Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Perelman's Quasi-Logical Arguments: Part II

As mentioned in the last post, this is a beginner's introduction to Perelman. Hopefully, reading these posts is easier than reading his books. The arguments in the last post were all related to the principles of consistency and identity. The following arguments continue in the same strain, but it may be easier to think of them as dealing with relationships and comparisons between events or identities. Here we go:

1.       Reciprocity and the Rule of Justice

Is it justice of Germany to refuse debt relief to Greece when the country was itself given debt relief by Greece in 1953? Is this a case where "one good turn deserves another"? These are questions of whether or not we can equate or identify two situations with each other.

As Perelman writes, “In practice, the problem is to know in what case it is rational or just to treat in the same way two beings or situations which differ but which can be likened to each other. It is thus a question of partial, not complete identification, which is justified by the fact that the differences are considered negligible but the likeness essential. What is or is not essential depends upon the desired end” (65). Two methods of argumentation depend essentially upon this reasoning: the rule of justice, and reciprocity.

-          Rule of justice = “Beings in the same essential category should be treated in the same way” (66).

It is considered inconsistent or evidence of bias if we treat people who are essentially the same, differently. This is the central argument of discrimination or bigotry. A bigot is defined as "a person who strongly and unfairly dislikes other people, ideas, etc." The defining question here is not the strength of dislike, but rather whether or not the dislike is "fair." The central argument over same-sex marriage is not whether or not there is any difference between a man and a woman getting married or a man and another man. I don't think anybody would claim there was no difference. The question is whether or not there is any essential difference between the two. Defenders of the unique position of heterosexual marriages do not claim that they don't treat the two differently, but rather that they do so for good reasons, fairly, because they see an essential difference between the two arrangements.

This tension is pretty well illustrated in the two meanings of the word "discriminate." It can mean either 1. to unfairly treat a person or group of people differently from other people or groups, or
2, to notice and understand that one thing is different from another thing : to recognize a difference between things. Discrimination has become a devil term in modern times (a term which carries a strong negative emotional connotation), but it essentially means that one is able to recognize difference. Who decides whether you are doing definition 1 or definition 2 of the word? Again, it depends on whether the different treatment is "unfair" or unjustified, Is the different treatment based on warranted essential differences between the two things, or is it based on unwarranted, irrational bias and dislike? If you do definition 1 then you break what Perelman calls "the rule of justice."

The rule of justice is the lever that people can use to point out hypocrisy and injustice. Here, the former slave Sojourner Truth uses it to great effect against a white priest who claims that women should not work because they should not have to work:  

“That man over there says women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And arn’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted , and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And arn’t I woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear the lash as well! And arn’t I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And aren’t I a woman?” (Sojourner Truth).

But the argument is not irrefutable. For example, take a look at the argument about German debt relief in 1953: because of the elapsed time between there is no lack of arguments people can use to show that the two situations are essentially different and so the rule of justice does not apply. This brings us to the first potential criticism one can use to counter an argument based on the rule of justice and precedent:

- The problem of the assimilation of two essentially different situations.

For example, no matter how corrupt the Greek governments were when they accumulated the huge unsustainable debt loads, these debts were incurred by democratically elected governments from both sides of the political aisle over many years. How can one possibly compare that to the debt incurred by Hitler's totalitarian regime and the damages caused by WWII? I, for one, do not agree that the German people as a whole can be held as accountable for that monetary debt as the Greek people can be for their debt. As for the larger responsibility for WWII and all that it encompassed, the Germans are carrying that debt as a debt of shame, even though the Great Depression, the Versailles Treaty, and the international sentiments that furthered the rise of Fascism make it as much an international accident as the willful act of a nation.

The standard refutation of the rule of justice is "you are mixing apples and oranges." Here is an example of an argument I heard on the radio in the US about protecting life for some and not for others: “You are saying that I am unjust because I am pro-life and yet I am not opposed to the death penalty. You are trying to compare apples and oranges! That little baby has done no harm to anyone. She hasn’t even had a chance to see if she is going to become a decent human being. That is different from wanting to see a pedophile killer who has raped and murdered little children die for his crimes. He has had his chance in life and he chose to waste it and commit offenses which are worthy of death. I protect the life of the innocent, not the guilty.” (Criticizes one category and suggests its replacement with another more essential category)

-          Second criticism: The treatment accorded two situations that are equated with each other.

This is essentially an attempt to show that there is an essential difference, and that our behavior already implicitly recognizes that difference. Here is an example refuting the "all men are equal" thesis:
“We say all men are equal, but if we really believe that then why is there a 1st class option on airplanes? Why are there luxury goods and low-prince goods? Why do only some of us go shopping at Walmart while others go to Whole Foods or Trader Joe? Clearly we are not treated as equal, so why do we go on pretending that we are equal and that class and race doesn’t matter?”

Here another example from the movie Lincoln where Thaddeus Stevens uses this same objection to argue that all are not created equal:

-          Argument of reciprocity (equates two beings or situations).

The argument of reciprocity is very similar to the rule of justice, but the focus is a little different. Whereas the rule of justice states simply that "all who are the same should be treated the same," the argument of reciprocity is more of a two-way relationship, requiring that all which applies to, for example your interlocutor, should also apply to you. For example, it is hypocritical in a discussion to expect your interlocutor to be open-minded and willing to change their mind if you are not. Likewise, one could use the example of Germany and Greece and say that "one good turn deserves another: Greece forgave Germany's debts and now it is Germany's turn to forgive Greece's debts." This argument is implicit in most equal relationships, and it is therefore a resource that an arguer can turn to when arguing that this kind of dealing with one another is just. Some examples:

“I helped you when you were in trouble, so help me now when I am the one who has the same problem that you had before.”

“Germans cannot complain about the fire-bombing of Dresden when they themselves did the same in Coventry and London and indeed did worse with the Holocaust and the Russian campaign.”

Of course, this argument also is not irrefutable. The basic requirement for this argument to work is that there is a certain symmetry between the current situation and a former one. Thus, the first method of refuting this argument is

-          Show inapplicability by showing that the symmetry is only apparent

Yes, these two situations or beings look the same, but there are significant differences between the two which warrant different behavior:

“Yes, we were both in debt, but I owed 1000 dollars, whereas you owe 100,000 dollars. These two situations are qualitatively and quantitatively different.”

2.       Arguments of Transitivity, Inclusion, and Division

This class of arguments build on a kind of "geometric thinking" that is common for certain proofs in formal logic. Transitivity is essentially the postulate of the equilateral triangle, and inclusion and division has to do with the comparison of different geometrical bodies and their relationship to one another.

-          Transitivity (if a relationship exists between A and B and B and C, then the same relationship exists between A and C).
The idea of transitivity is that a consistent relationship in two links can help predict what the relationship will be in the third link. Of course, real life is seldom as simple or straightforward as that. A common argument using this form is, “Any friend of John’s is a friend of mine.” The idea is that of Euclid's geometry: "Things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other." Here is a clip from Lincoln where he uses transitivity to argue for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment and equality before the law.

We see some looser versions of this thinking in common arguments:

“My enemy’s enemy is my friend. Anyone willing to fight against Hitler is our ally.”

“If justice is more important than advantage, and love is more important than justice, then surely love must be more important than advantage.”

"If we are equal before the law then we are equal indeed."

Of course, as with the argument of "any friend of John," one need only show that these relationships are not 100% the same to undermine this argument. "Yes, John may be such a good person that I can trust anyone that he would trust, but friendship is more than trust." Or, "Stalin may be Hitler's enemy, but he is not our friend, though he may for a time be our ally." 

-          Inclusion of part in the whole

The essential aspect of the argument of inclusion is that something which is a part of a larger category belongs to or is subservient to that category, principle, or body. This is the core of arguments of patriotism, family, basically any kind of communal identity or cause that is given a higher status than the individual or smaller category. The core of patriotic arguments may be describes thus: “A nation is greater and more than just the sum of the people who live in it, therefore sometimes the people who live in the nation must be sacrificed for the good of the nation." Look for example at this quote from Thomas Jefferson:

"What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is it's natural manure."

Or this quote from John Adams as he argues for passing the Declaration of Independence:

"If it be the pleasure of Heaven that my country shall require the poor offering of my life, the victim shall be ready…. But while I do live, let me have a country, or at least the hope of a country, and that a free country.

“But whatever may be our fate, be assured…that this Declaration will stand. It may cost treasure, and it may cost blood, but it will stand and it will richly compensate for both.

Through the thick gloom of the present, I see the brightness of the future as the sun in heaven. We shall make this a glorious, an immortal day. When we are in our graves, our children will honor it. They will celebrate it with thanksgiving, with festivity, with bonfires, and illuminations. . . .

Before God, I believe the hour is come. My judgment approves this measure, and my whole heart is in it. All that I have, and all that I am, and all that I hope, in this life, I am now ready here to stake upon it; and I leave off as I began, that live or die, survive or perish, I am for the Declaration. It is my living sentiment, and by the blessing of God it shall be my dying sentiment. Independence now, and Independence forever."

Here we see John Adams subordinating himself and his life to the greater goal of a free country, the Declaration, and a glorious future that will make the trials of the present seem but a trifle in comparison.

The rebuttal for such reasoning is one that may easily seem less noble, since it cannot claim the same degree of unselfishness and self-sacrifice that we are naturally drawn to as moral creatures. Yet, it can be effective.

-          Questioning inclusion can happen by showing the presence of the present and actual over the larger concept.

An argument in this strain could say, “What is a nation? It is an abstract concept, a gigantic myth, it is unreal. What is real is that we have each other and care for each other. Let the big men and masses have their war. I just want to live.” Bobby Darrin invokes such an argument in his "Simple Song of Freedom" to defuse the patriotic war rhetoric of the 1960s.

Mr. John Dickinson famously invoked this kind of rhetoric to defuse John Adams' rhetoric and sabotage the passing of the Declaration of Independence. Though we do not have his exact words, this is what the summary record mentions (you can probably imagine how he said it):

"The War will be carried on with more Severity. The Burning of Towns, the Setting Loose of Indians on our Frontiers, has Not yet been done. Boston might have been burnt to the ground."

-          Argument by division (includes dilemma and arguments a pari and a contrario).

This argument is got by dividing a topic, body, or situation in different ways, and thereby gaining a certain effect of perspective. When it comes to concepts and categories, can choose where to divide something, so the division is also a choice rather than something set in stone. Dividing into two pieces invites antagonism, whereas dividing into many pieces invites diffusion. Observe the difference between "If you are not with us then you are against us," and "You may support us directly, or morally, or remain neutral, or disagree with us, or actively oppose us." One directs towards clear action, while the second diffuses action since the possible relationships are harder to grasp.

A common use of antagonistic thinking is the argument of dilemma. Dilemma is where two unpleasant options are presented and we have to choose the best (or lesser evil) of them. For example,

“There is no ignoring ISIS. We can either fight them now when they are still disorganized and scattered, or we can encounter them later as a consolidated power with terror cells established in every Western nation.” (aims to force a decision)

Observe the argument of division in this polemical political ad that builds such a strong us vs. them picture of the world that you think it's the terrorists themselves that are building a mosque in New York!

Closely related are arguments  a pari and a contrario. Comparing one species to the other and saying they should be treated the same (a pari) or differently (a contrario). For example, Cicero writes, "However one defines Man, the same definition is true for all of us." (argument a pari). In another place he writes, "You wish to keep all citizens safe, even when those citizens are a danger to the Republic?" (argument a contrario). 

3.       Weights and Measure, and Probabilities. These are arguments about the important and the probable, which are notoriously subjective categories. We often use these methods when we make arguments of comparison that are assumed to have an arguable basis. Of course, the choice of comparison assigns the weights.

When we compare two things, we automatically place them in a hierarchy relative to each other. One is placed higher whereas the other is devalued. The effect of comparisons is often more to impress than to inform. Here is an example:

“Everything was better before. You could expect people to be decent and care about each other. Now, we hardly even see each other as we walk down the streets with our heads in our iPhones.

A weight one can use is called "Argument of sacrifice." In the absence of an objective standard, things are judged only by the value people attach to them. For example, 

“We don’t know what the purpose of the Stonehenge was, but we can tell from the effort it took to bring these stones all the way here that this was important for whoever built this.”


“We have come too far, we have sacrificed too much to give up now.”

-          Probability (final category)

When we talk of arguments of probability, we are not necessarily referring to the use of statistics. Rather, we use certain patterns of expectation that come from human experience and help us assign preference and probability. For example, we prefer many rather than few options, certainty over uncertainty, the known over the unknown. You may hear advice to take a certain kind of education because "then you leave more options open to you." All those options may be wrong, but we generally think that the sheer number of options available increases the chance of making a good choice. The same goes for valuing the certain over the uncertain. Before the Challenger launch, this argument was made on this basis:

“So there may be some risk of losing a flight if we launch, but there is certainty of losing money if we delay the launch.”

This tendency is also why we value metrics so much, and why we often make the measurable important rather than making the important measurable. It feels good to have something we can be more certain of in our hands.

Perelman adds a warning to these arguments of probability:

“All these techniques presupposed the reduction of a problem to only one of its aspects, noncalculable but capable of evaluation in terms of frequency. But this reduction can lead to the disregard of other possible essential aspects” (80).