Corporate Peoples

Introduction: In August of 2011, then Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney made these comments during a campaign speech. Romney begins this segment by underscoring the need to balance the national budget and ensure that Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare are properly funded. He then mentions raising taxes as an option which he does not favor. When an audience member’s suggested that corporations could be taxed, Romney produces the argument we are looking at here. So, the larger context of the discussion is a question about a balanced budget and the prospect of taxing corporations, but the specific point of this argument is the claim that corporations are (in some sense) people.

Key Facts: This conversation takes place in the wake of a controversial Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. FEC, 2010. In this decision, SCOTUS affirmed that corporations are persons under U.S. law and held that their free speech rights under the the First Amendment preclude government specific regulations governing contributions to political campaigns. Although the notion that corporations are persons under the law did not originate with Citizens United, this particular application of the principle was sufficiently controversial to draw public attention (and criticism) to the concept. So, Romney’s response to his hecklers effectively evoked the language of the court and steered the conversation squarely into ongoing debate over Citizens United.

Text: The Youtube transcript for this video wasn’t very helpful, so most of this is my own transcription. I have cleaned up the text a bit, omitting an effort to follow up on Romney’s initial point about taxation, and leaving out comments from the audience to which Romney is clearly responding. I did leave some conversational repair in the text.

“Corporations are people, my friend. …Of course they are. Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people. So… Where do you think it goes? What? What? Whose pockets? Whose pockets? People’s pockets. Okay. Human beings my friends.”


Comments: As part of the 2012 political campaign, this specific argument is a bit dated. On the other hand, the notion that corporations are people (or persons) is still part of the public landscape, and many still find this notion quite objectionable. Romney’s reasoning is still representative of much of the pro Citizens United approach to the subject.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this argument takes unfolds under less-than-ideal conditions. Romney is responding to hecklers. His hecklers aren’t the worst you could imagine, and his efforts to reason with them are better than many speakers might attempt. Still, this is not the most idea context for a thoughtful conversation about taxation.

Statements: Even this simplified transcript contains a number of things that don’t contribute directly to the argument. Ultimately, the passage provides us with two clear statements on the subject.

[1] Corporations are people.

my friend.

…Of course they are.

[2] Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to people.


Where do you think it goes?

What? What?

Whose pockets? Whose pockets?

[2] People’s pockets.


[2] Human beings my friends.”

Diagram: This is a simple argument in which a single premise (articulated in whole or in part, several times) is offered in support of a single conclusion.

2 ->1

Discussion: This argument presents the following themes; Ambiguity, Composition, Equivocation, Footing, Misplaced Literalism, Motte and Bailey Doctrines, Principle of Charity, Voicing.

Ambiguity: The conclusion of Romney’s argument can be interpreted in at least 2 different ways; one in which the point is to make a direct statement about the nature of corporations (i.e. to say that they have the characteristics of personhood, at least insofar as U.S. law is concerned), and another in which he is using the language figuratively to remind people that you cannot penalize a corporation (whatever its actual nature) without penalizing people. In the second of the two interpretations, statement 1 could be read more like; “Whatever you do to corporations, you do to people.” We could call these two approaches ‘the relatively literal’ interpretation and the ‘figurative’ interpretation.

There is a second ambiguity in this argument insofar as the reference to corporations as ‘people’ evokes the concept of corporate personhood, but not exactly. It is common to think of ‘people’ as a plural reference to persons, or as a reference to collective groups of persons, but personhood can sometimes be attributed to non-human beings such as other entities, animals, or fictional characters. Simply put, a person need not be a human being whereas the plural reference to people would normally be taken to apply only to a bunch of human beings. This is a distinction not always observed in conversations about Citizens United, but Romney’s failure to say ‘person’ instead of ‘people’complicates the issue a bit. If we take his specific wording to mean literally human beings, then this points us away from the likelihood that he meant to invoke the legal significance of corporate personhood.

Composition: If we assume the argument is meant to consistently advocate a relatively literal approach to corporate personhood, it commits the fallacy of division. The fact that costs incurred by a corporation will impact those people investing in (or otherwise doing business with) a corporation doesn’t mean that the corporation itself is a person, literally or otherwise. Under this interpretation, this argument simply takes an attribute of those who make up and do business with corporations and attributes it to the corporations themselves.

Equivocation: Another way of thinking about this argument would be to think of Romney as actually shifting his own interpretation of his main point between his premise and his conclusion. In the conclusion, he is attributing the trait of personhood to corporations whereas in his premise Romney is merely suggesting that corporations impact the welfare of people. The meaning of ‘people’ itself might be said to shift between Romney’s premise and his conclusion. Of course, if this is the case, then Romney’s argument simply commits the fallacy of equivocation, so this rather complex way of interpreting the argument doesn’t really improve on one treating it as consistently advocating a relatively literal interpretation of corporate personhood.

There is a second equivocation nested into the first, and has to do with who Romney is talking about when he talks about ‘people.’ His own language evokes a seemingly egalitarian sense of the impact that corporate taxation has on people in general, but this raises questions about how corporate profits are distributed between investors and CEOs, or reinvested in the business, or even magnified or diminished through fluctuations in the stock market. There are lots of twists and turns in the business world that can channel profits away from some or all of the people who might be involved in a corporation. By simply treating corporations as people, even figuratively, Romney avoids any need to account for these possibilities, offering up instead a sense that what we do to corporations ultimately impacts people. In effect, he invites us to imagine corporate profits will go to the average American, knowing full well that quite often this is simply not the case.

Footing: It is interesting to note that Romney repeatedly refers to his audience, and even his hecklers, as ‘friends,’ This suggests a conscious effort to emphasize solidarity with them. This works in concert with his efforts to suggest that corporate profits lead to ‘people’ in general. What Romney uses strategic ambiguity to suggest in his argument is thus echoed in his efforts to cast the conversation as one occurring between friends. he is thus minimizing real differences and real conflicts within the American political economy both in his explicit argument and in his contextualization of that argument.

Misplaced Literalism: If Romney language was meant figuratively, then the relatively literal interpretation of his argument would be a mistake. Unfortunately, it isn’t clear from his actual statements which approach he has in mind, and his choice to assert that ‘corporations are people’ is conspicuous in the context of life just after Citizens United. It doesn’t match the language of the decision precisely, but neither does it fall into any more common patterns for talking about the issue, so it seems reasonable to suspect that he meant to evoke the principles announced in that decision. I do not see a clear basis for settling this question.

Motte and Bailey Doctrines: This might actually be a good example of a motte and bailey doctrine in action. Insofar as the relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s conclusion would make it an expression of corporate personhood as the Supreme Court currently applies the concept. This concept then provides a kind of short-hand in which the actual rights persons are applied to corporations as a matter of doctrine (the bailey), even as those seeking to explain this principle may frequently do so by reminding us that real people will be impacted by anything that effects a corporation (the motte). In effect, a common sense reminder about the real world impact that corporations have on people serves to provide an apparently sound defense for a range of ideas about how corporations may exercise the rights of a person in ways that may actually hurt actual human beings.

Principle of Charity: The relatively literal interpretation of Romney’s argument likely commits the fallacy of Composition (see above). Alternatively, the figurative interpretation is less clearly fallacious, but it does leave unanswered a lot of questions about the real impact that taxes on corporations will have on people. Romney may have answers for these questions, but they do not come out in this argument (the notion that corporations are people enables him to skip these questions). Barring sound reason to think Romney intends his conclusion to be interpreted in the relatively literal sense, the principle of charity would point to the second interpretation of the argument as the best way to go.

Voicing: Insofar as Romney asserts that corporations are people, his language evokes the court’s ruling in Citizens United (along with a range of related case law). In effect, he is giving voice to Supreme Court’s views on this subject by evoking their language (or something close to it) in his own campaign. This also means, Romney’s hecklers (and other critics) are effectively fighting back against the Supreme Court when they criticize Romney over this statement. So, the U.S Supreme Court acquires a presence in the immediate context of this speech (and in turn, within the 2012 Presidential campaign) through the voice of Romney.

Evaluation: At the end of the day, I do think the best way to approach this would be to apply the principle of charity to Romney’s argument, treat it as a figurative way of reminding us what happens to corporations affects people and evaluate the argument on that basis. That said…

Statement 2: This statement is true, but only in the most trivial sense of the word. Romney may wish us to think of corporate earnings as going to people in general (or specifically to those investing in, working for, or working with corporations), but this does not always happen (as a former corporate raider like Romney would know very well). We might say that the earnings will ultimately go to some persons, but we have little reason to believe they will be distributed equitably to ‘people’ in some general sense. This makes the abstract recipient of earnings (‘people’) that Romney references more than a little suspect.

Inference from 2 to 1: This inference is weak at best. Even using a highly figurative approach to Romney’s conclusion, he is avoiding all sorts of questions about how different policies impact people with different roles in the economy. the fact of the matter is corporate prosperity does not necessarily lead to prosperity for the general public, or even for the majority of those involved in a given corporation. What happens to corporations does not translate directly into real world impact on actual people. Any such impact is filtered through a range of legal and political arrangements which commonly turn good news into bad for selected parties and visa versa.

Hell, raising corporate taxes might even be a bad idea, as Romney clearly believes, but this argument does not help us to understand that.

The argument is unsound because the reasons given provide little support for the conclusion.

Final thoughts: I suppose in the end the biggest problem with this entire discussion lies in the mythic language in which it takes place. Whether we are to take that language literally or figuratively, it does nothing to help us understand the real world impact of corporate taxation or any other economic policies. We could imagine thoughtful discussion of the pros and cons of shifting more of the tax burden to corporations. That conversation simply did not take place at this event.

Wisdom of the Oompa Loompas

Introduction: This argument is a (hopefully) well known part of the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factor, which was produced in 1971. In this film, the Oompa Loompas, mysterious workers at the chocolate factory sing a number of songs amounting to criticism of the children featured in the story. Each of the Oompa Loompa songs effectively points out the misconduct of an individual child and makes a case for changing that behavior.

This particular passage is the tune the Oompa Loompa’s sing at Violet Beauregarde, a girl who obviously likes her gum.

Key Facts: It’s worth considering that the Oompa Loompas play the role of a chorus in much the same manner that the convention was used in old Greek theater. In this case, they deliver a moral lesson which not only speaks to the characters in the story but also echoes lessons many parents might have given their own children.

Text: Here tis!

“Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while
It stops you from smoking and brightens your smile
But it’s repulsive, revolting and wrong
Chewing and chewing all day long
The way that a cow does.”


Comments: I got nuthin!

Statements: In the following, statement 5 is rewritten so as to spell out the comparison. Statement 6 is the implied conclusion of the entire argument. It comes very close to matching statement 1, but it also entails the negative implications of chewing too much, which is of course the main thrust of the moral lesson.

[1] Gum chewing’s fine when it’s once in a while.

[2] It stops you from smoking.

[3] (It) brightens your smile.

[4] It’s repulsive, revolting and wrong chewing and chewing all day long.

[5] [Cows chew gum all day long.]

[6] [Gum should be chewed in moderation.]

Diagram: the diagram for this argument seems pretty straight-forward to me. Two reasons to say gum chewing is okay in moderation and one to show that it’s bad to chew gum too much. These two combine together to suggest a general proposition about doing the one and not the other.

Note that an alternative approach might be to spell out a more explicit negative statement about the need to avoid excessive gum chewing. This would perhaps capture the immediate significance of the lesson directed at Viola in the wake of her blueberry gum fiasco, but it has the down-side of complicating the signifcance of the counterpoint (that gum chewing is good when done in moderation), so I have opted here to treat the point as a more general lesson. Either approach seems plausible to me.

Discussion: This argument raises the following themes; Analogy, Appeal to Emotion, Causation, Missing Assertions, Moral Reasoning, Voicing.

Analogy: The Oompa Loompas compare shewing gum to the behavior of a cow chewing cud. Whether or not this is a good reason to avoid chewing gum is another question.

Appeal to Emotion: The main thrust of the analogy to cows chewing cud appears to be an appeal to emotion.

Causation: Both statements 2 and 3 suggest a causative relationship between chewing gum and some desirable effect. Whether or not these claims are justified is open to question, but they are sufficient to suggest that this argument involves a degree of causal reasoning, unsupported as the argument is in it’s current form. (Damned Oompa Loompa’s never cite any peer-reviewed papers!)

Missing Assertions: As is common in a great deal of reasoning, the actual conclusion of this argument is unstated in the original song. There are a couple different ways to think about what that final conclusion would be, but in its original form, the implications are left unstated.

Moral Reasoning: As the argument in question here is about how people (and in particularly children) should moderate their fum-chewing, it raises familiar questions about what it means to say that someone should or should not do something.

In this tune as well as the others, the Oompa Loompas seem to emphasize the negative effects of the behavior in question which suggests that this argument might be best construed in consequentialist terms. They are suggesting that excessive gum-chewing will make someone look foolish, or at least cowlish.

Voicing: I think it’s fair to suggest that the Oompa Loompas speak for the show in this and their other songs, in effect providing a moral lesson directed specifically at the children in the viewing audience. When Viola and the others produce arguments expressing their own vies on these topics, they appear to be voicing the imagined voices of children in need of correction. The events of the story then reveal the foolishness of their actions, and the Oompa Loompas arrive to drive the point home with a specific moral lesson. That moral lesson is a real lesson directed at children who may be trying to decide how to deal with issues such as how much gum should I chew.

Evaluation: I’m not going to do a complete evaluation here, but I will mention a couple of specific themes.

Statement 2: As part of a lesson directed at children this is an odd point to make at the very least, but presumably it could be interpreted as a claim relevant to the conduct of adults which would also be a concern to children. Either way, we could ask whether or not chewing gum actually stops people from smoking. That those trying to kick a smoking habit often chew gum in place of it would seem to suggest that there may be some connection here, at least in this specific context, but it is by no means clear that gum chewing in general serves to keep people from smoking,

Statement 3: I am not at all sure that this statement is true, either in general or in specific contexts such as right after a meal.

5->4: This inference is questionable at best. Presumably, the point of the analogy is to suggest that one would not wish to behave as a cow does, but it isn’t clear that there is any objective reason for this preference. Neither is it clear that moderate gum-chewing would be any less comparable to chewing cud than constant gum-chewing. Arguably this is a pretty naked attempt to trigger an emotional reaction.

Final Thoughts: The temptation to finish with an Oompa Loompa tune about good reasoning is very strong here, but I am going to show restraint, and I think the Oompa Loompas would be proud.

A Hopi Comments on American Music

Introduction: This story appears in the book, Native American Testimony by Peter Nabokov. It is attributed to Fred Coyote of the Wailaki people. Wailaki and Hopi are two different Native American peoples. This is nevertheless a story about an exchange between a Hopi elder and an anthropologist.

Key Facts: Hopi dwell in a relatively dry region of northern Arizona. As with a lot of indigenous peoples, they have seen their share of anthropologists intent on learning about their ways. The story thus begins with a perfectly plausible exchange between an anthropologist and a Hopi elder about Hopi music and its relationship to the environment. A final twist in the story reveals a completely different point.

Text: Peter Nabokov, Ed., Native American Testimony, Revised Edition. 1978. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. It can be found on page 392-393. Note that the section quoted below begins after several paragraphs of narrative in which the anthropologist in question keeps asking a Hopi elder to explain various songs only to find each time that the song is about water.

And so it went all afternoon. And every time the old man would sing a song, the ‘anthro’ would say, ‘What’s that about?’ And the old man would explain it. It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.

And the anthropologist was getting a little short tempered. He said, ‘Is water all you people sing about down here?’

And this old man said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here. Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people, to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need.’ And he said, ‘I listen to a lot of American music. Seems like most American music is about love.’ He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?’


Comments: Anthropologists take a lot of grief, much of it deserved. Still, the reaction of anthropologist in this story seems counter-intuitive. Hell, I think lots of anthros would be happy to find such a clear and consistent pattern in their notes. Still, he makes a good stand-in for the many non-native voices that have had bad things to say about Native American practices.

Statements: For purposes of this analysis, I have omitted much of the narrative framing and focused on the arguments attributed to the Hopi elder. I’ve taken the liberty of summarizing the first few sentences (and much of the larger text that was omitted here) in terms of one simple assertion (statement 1). I believe this is a fair estimation of the point behind these comments lead up to. I have also taken the liberty of rewriting the final question as a statement (number 7).

[1] Hopi songs are virtually all about water.

[2] For thousands of years in this country we’ve learned to live here

[3] [The reason for the theme in question is] Because our need for this water is so great to our families and to our people.

[4] to our nations most of our songs are about our greatest need

[5] I listen to a lot of American music

[6] Seems like most American music is about love.

[7] [Americans need love.]


Analogy: This is a good example of analogical reasoning The Hopi elder in this story begins with an explanation for the musical themes of his own people and then infers a similar explanation for the American public in general.

Explanation: The word ‘because’ in this argument could trip people up, particularly if they have recently been circling inference indicators in order to help them learn the difference between reasons and conclusions. In this instance, the ‘because’ isn’t really using the statement that follows to prove anything. It is suggesting that the rest of statement 3 is the cause of statement 1. Of course this text still presents us with an argument, but that argument involves a claim about the best explanation for the  central observations made by the anthropologist. Sorting the explanation from the rest of the argument is crucial to getting the argument right.

Redundant Assertions: Statement 1 is a very simplified version of the main point behind much of the text in the actual story.  The narrator, the anthropologist, and the Hopi elder all affirm the truth of the claim (though the anthropologist does so through a rhetorical question). Statement 1 thus expresses the point in each of the following claims:

{1a} “It’s about something or other – a river, rain, water.”

[1b] “Is water all you people sing about down here?”

[1c] “Yes.”

Rhetorical Questions: The question: “He said, ‘Is that why? Is that because you don’t have very much?'” is rhetorical. It has been rewritten as statement 7.

Voicing: At face value, this isn’t even an argument. It’s a story. The argument is plot a development that unfolds within the story itself. The author nevertheless uses the story to voice an argument about mainstream American culture. In effect, the argument of the elder is the argument of the narrator.

Diagram: This is the diagram as I see it.

argI reckon statements 1 and 2 combine to prove 3, effectively telling us that a need for water is the reason for the prominent musical theme. Statement 3 is then used as an anecdote illustrating the truth of 4. Statement 4 is then used as the major premise, taken in conjunction with 6 (a new observation about Americans in general) to prove statement 7.


I figure statement 5 is an effort to provide evidence for statement 7.

This isn’t the cleanest argument structure you could find, but I’m pretty confident about most of it. The inference from 3 to 4 is the shakiest part of the diagram. It’s a big jump, and we could probably imagine a few different ways to look at the relationship between those statements. Still, people often derive a general principle from a single example. They may have unstated reasons for doing so, but this type of inference isn’t all that unusual.

Evaluation: I don’t see fallacies in this argument, and I don’t see deductive validity.  Most of the inferences here provide a little evidence for the conclusion, but they might be considered more suggestive than definitive. The result is a bunch of judgement calls.

1+2 -> 3. The notion that need for water is the best explanation for the musical theme emphasizing it is certainly plausible. We could explore other explanations, and knowing how to weigh them would raise questions not really covered in the argument. Is the argument enough? Hard to say, so I would consider this inference ‘moderate’.

3 -> 4. This is a Hell of a jump. The inference is ‘weak’ at best.

5 -> 6. This would be a kind of argument from authority. It’s a light version of authority, but the speaker is essentially using his personal experience to back the truth of his observation about American music. The strength of the inference thus rests on his authority to report that experience accurately.

Of course, listeners might find that statement 6 resonates with their own experience in listening to American music in which case they might not need an argument.

Either way, the inference is ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

4+6 -> 7. Once again the inference is reasonable, but we could probably find other explanations for the prominent theme in American music. What really accounts for the prominence of ‘love’ themes in American music is a tough question, though the Hopi elder certainly makes a plausible case. I would consider this inference ‘weak’ to ‘moderate’.

Final Thoughts: It does occur to me that this whole thing could seem rather petty to some readers. Why is the Hopi elder taking a dig at Americans in general? But of course explicit contrasts between the merits of mainstream American culture and that of Native Americans are very much a part of the history of Indian-white relations. That’s why it appears in Nabokov’s book. Whether or not this particular story is true, we can certainly find numerous instances in which non-natives have taken it upon themselves to comment on the short-comings of Native American culture, and unfortunately numerous cases in which such views informed actual policies with harmful effects.  The dig taken at mainstream American culture should probably be understood in this regard. It is as much an effort to counter-balance aggression from outsiders as it is a direct criticism of American culture.


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.

First Woman’s Argument (NSFW?)

Introduction: This argument comes from the emergence narratives of the Diné (Navajo). These stories relate the origins of the Navajo people and convey a good deal about their values and sense of the natural order in the process. The passage below begins a section of these stories commonly described as “the separation of the sexes,” a narrative dealing with gender roles and marital relations. The version of the story we are using here comes from a book known as Diné Behane (The Navajo Creation Story) by Paul Zolbrod, published in 1987 by the University of New Mexico Press. Zolbrod’s work pieces together all of the stories of Navajo cosmogony into a single narrative, a bit like a Navajo Bible. This portion of Zolbrod’s work has been made available at the Twin Rocks Trading Post website.

Just a note of warning: This example has an adult theme.

Key Facts: The argument in question begins in the second block of text. The rest may be treated as context.


Altse’ hastiin the First Man became a great hunter in the fourth world. So he was able to provide his wife Altse’ asdzaa’ the First Woman with plenty to eat. As a result, she grew very fat. Now one day he brought home a fine, fleshy deer. His wife boiled some of it, and together they had themselves a hearty meal. When she had finished eating, Altse asdzaa’ the First Woman wiped her greasy hands on her sheath.
She belched deeply. And she had this to say:
“Thank you shijoozh my vagina,” she said.
“Thank you for that delicious dinner.”
To which Altse’ hastiin the First Man replied this way:
“Why do you say that?” he replied.
“Why not thank me?
“Was it not I who killed the deer whose flesh you have just feasted on?
“Was it not I who carried it here for you to eat?
“Was it not I who skinned it?
“Who made it ready for you to boil?
“Is nijoozh your vagina the great hunter, that you should thank it and not me?”

To which Altse’ asdzaa’ offered this answer:
“As a matter of fact, she is,” offered she.
“In a manner of speaking it is joosh the vagina who hunts.
“Were it not for joosh you would not have killed that deer.
“Were it not for her you would not have carried it here.
“You would not have skinned it.
“You lazy men would do nothing around here were it not for joosh.
“In truth, joosh the vagina does all the work around here.”


Comments: First Woman is presenting an extremely cynical view of gender relations, and particularly of sexual activity. Not surprisingly, things get worse from the completion of her argument. As the story unfolds, men and women will go their own way only to learn how much they need each other. One might suggest that First Woman’s argument is set forth here for the explicit purpose of countering it with the overall storyline.

It’s easy enough to see how this could provide the kicker for a discussion of gender-relations, but it could provide an interesting jumping off point for discussions about utilitarian reasoning and the objectification of others. One might even wish to invoke Kantian themes about treating other people as ends rather than means here. Is First Woman treating reducing First Man to a means? Is she suggesting that he does the same to her?  Of course the problem with all of this lies in the crude battle-of-the-sexes nature of this passage. Some of the less mature students in a classroom could pick that up and run with it right off the cliff of good sense. If using this example in a critical thinking exercise, it might be worth thinking in advance about how you want to steer the conversation.

Side note: I once had a Navajo student comment that this story may reflect the influence of missionaries insofar as it seems to portray First Woman in a rather bad light here. she is essentially playing much the same role as Eve insofar as she begins the argument which will lead to the undoing of everything. As Navajos are a matrilineal society, she thought it unlikely that her own people would produce such a story, at least not on their own. I can’t say one way or another myself, but the comment has always struck me as worthy of consideration.

Statements: Here, the elements of First Woman’s argument have been placed in bold and numbered in square brackets.

“[1a] As a matter of fact, she is,” offered she.
“[1b] In a manner of speaking it is joosh the vagina who hunts.
“[2] Were it not for joosh you would not have killed that deer.
“[3] Were it not for her you would not have carried it here.
“[4] You would not have skinned it.
“[5] You lazy men would do nothing around here were it not for joosh.
“[6] In truth, joosh the vagina does all the work around here.”

Discussion: The argument raises a number of interesting issues for critical thinking; incompleteness of evaluation, redundant assertions, transposition, figurative speech, paraphrasing, indeterminate reasoning, and voicing.

Incompleteness of Evaluation: This is the kind of story often described as a myth or a legend, or conversely as a sacred narrative. I don’t want to get bogged down on what that means here, but it does have one very significant practical consequence. The events described in the narrative itself are essentially off the table for evaluation. How would one even assess the truth of the specific claims about first Man’s actions, much less his motivations. Those who adhere to a literal belief in Navajo origin legends might insist that claims 2,3, and 4 for example) are absolutely true and others of a more skeptical bent that they are literally false as the whole story is unreal. In practice, I often think it best to set aside those questions and focus on the claims with real meaning for people alive today, in effect statements 5 and 6. In such stories the details of the legendary events are presented for the purpose of foregrounding values meaningful to people today, and in this case that leaves us with an interesting argument about gender-relations. In some approaches to this argument, it would be best to skip directly to that theme while skipping the legendary events entirely.

Figurative Speech and Paraphrasing: If taken literally, it would be hard to vouch for the truth of statement 7. First Woman’s vagina does not actually hunt, and she offers this claim only “in a manner of speaking”, so the literal meaning is not quite her meaning. Proper evaluation of the argument thus requires some paraphrasing to arrive at a defensible version of the statement.

By way of paraphrasing, I would suggest the following alternative versions of statement 6.

[6b][joosh, the vagina is the reason men contribute to family life.]

[6c][joosh, the vagina is the reason any work gets done around here.]

Indeterminate Reasoning: This argument is perplexing, because several different models of First Woman’s reasoning would be consistent with the actual text. I count 3. Maybe others could find a fourth. The different models stem from radically different approaches to the text at hand.

If one takes the story at face value, then the argument is literally a matter of First Woman trying to justify her answer to First Man. Statement 1 thus provides the conclusion of the argument with larger assumptions about gender relations serving as premises for her answer. We’ll call this First Woman’s Very Particular Argument.

If on the other hand, one considers the argument a means of communicating something about gender relations, then First Woman’s account of First Man’s actions provide the assumptions with those larger themes appearing as conclusions in her argument. Statement 6 then provides the conclusion of the argument. We’ll call this First Woman’s General Argument.

Yet another variation would involve treating statements 5 and 6 as the major premise behind statements 2, 3, and 4, then use statements 2, 3, and 4 as demonstrating the truth of 1. This looks weird in a diagram, but which still seems a plausible construction of the argument. The main advantage to it, lies in the ability to focus questions of evaluation on the two premises most important to a contemporary audience. Once you’ve decided whether or not you think they are true (or to what degree they are), the rest of the argument falls into place.

Redundant Assertions and Transposition: Statement 1b is simply an elaboration of 1a. The two should accordingly be treated as the same proposition. It is possible to see statements 5 and 6 as mild variations on a single point. In fact the relationship between them comes very close to that of transposition, but that interpretation requires a little more rewriting than seems appropriate. If you wish to explore it, then I think the argument would go something like this:

[5a][If there is no joosh, then men don’t do anything.]

Therefore, [6a] [if men do something, it is due to joosh.]

Note that an extra element (causation or motivation) does appear in statement 6a. This element is not entirely a function of transposition. That’s nit-picky, I know, but makes a good reason to reject transposition as a model of the reasoning.

Voicing: There is a sense in which First Woman speaks for the narrator in this story, if only for a time. Of course different story-tellers may skew the meaning of the narrative to suit the needs of the moment, but at some point the passage expresses more general notions about gender relations. One must therefore consider (as we have above) not just the argument as an artifact between two characters in the narrative, but also what it might mean for us, so to speak.

Note: It is this question of voicing that makes the more generalized version of the argument seem more plausible. Taken at face value, it would be best to treat First Woman’s Argument as answering First Man’s question directly, but as this is a story told for the purpose of communicating something about gender relations in a broader sense, it makes more sense to focus on the broader statement as the actual point of the passage.

Diagrams: The preceding discussion leads us to three plausible constructions of First Woman’s argument.

Evaluation: The central question throughout any of these constructions of the argument is whether or not First Man (or men in general) would do anything (or at least do anything for the women in their lives) were it not for sex. This notion is most present in statement 5 which appears as a premise in all 3 of the diagrams presented above. So, in all three versions of the argument the most critical evaluation remains a question of whether or not one agrees to the truth of that statement.

In First Woman’s Very Particular Argument this could also be applied to questions about the truth of statements 2, 3, and 4. If those statements are true, then it is difficult to see how one could evade the truth of statement 1, so that inference would carry a value of strong or deductively valid. the move fro 5 to 6 also strikes me as strong as does the move from 6 to 1.

In effect, the only real question in this argument is whether or not one believes that men only help women for purpose of having sex. It’s easy enough to see that men do such things, but then again First Woman isn’t saying that men often do this; she is saying that’s always the case.

It is much the same in First Woman’s Rather General Argument, though the inference from statement 1 to statement 6 would be much more shaky (weak to moderate?).

In First Woman’s Rather Tricky Argument, virtually all of the weight rests on the truth of premises 5 and 6 as the inference to statements 2, 3, and 4 then approaches deductive validity and the inference from 2,3 and 4 to 1 is probably also high.

Final Thoughts: Although, this passage does rather clearly contain elements of reasoning, it does not do so in a way that shows exactly what is being used as a reason for what. Ultimately, what this argument might illustrate best is the indeterminacy of reasoning, or the notion that some elements of reasoning may not be a feature of the initial argument so much as a consequence of an interpretation imposed on that argument by a reader or listener. It’s difficult to escape the sense that some of these statements are meant to support others, but which is which? We end up with three plausible models of the reasoning here (or at least I do), each reflecting a different sense of what is really at stake in the discussion.

I think First Woman’s Very Particular Argument is the best representation of the argument as presented in the text, but that assumes that the point is really limited to the characters in the narrative. If one wishes to address the reasoning as applied to the contemporary world, I would take First Woman’s Rather General Argument as the most accurate model as it puts the generalization foreword as the real conclusion of the passage. That said, First Woman’s Tricky Argument is perhaps the most elegant model for purposes of evaluation as it enables us to focus our questions about the reasoning on the truth of two premises. Were I looking for a clean model of analysis, I would opt for that one.