From: [law student]
Sent: Sat 12/11/2004 7:53 PM
To: Jessica M Wilson
Subject: Silly Generalizations
Dear Jessica Wilson,
As a conservative at Harvard Law School who considers himself perfectly good at argumentation and perfectly able to argue most liberals into submission, I find the post on your blog titled: "On the possibility of getting through to the right" to be rather silly. I'm suprised that you, a philosophy professor, who should take the exploration of knowledge to a higher level,
resort to these sorts of silly arguments. Having been through a zillion debates with people of all different points of view, I can attest to the fact that logical fallacies are quite common on the left, as well as the right.
I think it is understandable if you have a hard time finding logical problems in arguments that you agree with. That is perfectly natural. I suggest you try harder.
You write: "But really, why should I be surprised that right-wingers are generally not very good at good argument?"
But really, I have found that left-wingers are not generally good at argument. In fact, I would say that people are generally not very good at argument, regardless of ideology. It is a skill. Avoiding common logical fallacies does not come naturally to people.
I get the impression that you are less critical of people you agree with, which, if true, is unfortunate.
Second, even if right-wingers were, as you assert, more prone to bad argumentation, that really does not vindicate your left-wing ideas. In fact, many of the debates, as Im sure you know, are not susceptible to objective resolution. Second, you should be comparing your ideas to the most sound among your ideological opponents, not those with weaker argumentation
skills. I can out argue pretty much any six year old. (Assuming I have the stamina!) But what does that prove about my argument? Nothing. Your ability to out match those who have failed to improve their argumentation skills proves nothing about the merits of your ideas. Nothing. Just as when I soundly trump a less-informed liberal who is not trained to avoid logical fallacies in debate really does not demonstrate anything about the merits of my ideas.
Dear [law student],
I appreciate and am not surprised that you feel the way you do. As I said in my post, I admit that there are exceptions to my claim that rightwingers are generally not very good at good argumention. However, as I also said, there are characteristic argumentative flaws that I believe are more frequently found among the general run of rightwingers. I don't have the time to try to argue you "into submission", as you put it, on this issue, but I will mention a couple of salient points. I teach good argumentation for a living, and consequently I have some expertise in identifying better and worse argumentation. This expertise can presumably be employed in assessing argumentation that either supports or does not support positions that (as a result of previous assessings of argumentation) I antecedently endorse. Insofar as the proper functioning of our present legal system depends on the possibility of persons (in particular, judges) being capable of doing just this, I presume you agree with me. Hence I stand by my observations concerning the generally much better argumentative skills possessed by those endorsing progressive positions.
I do agree with you, however, that progressives and rightwingers alike should be comparing our ideas to the most sound among our ideological opponents, not those with weaker argumentation skills. My focus on the more obvious failures of argumentation in the Left2Right threads probably obscured my agreement on this point.
On the other hand, as my link to Benj's post "Some epistemology" (see also further discussion and evidence here, here, here, here, here, and here) on whether the left is more reliable than the right was intended to recall, I do think that even the best argumentation of the rightwingers tends (again, with some few exceptions) to be deeply flawed. The argumentation of more "sophisticated" rightwingers tends to be bad not in being transparently logically flawed or beside the point, but rather in being enthymematic (that is, citing only a few of the relevant premises) or unsound (that is, citing false premises). Of course, there's a reason for this. As Benj points out, the agenda associated with the American right wing is against the best economic and social interests of the vast majority of persons, and is rather intended to enrich the already wealthy few at the expense (financial, environmental, etc.) of the many. In order to get people to acquiesce in such an agenda, then, the fact that this agenda is harmful to them has to be hidden behind a wall of irrelevant rhetoric (of the sort characteristic of rightwing propaganda mills, such as Fox News) or bad argumentation (of the sort characteristic of rightwing think tanks or academics who are "embedded" in the institutions that directly or indirectly benefit the already wealthy few).
You might respond that whether the rightwing agenda is or is not in the best interests of the many is part of what is under discussion, or you might deny that bettering the interests of the many as opposed to the already wealthy few is a worthwhile objective. Or else you might think that there is no fact of the matter here for us to discover: "even if right-wingers were, as you assert, more prone to bad argumentation, that really does not vindicate your left-wing ideas. In fact, many of the debates, as I'm sure you know, are not susceptible to objective resolution". I reject any of the aforementioned responses. I rather believe that the majority of the issues dividing the left from the right are susceptible to objective resolution---as I put it, by "every reasonable factual standard and nearly every reasonable moral standard (such that provincial prejudices and antiquated religious dictates are not enshrined as virtues)". Moreover, I believe (as against the second sort of response) that bettering the interests of the many as opposed to those of the already wealthy few is not an objective that can reasonably be questioned, and I believe (as against the first sort of response) that the facts are already in on the question of whether rightwing or progressive policies are better capable of fulfilling that objective.
Hence progressives have a natural advantage over even the most reasonable rightwingers, argumentatively speaking: the premises progressives endorse are more likely to be true, and they needn't engage in enthymematic argumentation in order for their conclusions to logically follow from their premises.