How Not to Argue: Misrepresent and Insult the Opposition

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This has got to be the most rhetorically manipulative blog posts I've read in a long time. It's shameful that a blog purportedly about philosophy, supposedly written by professionals, could produce such a poor post, but I guess it's becoming less surprising to me over time that philosophers cast aside careful thinking when it comes to abortion and related issues almost as much as other people do [hat tip: ProLifeBlogs]. I wrote this post something like a week ago, and I decided to wait a few days to see if putting time between reading the post and posting my response would enable me to soften my language. All it's done is allow me to rewrite it, clarifying what I want to say in a more careful way. I really think a post this bad deserves a response with as harsh as what follows. If a student handed me something like this, I wouldn't just give it an F. I'd give it a zero and then wish I could have given it negative points.

You only have to read the first sentence to see how bad this is. Something's wrong with their formatting, so I can't copy and paste, and I'm not going to type out the whole (really long) sentence, so you're just going to have to follow the link. Just the first sentence does all of the following:

1. It demonstrates the remarkable ability to manipulate the reader through dysphemisms such as 'extremist' (without acknowledging that the view in question is well within the mainstream of American opinion) and comparison to the Flat Earth Society. Anyone who thinks that comparison is apt is either ignorant of what pro-life people think or deliberately deceptive. The Flat Earth Society denies undisputed science. Pro-life views on abortion accept the same science as pro-choice views. They simply disagree on the moral status, which science simply can't tell you. It takes a philosophical view added on to get you that.

2. The tired 'anti-choice' label comes out, and that's just as bad, for exactly the same reasons, as the 'anti-life' label pro-lifers use. Each view focuses in on one element worth considering in abortion cases. Life is one factor, and choice sometimes competes with it. Lots of moral issues involve two considerations competing with each other, and you have to favor one over the other. Pro-lifers favor the consideration of life, while pro-choicers favor the consideration of choice. It's not just wrong but stupid to claim that pro-lifers oppose choice or that pro-choicers oppose life. That's not what they're doing. They're favoring life over choice or favoring choice over life, not opposing the one that conflicts with the one they're favoring. Each view is consistent with seeing both as good things (and thus not being anti-either).

3. Then there's the lovely expression "SCNT-derived embryo-like things", which is shorthand for an embryo that you create without the intent of developing it. It's embryo-like because it's intrinsically just like an embryo. The only difference is what you intend for it. (SCNT is the procedure that 1950s scifi fans would have had trouble calling cloning but is now standardly called cloning. The result of this procedure is a fertilized egg with its nucleus replaced by a nucleus with different DNA, taken from an already-existing organism. That egg would have to be developed to an embryonic stage to get stem cells. That's why it's embryo-like. It's like an embryo in every important way.)

Let me give some tips to whoever allowed this post to get through at a blog specializing in philosophy. If you want the other side to win the argument, call your opponents fruitcakes. Tell them that the only reason they believe what they believe is because they fear something they don't understand. Pretend that they think of all intellectuals as eggheads. Treat them as if they burn books regularly. It's a good way to convince the other side not to listen to you. I'm certainly not listening. I considered this blog to be a good philosophy blog. I even had a link to it in the academic blogs section of my blogroll. This post has convinced me, but not of what it was supposed to convince me. It's shown me that the editors of the American Journal of Bioethics are ignorant of the primary issues of a key debate in this country. It's shown me that they're ignorant of their opponents' views.

It's also shown me that they're arrogant in placing themselves as superior due to their thought that they are better informed and clearer-thinking. In reality they're neither, not judging by this post anyway. They don't understand the pro-life position at all. It's not just that they don't share the moral assumptions of the pro-life mindset. They don't even know how to express in words what the view says and why it says it in a way that's accurate and informative.

Ultimately, what this post has shown me is that I shouldn't have a link to their blog in my blogroll. The manipulative, deceptive, and frankly elitist rhetoric in this post is obnoxious and immoral, and I can't have a permanent link sending traffic to a blog that engages in such tactics, even if most many of the posts involve good reason and provide a nice representation of alternative views to those of many of the other sites I link to. [I wrote that sentence without looking at some of their other recent posts. I've since discovered that the unfairness to opponents isn't unique to that post, though the depth of denigrating language and condescending humor isn't a common feature of what I've seen at their blog or any other philosophy blog, aside from that of a certain Philosophical Gourmand of course. It's scandalously par for the course there.]

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08.10.05
from the evangelical outpost on August 10, 2005 1:52 AM

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4 Comments

Not much philosophical about fruitcakes..

Just to be clear, profanity gets deleted. If someone wants to make substantive criticisms to be interacted with, then I'll interact with it. Profanity just indicates that you don't want real dialogue.

Now I'll make some things clear to head off some criticisms of this post that rely on misunderstandings. I'm not defending the particular people the immature author of the post started out criticizing. I don't know them. I do know that the post contains references to more than just those people, including a larger pro-life organization and more general references to people who hold what the author treated as views that belong in the dark ages (e.g. that moral status starts at conception, a view I share). The condescension was indeed directed toward such people merely because they have those views, and thus it was clearly directed at trained philosophers who hold such views (and thus at me).

The one substantive component in the comment I deleted is: "there is no scientific consensus whatever on what constitutes an embryo, none. The facts are in dispute. Which is where your whole post goes flat. If it were in fact the case that there are no facts in dispute in the stem cell debate - most centrally including how to define an embryo"

Simply stating that there are debates about something I said doesn't help me unless you direct my attention to those debates. It doesn't help me decide whether it's a substantive debate rather than simply a redefinition of terms unless I can see what the people are saying.

What I do know is that everyone discussing the ethical issues seems pretty unaware of that issue. Those who support destroying embryos for this sort of research believe that there's no moral status to the embryo (or that such moral status is outweighed by the good of the goal if the embryos are already going to be destroyed anyway, as Bill Frist seems to think). Both sides still call it an embryo. This suggestion that the main partners in the ethical issue are relying on a debate in biology just doesn't hold up. I've read lots and lots about this issue, and whether these things everyone is calling embryos should really be called embryos just doesn't come up in any of the discussions I've read. The only place I can find anything on this with a quick Google search is here, and that just makes it seem to be a semantic dispute, in which case resting your whole argument on redefining it as not an embryo seems pointless. It's not even true that my whole post rests on this point anyway. Most of my post was about how the post in question misrepresents the opposition, thus causing them not to read whatever good there might be elsewhere in the site out of their realization that the author doesn't even understand the views they're supposed to be criticizing. I place little confidence in that sort of person when it comes to philosophical reasoning.

The fact that immoral statements were intended as humor does not soften the immorality of the post. It worsens it. The fact that someone could joke about a deeply-felt and philosophically-argued thesis about the very nature of what sorts of things have moral status and why, on an issue that sharply divides people and thus needs careful interaction and thoughtful dialogue rather than making fun of the other side, shows me that the author of the post in question has very little sense of the humanity of the targets of such linguistic defecation.

I hope that wasn't directed at me. I was agreeing with your criticism in humor. It's hard to take any statement with merit, let alone philosophical merit, when it contains the word fruitcake.

No, it was either the author of the piece or someone else at that site. The person came from the sitemeter of that site, which picked up someone clicking from here to there.

By the way, coming back to call me stupid doesn't count as an argument. I'm happy to engage with arguments. What there was of an argument in the first comment got responded to, but I wasn't about to keep the post up given the immature attitude it seemed to convey toward engaging with the issues.

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