Posts Tagged ‘sophistry’

A Whiter Shade of Pale

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

The term ambiguity is often applied to matters that are in fact not at all ambiguous. Sometimes the mis-application is simple carelessness, but in one application it is hard not to see a more active perversion.

Characters (fictional or actual) who are called morally ambiguous almost never are. Instead, the label is most often applied to two sorts of characters.

One sort is morally compromised. Those characters are not all bad; they may even be mostly good; but they are discernibly not all good. The person labelling them as morally ambiguous typically very much seems to be trying for a sort of special pleading on behalf of the character or of the moral short-comings exhibited by the character.

The other sort exhibits a combination of characteristics, some of which the audience will find attractive but some of which the person applying the label finds disagreeable, without his or her being able to make a sound case (or seemingly sound case) against those traits. By labelling the character as morally ambiguous, the labeller is insinuating doubt without reasoned foundation. Challenged, he or she will likely deny having issued a condemnation of the characteristics against which he is directing that doubt.

In application to situations, the term moral ambiguity is more likely to be legitimately applied than in application to characters. But calling a situation morally ambiguous is also often an attempt to introduce by back door a special plea for bad behavior.


(One of the papers on which I am presently working, and the paper of that lot that is likely to end-up the least mathematical, compares and contrasts some decision-theoretic states that are often mistaken one for another. One sort of these states entails ambiguity. So I have been thinking about real and specious ambiguity more generally.)

A Pair of Sophistries

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

I'm engaged in a fight with a corporation[1] in which I note its agents practice two, somewhat intertangled behaviors which are common to large or corporate enterprises, but which should be opposed whenever encountered.

The first of these is for the agent of the enterprise to confuse his or her rôle. For example: I gave agents of this corporation the same information repeatedly in the course of one phone call. In a later phone call, I told another agent that I'd given that information to you repeatedly, to which the agent replied, as if I were delusional, that she had never spoken with me before. This might be read as deliberate or incompetent misunderstanding of the word you (which of course must serve as a plural as well as a singular[2]), but it fits another pattern, in which the agent speaks as representative when it suits his or her immediate purpose, but instead as just an individual when that immediate purpose changes, and in which the agent doesn't announce changes in the entity for whom he or she speaks. I immediately told the agent in this case that, since she was representing the corporation in the conversation, you are the corporation, and that since I'd repeatedly given the information to the corporation, I had repeatedly given it to you.

The second behavior is to confuse endogenous policy with necessity, to represent the association as unable to do something simply because they have made a deliberate habit of not doing it. Actually, one sees people in general, in or out of a corporate frame-work, doing attempting this confusion. But the misrepresentation is more likely to be effective in the context of a formal, multi-personal institution, and the word policy is more likely to be invoked as if it represents something endogenous and fixed. (Does one often hear a neighbor insist that keeping his dog out of one's garden would be against policy?) And the misrepresentation is even more effective when the agent of the institution confuses the issue of whether he or she is speaking for the corporation or for his- or herself. Speaking for myself, I don't let an individual or association pretend that its chosen policy is not a choice, and I don't let the agents of an association off the hook of being its representatives when they try to claim that something cannot be done because it is against policy.


[1] Sprint Nextel Corporation.

[2] In standard English. And I'm not about to adopt y'all or youse or even you guys to humor a corporate agent.

Grossly Uncharitable Readings

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

One claim about Libertarians that won't withstand any real scrutiny — yet is very common amongst journalists and educators — is that Libertarians don't believe in doing anything to address the immediate needs of the poor. If asked to defend the claim, those who make it will either note Libertarian opposition to various state programmes, and with a crude induction draw the inference that Libertarians don't believe in doing anything to achieve the ostensible goals of those programmes, or they'll note the Libertarian objection in principle to any state programme with such goals, and treat this as QED.

Well, let's lay the form of that out:

L does not believe that X should be done by S,
therefore
L does not believe that X should be done.
Oooops! That isn't really very logical, is it? I mean that we can find plenty of X and S where this won't work, when we make ourselves L.

Libertarians don't believe that the state should do a lot of things, including farming, financial intermediation, and managing roads. Genuine anarchists go further, to claim that the state shouldn't do anything. That hardly means that they don't think that these things should be done by someone. It doesn't even mean that they won't agree that they should be those who do these things. (Indeed, people who rely upon the state are most likely to say that it ought to do whatever it does at the expense of someone else, as when they call for higher taxes on those who make more money.)

This point of logic ought to be obvious. Well, many journalists and educators are such damn'd fools that they truly don't see it, and an awful lot are knaves, who see it but don't want it to be seen by others.

One way that I see the eristicism effected is by the specious society-state equation — by treating the state as if it is society, which is to say as if it is us. Formally, this would be

L does not believe that X should be done by the state,
which is to say that
L does not believe that X should be done by society,
which is to say that
L does not believe that X should be done by any of us.
except that it's not explicitly expanded in this way, else the jig would be up. One place you'll see this eristic equation employed is in many quizzes that purport to tell the taker what his or her political classification is. If he or she answers affirmatively to a claim such as that society should help the poor then the typical quiz will score that towards state socialism and away from classical liberalism (of which Libertarianism is the extreme).

(Actually, one needs to be very careful whenever encountering the word society. In practice, it is often used to mean everyone else. Sometimes it's used to refer to some hypothetical entity which is somehow more than a group of people and their system of interaction; this latter notion tends to operationalize, again, as everyone else. Equating society with the state, and coupling this with demands for the state to make greater demands on other people is a popular way of making society mean everyone else.)

The fact is that one simply cannot tell, one way or another, from the datum that a person is a Libertarian whether he or she thinks that some goal ought to be pursued, unless the goal involves what a Libertarian would label coercion; because Libertarianism itself is no more than a belief that one ought not to initiate the class of behaviors to which they apply this label. A person can be a Libertarian and be all for voluntary redistribution, or that person might indeed be someone who embraced some of the more callous proclamations of Ayn Rand, or the Libertarian might hold some intermediate postion. Libertarianism itself is neutral.

(Within the Randian camp, there has been a willful confusion of the fact that Libertarianism itself has limited scope with the proposition that any given person who is a Libertarian must somehow have no view about matters not within that scope, or with the claim that a Libertarian must think that anything not prohibitable is good.)

Parallels can be found here with the claim that atheists do not believe in morality of any sort. Not only is the underlying fallacy very similar, but the implication in each case is that, should the persons in question believe that something ought to be done, they are more likely to see themselves as the someone who ought to do it.

Words, Meanings, and Intentions

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

When some party attempts to communicate, there are conceptual differences amongst

  • what symbols were transmitted
  • what conceptual content is appropriately associated with those symbols
  • what conceptual content the party desired to convey
Put more colloquially,
  • what someone literally said is one thing
  • what the words mean is another
  • what someone intended to say is still another
though, ideally, a sort of perfect agreement would obtain amongst them.


People who won't distinguish amongst these are a bane. They'll claim that they said something that they didn't; that you said something that you didn't, that their words meant something that they couldn't; that your words meant something that they couldn't. They expect a declaration That's not what I meant! to shift all responsibility for misstatement to the other person. They expect to be able to declare That's not what you said! when it's exactly what you said but not what they had thought you intended or not what they had wanted you to say.

It's of course perfectly fair to admit that one misspoke with That's not what I meant!, so long as one is not thus disavowing the responsibility for one's actual words. I'm writing of those who avoid responsibility by the device of refusing to acknowledge anything but intentions or supposèd intentions.

Some of them are even more abusive, attempting to use That's not what I meant! to smuggle ad hoc revisions into their positions. By keeping obscured the difference between what was actually said and what was intended, they can implicitly invoke the fact that intent is less knowable than actual words, while keeping misstatement unthinkable, so that the plausibility that there was a misstatement cannot be examined.

One thing that I certainly like about the 'Net (and about recording equipment) is that it has made it more difficult for people to refuse to acknowledge what they have or another party has actually said. They'll still try, though. I've repeatedly participated in threads where someone has denied saying something when it's still in the display of the thread. (And, oddly enough, it seems that I'm often the only person who catches this point. I don't presently have much of a theory as to why others so frequently do not.)


Setting aside those who won't distinguish amongst these three, there are people who more innocently often don't distinguish amongst them. I was provoked here to note the differences as they will be relevant to a later entry.

Quite Different

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Consider two propositions:

  • The first is that markets are smart, to the extent that they cannot be tricked into anything unless one carefully hides most or all of the contrary evidence.
  • The second is that, left unregulated, markets produce some best possible outcomes.
These aren't at all the same proposition. On the one hand, something can be hard to deceive, yet work at purposes contrary to those that one favors. On the other hand, a mechanism can be vulnerable to some sorts of disruption but, in the absence of that disruption, perform some task well. I'm not saying that the propositions are contrary; they could be simultaneously true; none-the-less, they're plainly not identical.

The run-up to the latest economic crisis seems to have been founded in no small part by a confusion of these two distinct propositions. The Bush Administration represented itself — and may well have considered itself — free market, in-so-far as it expected considerable resilience on the part of the market in the face of remarkable levels of state borrowing and considerable other interventions (compassionately conservative or kleptocratic). And Alan Greenspan, who surely considered himself a believer in laissez faire, is these days explaining his optimistic proclamations from before the crisis as stemming from a failure to reälize that investors would not recognize that a boom could not last forever, to which lack of recognition he also attributes the crisis, as if irrational exuberance were simply a Keynesian animal spirit, rather than a product of things such as lending regulations and Federal Reserve interest rate policy.

Meanwhile, many of the Keynesians, socialists, and pragmatic technocrats (long-standing or born-again) are arguing that the fact that the market could be fooled shows that markets aren't clever and that thus various sorts of interventions are needed, as if any defense of free markets must hang upon a belief that markets are simply too clever to be fooled. Left unaddressed is whether the confusion were endogenous or brought on by state intervention, whether those prior interventions that may have been the cause of the confusion produce actual benefits worth the costs of that confusion, and whether more intervention would produce a more clever system or a less clever system.

In fact, there are various long-established free-market schools of thought that attribute economic crises to a propensity of state intervention to fool economic participants. For example, it is difficult to distinguish to what extent interest rates reflect the supply and demand of private savings for future consumption, and to what extent they are an artefact of central bank intervention for other purposes. In the face of Federal Reserve manipulation of interest rates, the market will not be sufficiently smart to see what the price of loanable funds should be, and therefore will almost certainly build too much or too little for the future.

All? Most? Some?

Friday, 7 August 2009

When you read or hear some writer or speaker — especially a journalist or a politician — asserting

Economists say X.
ask yourself two questions:
  • Is this all economists or most economists or just some economists?
  • Why has this writer or speaker chosen not to specify whether it is some, most, or all?

The same point applies to other areas of expertise. A bald climatologists or scientists or health experts or historians or philosophers should get one to ask the analogous questions. But, right now, I am provoked by yet another article about what economists say.

Finding the Devil's Mark

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Years ago, I was dealing with a verbal thug in an Internet politics forum, and I called him a thug. At which point one of his allies jumped-in and claimed that my calling him this was an act of anti-Semitism, insofar as thug was used by Palestinian militants as as a codeword for Israelis, and I knew the fellow to be an Israeli.

One immediate problem was that I didn't know or believe that the fellow was an Israeli (I'd formed no opinion about his nationality); and, indeed, it developed that I couldn't have known such a thing, because the fellow simply wasn't an Israeli.

I'd also never heard or read of the word thug being used by Palestinian militants for any purpose (albeït that it wouldn't surprise me if they'd exhausted the lexicon of insults when it came to Israel). I'd called the fellow a thug for the simple reason that he was a goddamn'd thug.

The deeper problem was simply the accusation that someone was using codewords, where there isn't any need to produce a codebook, or demonstrate that a pattern has been meaningfully fit. It's a perfectly craven line of attack.

I mention this now in response to this story:

Black Congressmen Declare Racism In Palin’s Rhetoric by Jason Horowitz in the New York Observer
They are trying to throw out these codes, said Representative Gregory Meeks, a Democrat from New York.

He’s not one of us? Mr. Meeks said, referring to a comment Sarah Palin made at a campaign rally on Oct. 6 in Florida. That’s racial. That’s fear. They know they can’t win on the issues, so the last resort they have is race and fear.