Posted by: captainfalcon | May 25, 2013

Shun The Gay Germophobes

I have two disagreements with Chris’s criticism of Freddie DeBoer’s attitude toward those who think race helps explain IQ-level (and a pathogen helps explain gayness).

1. I don’t think the attitude Chris takes DeBoer to be defending — that one has reason to discount an argument if its promoters are propounding for it for ideological reasons — is wrong.  Chris seems to think that this is a straightforward instance of the genetic fallacy.  (Hence his reply: “Factual arguments should be able to stand on their own, independent of the repute of those who put them forward.”)  But the genetic fallacy is over-diagnosed.  As Brian Leiter has pointed out in a post on ad hominem arguments (which are a species of the genetic fallacy):

[A] fact about the speaker–his malice and willingness to “do anything” for personal advantage . . . arguably implicates his epistemic reliability as well:  someone motivated mainly by malice and personal gain is probably not a reliable source of information about any subject that implicates his personal advantage and/or might satisfy his malice.

DeBoer is not urging that we discount arguments made by people who we find credible but personally detestable — that’s an example of the genetic fallacy.  Rather, he’s saying we should discount arguments made by people who lack credibility because they are motivated to make disingenuous arguments.*  That seems right.  (Of course, an incredible source could make a sound argument, but, unless you’re a radical skeptic, the bare possibility of discounting a truth is not enough to justify declining to discount.)

Now, it is plausible that a theoretician’s lack of credibility is never the best reason to discount what he says, better to have direct evidence of its falsity.  But I take Chris to be making the stronger claim, that a theoretician’s lack of credibility is never a reason to discount what he says.  I’m happy to concede that, ideally, we would never have to rely on proxies for getting at the truth.  But in non-ideal circumstances (where one lacks the resources — time, expertise, etc. — to pursue direct evidence) a theoretician’s lack of credibility is a reason to discount his argument.

2.  I also disagree with Chris view that “censoriousness only abets the bigots” and (its unstated corollary) that it is always counterproductive to set moral or social limits to argumentation.  If we were talking about any realm other than thought, it would be uncontroversial even to Chris that the net effect of social norms is often to cause individual behavior to conform to them.  True, social norms also often give rise to (and enable) deliberately transgressive acts — the taboo is alluring — but that doesn’t show that, overall, they are counterproductive, increasing the incidence of the behavior they target.

Assuming there’s nothing special about the theoretical realm (is there?), shouldn’t a similar dynamic play out there?  If it comes to be seen as impolite or immoral to think that there is an intellectual difference between the races, or something pathologically wrong with gay people, then the net effect of that will be to cause a reduction in those attitudes (coupled with communities of transgressive racists or homophobes, but so what?).

* Note that one might be motivated to make a disingenuous argument even for a proposition that one has a good faith belief is true.  If one thinks it is particularly important to get others to agree that the proposition is true then one might deploy persuasive sophistry instead of the argument one actually thinks is correct.

Update:  Not only does a speaker’s credibility bear on whether we have reason to buy his arguments, but I’d wager that everybody reading this already accepts as much.  Anybody who chooses to read a better-pedigreed source as opposed to some other theoretician operating in the field has decided to discount an argument based on the credibility of its promoter.  We all do this, and it is perfectly reasonable that we do.  As there’s no difference between discounting a source qua declining to read it and discounting a source qua reading it and then remaining skeptical of what it had to say — in both, ultimately, you are discounting based on credibility — this practice presupposes the principle that DeBoer advances and Chris attacks.

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Responses

  1. Per your two points:

    1. I think we are in rough agreement here, but that you are interpreting my point too strongly and are simultaneously taking a too extreme position in the other direction in order to rebut it. Using the speaker’s motivations as a heuristic for estimating the validity of an argument you cannot judge directly. People who have strong a priori biases rooted elsewhere (like say bigotry) have an incentive to make disingenuous arguments, which raises the chance that what they have to say is false. But this is a rather circuitous way to get to whether the argument is valid, especially if you can judge it on its merits without considering the source (as is frequently the case). You are in effect willfully using an ineffecient proxy for validity instead of judging it directly (perhaps because, as deBoer2 mentioned, you are afraid that the direct approach would end up violating your own a priori beliefs).

    2. First off, I think that deBoer is right on the specifics here. Argument via scorn is like oxygen to those sorts of people, who interpret it as de facto confirmation of their beliefs. It also does little to win over neutral parties, who see one group making something that sounds like a factual argument and the other saying “shut up” and not unreasonably (but mistakenly) conclude that the first group has a point. This logic does not translate easily to enforcing other norms, where other dynamics are at play.

    More generally, though, I do not think the argument holds even in the context defending any social norm. This gets a bit at the “Conservative Dilemma” piece I excerpted awhile ago. Under normal circumstances, social norms are self-sustaining. Almost everyone holds them to be true, no one thinks to question them, and thus they remain. At the margins, shunning and shaming work to reinforce these norms, but these strategies cannot hold under sustained pressure. A conservative in this position has three potential options to maintain the status quo: reify the norms with explicit reason (“single motherhood leads to poor outcomes for children”), retreat to a more defensible position and maintain the illusion of continuity (“what matters is that children have two parents”), or resort to more strident reactionary appeals in the hopes of overwhelming the opposition and restoring the status quo ante (“the sexual revolution is ruining America”). While the first two approaches have their strengths and weaknesses, I think most have found the third option (the one most analogous to your own) ultimately ineffectual.


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