think The Searchers is a great film, my girlfriend (Moni) sometimes says; “Oh, you just have a crush on John Wayne.” This is Bulverism. Moni’s response certainly communicates her dismissal of my opinion. She might even be thought to have answered the question of why my views on the movie are wrong, but only if we interpret the ‘why’ in this instance as a request for an explanation of my error rather than a request for a justification of the criticism. In effect, Moni is explaining why she thinks I came to be be so foolish as to think this a great film. She is not telling me on what grounds she believes me to be in error. Rather than providing grounds to believe the film is poorly done or refuting my claims for believing it is well done, she simply questions my motives. This is Bulverism.

…and she’s wrong about that movie!

Dammit!

Anyway, the term ‘Bulverism’ was coined by C.S. Lewis who playfully suggested he would one day write a fictional story about a man (Ezekiel Bulver) who discovered at a young age there was no reason to prove anyone wrong when you could simply assume they were wrong and explain their error. Lewis’ point was that people should only go on to field such speculation if and only if they had already shown those they criticize to be in error. Whether or not it is reasonable to comment on other people’s motives once you have established an argument to the effect that they are wrong is of course open to question, but the sort of argument Lewis labels here is certainly fallacious in its own right.

Hatch Schmatch!

Introduction: On Thursday, March 25th, 2021, newly appointed Secretary for Housing and Urban Development, Marcia Fudge spoke at a White House press briefing. During this talk, a reporter asked her about some political races in Ohio. After initially declining to answer to answer a question about filling her old seat in the House of Representatives, she responded to a follow-up question about an upcoming Senate race for Ohio by discussing the Democrat’s prospects for winning the seat. Subsequently, reporters began asking questions about whether or not she had violated the Hatch Act in providing these answers.

This tweet is one of many in which apparent supporters of the Biden administration expressed varied levels of frustration over the criticism in view of the previous administration’s record of frequent violations without consequences.

Key Facts: As indicated in this article by CNN, there is some question about whether or not answering questions about Democratic prospects in upcoming elections violates the act inasmuch as it borders on actively using the office and the press conference to advance partisan messages.

As also indicated in the CNN article, members of the Trump administration frequently violated the hatch act without significant consequences. I think it fair to characterize many of these violations as flagrant.

Text: The top tweet in the image to the left is the argument in question. I left the second tweet in as it is an example of the sorts of questions Haley Sheley was responding to. Anyway, the argument is as follows:

“I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist. So, I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

(Emphasis in original)

ANALYSIS

Comments: In case it isn’t obvious, “GFTOH” means “Get the fuck out of here!”

Statements: The argument is as follows:

[1] I’m old enough to remember Trump having a campaign rally on the White House lawn calling, his then campaign opponent, Joe Biden a socialist.

So

[2] I don’t wanna hear how Marcia Fudge MAY have violated the Hatch Act by answering a reporters question about the Ohio Senate race. GFTOH”

Diagram: The diagram is simple enough.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: This argument raises the following questions; False Equivalence, Micro-reasoning, Moral Reasoning, Qualification, Tu Quoque.

False Equivalence: As the argument certainly involves some questions about comparisons here, it might be tempting to ask questions about whether or not this is an example of false equivalence, but if there is a disparity in the actions compared in this instance, it is probably one that points the other direction, so to speak. As the author of this argument points out, correctly, I think, the Trump administration is guilty of far greater violations than the one which Fudge is accused of making.

Micro-Reasoning: This is a brief argument dealing with a complicated issue. It might well be that problems with the reasoning here stem partly from the limitations of micro-blogging.

Moral Reasoning: As this argument is about misconduct, it does raise questions about the nature of moral principles, but these questions are complicated by the legal and political context of the principles at stake. It would be fair to suggest that the Hatch Act imposes moral responsibilities on government officials. On the other hand, these obligations are complicated by the viability of the political system. There are legitimate questions about whether or not one is still obligated to follow a law that has been virtually ignored for 4 years. Likewise, there are questions about whether or not such an obligation can be reasonably imposed on one political party alone.

Qualification: As noted above one of the points this author makes in her tweet is established by the all-caps to emphasize the term “MAY.” In effect, she is reminding us that it is by no means clear that Secretary Fudge actually did break this law by answering a question raised by a professional journalist in the context of a press conference. In effect, “may” qualifies the claim in question by reminding us that it is simply a possibility, not an established fact.

Tu Quoque: As an argument dismissing a criticism of one person by pointing out that her political opponents are guilty of the same misconduct, this seems like a classic case of a tu quoque fallacy, but there are a few things that might argue against this judgement.

First and foremost, this is not an argument directed against the Trump administration itself. It is directed at the news media for raising the question in the first place. The argument is thus less of a ‘you too’ than a ‘him too.’ So, the issue might not be so much a question of evening the score, so to speak, than one about what kind of standard has been applied here.

Many have questioned whether or not journalists are applying a double-standard here, but many journalists certainly did question Trump officials regarding violations of the Hatch Act. Any concerns about he lack of consequences for these violations probably lie with the political process rather than a clear bias on the part of the news media.

Secondly, this is not your run-of-the-mill he-did-it-too argument or situation. In this instance, the violations of the previous administration were frequent and flagrant. Under the Trump administration, the Hatch Act fell into virtual disuse as officials willfully defied the act without significant consequences. Questions about whether or not it is acceptable to uphold the principle of a law, as applied to one party, so soon after the other has all but nullified that law in practice are not exactly equivalent to the normal point of this fallacy. It is not simply a question of whether or not someone else did it too; the point here is that this application suggests a very serious double-standard.

The point of the Hatch Act is to curtail partisanship in government service, and there are real questions about whether or not the act still serves that purpose. If it applies only to the actions of Democratic officials, then arguably, the Hatch Act serves only to exacerbate the very partisanship is is meant to combat.

Third, any comparison between the actions of the Trump administration and those of Secretary Fudge would surely suggest her own actions are on a scale far short of her predecessors. Once again, the problem here is one of an extreme double-standard.

Even in light of these three considerations, I’m inclined to think this remains a tu quoque fallacy, however, partly because of the particular conclusion drawn in this instance. It is literally a refusal to consider the question. While, there are legitimate questions about what the Hatch Act means in the wake of four years of willful disregard, direct refusal to consider the issue entirely doesn’t raise those questions in a helpful manner. In the end, the reasoning is still problematic.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of tu quoque.

Truth of Premise 1: It is worth noting that the President himself is not covered by the Hatch Act, so his own statements about his political opponent during a campaign rally on the White House lawn would not violate the law. That said, the actions of staff in setting up the event certainly would.

Relevance of the inference: This really is a lot more complicated judgement call than usual, but I do think it fair to say this is a tu quoque fallacy.

Final Thoughts: At the end of the day, America is better off when public officials do in fact refrain from using their office to promote partisan politics. Secretary Fudge’s comments are probably not a serious violation of this principle, but they do touch upon ‘dangerous territory,’ to borrow language from the CNN article. If there a serious questions about whether or not this law has been violated before, or even whether or not this law can be applied to both parties when relevant, these questions are probably not properly addressed by ignoring questions about Fudge’s behavior in this instance. It is highly unlikely that serious publishment would be warranted in this case, but the question itself seems reasonable, and that question is exactly what this argument denies outright.

Lauren Boeberts a Feinstein

Introduction: On the 14th of March, 2021, Representative Lauren Boebert, posted the tweet pictured here to the left, criticizing Senator Diane Feinstein for seeking a ban on AR-15s (among several other “assault weapons”) while employing armed security guards in her own defense.

Key Facts: Diane Feinstein was among 25 Senators who introduced a bill to ban AR-15s on March 12, 2021. This bill is most likely the reason for Boebert’s tweet. Although, I haven’t read anything specific about this, I expect it’s fair to say that she uses armed security guards in at least some contexts.

Lauren Boebert is an ardent supporter of the Second Amendment.

This may or may not be relevant, but Boebert actively supported the insurrection of January 6th in which right wing activists shut down Congress and sought Democratic Congressional staff for purposes as yet to be determined. Congress and the White House both face heightened security concerns in the wake of this attack.

In the weeks since the insurrection, Boebert has repeatedly criticized and openly resisted security measures at the Capital.

Text: The text is as follows.

“Dianne Feinstein wants to ban the AR-15 but I’m sure she doesn’t mind her security using guns to protect her. Any politician who calls on guns to be banned should insist their security is also disarmed.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: Were this a better argument, it might be worth getting into some of the details of the bill itself. As it stands, I don’t think Boebert herself means to do much more than whip up the anger of her constituents.

Statements: The first two statements below are supplied in the tweet above. The second two statements (3a and 3b) represent alternative versions of the conclusion Boebert may have been driving at. In this case, the difference between them is significant. As explained below, it seems like 3b is more likely the intended conclusion.

[1] Dianne Feinstein wants to ban the AR-15 but I’m sure she doesn’t mind her security using guns to protect her.

[2] Any politician who calls on guns to be banned should insist their security is also disarmed.

[3a] [The bill Feinstein and others proposed should be defeated.]

[3b] [Feinstein is a hypocrite.]

Diagram: There are two versions of this argument, each of which looks pretty much the same. For reasons explained in the discussion, it seems best to opt for the second version o this argument, the one using statement [3b] as its conclusion.

1+2 -> 3a.

1+2 -> 3b.

Discussion: This post raises the following themes: Ambiguity, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Principle of Charity, Tu QuoQue.

Ambiguity: One question we could ask here is what does it mean to ban something? Technical questions about how and when a law goes into effect, whether or not exceptions (such as for security details) will be made and on what basis can change a great deal. Will present gun owners be grandfathered in? A great deal is lost in translation when people just use the word ‘ban.’

False Equivalence: There are a couple layers of false equivalence in this argument.

The first is the equivalence between a ban on AR-15s (or even a larger range of “assault weapons” and a ban (or voluntary refusal to employ) on guns of any sort. Boebert makes the transition without comment, seeming to treat these two things as equivalent. they are not.

The second false equivalence is the difference between a ban on guns (or selected guns) and rules for the security details of public officials. Boebert may regard the difference as insignificant, but questions about security (and in particular, security for government officials) involve unique concerns, not entirely limited to those of personal gun use.

Interactional Eclipse: There is at least one respect in which this example raises concerns about social interaction not entirely contained within the argument itself. As Boebert has herself actively aided people in an attack on Congress, and as she has subsequently sought to undermine Congressional security, this argument fits into a larger pattern of direct threats to Democratic colleagues. The point here may have less to do with a reasoned argument about how personal security relates to national gun laws than an effort to disarm Boebert’s political enemies in the midst of a dangerous political environment. In effect, the strategic significance of this tweet may be more important than the argument itself.

Missing Assertions: Insofar as the conclusion must be supplied, this argument involves missing assertions. Because there are a couple different ways of thinking about the purpose of this post, it may even be an interesting example of missing assertions.

Principle of Charity: As Boebert does not draw any explicit conclusions from the two comments in this meme, we have to supply one for her. As indicated above, there are at least two possibilities, one focusing on the bill itself and one entirely focused on the allegation that Feinstein (and perhaps other Democrats) are being inconsistent in using armed security while restricting access to selected guns for the population as a whole.

The argument is less foolish if we assume that inconsistency is the point at hand, so the principle of charity would rule out an interpretation making this an instance of the tu quoque fallacy. ALso, Boebert makes no effort in this tweet to address the bill itself, just Feinstein’s inconsistency and that of other legislators who employ armed security. So, the text of the tweet itself is more consistent with a focus on the character and inconsistency of Feinstein and other Democrats.

Tu Quoque: It is tempting to think of this argument as an instance of the tu quoque fallacy, but that assumes that the point is to dismiss the bill on the grounds of the alleged inconsistency in Feinstein’s actions. It is by no means clear that this is the intent of the argument, and as mentioned above that seems unlikely. This is less of a tu quoque fallacy than an effort to support a conclusion which is itself about Feinstein’s character.

Evaluation: I am assuming that premise 1 is true. Premise two may seem intuitively obvious to Boebert and some of her supporters, but that is not clear to me. The source of the moral principle in this question would seem to be some need for consistency, but that just raises questions about the ambiguity of the key term as well as the second false equivalence mentioned above. Premise two seems likely untrue to me. As to the inference itself, it fails due to the first false equivalence, which is really quite astounding. The argument is unsound.

Final Thoughts: I expect, some serious arguments could be made against the bill that triggered this tween, arguments focusing on the nature of the guns in question and the likely deterrent effects, and so forth. I sincerely doubt that Boebert will be of much help in making such arguments.

How Many Lumps?

Introduction: This example comes from a cartoon, entitled “Rabbit’s Kin,” featuring Bugs Bunny, starring Mel Blanc and Stan Freberg. It was put out by Loony Tunes.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: Bugz Bunny invites Pete Puma to enjoy a cup of tea, wherein the following exchange takes place (text taken from IMDB):

Bugs Bunny: There’s nothing as sociable as a nice cup of tea, I always say. How many lumps do you want?

Pete Puma: Oh, three or four

Bugs Bunny: [Bugs bunny whacks Pete on the head with a mallet 5 times and 5 lumps appear on his head] Oh dear, I gave you one too many. Well we can fix that.

[whacks the 5th lump back in his head]

ANALYSIS

Comments: This is of course a joke.

Statements: Much of this argument has to be inferred from the context of the exchange and the actions of the character’s in question. It ends up being a simple argument with an unstated conclusion. (Bugs acts on the conclusion rather than telling us what he has inferred from Pete Puma’s answer.

[1] [I want] 3 or 4 [lumps].

[2] [Pete Puma wants 3 or 4 lumps on his head.]

Diagram: This is a simple argument.

2 ->[1].

Discussion: This raises three themes; Dialectic, Equivocation, Missing Assertions, and Playful Reasoning.

Dialectics: Bugs builds up to the punchline of this gag by questioning his intended victim (Pete Puma). It’s perversely Socratic, …which come ton think of it may be true of many of his cartoons, as well as those of Daffy Duck. Both of these tricksters consistently engage in a kind of dialogue with their adversaries and base whatever punishment they have in mind when the other party’s own choices.

Missing Assertions: Insofar as the conclusion of this argument must be supplied (using Bugs’ actions to determine the conclusion he has drawn), this is an example of a missing assertion.

Equivocation: Bugs clearly shifts the meaning of “lumps” over the course of this exchange. When he asks how many Pete Puma wants, there is a strong implication that he means “lumps of sugar.” After getting his answer, Bugs shifts the meaning to “lumps on the head.”

Playful Reasoning: This is not a serious argument, of course. It is a joke. It is accordingly cheating to use this as an example of the equivocation fallacy.

…If I doos it, I get a whippin.

I doos it!

Evaluation: The argument is of course unsound as it commits the fallacy of equivication.

Final Thoughts: Yes, this post is self-indulgent.

Not Be on a Boat

Introduction: This text is from the play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, by Tom Stoppard. In this scene, the two central characters contemplate death while passing the time on a ship sailing from Denmark to Britain.

Key Facts: This is a dark comedy. The philosophical discussions between these two characters are full of absurd exchanges like this one.

Text: Really, the argument is contained in the last line (along with a missing conclusion.)

“Rosenkrantz: Do you think death could possibly be a boat?

Guildenstern: No, no, no. Death is not. Death isn’t. You take my meaning? Death is the ultimate negative. Not-being. You can’t not-be on a boat.

Rosenkrantz: I’ve frequently not been on boats.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: This is not a very serious argument.

Statements: The relevant argument would be as follows:

[1] I’ve frequently not been on boats.

[2] It is possible to not-be on a boat.

Diagram: This one is simple.

2 ->[1].

Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Dialectics, Equivocation, Missing Assertions, Playful Reasoning.

Dialectics: Although they are not following any particular methodology, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are engaging in a philosophical discussion through which each builds on the other’s points to help the author make his own points. This is accordingly a kind of dialectics, albeit a comic one.

It’s tempting to say that this might not be dialectics, because Guildenstern doesn’t really build on Rosenkrantz’s point. He just denies it. Yet, the fallacy can only be understood by looking at the shift in meaning between then Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, so perhaps it’s a failure of dialectics, which still makes it a kind of dialectics.

…I think.

Equivocation: Rozsenkratz is talking about a state in which existence is no longer a predicate of the subject, i.e. the dead person. Guildenstern is clearly evading the point by telling he has not been on boats, i.e. that he, while existing, simply wasn’t on a boat.

Missing Assertions: Rozenkrantz’s conclusion is not spelled out in the text of the play, but he clearly means to suggest that Rosenkrantz is wrong. So, the argument contains at least one missing conclusion.

Playful Reasoning: the actual source of the argument is of course not seriously advancing an argument here, at least not the one presented above. He is using the form of a denial to generate a joke. It is accordingly cheating a bit to use this as an example of a fallacy.

Evaluation: The argument is unsound because it commits the fallacy of equivocation.

Final Thoughts: Sometimes, the best* examples of a given fallacy are made up for humorous purposes.

* Admittedly, this would be for an ironic value of ‘best.’

No Billionaires!

Introduction: This is a tweet from a prominent twitter poster named, Ryan Knight (@proudsocialist). He has additional presence on social media. Knight is usually considered a far left, progressive.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: “Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet. I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited. Therefore, I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”

ANALYSIS

Comments: the biggest concern I have with an argument like this is just the level of abstraction. The terms are just too big for me, the categories too sweeping to make judgements about an argument like this with any degree of confidence. I mainly post it here, because it’s kind of an interesting example of Modus Tollens.

Statements:

[1] Billionaires would not exist without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.

[2] I don’t believe the people or the planet should be exploited.

[a] Therefore,

[3] I don’t believe billionaires or the decrepit capitalist system that made them should exist.”

Diagram: 1+2->3.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Micro-Reasoning, Modus Tollens, Moral Reasoning, Qualification.

Micro-Reasoning: It’s a tweet, so the argument is brief. This is compounded by the sweeping nature of the claims made about complex economic arrangements. In a larger and more complex argument, perhaps Knight could define his terms and develop a substantial case for his position. Here, we are left with summary judgements about his own beliefs. This leaves readers to do but agree or disagree on the basis of little other than their own ideological assumptions about the nature of capitalism.

Modus Tollens: The first sentence (statement 1) could be loosely translated as a conditional statement (“If Billionaires exist, then “without exploiting the labor of the working class and the natural resources of the planet.” The second premise then denies the consequent, and the conclusion denies the antecedent (with additional commentary on the “decrepit capitalist system.” That commentary could be treated as a distinct claim in its own right (one which is not contained in the premise). It could also be treated as a rhetoric flourish, leaving us with a Modus Tollens.

Moral Reasoning: It’s difficult to say on what basis Knight makes judgements about what ‘should’ or ‘should’ not exist. That would always be a tricky question, but it’s a little more difficult in the sort of arguments you get on twitter. Here at least, the question remains unanswered. Those familiar with Knight’s account may have a better sense for how to answer that question.

Qualification: One important qualifier for those argument lies in the fact that Knight isn’t necessarily talking about the real world at all. Both statements 2 and 3 are explicitly about what he believes. If we take him literally this is just a statement about his belief states. Under many circumstances we might ignore the qualifier and treat these statements as descriptions of the real world after all, but without more information about how Knight wishes to define the key terms and build up supportive arguments, it may be better to just accept the narrower significance of these statements as the one intended here.

Evaluation: Treating the argument as Modus Tollens means of course that it is deductively valid, which means the truth of Knight’s premises are the only substantive questions at issue. Were I to evaluate the truth of his premises, I would want to raise some questions about how he means to define the terms ‘capitalist,’ ‘workers,’ and ‘exploit,’ at the very least. I would also want to know how he arrives at his judgements about what ought to be. Adopting the narrowest interpretation of statement 2 makes things a bit simpler, but that doesn’t help much. I would accept Knight’s word on his own beliefs, but that still leaves a lot of questions about key terms in statement number 1. Perhaps, I could imagine a version of the statement which would, but it’s probably stretching the principle of charity a bit far to adopt this interpretation in the face of so many questions. I’m inclined to regard the argument as unsound due to the questionable truth of its premise. A more detailed version of the argument could well change that evaluation.

Final Thoughts: Really, I was just amused to find Modus Tollens on twitter.

Begging the Question (Circular Argument, Petitio Principii)

Begging the Question is a fallacy that occurs when the conclusion of an argument is contained in the premises used to support it. Hence, the argument is said to beg the question it purports to prove. Alternatively, it may be said to go in circles. As the result of this pattern is an argument in which support for the conclusion assumes its own truth, it effectively provides no substantive basis upon which to accept the truth of the conclusion.

In most cases, the premise will be sufficient from that of the conclusion to make recognition difficult for those engaged in the conversation to recognize it. In others, the argument may be sufficiently complex that a speaker fails to notice (or hopes their audience won’t notice) they have stuck their conclusion back into the premises of the argument. In still others, the truth of the conclusion is assumed tacitly by other premises within the argument. Either way, it often takes some reflection to see that the conclusion matches one of the premises of the argument in question.

Take for example the following arguments:

“I know god exists, because the Bible tells me so, and I know the Bible is correct, because it is the word of God.”

“God does not exist. That’s just a myth!”

In the first case, the notion that Bible is the word of god assumes that God exists, so the conclusion of the argument is assumed by the premise offered in support of his existence. Hence, the argument is circular in virtue of an implied premise that matches the conclusion.

In the second, the notion that God is just a myth assumes that he is not real in the first place, so an argument dismissing belief in God on this basis assumes that he is not real to begin with. So, if the second statement is understood to be a reason for believing the first, the result is a circular argument.

Circular argumentation (or begging the question) is an incredibly common fallacy. The problems with this fallacy are actually rather central to the nature of logic and reasoning itself, particularly insofar as they illustrate the practical significance of providing a reason to believe something in the first place.

Oddly Interactive Problem: As noted above, what makes a circular argument a fallacy is the failure to provide any reasons to believe the conclusion which are not dependent on the conclusion itself. As some have noted, (Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, for example pp. 112-114), this not strictly speaking a failure of logic. It is a failure of rhetoric. By some tests (e.g. truth tables), a circular argument seems to pass with flying colors. So, why isn’t it valid? Some would actually say that it is valid, though still fallacious. Others might just say it is invalid. Either way, the problem is the argument produces no new reason to believe its conclusion, hence the argument fails to accomplish what people normally use arguments for; it fails as a means of persuasion. It is as much a failure of social interaction as it is a failure of reasoning.

Begs the question“: In discussing a belief or claim, one might hear someone say; “this begs the question of…” Of course this is roughly equivalent to suggest that the matter “raises the question of…” This bothers some people to no end, because a raising a question is not the same as committing the logical fallacy of begging the question. On the other hand, the usage often carries some implication that a specific answer to the question they wish to raise has already been assumed by those advocating the belief or claim which triggered their comment. This isn’t quite equivalent to the fallacy of begging the question, but it does bear a certain family resemblance, so to speak. The usage does not, strictly speaking, match common logical definitions of the fallacy, but isn’t entirely devoid of sense. In any event, language usage varies.

Circularity of Reasoning: There is an interesting problem in epistemology insofar as we can find a degree of reasoning in many theories, perhaps even most. …possible all of them? Likewise if you examine people’s world views in general, you will likely find a degree of circularity in the relationship between their basic premises about how the world works and what it means to know something and the particular conclusions they draw about the world around them. What separates the circularity of reasoning on such a grand scale and that of a circular argument is the scope of the subject matter. Whether or not that is sufficient to resolve any of the problems in question is another question, but one does sometimes hear people talk about whether or not a given instance of circular reasoning is vicious. Presumably, a ‘yes’ answer means trouble, A ‘no’ gets you a pass. Whether or not the distinction can be made on the basis of a non-circular argument is another question, as is any question about whether or not the circularity of the distinction would itself be vicious.

Reflexivity can be a real bitch!

Synonyms: I have seen some folks distinguish begging the question from circular argumentation. The wikipedia entries in question currently do so emphasizing the notion that a circular argument begins with the conclusion it purports to prove whereas the entry on begging the question merely suggests the conclusion is assumed in the premises. there is certainly room to draw a significant distinction there, but the usage is not standardized. In practice, most people seem to use these terms interchangeably.

Tautology: Circular argumentation shares a lot in common with tautology, enough so that the two are often confused with one another. A tautology may be described as an assertion that is true by every possible variation of the truth value of its components. If I say, “It is safe to go outside, unless it is not,” that statement is true for all possible truth values, because its individual components are contradictory. One will always be true and one will always be false. So, my statement to the effect that one or the other is true will always be true, regardless of the facts. By way of contrast, If I say, “Either Bob has my Pen or Bill has it,” then if neither of them has it, my statement is false. This is the way most assertions work. Falsehood is at least possible. A tautology is true regardless of the particulars. Another way of putting it would be to say that it is true by virtue of its logical form (e.g. A or not A). The problem with tautologies is that they don’t tell us much about the real world, so to speak. They might be used on occasion to help us organize information, but they do not commit a speaker to any specific account of the facts.

I have seen the difference between a tautology and a circular argument explained in a few different ways, but the most clear explanation that I am aware of is to think of a tautology as a feature of a single statement whereas a circular argument is a feature of an argument.