Don't Want What's Right for America

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Orin Kerr at the Volokh Conspiracy is disturbed by the rhetoric of the following statement by President Bush yesterday morning:

Those determined to find fault with this [immigration] bill will always be able to look at a narrow slice of it and find something they don't like. If you want to kill the bill, if you don't want to do what's right for America, you can pick one little aspect out of it, you can use it to frighten people.
The complaint seems to be that the president is treating those who disagree with him on this bill don't want to do what's right for America. I think the complaint relies on an ambiguity in the expression. Absent any context, principles of charity, or assumptions about what someone might mean, you can take the expression in either of the following two ways:

A. This bill is right for America, and if you want to kill it then you don't want to do this thing that's right for America.
B. This bill is right for America, and anyone who wants to kill it must agree that it's right for America and therefore must have a desire to harm America or at least to resist anything that's right for America.

Now I acknowledge that someone could use the language the president used to mean the second thing. However, I find it extremely unlikely that that's what he meant. In context, he was discussing a particular bill and arguing that the bill itself is right for America. The very fact that he was arguing with those who disagree with him on the particular bill, and that he was making an appeal to doing it because it's right for America, means he does think those who disagree with him on the bill want to do what's right for America. So taking him as if he thinks the opposite is at odds with the context of his speech. He wasn't speaking to a closed-room, partisan audience in order to smear his political opponents. He was trying to persuade people who disagree with him.

It therefore makes much more sense to interpret the president as fitting within his rhetorical situation rather than opposing it. It's always best to take someone in the most charitable way possible given all your information, and it's more charitable in terms of intellectual coherence to take him as saying A. It's also more charitable in moral terms, since it would be immoral to intend B by the sentence he uttered.

But there's no reason to think he did, and intending A is perfectly fine. So I'm at a loss to understand why there's supposed to be any problem with what he said (aside from whether it actually is best for America, but that's something he's in the process of trying to argue for, and mentioning that he thinks it's best for America is perfectly legitimate in that context).

Update: Even Peggy Noonan has joined the insanity. I'd never have predicted her to be the sort who would read this president's words in as uncharitable a light as possible. She sometimes disagrees with him, but she's not usually willing to engage in this kind of libel.


Surely, Jeremy, no one is claiming your meaning B. Rather what I suppose Kerr is complaining about is that even meaning A is fallacious logic. Indeed this seems to me a clear example of a logical fallacy of the type "I believe X, some people do not believe X, therefore they are bad people". This is fallacious because it allows the possibility neither that I am mistaken nor that someone can disagree with me but still be a good person. Now you might well claim that Bush is not especially guilty here because all politicians do this all the time. But that is no justification for his faulty logic.

Perhaps I need to offer a philosophical distinction to make clear the difference between A and B, because I think you're not seeing it. It's obvious to me that you're taking him to be saying B, and yet you're denying that you're doing that, so I need to clarify exactly what I meant by the distinction between A and B.

I can say or think about something de re (lit. of the thing) or de dicto (lit. of what's said). I might say that the tallest man in the world is black. In saying this, I might not know if the tallest man in the world is black or even if there is a tallest man in the world. If there is, and he is black, then I have said something true. What I'm doing when I assert the sentence is indicating that I think the sentence is true, without having in mind any particular person. I'm thinking that whoever happens to be the tallest man in the world also happens to be black.

Now I can also speak about the tallest man in the world de re. I might think that the tallest man in the world is black not by thinking that there is some man who is the tallest man in the world and by thinking also that the guy happens to be black. I might be thinking of the guy who happens to be the tallest man in the world that he is black, and I might do so while knowing he is the tallest man in the world or without such knowledge. A de re belief or thought is about the particular person, thought of in terms of that particular person. A de dicto belief is held about the words or expression used to consider the thought. (For more on the de re/de dicto distinction, see here or here.)

Now I can think that a particular policy is morally necessary. I can consider the particular policy and then think of it that it is the right thing to do. I can then conclude that those who oppose the policy want to do something that's in fact bad, even if they do not think of it as bad themselves. I can then form a de re belief that they favor a policy that's in fact bad, even if I recognize that they do not favor a policy that they see as bad. I do not have the de dicto belief that they favor bad policies. That would be fallacious, as if wouldn't follow from my reasoning. My reasoning shows me that they have a de re belief that a morally necessary policy is bad, and thus they approve of something immoral, but they don't approve of it as immoral.

So I have a de re belief that they favor a policy that happens to be bad, but I do not have a de dicto belief that they favor a policy that they would describe it as bad. I could theoretically describe either view by saying that they favor bad policies. But no one would take me in the de re way, because no one thinks the policies they support are bad, or they wouldn't support them. Similarly, we don't take people in the de dicto way when we hear them saying that someone wants to do what's bad for America, because no one wants to do what's bad for their country when it's described that way. What people who say that mean is that they want a policy de re that turns out to be bad for America (and they happen not to agree with that assessment).

Now I think it's clear from that why I think you are endorsing taking President Bush as meaning B and why I think that's entirely the wrong way to take him. The only fallacious logic you present is basically B, not A. So what's wrong with A? I see nothing wrong with it, and it seems to be the only reasonable way to take him.

I understood in much more simple terms the difference between A and B to be that in A the person who wants to kill the bill does not agree that the bill is right for America, and wants to do something else which is right for America; whereas in B the person agrees that the bill is right for America, but does not want to do what is right for America but rather wants to harm America. I am assuming as you do that no or very few Americans actually want to harm America, but that they disagree with the President about what is right for America. So, I am agreeing with you that Bush is to be taken in your de re manner as meaning A.

But I see A as something bad, as a fallacious argument. While it is not attributing bad motives to someone (that would be B), it is attributing to them bad actions; thus if they are not evil they are foolish. Yes, "X is a good course of action" implies "anyone who opposes X is doing something bad", but "I believe that X is a good course of action" does not imply the same. The "I believe" has become elided and personal opinions have become assertions and then presuppositions. That is what is wrong with A. In good scholarly discourse one must always retain the "I believe" or "in my opinion". But of course politicians drop it all the time.

Peter, I couldn't disagree more. Adding "in my opinion" before anything you say is redundant unless you're doing it to indicate that you're unsure of your view. If you're unsure, you need some way to show that. If you're sure, you just say what you believe without trying to show your uncertainty with such an expression. This is standard academic practice in all my experience. Academics don't expect people to agree with all their arguments, but that doesn't stop them from asserting their conclusions simply as true, without some IMHO phrase at the end of every substantive claim they want to make.

Now I don't see how anything in the following argument is fallacious:

1. Trying to pursue a more perfect policy than X would result in nothing getting done.
2. Doing X is better than doing nothing.
3. Therefore, the best thing to do is implement policy X, and anything else will be bad.

It seems to be a perfectly valid argument in terms of the actual reasoning. That is indeed the structure of his argument. People might question its soundness by denying his premises, but that's not the complaint. I therefore can't see what the complaint is. The fact that he doesn't have an IMHO after every sentence is not a sign that his argument is fallacious.

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