When “They” is One or Two or Maybe Legion

Introduction: This argument can be found on a Youtube presentation by James Lindsay entitled, “Stealing the Motte: Critical Social Justice and the Principle of Charity.” It is one of many arguments he directs against what he calls “critical social justice theory.” It is part of a larger series of audio-clips published under the title of “New Discourses.” This is the parent-site for the publication.

Key Facts: I believe Lindsay is referring to the this paper, published in Hipatia Press. It’s title doesn’t entirely match his own description, but it’s close enough that I do believe this is the one he has in mind.

Text: This is a small portion of text taken from the transcript provided by Youtube. He goes on to elaborate on the details of the article and on his own reasons for referring to social justice as a virus.

I want to focus on the claim that social justice critics refer to their own movement as a virus, treating that as the conclusion of his argument for purposes of this argument.

“I’ve both written and 16:50 spoken in fact about how critical social 16:53 justice is like a virus on our liberal 16:55 societies and I have to do that again 16:56 here because it’s just the best metaphor 17:00 for understanding it but before 17:02 reminding you of that I have to remind 17:06 you also that I’m not characterizing 17:08 them as viruses I’m not making a case 17:11 about them that they don’t make about 17:13 themselves they call themselves viruses 17:16 as well and compare the theory to it 17:19 anyway in activism and so I’m not in any 17:22 way trying to untie him unfairly here as 17:25 I’ve noted before in 2016 to feminist 17:29 scholars Bram foz and Michael Carter 17:31 published an academic paper in a 17:32 relatively small academic journal and it 17:35 carried the title women’s studies as a 17:36 virus institutional feminism effect in 17:39 the projection of danger in that paper 17:42 Falls and Carter make the point that 17:44 women’s studies should see itself 17:45 through the metaphor of the virus 17:49 comparing the discipline if you will in 17:51 favorable terms to other plagues like 17:54 Ebola and HIV and unless you think I 17:57 exaggerate I can quote 17:58 them on this…”


Comments: Yes, I found it while reading up on Motte and Bailey doctrines.

Statements: Using the claim critical social justice activists refer to themselves as the conclusion of the argument means we leave a lot of this passage out of the argument (hence the unnumbered statements below). Were we to address the accuracy of Lindsay’s treatment of the article in question, we would need to add a great deal more to the analysis. What I have included here is sufficient to address the relevance of this one article to Lindsay’s generalizations about social justice activism.

I also cleaned up a few things the transcript appears to have gotten wrong. In any event, I believe the argument is as follows.


I’ve both written and spoken in fact about how critical social justice is like a virus on our liberal societies and I have to do that again here because it’s just the best metaphor for understanding it but before reminding you of that I have to remind you also that I’m not characterizing them as viruses I’m not making a case about them that they don’t make about themselves.

[1] they call themselves viruses as well and compare the theory to it anyway in (or possibly ‘and’) activism

and so I’m not in any way trying to characterize them unfairly here. as I’ve noted before

[2] in 2016 two feminist scholars Breanne Fahs and Michael Karger published an academic paper in a relatively small academic journal.


[3] it carried the title “Women’s Studies as a Virus; Institutional Feminism, affect, and the Projection of Danger”

[4] In that paper Fahs and Carter make the point that women’s studies should see itself through the metaphor of the virus,comparing the discipline if you will in favorable terms to other plagues like Ebola and HIV…”

Diagram: If statement 2 here draws our attention to an article in which two feminists refer to women’s studies as a virus, statements 3 and 4 elaborate on the significance of the paper. These combine together to form the claim that social justice theorists refer to themselves and their own movement as a virus (statement 1). This is then taken as evidence that Lindsay is not characterizing social justice advocates unfairly when he himself describes their movement as a virus, but that is a part of the larger argument which I do not purport to analyze here.

2+3+4 -> 1

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes: Ad Hominem, Anaphora, Anecdotal Reasoning, Authority, Cherry Picking, Hasty Generalization, Poisoning the Well, Principle of Charity.

Ad Hominem: Whatever the reasons Fahs and Karger have for describing feminism as a virus, Lindsay’s own goal is convince his audience that anyone associated with critical social justice theory is a terrible person engaged in terrible things. It is a sustained attack on a broad range of scholarship. Lindsay does not make an effort to show that social justice critics are wrong, so much as that they are dangerous and positively evil. To suggest that his approach to the subject constitutes an ad hominem-circumstantial is putting it mildly.

Anaphora: One of the distinctive features of this presentation is the undisciplined use of anaphoric reference. Lindsay’s use of ‘they’ and ‘them’ throughout the audio enables him to skip a lot of interesting questions about why he is really talking about at any given time. In this passage, the shift from two specific authors publishing a single paper in a “relatively small academic journal” to the claim that social justice theorists as a whole characterize their work as a virus leans rather heavily on Lindsays use of ‘they’ and ‘them.’ In this case, the shift from his evidence to his conclusion entails a jump from feminism to critical social justice theory and a jump from a sample of two to the whole of critical theory. Using this language enables Lindsay to presuppose the relevance of his evidence to his conclusion without stating its terms explicitly.

Anecdotal Reasoning: Insofar as Lindsay is providing a story about a single paper in support of a sweeping generalization about a broad range of scholarship, this constitutes a good example of anecdotal reasoning.

Authority: One of the more charitable ways of interpreting this argument would be to treat it as an authority-based argument. I say it’s charitable, because the alternative is to suggest that a same of two authors is sufficient to speak for the entirely of scholars identifying themselves as critical theorists, which invites the Hasty Generalization comments below. If on the other hand, Lindsay wishes to suggest that Fahs and Karger have authority to speak on a nature of this trend because they are part of it, that is at least a little more interesting. Still, there is little reason to believe these two scholars have the authority to define the entirety of social justice scholarship. Even their own article falls well short of such a claim, being focused on women’s studies.

Cherry Picking: The selection of a single article employing language comparable to Lindsay’s own smacks of cherry picking.

Hasty Generalization: A sample of one article and two feminists simply is not enough evidence to demonstrate, as Lindsay claims that this is how critical social justice advocates describe themselves. Its not even close.

Interactional Eclipse: One big problem with describing any human beings or movement of human beings in terms of a virus is that any descriptive value this account might have is likely to be overshadowed by the pejorative implications. Fahs and Karger may have been happy to use an exciting narrative for feminism, but for his own part, Lindsay is even happier to use a metaphor that effectively dehumanizes Fahs and Karger, and if he has his way, everyone associated with social justice or critical theory. In effect, the insult here is is the point. The argument, for Linday, at any rate, is little more than a pretext for that insult.

Poisoning the Well: This entire Youtube presentation is an effort to convince Lindsay’s audience that social justice critics are out to destroy liberal society, and hence, they are unworthy of the principle of charity. To say that this is an exercise in poisoning the well is also putting it mildly.

Principle of Charity: I can think of two ways to interpret the use of a single article by two scholars within one sub-field associated with social justice to characterize all of the social justice movement. One way is to think of it as a representative sample, and the other is to think of it as an authority-based argument. Either way, the argument fails.

Evaluation: The argument fails because this one article simply isn’t sufficient to warrant a generalization about social justice critics as a whole.

Final Thoughts: This is of course part of a much larger argument. Independent of his claim that social justice theorists characterize themselves as a virus, Lindsay does offer his own reasons for thinking of critical social justice theory as a virus. Whether or not these are worthy of consideration is another question.

There is another angle here insofar we could try to unpack Lindsay’s phrasing. The term “critical social justice activism” fuses together quite a few different things. I don’t think he is wrong in suspecting that these things are related, but the effort to just fuse them all into one term is a little disconcerting, particularly when it is couple with clear efforts to poison the well for anyone associated with this amalgam. Whether or not Lindsay’s work is worth the effort is also another question.

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”


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


[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


[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.

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.”


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.

Mike Lee’s Mulligan?

Introduction: On February 9th, 2021, the first day of the second Impeachment trial of Donald Trump, Republican Senator, Mike Lee of Utah, gave an interview on a show called “America’s Newsroom” at Fox News about his thoughts on the trial. He produced a few different arguments in favor of acquittal before one of the hosts for the show played him a clip of several Democratic politicians engaging in apparently reckless rhetoric and encouraging private citizens to confront Republican politicians over various matters. Asked if the Democratic Party wasn’t showing a double standard, Mike Lee’s response to that question is the argument we are looking at here.

Key Facts: Obviously, the events of January 6th are relevant to the topic of the impeachment in general.

Chuck Schumer’s remarks were made in March of 2020 regarding an abortion case then before the Supreme Court, prompting a rebuke from Chief Justice Roberts. Schumer later expressed regrets for the comments. No disciplinary actions were taken against him.

Maxine Waters comments were made in June of 2018 in response to the zero tolerance policies of Donald Trump. She received criticism for these comments from both Democrats (including Pelosi and Schumer) and Republicans (though more of the latter). No official disciplinary actions were taken against her.

Cory Booker’s Remarks were made in July 2018 at the National Conference on Ending Homelessness. (They occur at around the 25 minute mark in the video clip.) Note that Booker’s remarks are not in response to any specific outrage, nor are they focused on any particular enemies; he wants his audience to confront congressmen about homelessness. Senator Rand Paul’s wife later called Booker out for encouraging behavior that led to harassment of her family and an attack on her husband.

For Donald Trump, the actions in question relate to the events of January 6th. He had been calling protesters to converge on Washington on the day in which Congress would count the electoral votes for the 2020 election. As Congress counted the votes, Trump called on those participating to converge on Congress (whether or not he urged peaceful or violent protest is open to debate). What followed was certainly violent. Protesters stormed Congress and shut down proceedings for some time. Seven people were killed, and many others were injured. At least some of the participants appeared to be prepared for violence at the outset, and may or may not have coordinated with officials in Washington to gain access to Congress and evens search for Congressional leadership (as well as Vice President, Mike Pence).

This leaves out a lot of important details, and much of what happened is still in dispute. For the present, that will have to do as far as my account here.

Text: I’m going to present a significant portion of the clip here, but the argument to be analyzed is the quote at the end from Mike Lee.

One of the hosts of America’s Newsroom, Dana Perino wrapped up a previous line of discussion and then prefaced a series of clips with the following comment: “I do want to ask you about this, the Republicans are gonna try and point out that there is a double standard. Take a listen to this.”

Chuck Schumer: “I wanna tell you, Gorsuch. I wanna tell you, Kavanaugh, you have released the whirlwind, and you will pay the price.”

Maxine Waters: “If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd, and you push back on them, and you tell them, they are not welcome.”

Cory Booker: “Please, don’t just come here today and then go home, go to the hill today. Get up, and please, get up in the face of some Congress-people.”

The segment comes back to Perino who adds: “Democrats are saying, of course, that that is different. How do you see it?”

Mike Lee: “Yeah, look, it’s not different. these are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business, and in many other businesses. Look, everyone makes mistakes, everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile. and I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements, because in each instance, they’re making it deeply personal; they’re ceasing to make it about policy, and instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable, and that’s not helpful. I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.”

(Some conversational repair has been omitted.)


Comments: I am struggling a bit here with the proper language to describe this. In some cases, I feel like I have gone too far in attempting a neutral (or neutral-ish) descripton of key facts. On the other hand, it shouldn’t be too hard to gather what my own take on this is. I think Trump is damned guilty, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Nevertheless, I am trying to write this with an eye toward the possibilities at least that the issues in question are currently up for debate.


Statements: I’ve broken the argument up into the following statements. I supplied one implied conclusion, phrasing one version in terms of the figurative speech lee uses and one in terms approximating his likely literal intention.

[1] It’s not different.

[2] These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time among anyone in this business.

[3][These are outgrowths of the same natural impulse that exist from time to time] in many other businesses.

[4] Everyone makes mistakes.

[5] Everyone’s entitled to a mulligan, once in awhile.

[6] I would hope, I would expect that each of those individuals would take a mulligan on each of those statements.

[a] because

[7] In each instance, they’re making it deeply personal.

[8] They’re ceasing to make it about policy.

[9] Instead they are talking about getting up in people’s faces and making individuals feel perfectly uncomfortable.

[10] That’s not helpful.

[11] I think the best way to handle this is to talk about issues rather than individual personalities.

[12a] [Trump should get a Mulligan.]

[12b] [Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th should not result in an impeachment conviction.]

Diagram: The biggest question I had about the diagram was how to fill in a couple some of the relevant information Lee doesn’t quite state himself. I thought the missing conclusion was fairly obvious, but I struggled with whether or not to spell out an assumption about just what the nature of Trump’s alleged transgressions really were. Senator Lee never actually says anything about the nature of Trump’s conduct, or possible transgressions, at least not in this segment. This leaves a gaping whole in the argument. Without more guidance as to just how Lee sees Trump’s own actions, I thought it best to refrain from attempting to phrase it for him.

I added some phrasing to this diagram suggesting a loose paraphrase for each of the major themes of the argument.

Discussion: This argument includes the following topics: Analogy, Double Negation, False Equivalence, Interactional Eclipse, Missing Assertions, Red Herring, Tu Quoque.

Analogy: What really stands out in this segment is an argument from analogy, namely the claim that Trump’s actions are comparable to those of a golfer in need of a mulligan (i.e. a second chance). This raises questions about just how fitting the analogy really is. Whether or not Trump’s actions (or those of the Democrats mentioned in the video) could be viewed as the moral equivalent of a botched shot in a game. More to the point, the question at issue would be whether or not his actions could be considered worthy of a second chance (given without penalties, and perhaps without an expression of contrition). A mulligan requires neither punitive actions imposed by others nor an expression of regret, nor a change of heart, so to speak, but such things are commonly expected of those who have committed moral transgressions. To the degree that Trump’s actions might be thought to have moral significance, this argues against the notion that giving him a second chance under the circumstances would be equivalent to granting someone a mulligan in golf.

A second analogy underlies the first, this being the comparison between Donald Trump’s actions leading up to the events of January 6th and those of the Democrats featured in the video. Even if the notion of a mulligan is not really applicable to Trump’s own actions, the comparison between his actions and those of the Democrats featured in this segment is the real point of the argument. Lee’s description of their actions underscores the notion that what was wrong with their actions is the degree to which they made politics personal rather that focused on issues. It seems likely that he meant to suggest that Trump’s actions were comparable.

Possible points of disanalogy? At least 2 of the Democrats (Schumer and Waters) in question were condemned by leaders within their own party, and one of them (Schumer) did express regret for his actions. The third (Booker) was not suggesting that people attack anyone personally, but rather that they take action to call the issue they cared about to Congress people instead of just attending the function at which he spoke. One could perhaps argue that Schumer and/or Waters ought to have faced some sort of disciplinary actions, especially if Trump is to face impeachment over his. Against this, one must weigh the prospect that Trump’s own actions amounted to an effort to incite a riot or even a general insurrection against the United States Government in a concerted effort to overturn the results of an election. One must also consider that lives were lost in this effort, and that Trump as well as many of the participants in the actual riot expressed clear intent to engage in actual violence (even lethal violence) at the outset of the events of January 6th. Somewhere in here, we must also consider the significance of unfounded accusations about the validity of the election and a massive effort to promote dubious arguments to the general public in advance of the calls for protest on January 6th. I know of no comparable case to be made in regard to any of the Democratic examples featured in this video.

This does not mean that the actions of all 3 Democrats featured above is beyond reproach; but it does undermine Lee’s efforts to cast them as essentially the same problem posed by Trump’s role in the events of January 6th.

To say that the analogy is strained would be putting it mildly.

Double Negation: Statement number one; “It’s not different” is of course equivalent to saying the behavior is the same.

False Equivalence: As noted above (in Analogy), there are good reasons to believe the Democratic behavior above is not equivalent to that of Donald Trump, which would make this an example of false equivalence. Arguably, this is the main thrust of Lee’s argument, an effort to convince the public that what Trump did was no more than what each of these Democrats did.

Interactional Eclipse: As a Senator, Mike Lee, is officially on the jury for this impeachment trial. He is also, a player in the events of the 6th. What his role was on that day is up for debate, but the point is that he is himself implicated in the debate over impeachment. His likely stance on this matter is thus something of a foregone conclusion, and his arguments may thus be taken with a grain of salt. As with the rest of the impeachment, there is a very real sense in which we know what the major parties are likely to do, and their stated reasons for doing so may have little to do with the reasons for their actual decisions on the matter. This is not entirely unusual with argumentation, but it is at least a little more of a problem in a highly political trial. (By political here, I mean that the actual vote to convict or acquit will be made by political actors without the benefit of normal trials for either civil governing criminal evidence.)

At least one feature of Lee’s argument is directly effected by the politics of the situation. He never makes a case for the exact equivalence of Trump’s actions to those of the Democrats. To do so, he would have to say what he thought Trump might have done wrong, but as an active ally (and possible co-conspirator) of Trump, he is not going to do that. The argument would be more coherent if he did, but the social context in which the argument takes place makes this a bad strategy.

Missing Assertions: The final conclusion of Lee’s argument is unstated. He is obviously suggesting that Donald Trump too should be allowed to take a mulligan, so to speak. I have framed the final conclusion of the argument (statement 12) in terms of both the metaphor itself (12a) and in in terms of its substantive political significance (12b).

Red Herring: In one respect, we could address lee’s remarks as a simple red herring. He is responding to an indictment of Donald Trump by addressing questions about the behavior of someone else. This is clearly a diversion tactic.

Tu Quoque: The accusation that Democrats have themselves misbehaved in a manner to that of Donald Trump is in another respect an example of the tu quoque variation on the ad hominem fallacy. We might even say that 1, 2, or all 3 of these Democrats behaved wrongly. This does not mean that Trump did not do anything wrong. Neither does it demonstrate the he should not be convicted in an impeachment trial. If, perhaps all three of the Democrats in question are equally worthy of impeachment (which is doubtful), then this as easily proves they should have been impeached as it proves that Trump should not. Their guilt or innocence is not material to questions about Trump’s actions on and leading up to January 6th.

Evaluation: I’m just taking each of the major themes in turn.

2+3 -1: It isn’t clear just what impulse Lee is talking about Neither is it clear that any impulse explains Trump’s actions leading up to the events in question. Neither statement 2 nor 3 appear to be true, so this is unsound.

4+5 -> 1: It isn’t clear what it means to say that everyone deserves a mulligan. Some errors might be more worthy of a mulligan than others. Neither of the premises behind this argument distinguishes between acceptable errors and those that are simply unacceptable. This one too is unsound on account of its untrue premises.

7+8+9 ->10 It isn’t entirely clear that the premises here are meant to prove 10; they may all be just elaborations of the same point. In each case, this seems like a fairly reasonable way of describing the problem with the Democrats statements featured in the video (Booker’s speech might be an exception). In any event, I find the claims plausible and the conclusion does follow reasonably. This part of the larger argument seems fine to me. Sound.

10+11->6: Again, I think this is a fairly reasonable argument about the significance of the Democrat statements in the video, and perhaps even about politics in general. One might find it frustrating to see Mike Lee advocating a principle he (and Trump) do not necessarily follow themselves, but that is not a reason to reject his conclusion here. (To do so would be to engage in the tu quoque fallacy.) Sound.

1+6 -12: The real problem here is the truth value of statement 1. Lee’s psychological commentary on motivations and generalizations about everyone needing a mulligan do nothing to establish any serious position on Donald Trump’s role in the events of January 6th. So, Lee does nothing, NOTHING, to show that the behavior of the Democrats is comparable to that of Trump.

The lack of a clear statement about what Trump did wrong is perhaps to be expected. After all, why would he make even the beginnings of a case against Trump’s actions or his character at the start of a trial in which he clearly hopes will end in acquittal? Nevertheless, it leaves the entire comparison without one of its key components. We know only what happened in the Democrat examples, not how the significance of those examples compares with anything Trump did.

As I have indicated in various places (mainly Analogy) here, there is little reason to believe that Trump’s actions could reasonably be described as equivalent to those of the democrats in question. Simply put, calling for rude and verbally aggressive behavior is not equivalent to inciting a insurrection that got 7 people killed, and countless others injured, to say noting of the attack on our nation’s government. This is essentially what Trump is accused of doing. We an debate whether or not he is guilty, but if he is guilty of doing that, it probably isn’t the kind of thing that gets anybody a mulligan.

Literal or metaphorical.

We could spell out a missing assumption addressing the significance of Trump’s actions in support of statement 1, but it would just be a false assumption and so we would still end up with no reason to accept statement 1 as true.

This inference is unsound because statement 1 is untrue.

Overall: Unsound. The arguments leading to statement 1 do not address Trump’s actual conduct, and evidence suggests that his conduct is not comparable to that the the Democrats in the video. Neither is his conduct sufficiently trivial to warrant the analogy Senator Lee is using.

Final Thoughts: No, Donald Trump does not deserve a Mulligan.

Interactional Eclipse

This is a lousy phrase, and it’s my own concoction, so my bad, but for the moment anyway, I am sticking with it. For what its worth, I am drawing a distinction I got from the anthropologist, Michael Silverstein, in his work on linguistic ideology. I am using this phrase to describe a sort of problem that occurs in argumentation, but which is often omitted from the study of logic or critical thinking, or which is handled in those areas largely through naked prescription, and generally dealt with through minimal explicit commentary. The problem here is essentially the tendency for the world of social interaction to break into the worlds of reasoned discourse and infuse or replace objective considerations of evidence with elements of social posture.

Background: the concept here is that any ostensibly objective dialogue always takes the form of a social interaction. Whether you are writing, speaking or recording yourself (or -selves) for playback later, you are always also interacting with others. This remains true even if you are sitting alone in your room, responding to no-one in particular, and doing whatever it is you do with no particular audience in mind. If we look closely, we can always find echoes of other points of view in what you write or say and moments in which you anticipate other voices. We are always also interacting with others when we engage in reasoning. This is even more true when you really are involved in direct verbal or written exchanges with others.

Most conventional grammatical analysis, according to Silverstein, is an attempt to analyze the features of language which help us describe the world around us. I think it fair to place most of the conventions of basic logical analysis in this category. When we calculate the implications of categorical syllogisms to see if we are looking at a Modus Ponens, or a fallacy of Affirming the Consequent, for example, we are juggling the categories which help to describe the world around us. We are, as Silverstein might describe it, investigating the features of a denotational text. When using such techniques to analyze an actual syllogism, we are providing an account of what is said in the conversation in which that syllogism occurs. Whatever the features of that denotational text, however, Silvertein would remind us that the conversation in which it occurs also takes the form of a social interaction, and we could (and should) always consider the question of what is happening in that social interaction. We can always also ask what is the interactional text in that same conversation? In fact, as I recall, Silvertstein would probably tell us that a denotational text is really just one form of interactional text, one way of thinking about a social interaction in which people attend to the objective features of the world around them.

Just as we can ask what is said in a conversation, we can also ask what is done in that conversation? The tools of logical analysis help us to provide an account of what is said, and in effect to explore the effectiveness of a given argument in accomplishing a certain kind of task, but we can never take for granted the nature of the task that people mean to be doing when they produce an argument. The possibilities are always endless.

The Problem: I take it as a given that we can use conventional forms of logical analysis to create a meaningful account of the denotational texts in arguments. With a little help from a rule of thumb with social content here and there, we can provide a reasonably helpful account of the features of denotational text that help us sort arguments worthy of consideration from those that are not. Still, social interaction is always also going on in an argument, and there are moments in which the social interaction simply becomes too significant to ignore, even if you want to. This is what I mean by interactional eclipse; it is the moment in which elements of social interaction simply become too big to push into the background of argument analysis. When this occurs, we are forced to consider the social impact of the argument, either as part of the logic of the argument or as an important alternative significance to its probative value as an argument.

I reckon that this interactional eclipse happens in at least 2 very different ways; elements of reasoning wherein social interaction is explicitly part of the argument, and arguments in which something is happening in the social context which could distract from the reasoning in question and/or prove more important than that reasoning. To be clear, the first type of interactional eclipse is potentially legitimate. It shouldn’t even surprise us that this sort of thing happens. The second is a huge problem, both for those making and responding to arguments in regular life, and for those of us trying to understand what they mean from a scholarly interest.

I am somewhat ambivalent about treating both of these issues as instances of the same thing, but they have enough in common to merit some combined treatment. For the present, let me suggest referring to the first form of interactional eclipse as ‘constructive eclipse’ and the second as ‘distractive eclipse.’ The wording for the latter category assumes a normative interest in reasoning (as opposed to a focus on social interaction as a subject in itself), so there is a bit of a bias in the vocabulary, but what the Hell! The point is that second category of interactional eclipse pulls anyone interested in the logic of an argument off-track, or at least, it creates an effect which could prove far more significant than anything we might attend to in analyzing the logic of an argument.

Constructive Eclipse: Even in conventional logical analysis, there are considerations which are explicitly social in nature, which is to say, they address questions of behavior and social significance as much as they do logic and reasoning. This really shouldn’t surprise us, but it often does.

Here are some examples:

  • Negation itself. If I say “This pen is green,” anyone who agrees with that statement is effectively vouching for the meaningful nature of the statement and all of the terms within it even as they tell us that it does in fact describe a state of affairs in the real world as they see it. If on the other hand, I reject the statement, I might be doing so because I see that the pen is actually red (in effect affirming a state of affairs inconsistent with that described by the statement) or I might be taking issue with its meaning. Perhaps I take issue with the meaning of some key term or its application to the topic at hand. Maybe, ‘green’ is too vague for me or I’m not sure what pen has been referenced in the first place, (because there are actually 6 of the sitting over in the direction the speaker pointed while saying ‘this’). Sometimes, the basis for negation is clear and explicit in the denotational text of an argument, and sometimes it isn’t. When it isn’t, we typically resolve the matter (or let the reference continue without resolution) by relying on the the social context of the argument. This central ambiguity behind negation then lays the foundation for at least some of the other features of constructive eclipse.
  • Burdens of Proof: There are different ways of looking at burdens of proof, but at least one of them is a reference to social convention. Why do we expect a prosecutor to meet the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt in a criminal trial? Because when we say of someone that they are ‘guilty,’ things happen to them. They may go to prison. They may pay a fine or in extreme cases, face the prospect of capital punishment. They will likely lose their rights to vote or bear arms, at least for a time, and the finding will affect their job prospects as well as social status, most likely for the rest of their lives. There are also evidential considerations to this kind of thing (some might suggest that it is simply unreasonable to expect people to prove their innocence). Still, at least one significant factor in all of this is the realization that a finding of ‘guilty’ has definite social consequences which lead some of us to say that it is better to err on the side of letting some guilty parties go free and unpunished than to risk the conviction of innocent people.
  • Arguments from Authority: Authority can take a number of different forms. We can, for example distinguish between coercive authority such as that of a judge or police officer and the expertise of a professor. Either way, arguments based on authority or countering the assertion of authority are explicitly ineractional. They build the case for or against accepting the conclusion of an argument on at least some consideration of social context.
  • Principle of Charity: The notion that we should respond to a given position in terms of its strongest possible variation is an explicitly pragmatic choice made partly to be nice and partly to ensure that our time is not wasted on frivolous mistakes instead of substantive considerations. It is also a question about how one relates to others when considering their input into a given topic of discussion. This too is an explicit rule of thumb which addresses the social context in which reasoning takes place.
  • Begging the Question: One of the interesting features of circular argumentation lies in the fact that when some tests are applied to a circular argument, this produces what looks like a deductively valid argument. So, why is a circular argument a fallacy instead of a damned good argument? Because it gives us no new reason to believe its conclusion. In effect, the failure is rhetorical, and hence explicitly a question about the relationship between the speaker and an intended audience. In effect, the problem here relies on a sense of the social interactions we expect out of a good argument.
  • Sundry Fallacies; A number of fallacies could be described as an attempt to substitute the generation of some social effect (e.g. eliciting pity) instead of producing a sound argument on the topic. We could in fact see this as an acceptable social choice even as we reject it for purposes of logical analysis. I’m going to avoid listing these insofar as the interactional element is largely conceived here in negative terms, and because the resulting list would be very long. What makes them a fallacy is that they produce the wrong type of interactional text. This is one way of looking at the failure of numerous informal fallacies, but for purposes of this discussion, I am only interested in issues with argumentation where the social interaction is more substantive than this.
  • Straw Man: Here the problem behind the fallacy consists of failure to counter the argument another individual has actually produced. This is both a problem of evidence and reasoning and a social failure. Many straw man arguments actually do prove some point of view is flawed; they just don’t prove the one put forward by another speific party is wrong. To draw this conclusion about an argument is to remind the speaker of the nature of the converation in question. So, a straw man argument is also a fallacy which addresses social obligations.
  • Other: This is clearly an incomplete list. The point here, is that a number of considerations in logical analysis and the study of argumentation actually do address the eplicit features of social interaction in which arguments take place.

Distractive Eclipse: Here, the issue is not that the social context in which an argument takes place has become an explicit feature of the reasoning used in making or or evaluating the argument. It is the possibility that sometimes an argument will contain features which generate social consequences in excess of their probative value. Whether or not the argument in question is sound is one question, but when distractive eclipse occurs, the interactional significance of the argument can effectively prove more important in the log run.

This may be a trivial example, but I remember once engaging in a conversation with someone who maintained that classical music was objectively better than any form of pop music such as Rock, Blues, or Country. We were both standing and facing each other in a classroom after a philosophy class. (Undergraduates! …nerds!) At some point, this person told me that we could define ‘music’ in any way we wanted, but that some definitions were more worthy of consideration than others. To illustrate his point, he said that he could define ‘music’ as jacking off while pantomiming the act of doing just that, standing as he was right there in front of me. I’m actually not sure how we got to that particular point, but I distinctly remember feeling discomfort at the suddenly explicit sexual the as well as the conduct occurring right in front of me. I also remember getting a definite sense that the discomfort was intentional; the person had chosen his example for its shock value. Now he had an argument, to be sure, but he was also taking social liberties, both in his choice of examples, and with his efforts to illustrate them for my benefit. In this particular case, the discussion continued on course, but his gambit did produce a distraction, one which made it momentarily more difficult to focus on the reasoning in question, and which also raised questions about the value of continuing the discussion with this particular individual.

I have encountered a significantly less trivial example of a similar tactic in a number of instances when discussing moral philosophy wherein someone decided to make a point with a hypothetical example in which they killed me (Cf. Phil Robertson’s Argument From Rape). In each of these instances the person in question was trying to make a point about the objective nature of moral principles or the lack thereof. In each instance, the point of the argument had something to do with the moral significance of murder. Framing the issue in terms of explicit questions about my own murder might be thought of as intended to impress upon me the full weight of the matter at hand, but it also served to facilitate a kind of dominance game. The question at issue was my own murder, not that of the person talking. In effect, they were asking me to consider a prospect in which they did me harm. One might expect that I or others subjected to this stratagem could and should stay focused on the argument at hand, but one might also suspect the tactic is designed to stress those to whom it is subjected, and even to act out schema in which the speaker clearly occupies a dominant role. This may play out in a purely hypothetical discussion, but it plays out just the same, thus infusing an otherwise objective consideration with a fictional story-line with hierarchy.

(Am I the only one who gets these arguments? Yeech!)

People will often slip subtle digs are insulting comments into the text of an otherwise serious argument. The ad hominem fallacy doesn’t necessarily address this problem, because the substance of the argument in question is not necessarily a function of such quips, but they can be a problem insofar as they get under the skin of participants and/or impose negative social consequences which have nothing to do with the substance of the argument in question. These sleights may be ignored, often at cost, or they may even take over the conversation, effectively reducing it to something other than reasonable debate.

Likewise, correcting someone’s spelling or grammar instead of focusing on the point they make, for example, will often communicate a degree of contempt for the other person. This may end a conversation, or it may serve to put the corrected individual in a defensive position, thus undermining any argument they wish to make.

Politicians provide another common example when they make unsubstantiated accusations against one another. Simply by answering such an accusation, a public figure may do more to harm to themselves than they would by ignoring it or even confessing to its truth. Such accusations will often do more harm to the accused than any objective consideration of the case for them would merit, and it simply doesn’t help to say of such arguments that they are invalid or unsound.

Another example of distractive eclipse can also occur when people misjudge (or deliberately misread) the genre-specific conventions of the discussion at hand. In polemic debate, for example, someone entering the conversation to explore the meaning of a term or to play devil’s advocate on some small sub-theme may do a great deal to blunt the force of an argument without actually coming out against it. Simply buybsetting aside an impassioned diatribe and replacing it with a fussy question about the scope of meaning for some key term an individual can do more to shut down an argument than anyone saying “I disagree,” This is one reason that concern trolling is a problem, not because people shouldn’t be prepared to think critically about a broad range of issues in relation to a given subject, but because they cannot be expected to do so explicitly on demand and in all contexts. A protest on a public street is not necessarily an invitation to philosophical discussion, and so people making points which might be worthy of serious consideration in other contexts will often be regarded as deceitful and/or malicious when doing so in contexts calling for less subtle forms of rhetoric.

Likewise, those engaging in partisan rhetoric in the midst of an exploratory discussion may trigger similar negative reactions. Their continued presence may also deter efforts at less partisan forms of reasoning, reducing an open-ended conversation to a conflict in which each party takes care not to compromise their vested interests.

Similarly diversionary tactics are often so much more than a simple ‘red herring’. They are often very deliberate efforts to change the subject of discussion, and ironically, the effort to challenge the merits of such diversions may actually help those who produce them to accomplish this very goal.

Is politician A accused of sexual impropriety? Well what about politician B? As an answer to the first problem this is absolutely irrelevant; as an effort to change the topic of public discussion, it can still be a very effective tactic. It is even more effective, if people proceed to argue against the accusations against politician B precisely because that takes the conversation further down the path of the diversion. In effect, the interactional significance of the strategy outstrips its significance as a serious argument.

From this standpoint alone, application of this label and the attendant verdict that the diversionary tactics in question in question rely on an unsound is often as much as logic has to offer, but that is small consolation when the subsequent discussion comes to focus entirely on the red herring. It is for this reason that politicians, lawyers, PR reps, and advertisers will often employ diversionary tactics when addressing serious problems with whatever or whomever they seek to advocate. The point is not so much to produce a fallacious argument against an accusation as it is to change the topic of discussion entirely. We might always say of such arguments that they are unsound, but that hardly begins to address the scope of the problem posed by such tactics. In effect, an argument like this yields one more example of an argument with an interactional significance far more important than the unsound reasoning it contains.


This is the most relevant text from the work of Michael Silverstein.

1979. “Language structure and linguistic ideology.” In The Elements: A Parasession on Linguistic Units and Levels (R. Cline, W. Hanks, and C. Hofbauer, eds.), 193-247. Chicago: Chicago Linguistic Society.

Every Man Should Know

Introduction: In 1980, the southern rock band, Blackfoot, released the album Tomcattin’ which included the song “Every Man Should Know (Queenie).” The song features a range of moral lessons, many of which come with implicit threats for those who transgress against them.

Key Facts: N/A.

Text: These are the first 2 lines of the song.

“Don’t mess with my queenie.

Or I’ll mess with your nose.”


Comments: This is a pretty simple argument. It poses 2 interesting problems at best; the need to rewrite the second line, and the question of whether or not it an example of the fallacy “appeal to force.”

The word “queenie” might be taken to refer to a transgendered individual. In this case, that is probably not the intended meaning. Whether or not that would substantially change the meaning of the lyric is another question.

Statements: Read at face value, neither of the two lines in this argument are statements. Each may be rewritten so as to express a statement consistent with the gist of the argument. In the first line, this means change a command [1a]to an expression of moral obligation [1b]. In [1b] the slang ‘queenie” has also been changed to a more common term. In [2b], the second line has been changed into a conditional statement using the substance of line 1 as the antecedent and the threat in [2a] as its consequent.

[1a] Don’t mess with my queenie.

[1b] [One should not mess with my girlfriend.]

[2a] or I’ll mess with your nose.

[2b] [If you mess with my queenie,] I will mess with your nose.

Diagram: This one is pretty easy.

2 -> 1.

Discussion: Minor rewrites aside, the only interesting feature of this argument is the question of whether or not this constitutes an example of the fallacy “appeal to force (ad baculum).” The appeal to force also makes this argument an example of interactional eclipse.

Ad baculum: It’s easy to see an appeal to force in this argument. The second line is literally a threat. What isn’t as clear here is the question of whether or not this particular appeal to force is fallacious. It is not clear that there is any underlying factual question or moral principle which is evaded by means of the threat in the argument. In expressing the threat, the author of the song effectively creates the conditions which serve as a reason for accepting the conclusion of the argument. He does not merely describe them.

Does that settle it? No.

One additional question relates to the meaning of the first statement. As originally stated in the song [1a], there is no objective content to line 1. When rewritten, we get a claim about what one ought to do that could be considered true or false and at least some approaches to morality might attribute objective reality to the nature of that obligation. (Others might interpret what one ‘should’ or ‘should not’ do as purely a function of self-interest. Arguably, this could mean we shouldn’t rewrite the line that way in the first place, but the context of the song makes it clear that the author is suggesting there is some underlying moral principle at stake in this and the rest of the lessons urged in the song. (“To own a body you got to own a soul
So every man should know…”) It’s not exactly complex ethical philosophy, but the song does suggest the issue here is more than just a series of threats.

If the author means to suggest, as he appears to, that there really is a moral principle at stake in the notion that one ought not to mess with his queenie, then the threat itself does constitute an ad baculum fallacy.

Interactional Eclipse: As the argument includes a direct threat, it constitutes a good example of interactional eclipse. It’s a song of course, but it’s a song that evokes as much fear as it does moral reflection. The one tends to drown out the other.

Moral Reasoning: As questions about what to make of the initial command in this argument lead to questions about whether the author intends to suggest a moral imperative or simply appeal to the self-interest of those to who he mighty be singing (see above), this argument is an interesting example of moral reasoning.

Evaluation: Insofar as it uses the ad baculum fallacy, the stated reason provides no support for the conclusion of this argument. It is therefore unsound.

Final thoughts: I’m still not taking the song of my favorites playlist.

Stupid Questions

We’ve all heard it said that there are no stupid questions. Most of us have probably said it a time or two in the course of our lives. That said, most of us have probably heard a question or two that really did strike us as stupid after all. Whether or not you’ve actually called out a stupid question by name is, well, …another question, but most of us, I reckon, have thought about a question or two with a certain trace of contempt.

It’s a dilemma. There is something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to say ‘hands off!’ Don’t criticize this! Be nice! There is also something in the nature of a question that leads us to want to put them back in the category of fair game.

…some of them anyway.

Why protect questions? I don’t think the issue is literally that there are no stupid questions. The problem has more to do with how you treat people than how one things about the intellectual merits of a query. Calling something ‘stupid’ isn’t usually all that helpful, to begin with. The real issue here is the likelihood that somebody asking a question is already putting herself in a vulnerable position. The fact that she is asking a question suggests that she is seeking new information, and so it seems particularly unhelpful to respond to such a request by mocking its source. She just said doesn’t know the answer, so why would you mock her? No matter how obvious the answer should be, mocking someone for asking a question seems pointlessly cruel, and very unhelpful. So, when someone is asking a question, it just seems like a good rule of thumb to give maximum charity to their question itself and to any impressions we may form about the person asking it.

There are of course exceptions to this.

It is worth remembering, for example, that sometimes people ask a question, not because they don’t know the answer themselves, but because they have other reasons for wanting you to be the one who actually produces the answer. It is often said of lawyers, for example, that they like to know in advance the answers to any question they ask a witness at trial. One might think of them as using the witness to help them tell a story rather than soliciting new information. We can of course find comparable examples outside a courtroom. In such cases, all our assumptions about the nature of a question and what it says about the person asking it go right out the window. In such instances, we may still wish to refrain from calling a question ‘stupid’, but that no longer has to do with any special kindness to the one asking it.

All of which brings us to an uncomfortable point; whether or not one ever wishes to tell someone their question is a stupid one, one ought to remember that questions are not entirely above suspicion. A poorly framed question can send anyone thinking about it down the wrong path, and some questions can be highly deceitful or at least terribly wrong-headed. Other questions come loaded with so much interactional significance that the information exchange requested pales in comparison to the social dynamics at issue. Either way, questions can pose a whole host of concerns other than just the need to figure out an answer to them. The problem with such questions is rarely that the answer should be obvious. In that sense, the ‘no stupid questions’ principle still holds. Nevertheless, some questions can be highly problematic.

What follows is a list of the types of questions one might want to twice before answering.

Is the list incomplete, you may ask?

Good question!


Complex Questions: Perhaps the most commonly known pitfall in problematic questions would have to be the complex question fallacy (sometimes known as a ‘leading question’ or even a ‘trick question’). A complex question is phrased in such a way as to presuppose an assumption which is itself problematic. To answer the question is to grant the assumption. The classic example of a complex question fallacy is the question; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” A ‘yes’ answer affirms that you used to beat her. A ‘no’ answer means you still are beating her. Either way, answering the question puts you in a bad light, and (assuming you don’t beat a wife, which you may or may not have), your best hope to steer clear of the trap is to deny the terms outright and refuse to answer the question as it has been asked.

The trick to handling a complex question is recognizing it in the first place (and hopefully you will do that BEFORE you have answered it). Once you see it for what it is, it is best to call out the assumption that was embedded in the original question and state your objections to that assumption. This is the reason you are not answering the question.

Don’t be surprised if people sometimes try to taunt you into answering the question after all. It is particularly common in some online interactions to find people will just keep telling you that you still haven’t answered the question or that they are still waiting for it. The goal here is to suggest that your refusal to answer the question is a failure of some sort, the implication being that you either do not know the answer or you are embarrassed to admit the real answer out loud. Of course, sometimes people really do duck an honest question, but a complex question is not an honest question, and it does not deserve an answer. So, you are better off sticking to your guns.

Of course, not every complex question is a direct personal attack as in the example above, but whatever the assumption that is embedded in the question, granting it means something. Usually, that meaning if far more important than the specific answer you may give to the question. Even when the question is theoretical, it really is best to avoid answering a complex question.

Rhetorical Questions: A rhetorical question is a really a statement put in the form of a question. Usually, this is done for rhetorical effect. Let us say, I tell you that student had called me at 2am in the morning to ask whether or not they had an assignment due the next day. I then follow this by saying; “Is that a time to be calling me about homework?” If I do this, I am not really asking if that’s a good time to call; I am saying that it definitely isn’t. My question is rhetorical, and most likely you would understand this, but what if you didn’t? Were you to answer my question by saying; “sure,” and then going about explaining your answer, I am probably going to get frustrating and put you on my do not call list right along with the student.

The trouble with answering a rhetorical question isn’t as sharp as it is with a Complex Question. You don’t end up admitting to something terrible. Instead, you will may find yourself encountering significant resistance to the answer (or even outright hostility as a result of that answer) The person who asks such a question actually assumes the answer is obvious, and if you try to suggest otherwise you are raising an issue they themselves regard as closed. If your answer doesn’t match theirs, then you are in for a long haul.

The trick is to realize when a question is rhetorical.

The challenge to handling a rhetorical question is a lot like that of dealing with a suppressed premise in an argument. Because the implied answer to a rhetorical question was originally thought to be obvious, any subsequent discussion may involve extra stress.

Once you know that you are dealing with a rhetorical question, you have a couple options for addressing it. If you agree with the implied answer, then so be it. Nod your head and grunt affirmation. The conversation will then move on. If you don’t agree, then you should realize your answer will likely be the opening round of an argument, and that argument is a little more likely than normal to be with someone who doesn’t want to listen. One strategy that may help is to suggest that the other person explain their own reasons for thinking as they do, thus spelling out the point they have already made for you. At that point, you will be in a better position to consider their views and respond accordingly. Also, the person you are talking to may feel better about the susequent discussion after having expressed themselves more fully before hearing your objections. Either way, you will understand each other better once the original speaker’s thoughts on the matter have been expressed more directly.

Suggestive Questions: Sometimes the point of a question is really to make a suggestion. “Are you gonna check the expiration date on that milk?” or “Do you want to run a spell-check on this post?” might be good examples. “Are you going to check the oil in the car?” would be another. Putting these suggestions in the form of a question might be meant to leave an out for the person being asked, but in some cases, you could literally translate the question into a statement, a request, or even a command.

In most cases, suggestive questions are no big deal. The phrasing of a suggestion in the form of a question may serve to soften the tone of the suggestion, or it may be clever, or it may be the tip of the passive-aggressive iceberg. Either way, you can usually deal with these questions without too much drama. There is at least one type of suggestive question that can pose real problems, however, the accusatory question.

It should also be pointed out that suggestive questions come very close to being rhetorical questions. In many cases, they may be quite synonymous, but in most instances, a suggestive question will leave the person asked an out, so to speak. They can say ‘no,’ but the point of the question was to urge a ‘yes’ to the suggestion.

Accusatory Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the sole purpose of poisoning the well. This is usually done for the benefit of an audience. When facing such questions, your own answer is quite beside the point. The only reason you were asked is because the person asking the question wants to suggest something that will prove personally embarrassing to you. Examples?

“Is it true that you are a sexual deviant?”

“Are you a socialist?”

“an atheist?”

“Isn’t it true you are only doing this because you are mad about _____?”

Hopefully, you get the idea. Of course, any one of these questions could be asked honestly of some people in some contexts, and depending on the audience or the community in which they operate, the answers may not even be all that troublesome. In other cases, the questions are asked in order to malign someone’s character and demean them in front of others. Depending on the audience, the question alone may be sufficient to give them a negative view of the person asked.

Things just get worse from there!

As the point behind such questions is really to make an accusation, any answer given is likely to be unhelpful. You may be given the courtesy of a chance to deny it, but doing so may actually just strengthen the impression that you are guilty, and in the court of public opinion, answering an accusation may effectively keep a harmful narrative in the news cycle. There isn’t really a clear and obvious way of handling such questions, but it is important to realize when you are facing them. The other person isn’t really asking you anything; they are making an accusation. One tactic you might consider using is to insist that the other person put their own cards on the table and present any evidence they may have in support of the accusation. If you can show that they don’t have any reason to ask the question to begin with, then there is a chance any audience will see the question as the cheap shot that it was. That will get you further than providing an honest answer to a dishonest question.

Diversionary Questions: Sometimes a question is asked for the purpose of changing the subject. The person asking it is introducing a red herring of sorts into the conversation. Diversionary questions can be subtle, or they can be blatant. They can also be used to slow down a discussion and bring a speaker back to a point already covered. Alternatively, they can be used to speed up a discussion and push a speaker to address advanced points before they have covered the most basic pieces of information necessary to handle those advanced topics. Diversionary questions can also just change the subject altogether.

The person asking diversionary questions may believe them to be relevant or they may be very deliberately trying to pull you off topic because they would rather talk about something else. Either way, the trick to handling a diversionary question is to recognize that it will effectively change the topic and refuse to go along with it. Whether or not your refusal is phrased politely may depend a little bit on just how politely the diversionary question was worded and/or the degree to which the questioner insists on pressing their question. It can sometimes work to say that you would like to answer the question later, bu first you wish to finish discussion the current topic. A reasonable person will likely accept this. An unreasonable person may press. Mileage varies!

Start-from-Scratch Questions: One of the hardest things to deal with in the context of intellectual discussion is one which asks a speaker ready to address a complex subject to address one or more really basic points in dealing with that subject. You can only cover so much ground in a single discussion. So, if you are starting with the most basic building blocks of a topic, then you may not get to the complicated stuff at all. People focused on complex problems may also find it difficult to shift gears and think about basics when that wasn’t what they were prepared to do in that particular conversation. So, asking a start-from-scratch question in the context of a discussion where the answers might normally be assumed can effectly throw a speaker off her game. This may be an accident or it may actually be the point of the question. What to do about it depends a lot on how one assesses the situation.

If the person asking you to start from scratch appears to be sincerely, then the best course of action may be to shift gears and go ahead and discuss the basics. You may not get to the more complex information you had hoped to talk about, but if the person you are talking to needs more basic information, then you are better off covering that anyway. Now if that person is outnumbered by a group reading to get into the thick of complex issue, then you may have to balance their needs and interests against those of the larger conversation. Either way, so long as the question was asked in all sincerity, it should be possible to manage the conversation.

The real problem here is that sometimes people ask start-from-scratch questions, not because they really want to know the basics, but because they mean to make you work for every single piece of information you wish to claim. Socrates did this, and he became a hero to philosophy (though he doesn’t seem to have impressed the Athenian community of his own era). Internet trolls also do this. Most of us just find them irritating. The tactic is akin to sealioning and/or rhetorical questions, but the main point here is that when someone actually knows a topic well asks very basic questions, they are likely preparing to call into question answers we like to take for granted. This can be a great intellectual exercise if everyone is game for the challenge. It can also be a form interpersonal aggression clearly intended to aggravate others and/or to prevent people from forming meaningful conclusions to serious questions.

What to do about a start-from-scratch question? It’s your call. Considerations include the following questions:

Do you think the question is asked in sincerity? Are they really in need of basic instruction? Alternatively, do they openly acknowledge their own intentions for asking such a question?

What are your own obligations to answer questions? Is this your job or are you free to decline the task at hand? How patient are you? How likely is the questioner to try our patience or to listen to your answers?

Unanswerable Questions: Some questions simply cannot be answered. No, this isn’t usually because they are extra profound. It is far more likely that the question is in some sense incoherent. These usually fall into two categories; questions that employ contradictory terms, and those employ vague terms. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” would be a good example of the first. So would; “What color is the sound of a horn?” (though my old philosophy professor insisted the answer to this was obviously ‘blue’.) The second sort of question would include such gems as “is the United States of America exceptional?” or “Are you a spiritual person?”

Questions of the first sort are a bit like complex questions. They cannot really be answered in their own terms. One has only to explain what the problem is. One hand cannot clap by itself. It must at least be clapping up against something or it is not clapping at all. We either need to know what that other thing is, or we should probably just skip the question.

Questions of the second sort can be addressed by trying to define the terms in such a manner as to make a clear answer possible, but people asking such questions are often invested in the enigma of vagaries to begin with. Each effort to spell out what one means by ‘higher power’ or ‘exceptional’ is likely to leave the person asking them unsatisfied with the subsequent answer. In some cases, it might be better to just skip these questions to.

Assignment Questions: Sometimes the problem with a question is not in the question itself; it is in our own inability to provide a serious answer at the time and place in which it is asked. People typically answer them in one of three ways; by answering anyway, by asking for more time to study, or by flat out refusing to answer the question after all.

Those answering anyway may try to finesse the issue by using vague terms or even diversionary tactics, or they may just take a guess based on whatever information they have available. They might acknowledge their lack of confidence openly or they might try to bluff their way through it. Either way, the decision to answer anyway involves the risk of getting the answer wrong, and possibly looking very foolish in the process of doing so.

Asking for time to study-up on the answer to a question may or may not go over well, depending on the expectations of those asking the questions and or any audience present. It’s also worth considering whether or not the time it takes to study up on the answer to a question will be well spent in doing so. In professional contexts, one might be expected to do the work in question and get back to people, but if the discussion is unmotivated by any clear practical interests, then one may be better off admitting that he is not in a position to answer and that additional time is not likely to change this fact. On the other hand, sometimes a good question can send us to google or to a library and the end-result can be be provided later. When this is possible, most reasonable people will accept it.

The hard part to such questions is often admitting to oneself at least that you don’t know to begin with.

Thunder-stealing Questions: Sometimes people ask a question knowing full-well what the answer is and/or that the answer will be forthcoming if they just wait. In at least some cases, the point of asking the question is really to steal the initiative for addressing the issue from the person being asked. Case in point, upon hearing a teacher announce a new essay assignment, and knowing very well that the teacher is likely to announce a deadline and a minimum word count, one student may ask; “When is this due?” Another asks; “How long does this one have to be?” Students may be doing so as part of a genuine effort to get an answer or even because they are overly-eager to get started, but they can also do so as a means of transforming the power dynamic in the classroom. Transforming the instructions into an interrogation of sorts can undermine the authority of the teacher and create the impression that the students are driving the conversation.

Conversely, I once a saw a faculty member go through a proposal from administration, asking a series of accusatory question (“How are you going to deal with this?” and “What about___?” The administrator had answers to each question, but each answer came across in a defensive tone. I finally realized my colleague was actually staying a paragraph or two ahead of the administrator as she went through the document, effectively asking questions the answers to which we had already been provided and would have discussed in a few minutes anyway. The point of asking these questions was to dominate the discussion and create the impression the admin hadn’t thought about these things and addressed them only after being pressed on the matter.

What do you do about this kind of question? Quite frankly, the best answer may be nothing. You just answer them and move on. Anyone aware of the dynamics in question will likely know what is going on anyway, and many of these power games are only as important as you let them be. The biggest problem posed by such questions can be the fact that they involve an interruption, so if you get a lot of them, it can be difficult to keep up, and/or they can disrupt the order at which you meant to move through the issues. If that is a problem, or if it seems like the damage to one’s credibility is getting serious, it may be worth it to claim the floor, so to speak, and ask people to withhold their questions until after one is done with an initial presentation.

Of course, this leaves open the question of what to about isolated thunder-stealers; “are you going to get me flowers for my birthday?” may effectively weaken the power the gesture, but that isn’t a question of handling an audience; it’s a question of handling a relationship.

Um, good luck!

David Silverman on Atheist Bilboards

Introduction: This is a tweet from David Silverman (President of American Atheists) defending the practice of placing billboards critical of religious views in public places.

Key Facts: David Silverman is the President of American Atheists which is a non-profit organization promoting the interests of nonbelievers in the United States. Under Silverman’s leadership, American Atheists have put up a number of public billboards promoting atheism and criticizing religion. These billboards have themselves drawn criticism from religious figures and in some non-believers as well. Some of the criticisms have been directed at specific themes and specific statements included in the billboards. Others have been directed against the general wisdom of putting such statements out into the public.

Text: This is the tweet in question.



Comments: Two general points come to mind when considering this argument.

One is the possibility of a double standard in reference to billboards expressing a stance on religious topics. Christians in particular have been accustomed to producing such statements for as long as some of us can recall. The placement of anti-religious sentiments on a public billboard is however a relatively new practice, and it may draw more criticism due in part to the unusual nature of the messages. Simple confirmation Bias may be another factor insofar as the bulk of the public is unlikely to agree with an overtly atheistic message.

A second concern lies in the potential obfuscation of specific concerns about specific billboards. While this particular tweet addresses the issue in the abstract, some of the concerns raised about these billboards have been about very specific details about specific billboards put out by American Atheists, This is particularly true of those raised by unbelievers – whom Silverman presents as the party he intends to answer here.

Statements: The argument is set out as follows. Two missing statements [4] and [5] have been added. [4]  helps to seal the relevance of statements 2 and 3 to the rest of the argument and [5] is most likely the intended conclusion of the argument.

[1] Atheists who object to billboards attacking religion are ALSO victims of religious indoctrination.

[2] Lies deserve death.

[3] [Lies do not deserve] Protection.

[[4]] [Religious claims are lies.]

[[5]] [Atheists ought not to oppose billboards attacking religion.]

Discussion: Issues raised by this argument include the following; ad hominem, Interactional eclipse, micro-reasoning, missing statements, the principle of charity, provincialism, and thought policing.

Ad Hominem: The assertion that critics (atheist or otherwise) of billboards promoting atheism are victims of religious indoctrination is an ad hominem (circumstantial). If there is a non-fallacious way to interpret that suggestion it would be to treat it as a simple explanation to be taken at face value. In others words, it would be possible to simply think of this as an empirical question about the motivations of a select group of people. The second statement in the tweet, however, belies this interpretation as it makes it clear Silverman means to argue with his critics. This is not simply a diagnosis; it is an attempt to undermine the credibility of billboard critics.

Interactional Eclipse: To the degree that this argument constitutes a form of thought policing, it is explicitly an attempt to subvert efforts to engage in critical thinking about the value of anti-religious billboards through appeal to social dynamics. Whatever the value of the argument, any resulting debate is more likely to generate more heat than light.

Micro-Reasoning: As with most (if not all) tweets, the brevity of this argument is a problem, hence the need to supply nearly as many missing statements as those clearly expressed.

Missing Assertions: The intended conclusion of this argument is most likely some statement intended to discourage unbelievers from engaging in criticism of billboards promoting atheism. I have accordingly supplied statement 5 as an attempt to express this missing statement.

I would also suggest an additional Missing Assumption (statement [4] that religious views are lies). If this assumption is not true, then both statement 2 and 3 fail to produce anything of value in the argument.

Principle of Charity: It isn’t entirely clear whether Silverman means to suggest this argument applies to all instances in which atheists prove critical of billboards attacking religion or simply those who do so on principle (I.e. those who object categorically to the creation of such billboards instead of those with particular objections to specific billboards). His wording could facilitate either interpretation, and it is likely those who agree with him will include parties adopting each interpretation.

For purposes of keeping the discussion thoughtful it is probably best to treat this argument as applying only to those who object to such billboards in general. The alternative would in effect amount to a blank check to produce any content (no matter how foolish) critical of religion without fear of counter-criticism from other atheists. That would hardly be a reasonable position, so it’s not the most productive interpretation of the argument to pursue here.

Provincialism: Insofar as this argument seems to be encouraging atheists to be less like religious people, it could be viewed as an appeal to provincialism. Essentially, the appeal here is something along the lines of; ‘this is how WE act” or even “this is how WE should behave.” Well, WE (i.e. atheists) may or may not typically fall prey to religious indoctrination, but that appeal isn’t very cogent.

Thought Policing: One of the more compelling features of this argument lies in its implied comparison with believers. It is not merely that Silverman is suggesting that his atheist critics have been indoctrinated; he is reminding atheists that the conduct in question is unbecoming for unbelievers..This is classic thought policing., which goes a little beyond the normal ad hominem to invoke peer pressures and trigger loyalties associated with group membership. Just how significant such loyalties may be for atheists is an interesting question, but the argument still works this angle. The social dynamics at issue thus overshadow the rational significance of the argument itself.

Diagram: I take it that 2 and 3 are intended (with missing assumption [4] to prove statement 1, which is in turn intended to demonstrate the truth of the missing conclusion (statement 5).

2+3+[4] -> 1 -> [5].


Evaluation: Let’s consider both inferences:

2+3+[4]=>1. The truth of each of the assumptions in this inference would certainly be debatable. It isn’t clear that religious claims are all untrue (much less that they are lies), nor is it clear that lies deserve death (which is presumably a metaphor indicating the discrediting of such claims and a hope that they will eventually cease to circulate). If we assume by protection that Silverman means only protection from criticism (and not protection from coercive sanctions, then perhaps statement 3 fairs reasonably well in the truth evaluation, though a creative thinker could probably find a reason to protect at least some lies.

The inference itself fairs no better. It isn’t clear that objections to the billboards are offered in an attempt to ‘protect’ religion. Nor is it clear that the billboards play any constructive role in advancing the demise of religious beliefs.

If one doesn’t assume the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s intent, the problem becomes still sharper insofar as specific concerns about specific billboards may well address the effectiveness of those billboards in advancing a critique of religion.

4 -> 5: This is arguably an ad hominem (circumstantial) and/or an argument from Provincialism, as outlined above. In either event, the inference would be fallacious. Also, the argument side-steps the possibility that atheists might have reasons to oppose the billboard campaign other than latent sympathy for religious sentiment.

Also, if we do not adopt the charitable interpretation of Silverman’s position, it seems clear that atheists (even those who genuinely hope to confront religion whenever possible) may have a number of concerns about specific messages contained on specifi billboards.

I think the argument has to be considered unsound.

Final Thoughts: In the end, this argument does strike me as a simple effort to engage in thought policing. It effectively urges atheists to support their own camp regardless of any concerns they may have about the specific messages placed on these billboards or the general effectiveness of public billboards as a means of challenging religious views.

Phil Robertson’s Argument from Rape

Introduction: On March 20th, 2015, Phil Robertson spoke at an event known as the Vero Beach Prayer Breakfast in Florida. The Duck Dynasty star is an outspoken evangelical Christian who has espoused right wing political views on a number of occasions. Robertson’s talk included an elaborate rape fantasy which soon generated a great deal of controversy.

The full speech can be heard on True News. Critical Responses can be found on Right Wing Watch as well as a number of other sources. The excerpt used below came from Time Magazine.

Key Facts: Most of Robertson’s critics have focused on questions about his representation of atheism, it should be noted that the purpose of his speech is to show that faith in God is central to morality. The passage presented below follows a reading of comments from the psychologist Orval Hobart Mowrer. Mowrer’s comments had focused on the effort to eliminate the concept of sin from psychology, efforts Mowrer appeared to regard as unsuccessful (at least as Robertson quotes him). Robertson provides no source citation for the Mowrer quotes which he finishes up by noting that Mowrer committed suicide. (The implication appears to be that Mowrer’s work in secular psychology led to the suicide. This narrative would be complicated by Mowrer’s own embrace of Christian messages.) Robertson’s overall point thus advances the general notion that all moral consciousness stems from acceptance of Jesus. Robertson further asserts that a broad range of worlds views are simply attempts to escape this fact. His remarks about atheism must be taken as a sub-argument toward this larger conclusion.


I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged? Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this? There’s no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this? But you’re the one who says there is no God, there’s no right, there’s no wrong, so we’re just having fun. We’re sick in the head, have a nice day.’


Comments: The central argument of this passage is folded into a story. It may be best to group much of the details of the story into one statement.

Statements: I am grouping most of the story scenario itself into one single claim. I’ve tried to isolate the rest of the claims made in this argument below and presented them in bold. No effort was made to clean up the punctuation after doing so, and various bits and pieces that don’t contribute to the logic of the argument are left dangling, so to speak. Anyway, here it is!


I’ll make a bet with you.

[1] Two guys break into an atheist’s home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say,

[2] ‘Isn’t it great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3] Isn’t it great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[4] There’s no right or wrong,

now is it dude?’

[1] Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say,

[5] ‘Wouldn’t it be something if this [sic] was something wrong with this?

But you’re the one who says

[6] there is no God,

[4] there’s no right, there’s no wrong,


[7] we’re just having fun.

[8] We’re sick in the head,

have a nice day.’


Discussion: This argument raises the following issues; Indirection, interactional eclipse, paraphrasing, reduction ad absurdum, redundant assertions, rhetorical questions, straw man, and voicing.

Indirection and Interactional Eclipse: Most of the controversy over this passage has bypassed any straight-forward evaluation of Phil Robertson’s argument to focus on questions about why he would want to field such an elaborate rape fantasy in the first place. This does not exactly go to the logic of the argument, but it is a perfectly legitimate question.

Such imagery is likely generate significant (negative) emotional response. When delivered in person, an argument portraying someone as the victim of graphic violence serves to intimidate or anger its target, so much so that any rational dialogue is likely to end. But of course Phil Robertson isn’t exactly talking to atheists. He is speaking to an audience of believers (though his speech was recorded and hence shared with a wider public). This illustrates a common feature of Christian apologetics, namely its use of indirection. Phil frames his argument as one against atheism, but it is actually an argument intended for an audience consisting primarily of true believers. It’s probative value as a means of furthering debate with unbelievers thus takes a back-seat to its value as a message to the faithful, and any adverse reactions by atheists would thus have little meaning to Phil or his audience (except perhaps for the side-benefit of generating Schadenfreude.

In the end, we are left with a kind of rhetorical pornography, an argument that plays ironically to the prurient interests of its audience without doing much to advance the soundness of their position.

Paraphrasing: The argument requires some paraphrasing to piece together. Three rhetorical questions require rewording (see below) and the opening teaser line needs some fleshing out. I’m inclined to see it as a reference to statement number 5. If you were to finish the thought, I think it would look something like this:

[5] [Atheists will object to the actions taking place in this story.]

Reduction as Absurdum: The overall structure of the argument is that of a reductio. Phil Robertson doesn’t attend much to the details, and hence his sub-deduction leaves a lot to be desired, but it would seem he is trying to show us that atheism leads to a contradiction of sorts.

Redundant assertions: Claim number 4 is made twice. Robertson further alludes to claim 5 at the outset of the argument, though he only makes the claim explicit later in the argument,

Rhetorical Questions: Claims 2, 3, and 5 actually take the form of questions. The following revisions may be used in order to transform them into statements.

[2a] [It is] great that I don’t have to worry about being judged?

[3a] [It is] great that there’s nothing wrong with this?

[5a] [There should be] something wrong with this?

Straw Man: The most common complaint relating to the logic of this argument is that Phil Robertson has misrepresented atheists to the degree that he assumes all atheists reject the notion of moral values. There are of course a good many atheists who would object to the notion that there is no right or wrong, and they would object strenuously to the notion their own views amounted to such a position. From this standpoint, Robertson’s argument misrepresents atheism. It isn’t even particularly subtle about it.

It should be noted that Christian apologists often field a somewhat more moderate version of this argument by suggesting that atheist may be moral and decent people, but that they are unable to provide an adequate philosophical basis for any moral attitude they may have. Phil’s argument seems to share in this approach at least to the degree that he makes little effort to base his position on the claims of actual atheists (though his Mowrer quote seems to provide a token effort along these lines). In the end, this simply isn’t Phil Robertson’s approach. he isn’t merely suggesting that atheists lack for a sound philosophical account of their morality. His argument explicitly attributes to atheists claims rejecting moral values.

Although there are certainly atheists who also reject morality altogether, Phil Robertson is wrong to equate this position with atheists in general. His argument is accordingly a pretty clear case of a straw man.

Voicing: This argument contains voicing insofar as the rapists in his story appear to be speaking for Phil himself. Their words constitute his argument. Hence, the characters in the story provide a voice for the author of the argument.

Diagram: It’s tempting to abandon the hope of diagraming this argument. Aside from the lack of explicit explicit reasoning indicators Phil Robertson does seem to jump around a bit. I think I can make sense of the general flow of ideas here, but this seems to rely on more imaginative reconstruction than I would prefer. It isn’t entirely clear for example just what Phil thinks is a reason for what, or more importantly, whether he distinguishes some of these propositions from each other at all. That said…

The key to the argument here is to remember that Phil is attacking the moral sensibilities of atheism. The whole narrative is a reduction ad absurdum directed against those sensibilities, so we begin with the core assumption to be refuted (claim number 6). Phil seems to derive two specific consequences from this, that there will be no consequences for bad behavior (claim 2)and that there is no right and wrong (claim 4). Phil thus infers from claims 3 and 4 that there is nothing wrong with the behavior in the story (claim 3) and that it should be construed either as mental illness (claim 7) or mere fun (claim 8). He then assumes that an atheist will want to object to the behavior anyway (claim 5), thus refuting the initial assumption (number 6) which he started with.

Back of the envelope alright!

Back of the envelope alright!

Evaluation: I’ll just call attention to a few problematic steps in the argument. Note that it is in claims 2 and 4 that the Straw man mentioned above enter Robertson’s argument.

A) The inference from 6 to 2 is weak at best. Without God, people may still be accountable to other people and/or social institutions.

B) The inference from 6 to 4 is likely nil. If absence of a a God entails a lack of moral values, Phil Robertson has done little to show this. Of course that is the point of the overall argument, but the presence of that notion here as an assumed basis for the inference in question would do little but make this a circular argument. In any event, the inference from 6 to 4 lacks force.

C) The inference from 2 and 4 to 3 is strong to deductively valid insofar as it would be difficult to imagine how general statements about the lack of moral values or consequences would be reconciled with the notion that there is something wrong with the specific behavior in the story. (The problem of course lies up above in the diagram.)

D) The inferences to 7 and 8 are a little beside the point. Each is little more than an elaboration of the main point which is contained in claim 3.

E) The final inference to a rejection of statement 6 is weak. At best Phil Robertson’s argument would establish a desire to believe in god, perhaps even a need for such a being in moral philosophy. It would not prove that such a being does exist.

F) Ultimately, the argument is unsound. Atheism does not logically entail the nihilism Robertson associates with it, and the moral problems Phil advances would not prove that atheists were wrong to reject belief in God if he had establish them properly.
Final Thoughts: Some might think it unwise to treat such an argument as worthy of analysis. At this point, I’m not entirely sure that they are wrong.

Michael Moore’s Thoughts on Snipers

Introduction: On January 18th, Michael Moore posted a tweet widely regarded as a comment on Chris Kyle and on the movie Sniper depicting Kyle’s service in the military. Given Moore’s status as a left wing activist and critic of the Iraq War, it should come as no surprise that he would object to a film that seems to portray Kyle as a hero. Moore seems to suggest that Kyle is nothing of the kind, eve going so far as to imply that Kyle is in fact a coward.

Key Facts: It’s worth noting that much of Hollywood’s portrayal of snipers would fit more in line with Moore’s comments in this instance. Snipers usually make their way into a film as a menace to the heroes, or as complex characters with a deeply ambivalent sense of their own role in combat. It is only in more recent depictions that they have begun to occupy the relatively more straight-foreword role of heroes in films such as Blackhawk Down.

Text: Here is a screenshot of the tweet.