One of the better things I’ve done with this blog was help popularize Nicholas Shackel’s “motte and bailey doctrine”. But I’ve recently been reminded I didn’t do a very good job of it. So here is a clean new post on the concept that adds a couple of further thoughts to the original formulation.
The original Shackel paper is intended as a critique of post-modernism. Post-modernists sometimes say things like “reality is socially constructed”, and there’s an uncontroversially correct meaning there. We don’t experience the world directly, but through the categories and prejudices implicit to our society; for example, I might view a certain shade of bluish-green as blue, and someone raised in a different culture might view it as green. Okay.
Then post-modernists go on to say that if someone in a different culture thinks that the sun is light glinting off the horns of the Sky Ox, that’s just as real as our own culture’s theory that the sun is a mass of incandescent gas. If you challenge them, they’ll say that you’re denying reality is socially constructed, which means you’re clearly very naive and think you have perfect objectivity and the senses perceive reality directly.
The writers of the paper compare this to a form of medieval castle, where there would be a field of desirable and economically productive land called a bailey, and a big ugly tower in the middle called the motte. If you were a medieval lord, you would do most of your economic activity in the bailey and get rich. If an enemy approached, you would retreat to the motte and rain down arrows on the enemy until they gave up and went away. Then you would go back to the bailey, which is the place you wanted to be all along.
So the motte-and-bailey doctrine is when you make a bold, controversial statement. Then when somebody challenges you, you retreat to an obvious, uncontroversial statement, and say that was what you meant all along, so you’re clearly right and they’re silly for challenging you. Then when the argument is over you go back to making the bold, controversial statement.
Some classic examples:
1. The religious group that acts for all the world like God is a supernatural creator who builds universes, creates people out of other people’s ribs, parts seas, and heals the sick (bailey). Then when atheists come around and say maybe there’s no God, the religious group objects “But God is just another name for the beauty and order in the Universe! You’re not denying that there’s beauty and order in the Universe, are you?” (motte). Then when the atheists go away they get back to making people out of other people’s ribs and stuff.
2. Or…”If you don’t accept Jesus, you will burn in Hell forever.” (bailey) But isn’t that horrible and inhuman? “Well, Hell is just another word for being without God, and if you choose to be without God, God will be nice and let you make that choice.” (motte) Oh, well that doesn’t sound so bad, I’m going to keep rejecting Jesus. “But if you reject Jesus, you will BURN in HELL FOREVER and your body will be GNAWED BY WORMS.” But didn’t you just… “Metaphorical worms of godlessness!”
3. The feminists who say you can’t be a real feminist unless you believe in specific commitments in X, Y and Z (bailey). Then when someone objects to “feminism”, they argue you can’t object to feminism because it’s “just the belief that women are people!” (motte). Then once the person hastily retreats and promises he definitely didn’t mean women aren’t people, the feminists get back to demanding everyone support affirmative action because feminism, or arguing about whether you can be a feminist and wear lipstick.
4. Proponents of pseudoscience sometimes argue that their particular form of quackery will cure cancer or take away your pains or heal your crippling injuries (bailey). When confronted with evidence that it doesn’t work, they might argue that people need hope, and even a placebo solution will often relieve stress and help people feel cared for (motte). In fact, some have argued that quackery may be better than real medicine for certain untreatable diseases, because neither real nor fake medicine will help, but fake medicine tends to be more calming and has fewer side effects. But then once you leave the quacks in peace, they will go back to telling less knowledgeable patients that their treatments will cure cancer.
5. Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.
6. Likewise, singularitarians who predict with certainty that there will be a singularity, because “singularity” just means “a time when technology is so different that it is impossible to imagine” – and really, who would deny that technology will probably get really weird (motte)? But then every other time they use “singularity”, they use it to refer to a very specific scenario of intelligence explosion, which is far less certain and needs a lot more evidence before you can predict it (bailey).
The motte and bailey doctrine sounds kind of stupid and hard-to-fall-for when you put it like that, but all fallacies sound that way when you’re thinking about them. More important, it draws its strength from people’s usual failure to debate specific propositions rather than vague clouds of ideas. If I’m debating “does quackery cure cancer?”, it might be easy to view that as a general case of the problem of “is quackery okay?” or “should quackery be illegal?”, and from there it’s easy to bring up the motte objection.
Recently, a friend (I think it was Robby Bensinger) pointed out something I’d totally missed. The motte-and-bailey doctrine is a perfect mirror image of my other favorite fallacy, the weak man fallacy.
Weak-manning is a lot like straw-manning, except that instead of debating a fake, implausibly stupid opponent, you’re debating a real, unrepresentatively stupid opponent. For example, “Religious people say that you should kill all gays. But this is evil. Therefore, religion is wrong and barbaric. Therefore we should all be atheists.” There are certainly religious people who think that you should kill all gays, but they’re a small fraction of all religious people and probably not the ones an unbiased observer would hold up as the best that religion has to offer.
If you’re debating the Pope or something, then when you weak-man, you’re unfairly replacing a strong position (the Pope’s) with a weak position (that of the guy who wants to kill gays) to make it more attackable.
But in motte and bailey, you’re unfairly replacing a weak position (there is a supernatural creator who can make people out of ribs) with a strong position (there is order and beauty in the universe) in order to make it more defensible.
So weak-manning is replacing a strong position with a weak position to better attack it; motte-and-bailey is replacing a weak position with a strong position to better defend it.
This means people who know both terms are at constant risk of arguments of the form “You’re weak-manning me!” “No, you’re motte-and-baileying me!“.
Suppose we’re debating feminism, and I defend it by saying it really is important that women are people, and you attack it by saying that it’s not true that all men are terrible. Then I can accuse you of making life easy for yourself by attacking the weakest statement anyone vaguely associated with feminism has ever pushed. And you can accuse me if making life too easy for myself by defending the most uncontroversially obvious statement I can get away with.
So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”
Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic. If working out who’s using motte-and-bailey (or weak man) is remotely difficult, it means your discussion went wrong several steps earlier and you probably have no idea what you’re even arguing about.
PS: Nicholas Shackel, original inventor of the term, weighs in.
The sun is a mass of incandescent gas
A great big nuclear furnace
Where hydrogen is built into helium
At a temperature of millions of degrees
First of all, I apologize for losing my temper last week. As you can see, I’m not perfect.
In fact, I’m really quite imperfect. I’ve known people who overflow with generosity and kindness, and I suspect that no matter what I do I will never be like them. A good friend of mine once remembered the lost-looking cat we walked by near my house, worried about it all night, and slipped out surreptitiously to leave it a saucer of milk without us noticing. This may be a silly and cute example, but he is like that in all domains–his heart goes out to everyone and everything. It makes him a really good person to know. His family is the same way, too. They were probably all born like this.
In the rationalist community, people go to great lengths to prosecute the case that some people are simply born with greater abilities than others. They get mad if you respond with talk about eugenics, and rightly so. We have no business determining who should and should not inhabit this earth, and people’s lives are worthwhile even if they lack this talent or that.
Morality isn’t a set of “criteria” to be “met”. You don’t have to meet some sort of threshold or else be considered “evil”*. I spend very little time worrying about allowing scrupulous people a claim to innocence. I’m much more interested in guilt, and I think the most difficult (and most sublime) moral problem is forgiveness. There are millions of people who lack empathy, or have wandering(?) or violent minds, just as there are many people who are guilty of actual violence. I have no desire to distance myself from them. Recently at a Friends’ Meeting, a woman stood up to tell us about a man who’d just been released from serving a life sentence in prison, whose own church did not allow to attend services. He was attending a nearby Meeting instead. This was important to us, not because we’re hippies who don’t understand moral responsibility, but because we think it is our own moral responsibility to welcome him. A difficult and infinitely rich responsibility.
I say all of this to give you a sense of how I actually think about morality, because I suspect that you were pattern-matching me against people who are very different from me. For one thing, I’m not Catholic. I’m not even Christian. I can’t help you with the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality.
Now to address some specific points:
I think you continue to be very confused by my claim that internal states are essential to morality. Re Stalin: I would say that people pursuing utopian agendas without doing due moral diligence are not behaving morally, not because of the consequences of their actions necessarily, but because they have not actually behaved virtuously. Having (real or imagined) noble goals does not excuse you from the usual demands of goodness to people. Killing people is not virtuous. It is to your own detriment. Thinking about killing people is the same way.
Re the internet: Yeah, there are reasons to think that this information explosion isn’t necessarily good for us, for pragmatic or moral or even evolutionary-psych-derived reasons. But I don’t think the internet is “the greatest evil to be unleashed across the planet”, because I don’t make silly hyperbolic claims like that. I don’t know whether the internet is, on the whole, good or bad, and I’m not going to spend any more time worrying about that than I already have. But open access to information could be bad, yes. Frankly I’m a little tired of you pointing out relatively obvious consequences of my claim like they’re the most outrageous thing in the world. This is what I was objecting to when I asked you to drop the baiting tone.
Re other minds: How do you know that “mental worlds are fantastically different” if you “can’t observe thoughts of other people at all”?
Re whether mental illness makes you bad: This is a complex and hard question. But we should be able to agree that the vast majority of people don’t have such a sterile, “scientific” attitude toward mental illness. We use “sick” as a synonym for “morally repugnant” all the time, and nobody seems to care about e.g. addressing paedophilia as a mental illness and attempting to treat people with the condition. Rhetorically, when you said that Stalin thought he was building a glorious communist future, and he was also a paranoid sociopath, you depended on a juxtaposition between what we consider to be good-person-feelings and bad-person-feelings. That statement wouldn’t have made any sense if we excused the bad-people-feelings because the man was mentally ill. Because then I could have just come back with, “Well, he was mentally ill and not competent enough to discern actual good goals/outcomes/whatever!” The idea of mental illness is pretty much exactly the claim that someone’s internal state is not to our liking, whether for moral or pragmatic reasons. Usually the former. (ETA: I don’t approve of this.)
*You say that “immoral and evil are virtually synonyms”, but then why do you insist on the latter? How is this not pure Worst Argument?
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Thanks very much for continuing the discussion of this concept. I have found your deployment of it as a tool of analysis very interesting, as have I found the discussion of your commenters. If anyone is interested in discussing the concept itself and its use in the original paper further, the comments on my post at the Practical Ethics blog (linked at the end of your post) have been re-opened.
This may be a dumb question- when does “the other side do it” become acceptable because something is a standard political tactic? What do you do when something is transitioning into becoming a standard political tactic?
Off the top of my head: it depends whether we’re talking about partisan politics or about the behavior itself. If some form of seeming misbehavior turns out to be a standard political tactic, it isn’t evidence that one side is acting in bad faith beyond the usual demands of politics, and thus it can’t properly be used to tar its practitioners along factional lines. (Which is how you mostly see it in the wild: “$PARTY_X is using $SHADY_TACTIC! This proves that we were right all along.”) On the other hand, it’s perfectly reasonable to condemn a political tactic for its consequences, even if it’s business as usual as far as its practitioners are concerned.
You can usually tell which is which by looking at who’s being blamed. Though you sometimes need to look out for hidden assumptions: a lot of rhetoric about legislative gridlock, for example, implicitly assumes that passing legislation (or, more narrowly, the types of legislation currently on the table) is net positive.
Not a necessary assumption to argue against gridlock. There is the argument that the current system in which both parties constantly stymie each other is bad for democratic accountability, because the electorate ends up voting on the basis of which party was better at manipulating the system, rather than letting the party ostensibly “in power” actually try its policy prescriptions and then be re-elected or not based on their consequences.
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At the risk of repeating something someone else has already said (I don’t have the time to read through 200+ comments, insightful though they almost certainly are) I think you should be careful to distinguish between motte-and-bailey arguments and a simple desire to home in on the real point of disagreement. For instance, when arguing with a feminist, if she says that women are people, it gives you both the opportunity to agree on that point and use it as a common point of reference, and then to move on to discovering what the actual point of disagreement is. If you’re too quick to assume she’s playing a dirty bait-and-switch trick on you, you’ll miss the chance to stake out the grounds of the debate. Similarly, if you’re arguing with a Christian, it’s not a bad idea to start by defining your terms. (What do you mean by “God,” and within that definition, where are our real points of disagreement?) Don’t get mad that the initial definition seems obvious and uncontroversial; use that to progress the conversation.
The ratio of times feminists decide to say that women are people to times they’re arguing with someone who doesn’t already agree with that is so unbalanced that this interpretation doesn’t seem reasonable to me.
I agree about religion, but I don’t think it’s that similar. Interpretations of even basic things such as “what do you mean by God” are more likely to be different than not, so starting by defining/tabooing terms is crucial.
You could say the same thing about the claim that there is beauty and order in the universe. I think that, even in the event that someone is trying to motte-and-bailey you, responding as if they are simply trying to define terms and set the stage for debate is a useful strategy because it will force them to allow you to turn the argument into a productive conversation or to acknowledge their dishonest gambit.
Yes, I agree with all of this.
Can you post examples of people actually using this strategy. In my experience defeating motte and bailey tactics is very hard. The execution of this counter-measure cannot be that easy or it would already be commonly deployed.
I would be interested in seeing this technique used.
It requires a huge amount of patience and an interlocutor who feels obligated for some reason to sit and continue the conversation and actually respond to the points you’re making. So it works very poorly in most public performative debates, and exceptionally poorly on the internet where people can easily disappear and arguments tend to happen in duelling essays.
Basically, you have to sit down and go through things one term, one definition, at a time. And insist on everyone being absolutely clear about how they’re using all their terminology, which involves constant interruption for clarificatory questions.
I half-suspect that this can only be pulled off by someone who has more social power than their interlocutor, but I could be wrong about that.
Not off the top of my head, although until a few years ago, it used to work really well in interpersonal IRL conversations. One of the advantages of this technique is that you give people a way of saving face: rather than calling them out for dishonesty (which they probably aren’t even aware of) you let them recast their bad arguments as good attempts at clarifying the bounds of the discussion.
As I mentioned above, I’ve had much less success with this tactic in the last few years. Maybe it’s because I’m just a less effective communicator than I used to be. But it feels like most people are just less willing to have honest conversations about things, and a certain degree of honest goodwill is needed on both sides for it to work.
On a side note: I’ve read Shackel’s article (http://philpapers.org/archive/SHATVO-2.pdf), in which he defines this motte-and-bailey trick, and I am pretty disappointed. I think his first example is actually him seeing a motte-and-bailey fallacy where there is none.
The motte-and-bailey fallacy stems from the discrepancy between a strong position and a weak position. If you want to accuse somebody of commiting such a fallacy, there are mostly two ways :
* Make the bailey look as large as possible, and the motte as miserable as possible. This makes the discrepancy look more egregious.
* Find examples chere the discrepancy is as obvious as possible ; possibly, when the accused uses both definitions in the same argument.
Shackel goes as great lenghts against Foucault (pp. 4-9). He accuses him of arguing that any truth is socially determined, while his meaning of truth is unusual (distinct from the scientifical of mathematical truth) and make this statement looks mundane. However, I think he is creating a fallacy out of thin air.
It is true that Foucault does not use the usual definition of truth ; his is, roughly, “a system of ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation and operation of statements.” However, nobody sensible reads Foucault expecting a treatise on mathematical truth or scientifical truth. Foucault was not a logician or a epistemologist, but a historian and sociologist. His definition is unusual, but in line with his other works, and exactly what you would expect from him. In the original interview, he even tells the reader that he is not speaking about scientific truth:
“[…] – it being understood once again that by truth I do not mean “the ensemble of truths which are to be discovered and accepted”, but rather “the ensemble of rules according to which the true and the false are separated and the specific effects of powers attached to the true.”
When the author goes out of his way to warn you that he is not using truth in the usual sense, where is the bailey? Where is the underhandedness? How does he tries to profit from the equivocation?
Shackel then spends to page showing that Foucault is not enunciating a theory of truth in the logical or scientifical way, using Tarski’s theory, which could be relevant if only Foucault had not already said so.
Then, I could argue that the motte is not as weak as Shackel makes it look like (to quote him, “we are left with with rather mundane observations about social institutions without gaining any insight into why some social institutions might be more truth conducive than others”). Since it was not Foucault’s goal to write about epistemology, his critic that we do not gain “any insight into why some social institutions might be more truth conducive than others” is worthless. If Foucault wants not to write about epistemology, it is his right to do so. And I would think his observations are not mundane if you read his original text instead of the short quotation in Shackel’s article. It is about the place of the “scientific expert” in nowaday’s political discourse. An obvious example is Lyssenko, but then, you could also look at the political discourse on global warming, nuclear power, GMOs, criminality, etc. to the how the scientific discourse is articulated into the political discourse. I had a great laugh one time by looking at Greenpeace website, and seeing how, depending on the issue, the scientific aspect was put forward, or neglected for more emotional arguments. The political use of controversial studies would be another example (the alleged “controverses” around global warming, Seralini’s studies on GMOs…). It does not seem mundane to me; if anything, it is a good starting point for thinking about the political aspects of the scientific works.
So, I think I have shown that the bailey is nowhere to be seen, and that the motte is not as mundane that it seems. To finish with this text, which is already getting too long, I’ll have a look at the example of equivocation. In Shackel’s article, p.8, the author asserts that Foucault uses both the usual meaning of truth, and his meaning, in the same text (“In this quote, I analyse the appearances of truth as being satisfiable by these two different notions of truth as follows […]”). If it where true, it would be a clear evidence of equivocation, and the proof that Foucault overreaches by playing with two conflicting definitions. Alas, my analysis differs from his, and it seems quite obvious to me that all instances of truth in the quote are Foucauldian. I don’t see any equivocation anywhere.
All in all, I am quite disappointed with Shackel’s article, and that’s me being nice.
Redefining “truth” is a very bad sign. If someone puts all his cards on the table and says he’s making a motte and bailey argument, it’s still a motte and bailey argument. It doesn’t matter if the desired bailey comes before or after the redefinitional retreat to the motte. Maybe such an argument is not a logical fallacy, merely an encouragement for the unwary to make the next step into a logical fallacy. Considerably worse.
I’m not saying Foucault actually does that. I’m not going to look up how he actually uses the term. I’m just saying that you haven’t provided a defense.
PS – in the future, I’m going to use “pedophile” to mean “person with a pink gravatar.”
> If someone puts all his cards on the table and says he’s making a motte and bailey argument, it’s still a motte and bailey argument.
No. To have a motte-and-bailey fallacy, you need two distinct definition, and a strategy of equivocation between them. If you use consistenly a single definition, without any attempt at equivocation, then there can’t be a motte-and-bailey fallacy. Foucault used consistently a single definition; that’s the core of my preivous post. Hence, he committed no motte-and-bailey fallacy.
You can argue that it was a bad idea to define truth the way he did. But that’s another argument, and not the one Shackel did. I think it is perfectly coherent within Foucault’s framework, and used quite wisely (and it wouldn’t be the first tike that a philosopher redefines a word). That said, I wouldn’t like a layman to take it out of context and claim that “reality is socially constructed” or “mathematical truth is socially constructed” with the usual meaning of truth. But that’s not Foucaul’t fault, especially when he specifically warned against such overreaches.
But, and I want to insist on this point, this discussion is separate, and has nothing to do with the motte-and-bailey argument.
PS: nice try at emotional smearing with your use of pedophilia a an example.
I don’t argue with pedophiles.
You’d have to give a reason for using it that way. Foucault’s not using the ordinary sense of “truth”, but he’s not pulling it out of his ass either.
I believe that the practice of redefining a common term with an unusual technical definition is “Humpty Dumptying”.
When you have a Humpty Dumpty definition, all your writing is clearly inside the motte. It’s only when a quote is taken out of context and (mis-)understood with the standard definition that you reach the Bailey. The implied accusation is that you Humpty Dumptied in the first place so that you could make statements in the bailey without having to defend them.
In this case, Foucault _is_ the motte, and anyone who uses his arguments to speak about truth in the colloquial sense is the bailey.
(I see that this answers the question of “what if A is always in the motte, and B is in the bailey?” It’s the doctrine that is motte-and-bailey, not any one individual’s argument. Sadly, this also reveals that motte-and-bailey is an ideological superweapon.
Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.)
I admire a lot about Thomas Szasz. But I realize now that he practiced a lot of motte and bailey. He would write a book called “The Myth of Mental Illness” (bailey). When confronted with specific examples of diagnoses and treatments that worked for people, he would say “I’m only saying that we shouldn’t give psychiatrists coercive power, because there are too many unknowns” (motte). I noticed this when reading his body of work, but didn’t quite have concept for what he was doing.
He still made some important arguments and should not be dismissed IMO, but he was definitely guilty of making some indefensible statements.
“5. Critics of the rationalist community note that it pushes controversial complicated things like Bayesian statistics and utilitarianism (bailey) under the name “rationality”, but when asked to justify itself defines rationality as “whatever helps you achieve your goals”, which is so vague as to be universally unobjectionable (motte). Then once you have admitted that more rationality is always a good thing, they suggest you’ve admitted everyone needs to learn more Bayesian statistics.”
Ooh, I remember posting about this on Less Wrong and getting lots of upvotes for it. Could it be that Yvain reads my posts? Nah, probably a coincidence.
(As usual, Yvain gets bonus rationality points for not only properly explaining a difficult concept but also the ways that it can be abused.)
Edit: And Yudkowsky loses rationality points for still taking criticism of the rationalist community personally and reacting defensively, after all this time.
Metaphorical worms of godlessness is a great name for a metal band
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Bayesianism is neither controversial nor complicated, so it’s a great motte. Utilitarianism is stupid, transhumanism is overrated, and those are your bailey.
Utilitarianism is that human happiness and morality can be converted into quantitative measurements. Significant parts of human morality are in binary forms easy to measure (alive versus dead) and so utilitarianism works perfectly fine for that. It breaks down significantly for human preferences, but so do pretty much every other moral system (it looks like human preferences are not internally consistent).
Transhumanism is that improving human beings with technology is a good idea. It isn’t overrated- the issue is the category is incredibly broad. It covers genetic engineering, cyborgs and using lasers to reshape people’s eyes, things which otherwise have very little in common.
That’s the motte of utilitarianism. The bailey is that there’s a moral obligation to devote only a bare minimum of your resources to yourself, and that it’s wrong to care more about your monkeysphere than about third worlders you’ve never met.
AFAICT, “it’s wrong to care more about your monkeysphere than third-worlders you’ve never met” is mainstream utilitarianism. Any given utilitarianism requires that each adherent hold the same (universal) utility function, and such a function obviously can’t discriminate on the basis of “degree of liking” since that varies person-to-person. Therefore, a consistent utilitarian can’t care more about any one person than about any other, except insofar as these people have different instrumental utility toward goals which are correct according to utilitarianism.
That isn’t a bailey. That requires you to hold that all human lives are equally valuable and that you have an obligation to adhere to moral norms. That isn’t an inherent part of utilitarianism, it is just that almost everyone in society claims to hold those norms.
Of course other ethical systems also run into this problem. I’m pretty sure “letting people die because you wanted to spend money on yourself” isn’t considered good so virtue ethics has similar issues.
This virtue ethicist wouldn’t consider “letting people die because you wanted to spend money on yourself” good, but I don’t care very much about whether you’re being virtuous in a domain that makes up less than 1% of your daily existence. Someone who spends 90% of their time being a shit to people in their monkeysphere but donates a ton of money to effective charity isn’t being moral even if they’re responsible for a net gain of xx million utils to the world.
A person could believe that all human lives are equally valuable without thinking that all human interests are equally worth protecting. More importantly, you can think these things are valuable without thinking that people have a moral obligation to protect them. Utilitarianism’s bailey is that we all have a moral obligation to maximize good outcomes.
” but I don’t care very much about whether you’re being virtuous in a domain that makes up less than 1% of your daily existence.”
By that standards even serial killers are good people as long as they spend less than 2 and a half hours a week in their activity.
“A person could believe that all human lives are equally valuable without thinking that all human interests are equally worth protecting.”
Utilitarianism doesn’t claim all human interests are equally worth protecting.
“Utilitarianism’s bailey is that we all have a moral obligation to maximize good outcomes.”
I’m not seeing how that is a bailey. Morality is all about what people should do. Saying people should do things that benefit everyone the most is a rather uncontroversial statement.
Point-by-point argumentation is just about my least favorite activity, but I will try to clarify.
“How big a part of your life” something is is a complicated salience function, not a crude measure of the time spent on an activity. Someone might spend 40 hours a week at a mind-numbing job, but be far more dedicated to, say, a spouse or child that they spend less time with. These “important” interactions will be a bigger part of their self-concept and might well have a greater impact on their overall mental health, for example, than the particulars of what they do when running on autopilot for 8 hours a day. Single metrics aren’t very good at modeling this sort of ordinary concept.
I seriously doubt that a serial killer who only spends two hours a week on killing is being good and generous all the rest of the time. They likely spend time planning it, imagining their next victim, having murderous feelings, etc. And I can’t imagine that they just forget about it after the fact: they probably think back to the victim’s movements or screams or hair or whatever, worry about getting caught, and think about their next victim. They spend a lot of time being deceitful. I can’t imagine that they don’t think about how what they’re doing is supposed to be wrong, and either ignore or revel in that. Time spent doing all of these things is not exactly time spent being moral.
It’s not at all difficult to maintain (as I do) that morality is not about what people should do but how they should be. I suspect that that describes most people’s naive concept of morality quite well, too.
Anyway, although “saying people should do things that benefit everyone the most” is still somewhat controversial (see for example the outrage when the Red Cross used leftover 9/11 donations for other things), that’s understating the utilitarian position a bit. The standard utilitarian position is that we need to maximize good outcomes (which leads to utility monsters and related problems). Most people want some sort of “good enough” provision.
“I seriously doubt that a serial killer who only spends two hours a week on killing is being good and generous all the rest of the time. They likely spend time planning it, imagining their next victim, having murderous feelings, etc.”
We have had serial killers who are ambulance drivers and emergency responders.
“And I can’t imagine that they just forget about it after the fact: they probably think back to the victim’s movements or screams or hair or whatever, worry about getting caught, and think about their next victim. They spend a lot of time being deceitful. I can’t imagine that they don’t think about how what they’re doing is supposed to be wrong, and either ignore or revel in that. Time spent doing all of these things is not exactly time spent being moral.”
So what? We were talking about how people act, not how they think-
” Someone who spends 90% of their time being a shit to people in their monkeysphere but donates a ton of money to effective charity isn’t being moral even if they’re responsible for a net gain of xx million utils to the world.”
“It’s not at all difficult to maintain (as I do) that morality is not about what people should do but how they should be. I suspect that that describes most people’s naive concept of morality quite well, too.”
All the “what they should be” are phrased in terms of actions they should perform in the world. Most people’s naïve version of morality does not include thought crimes as moral failings.
“(see for example the outrage when the Red Cross used leftover 9/11 donations for other things), ”
Because it was viewed a breaking a promise? Having a reputation for following your word is not something that utilitarianism gets rid off.
“The standard utilitarian position is that we need to maximize good outcomes (which leads to utility monsters and related problems). Most people want some sort of “good enough” provision.”
Given the current utilitarian marginal gains are “prevent people from contracting malaria and cholera” we are a long way from where “good enough” is remotely acceptable.
Like I said, I don’t enjoy this style of argumentation and so I’m going to bow out. I will reiterate that I do very much care about what’s going on in someone’s head as well as what they do in the world, and so do most virtue ethicists. No one would blink if someone said, “Some old lady was slow on the stairs today and I wanted to punch her in the back of the head and now I feel guilty”. So clearly most people care about what you oh-so-dismissively term “thought crimes”.
Also, whether or not someone is an ambulance driver or emergency responder tells me very little about their character.
Other ethical systems make a distinction between obligatory acts and supererogatory acts. If, as you said above, the motte of utilitarianism is that utility can be meaningfully measured and compared, well, that’s nothing special. Plenty of ethical systems have a way of specifying what is good, and making it look a little more measurable isn’t super special.
The thing that makes utilitarianism act fundamentally different from virtue ethics, deontology, and whatever intuitive mixture most people pick up from society is that it does not allow for any acts to be good without also being mandatory. This doesn’t follow at all from what you describe as the basic definition.
“I will reiterate that I do very much care about what’s going on in someone’s head as well as what they do in the world, and so do most virtue ethicists. No one would blink if someone said, “Some old lady was slow on the stairs today and I wanted to punch her in the back of the head and now I feel guilty”. So clearly most people care about what you oh-so-dismissively term “thought crimes”.”
That isn’t an argument. You stated that serial killers were bad because they imagined the acts of violence they committed and derived pleasure from that and so it was more than just the time they spent killing.
What you wrote has nothing to do with it; it is a case of something thinking about violence and feeling bad about it. Are you claiming that someone who thought about violence and felt better because of it would be a bad person? Because that would probably include everyone who plays video games and really is the definition of thought crimes.
“Also, whether or not someone is an ambulance driver or emergency responder tells me very little about their character.”
It tells you they spend most of their time helping people. They are jobs that are difficult and not exceptionally well paying whose main reward is helping people. If you don’t care about people you’d probably aim for jobs that were less demanding and paid more.
“Other ethical systems make a distinction between obligatory acts and supererogatory acts.”
To be honest, I don’t understand why there is a need for the distinction. All morality is about what you should do; obligation doesn’t come into it at all. Obligation just means what society requires to give you the “good person” card, and working for social rewards is generally not regarded as a foundation of morality.
“Plenty of ethical systems have a way of specifying what is good, and making it look a little more measurable isn’t super special.”
Utilitarianism is about making it measurable at all so that you can make something that can be worked out like an equation. This is important because it means if people agree to moral weights, they will agree to conclusions unlike many other systems where it isn’t clear how conflicts are resolved.
“The thing that makes utilitarianism act fundamentally different from virtue ethics, deontology, and whatever intuitive mixture most people pick up from society is that it does not allow for any acts to be good without also being mandatory. ”
That isn’t true. There are plenty of acts that are good but not mandatory under utilitarianism. For example, giving someone else a ball you were playing with so they can enjoy it is good (because utility is increased), but not necessary (because it is possible you like playing with it more).
Obligations are what you must do in order to allow yourself to be happy, or at least not guilty. It’s not an inherently social notion.
Your example of the ball only applies because of imperfect information. If I knew for a fact that you would enjoy the ball more than I would, then it would be mandatory for me to give it up.
I am in fact stating that thinking about violence is bad, and while you’re doing it you’re not being virtuous. The example with the old lady was meant to illustrate that we consider it normal (or at least not unexpected) to feel guilty about mere thoughts.
I’m not offended by the label “thought crimes”, by the way. I just think it’s an easy way to dismiss what is actually a fairly ordinary concept.
“Obligations are what you must do in order to allow yourself to be happy, or at least not guilty. It’s not an inherently social notion.”
If your objective with morality is to feel good, something has gone slightly wrong. Morality is about doing what is right.
“Your example of the ball only applies because of imperfect information. If I knew for a fact that you would enjoy the ball more than I would, then it would be mandatory for me to give it up.”
Utility doesn’t mean enjoyment and if you are going to be nitpicky the relevant aspect would be marginal utility, not if someone else would enjoy the activity more.
“I am in fact stating that thinking about violence is bad, and while you’re doing it you’re not being virtuous. The example with the old lady was meant to illustrate that we consider it normal (or at least not unexpected) to feel guilty about mere thoughts.”
So you believe that the existence of shooters and other violent video games are a net moral loss for humanity? Or if it has to be real people and you imaging it, does that mean people who get violent thoughts on the road and don’t feel bad are evil?
“I’m not offended by the label “thought crimes”, by the way. I just think it’s an easy way to dismiss what is actually a fairly ordinary concept.”
You appear to be conflating social approval of self control with morality.
Look, Samuel, I think having violent thoughts is bad and people shouldn’t do it. It doesn’t make you evil, because I’m a reasonable person and I don’t think you’re defined by a single violent thought you had on the road. But in that moment, yes, you were being bad. Violent video games are a net moral loss to the world. That is not an absurd conclusion. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop the baiting tone.
As for the old lady example, the relevant part isn’t that you restrained yourself from punching her. We’re talking about someone who felt guilty that he had had a violent thought about an innocent person. I submit that this is a perfectly ordinary concept and no one would blink an eye at it.
EDIT: Except for rationalists, of course.
” But in that moment, yes, you were being bad. Violent video games are a net moral loss to the world. That is not an absurd conclusion. I’d appreciate it if you’d drop the baiting tone. ”
It isn’t baiting. You literally think things that have no effect on other people in any way are bad. People can presumably commit bad deeds even if they are entirely alone on a deserted island. That is simply nuts. You can’t be bad if there isn’t an injured party.
” We’re talking about someone who felt guilty that he had had a violent thought about an innocent person. I submit that this is a perfectly ordinary concept and no one would blink an eye at it.”
Sure they would. You are claiming someone feeling guilty over thought crimes is more moral than not feeling guilty. Feeling guilt is socially seen as important because it tells you about the odds someone will do bad things.
“EDIT: Except for rationalists, of course.”
Given video games (and porn) aren’t banned and are widely appreciated (and tv, radio and penny dreadfuls are accepted) I’m going to say your opinion is a bit fringe.
This is kind of funny. I am in fact asserting the opposite of “you can’t be bad if there isn’t an injured party”, which is only nuts if you assume that morality is all about the injuries (or lack thereof) to other parties. This is apparently so trivially obvious to you that you were wildly confused by my position.
I’m not gonna defend my foundational ethics here, but I will point out one thing: we already have a way of talking about good and bad outcomes. We call them “good and bad outcomes”. If you’re gonna have a concept of morality above and beyond this, it needs to do some heavy lifting above and beyond it. Standard utilitarianism has it that morality is the obligation to maximize good outcomes. You say that morality is about “what you should do”, but the answer to that depends on what you are looking for. If you’re looking for the best utilitarian outcomes then sure, you should take the action with the best consequences. But somehow that doesn’t seem to capture what most people want to see morality doing.
I think the clarifying question here is, “Would you rather have a universe in which people do all the right things for the wrong reasons, or one in which they do all the wrong things for the right reasons?” It’s a tough one for most people–certainly my freshman philosophy class was taken aback by it. Virtue ethicists tend to prefer the latter, consequentialists the former. But it’s a real question.
As for video games and porn(??), all things are not equally important and people are giant hypocrites.
Obligation isn’t about feeling good in itself, even though feeling good is a possible consequence of having fulfilled one’s obligations. An obligation is a thing you MUST do, not just a thing it is better to do than not to do. If a sense that there are things you MUST do is not part of your internal experience, I don’t think we can communicate meaningfully on this subject.
“This is apparently so trivially obvious to you that you were wildly confused by my position.”
Yes, because morality is about making people’s (and possibly other living things) lives better. Actions unrelated to that aren’t moral.
“But somehow that doesn’t seem to capture what most people want to see morality doing.”
So? I don’t care what people want from a moral code. The goal isn’t to provide people with a code that tells them they are awesome- the goal is to provide them with a code that tells them the best way to help others.
“I think the clarifying question here is, “Would you rather have a universe in which people do all the right things for the wrong reasons, or one in which they do all the wrong things for the right reasons?” It’s a tough one for most people–certainly my freshman philosophy class was taken aback by it. Virtue ethicists tend to prefer the latter, consequentialists the former. But it’s a real question.”
I’m not seeing how. The correct answer is the first position. We know that because we live in the second universe and it is pretty bad. People have conducted horrible atrocities out of the most noble of motives. I’d rather live in a universe where a communist utopia was created because Stalin wanted to spite Trotsky and pick up hot chicks than in our world where millions of people died because Stalin wanted to build a utopia.
But I’m sure the millions of people who starved to death would be happy to know that their deaths weren’t morally relevant because Stalin had really good motives.
The question is only relevant as a relative measure, not an absolute. We care about motives because it affects what people do in the future and because our treatment of motives affects people’s incentives.
“As for video games and porn(??), all things are not equally important and people are giant hypocrites.”
Except your position was “people wouldn’t find it weird”. The fact that you think video games are morally wrong, but over half the population plays them suggests a level of disagreement. Note that people who complain about video games claim they make people more violent, not that violent thoughts are bad.
“Obligation isn’t about feeling good in itself, even though feeling good is a possible consequence of having fulfilled one’s obligations. An obligation is a thing you MUST do, not just a thing it is better to do than not to do. If a sense that there are things you MUST do is not part of your internal experience, I don’t think we can communicate meaningfully on this subject.”
You haven’t given any reason for moral obligations to exist. Things you must do are things that are socially obligatory. The consequences of you not doing them… is people in society judge you harshly/you are arrested. That is it.
In moral systems that have obligations, obligations only matter for being judged to be moral which is an inherently social process. People in the past who were considered virtuous did things we think disqualify them. We either admit they were virtuous (in which case you have morality entirely socially determined as a method for picking prosocial individuals) or we declare that they weren’t, in which case our measure of virtue is probably going to be judged wrong by future generations.
My position was, “People wouldn’t find it weird to assign moral value to mere thoughts.”
A: “So-and-so told me they fantasized about raping and torturing their [long-dead] daughter.”
B: “That’s sick, man.”
See also the average person’s reaction to celibate pedophiles.
My position was also, “I think violent thoughts are immoral, ergo playing violent video games is not virtuous.” But I, like most people, have more important things to worry about than first-person shooters. Really.
Also, the idea that Stalin had “really good motives” pisses me off. He didn’t! He was a violent, tyrannical, and dangerously self-righteous man. I don’t care if he thought he was doing the right thing; he was wrong.
AKA, you know who else is self-righteous?
Ugh. I just reread the below, and the tone is excessively uncharitable. I don’t have time to fix it before the edit clock runs out, and I don’t want to just delete it because I feel like it’s a worthwhile point. So I’m just prefacing it with this apology.
So your first step in arguing that utilitarianism is the best theory of morality is to define morality in utilitarian terms? I’m reminded of my discussion with you in another thread where you essentially defined knowledge in verificationist terms, and then used that to argue for verificationism.
This is a kind of argument you should stop making.
Here’s a scenario:
John promises his dying wife that he will care for her garden after she dies. He doesn’t much like gardening, but he carries on with it for years out of loyalty to her. Then some cataclysm happens, and John is the last human left alive on Earth. He carries on tending his wife’s old garden until the day he dies, not only because he still loves her, but because he promised her to do so. John feels that it would be immoral to break that promise.
Now, *most* people would, I submit, praise John here. They might find the whole thing kind of heartwarming. But from your perspective, apparently John has no moral obligation at all to keep his promise. Not only is his wife not harmed if he breaks it (she’s dead), but society isn’t harmed by a defection from the norm of promise-keeping, because John is the last human on Earth.
But it is not out of the mainstream to feel that John has a duty to keep that promise. Indeed, IMHO it is WEIRD (“Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic”) NOT to be able to see how John might have a duty here. Both globally and historically, the view that one cannot do wrong on the proverbial desert island is very far from the human mainstream.
Consider the “seven deadly sins”: they are about bad affect, not bad effects. On a desert island, one could easily be wrathful (at the memory of being marooned), prideful (at one’s self-sufficiency), envious (of the folks back home), gluttonous, lustful (toward remembered beauties), slothful, and even greedy (for the millions to be piled up when you write your best-selling memoirs if you’re ever rescued).
If John breaks his promise, or commits any of the deadly sins, he makes *himself* a worse person. And most humans now and historically have felt that such self-worsening is morally wrong.
Now, maybe you’re right and traditional ethical intuitions are wrong. Whatever. What’s troubling is that you don’t seem able or willing to understand your interlocutors’ views. You dismissed the ethical intuitions of most humans ever as obviously nuts. The problem isn’t that you think they’re wrong–think what you want. The problem is that you think they’re obviously wrong. You’re living in a very small bubble.
Anonymous, I’m having a hard time imagining what it is you’re finding self-righteous. Is it the mere idea that someone could judge a person’s thoughts? Is it the fact that I got frustrated because my interlocutor was simply contradicting me without adding value?
I dropped in to try and explain why a virtue ethicist might not run into the same problem as a utilitarian, and then had to clarify exactly what it meant to be a virtue ethicist, to a hostile and contradictory interlocutor. I’m not feeling smug about being superior to anyone, nor am I trying to make a case for my foundational ethics. I’m just really frustrated. I don’t see how that’s self-righteous, but please do explain if you can.
You know what else you aren’t? introspective.
“My position was, “People wouldn’t find it weird to assign moral value to mere thoughts.”
A: “So-and-so told me they fantasized about raping and torturing their [long-dead] daughter.”
B: “That’s sick, man.””
That isn’t assigning moral value. Thinking someone is mentally ill is not a moral judgement.
“See also the average person’s reaction to celibate pedophiles.”
Because we think that they will falter and commit sex crimes? Don’t they have a ridiculously high rate of recidivism?
“My position was also, “I think violent thoughts are immoral, ergo playing violent video games is not virtuous.” But I, like most people, have more important things to worry about than first-person shooters. Really.”
So? Trivial causes have people who fight for them. As far as I’m aware there is no movement to bad video games for causing bad thoughts, only for leading to violent behavior.
“Also, the idea that Stalin had “really good motives” pisses me off. He didn’t! He was a violent, tyrannical, and dangerously self-righteous man. I don’t care if he thought he was doing the right thing; he was wrong.”
You were the one who claimed that “right thing for wrong reasons versus wrong thing for right reasons was a dilemma” and yet here you are agreeing that the former is correct.
And yes, Stalin had good motives. He believed he was building a glorious communist future. This is the “wrong thing for the right reason”. He was also a paranoid sociopath. The two are not contradictory; it is possible to both believe you are doing the right thing and have little to no empathy for other people.
“So your first step in arguing that utilitarianism is the best theory of morality is to define morality in utilitarian terms?”
Than provide your own definition.
“Both globally and historically, the view that one cannot do wrong on the proverbial desert island is very far from the human mainstream. ”
So? People thought slavery was acceptable for most of human history. Christianity entire claim to moral superiority was that the moral positions of people at the time period it came into existence were bankrupt.
“Now, maybe you’re right and traditional ethical intuitions are wrong. Whatever. What’s troubling is that you don’t seem able or willing to understand your interlocutors’ views.”
Because most people agree such things are barely meaningful. It doesn’t matter if you keep calm all the time- if you kill someone people judge you are worse person than an individual who is often angry. People who glance around are considered more moral than individuals who cheat on their spouses. Etc.
If the behaviors are dominated by actions, that implies the behaviors are moral indicators, but that they are not more in and of themselves. It isn’t that it is immoral to look at other people while married, it is that people who cheat are more likely to do that then people who are steady.
I’m pretty sure Aquinas talks about this. Isn’t there a section where he says even though horses don’t have souls it is wrong to beat them because people who do that are likely to also beat other people? Unless you are arguing that Aquinas was WEIRD I’d say that looks like acceptance of the idea of indicators that aren’t moral in and of themselves.
“I dropped in to try and explain why a virtue ethicist might not run into the same problem as a utilitarian, and then had to clarify exactly what it meant to be a virtue ethicist, to a hostile and contradictory interlocutor. I’m not feeling smug about being superior to anyone, nor am I trying to make a case for my foundational ethics.”
You declared your opponent is a bad person and is evil in such a way that it is impossible for them to ever be good. You’ve provided a type of evil that is impossible to quantify because it doesn’t interact with anything else in an observable manner so it can have any value you want it to.
I have not declared anyone to be evil, let alone “evil in such a way that it is impossible for them to ever be good”. That is a willful misrepresentation of what I said. In fact, I specifically said, “It doesn’t make you evil, because I’m a reasonable person and I don’t think you’re defined by a single violent thought you had on the road.”
Nor have I refused to provide you with an alternative definition of morality. I’ve tried, over and over, to tell you that yes, I really do think that morality is about a person’s internal experience. No, that’s not easily quantifiable, but neither are joy and pain, and yet utilitarianism has no problem assigning actions moral value based on whether or not they cause joy or pain. We can observe joy in pretty much the same way that we can observe generosity, hostility, or pride.
Irenist gave you a good one, too. The seven deadly sins are about affect, not effect.
I worded my response to the Stalin example very poorly. What I meant to say was, “I don’t care if Stalin thought he was doing the right thing, or if he had some “good motives”. He wasn’t actually virtuous.” And it’s true, he wasn’t! You just said he was a paranoid sociopath. That’s totally not incompatible with thinking you’re doing the right thing. That’s why thinking you’re doing the right thing doesn’t make you moral.
Also notice that you didn’t say he had lofty goals and he killed a lot of people, you said he had lofty goals and he had little to no empathy for other people. Yes! Yes! Exactly! You’re getting there! Lacking empathy is bad. Intrinsically bad. Stalin was not a virtuous man.
That is just willful, opportunistic misinterpretation. As a matter of empirical fact, “That’s sick, man” is intended and understood by the vast majority of people to be a moral judgment. Don’t nitpick the example. Argue that, in fact, most people think morality is all about good outcomes. Otherwise, just accept it as an empirical fact.
Which brings me to my next point: you have claimed to both care what most people or “almost everyone” thinks and also to not care at all, because humans thought slavery was okay for a long time. Pick one. Either there’s value in looking at the ordinary concept of morality or there isn’t.
And with that, I am going to head out and do my best to avoid this blog for a few days. You are making me very angry and it isn’t good for either of us.
@ Irenist Consider the “seven deadly sins”: they are about bad affect, not bad effects. On a desert island, one could easily be wrathful [etc]
Interestingly, the old objective moral code which C.S. Lewis said was accepted by all factions in the Middle Ages, was mostly about effects. Tl;dr: “Feed and clothe the people — but don’t cause anyone to weep. Give most kindness to family and friends, and to all children, elderly, and sick people — but treat outsiders fairly, especially in business and law. Tell truth and keep promises. Defend the weak. Don’t do any vile actions. Don’t be afraid of death.” The only one mentioning affect is the last: “Don’t be afraid of death.”
Of course most of these actions pretty well match up to the virtues.
“I have not declared anyone to be evil, let alone “evil in such a way that it is impossible for them to ever be good”. That is a willful misrepresentation of what I said.”
“I can’t imagine that they don’t think about how what they’re doing is supposed to be wrong, and either ignore or revel in that. Time spent doing all of these things is not exactly time spent being moral.”
Since you are arguing that this has a moral dimension and that it isn’t moral that makes it immoral. Immoral and evil are virtually synonyms and since this includes automatic thoughts it is impossible for people who have wandering minds or violent subconciousess to ever meet your criteria.
“Nor have I refused to provide you with an alternative definition of morality. I’ve tried, over and over, to tell you that yes, I really do think that morality is about a person’s internal experience.”
But when I brought up Stalin you declared he was evil based upon his actions. Unless of course you are claiming that the problem with Stalin wasn’t the murder, but the lack of self doubt and sociopathy. Because that means you are okay with the action if the internal experience is different. If someone who participated in the slave trade was a really nice person to those he interacted with would he count as a good or bad person?
“No, that’s not easily quantifiable, but neither are joy and pain, and yet utilitarianism has no problem assigning actions moral value based on whether or not they cause joy or pain. We can observe joy in pretty much the same way that we can observe generosity, hostility, or pride.”
We can’t observe thoughts of other people at all. We have at least an idea of what people derive joy and pain from but “thoughts determine moral standing” has absolutely no basis you can compare between people. It gets worse because while people share similar pain/pleasure sensations, mental worlds are fantastically different.
“I worded my response to the Stalin example very poorly. What I meant to say was, “I don’t care if Stalin thought he was doing the right thing, or if he had some “good motives”. He wasn’t actually virtuous.” And it’s true, he wasn’t! You just said he was a paranoid sociopath. That’s totally not incompatible with thinking you’re doing the right thing. That’s why thinking you’re doing the right thing doesn’t make you moral.”
How is being paranoid immoral? People were trying to kill him and there were entire movements and country dedicated to the task of destroying his life’s work.
As for sociopathy, I don’t see how you can say being a sociopath is inherently immoral. Most sociopaths do not in fact go around killing people. Are you really claiming millions of people are inherently evil from birth?
“Lacking empathy is bad. Intrinsically bad. Stalin was not a virtuous man.”
Why yes, you are declaring millions of people are inherently evil from birth. I’m sure such labeling could never be used as a justification for mass murder!
“That is just willful, opportunistic misinterpretation. As a matter of empirical fact, “That’s sick, man” is intended and understood by the vast majority of people to be a moral judgment. ”
Why? If the individual in question is telling other people it is because they want help which implies they view it as a mental illness.
Sexual deviancy is often viewed as a form of mental illness and thus outside moral condemnation. The Catholic church condemns homosexual sex, but not having homosexual thoughts.
Unless your claim is that thoughts of rape and incest are automatically wrong. Hint- this is why I brought up porn. Your claims keep making the invention of the internet the greatest evil to be unleashed across the planet.
“Which brings me to my next point: you have claimed to both care what most people or “almost everyone” thinks and also to not care at all, because humans thought slavery was okay for a long time.”
That isn’t contradictory. I care that people feel pain and pleasure. I don’t care about the systems they thought that were the best way of dealing with this.
“Either there’s value in looking at the ordinary concept of morality or there isn’t.”
There is value in looking at it, you just can’t automatically accept that the explanations are accurate. The ordinary concept includes things that are social rules as well as shortcuts and other jury-rigging. That doesn’t mean it is useless; it works reasonably well after all and beats having nothing.
Utilitarianism implies that the maximally virtuous agent would not care more about zirself or zir monkeysphere. It does not say its “wrong” to care about yourself and your family/friends more than others. Just thats its not maximally virtuous.
I’m not a utilitarian (though I am a consequentialist, albeit one with a very complicated utility function), but I don’t see how a morality can be “stupid”. That seems to be a nonsensical statement.
I bet people can’t begin to argue about something without making a wrong generalization as a start.
I think the general idea works really well, but only if the invader and the defender have discussed both the motte and the bailey.
The invader should not assume any of the following about the defender: a. mention of a motte by the defender means they also have a bailey, b. mention of a bailey by the defender means they also have a motte or c. mention of a motte by the defender in a discussion about their bailey means they understand and care about the motte.
To assume any of the above is to argue against what you wish was being said rather than what is actually being said.
But alternatively, this sets you up for being overrun by an opponent who can skillfully use strategic engagement or strategic distribution of beliefs among their supporters. (neither of which requires conscious strategy but can be made more effective by it)
I wonder how many other logical fallacies can be paired like that.
Two obvious examples:
Mussolini Fallacy (Mussolini was good because he made the trains run on time)
Reverse Mussolini Fallacy (Mussolini was bad, so making trains run on time is bad)
Prosecutor’s Fallacy (naively applying frequentist statistics in a way that understates the probability of Type I errors)
Defendant’s Fallacy (naively applying frequentist statistics in a way that understates the probability of Type II errors)
Trying to think of others:
No True Scotsman pairs with Weak Man (which I’m still lobbying to rename to “Tin Man”) in a different way than Motte and Bailey does.
The Naturalistic Fallacy pairs with failure to consider Chesterton’s Gate.
Proving Too Much pairs with Slippery Slope.
Argument from Moderation pairs with False Dilemma.
I suppose Ecological Fallacy might be seen as pairing with the Fundamental Attribution Error, but that may be stretching things a bit much.
The Mussolini Fallacy isn’t a fallacy. Making the trains run on time is evidence for Mussolini being good. It isn’t complete because he also did other things, but lack of data or prioritizing certain items aren’t fallacies.
This is where I got the two fallacies originally, with a more complete and precise phrasing of the examples:
It isn’t a fallacy to believe that certain good deeds outweigh bad deeds. Believing that making the trains run on time outweighs Mussolini’s other acts is either skewed perspective, a belief the alternatives would still have hit the bad, but not the listed goods or ignorance about the level of bad things.
However, none of those are logical fallacies. Being wrong does not require logical fallacies- ignorance is a perfectly reasonable path as well.
Since this seems to be getting a bit of discussion, it’s worth mentioning that Mussolini didn’t actually make the trains run on time (hence Volokh’s paranthetical in a quote a bit up the thread). The story I’ve heard is that he happily took credit for some railway reform that was actually enacted by the previous government just before he took over, and that the improvement was modest in any event. It’s always important before you take some data as evidence for something, or begin looking around for the explanation or cause of some phenomenon, to make sure that the data is accurate/the phenomenon actually exists.
No, it’s totally not worth mentioning, but since you started story time, the story I heard is that Mussolini made the trains with journalists run on time.
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I hate the terms ‘motte and bailey’. They’re two words that are never used outside this context and so doesn’t offer any lingustic clues to the meaning of the phrase if you forget which is a motte and which is a bailey. It could never spread outside this little community the way phrases like ‘tabooing’ or ‘weak man’ might, because it sets off ‘arcane nerd knowledge that only sticks because it makes the people who do understand it feel smart’ detectors.
Call it ‘tower and lands’, or ‘castle and fields’, or something similar.
This one certainly can’t be said to be Scott’s fault; in his original post he explicitly mentioned that “motte and bailey” was probably not a very good term, and suggested “strategic equivocation” instead. But the community evidently decided to go with “motte and bailey” anyway. Which, IMHO, constitutes evidence in favor of the idea that maybe it’s a good term after all.
1. Any concrete metaphor, even an imperfect one, is more fun than something like “strategic equivocation.” Hence the preference for the opaque-to-the-uninitiated “poisoning the well” over something like “preemptive ad hominem.” We primates like our pretty word pictures.
2. The SSC community likes “motte and bailey.” I like it. But we’re nerds, which was one of (Commenter) Scott’s points.
That the community acclaimed it is evidence of a certain sort of memetic fitness, not evidence of that it is useful for anything but building community.
Good point. Also, it doesn’t help that “motte” sounds kind of like “moat,” which might lead the non-medievalist to misremember the “motte” as the outer thing and then the “bailey” as the inner.
As for not tripping nerd detectors, I think the answer there would be to find something that didn’t sound medieval (and hence D&Dish) at all. Maybe “fort and fields”? “Fort” sounds more like the U.S. Cavalry or something. Better yet, find some sports analogy that works the same way.
I agree, and had agreed before, and thought, “I should use castle and field or something next time,” the last time it came up, but then I didn’t because I forgot and everybody was using motte and bailey.
I’ll use something else from now on.
Field and fortress? Alliteration.
I like it.
I think it’s good to mix in a bit of history – and, besides, almost no one speaks Latin nowadays but intelligent people can get the hang of what “ad hominem” means.
Call it ‘tower and lands’, or ‘castle and fields’, or something similar.
While we’re at it, what about making it less binary? Like, concentric fields, barely defensible stuff on the outside ring, with less and less controversial stuff nearer the center.
I’ve seen ‘motte’ used here sometimes as ‘reasonable things that a lot of people accept or can respect’ and sometimes as ‘a platitude so obvious/meaningless that it’s not worth talking about, therefore just a mind-numbing move’. Which would make the very center of the castle an empty shaft — but, say, the rooms of the castle holding some valuable things, and the garden holding things worth arguing about, etc.
For example, my hollow shaft is “Women are people”, my surrounding rooms have “Women have been unfairly treated for millenia and should have more equality”, my garden has “Women should have full equality right now”, etc.
Perhaps a castle with multiple walls. The first is a simple palisade, maybe with a moat, but from it you can easily exert control over the surrounding lands. The next is a larger wall, and harder to get past, but can be eventually besieged. From the second wall, it’s harder to control your lands, but it’s still possible. Eventually, you get to a massive stone fortress. It’s nearly impossible to successfully besiege, but it also traps you inside.
I’m wondering if that’s a feature no a bug (not necessarily an intentional feature mind you). Creating a in group language for talking about things makes us feel somehow connected, as though we’re sort of in on the secret. Scott’s political color scheme is another example (the “cool kids color scheme” as a commenter here put it). It’s analogous to having in-jokes in your social circle.
Examples of this:
Multipolar trap (tragedy of the commons)
Motte and bailey (bait and switch)
Now obviously none of these concepts is exactly equivalent to more standard terminology – and stating the differences is a rather boring task. I’m much more interested in how we are affected by this new lexicon.
If you want to switch to a fancier stone castle, like Krak des Chevaliers, then the bits of the castle are:
Keep – the central fortress (motte equivalent)
Ward – the weakly protected area (bailey equivalent)
Curtain wall – protects the ward
Bastion – strong point on the curtain wall.
Motte and bailey castles were mostly early, wooden castles; the whole bailey would later be surrounded by a stone wall, becoming the ward, while the motte would become the keep
But the ward, like the bailey, is relatively well-protected.
“The government recently tortured both of my parents to death that way” http://dilbert.com/blog/entry/death_with_dignity/
The arguments against are mostly a mix of non-central and motte-and-bailey. Hopefully you decide to chime in again.
> nearly 100% of the public opposes having the government make the end-of-life care decision over their own wishes. The only way you get a different poll response is by asking the question like an idiot: “Duh! Hey, dude, do you think the government should be able to kill sick people?” Likely answer: “NO!!!!! I HAVE A COLD BUT I WANT TO LIVE!!!!”
> This means people who know both terms are at constant risk of arguments of the form “You’re weak-manning me!” “No, you’re motte-and-baileying me!“.
WHY WOULD YOU EVER CALL ATTENTION TO THIS DON’T YOU RESPECT THE VIRTUE OF SILENCE
How do I make indented quotations work? Apparently this doesn’t work like Reddit, and I’m not seeing any help buttons around here.
Reddit uses markdown. This blog uses sanitized html. When you reply you can see a list of the available tags below the box. However, markdown is designed to look good as unrendered source code, so if you really can’t get the html to work, your posts will still be perfectly readable with markdown formatting.
I believe this is done through the “blockquote” tag (let me post this comment and see if I’m right 🙂
I tried copying the blockquote cite and putting the desired text inside the quotation marks, but it did not work. Do I need to use two groups of ‘s rather than just one?
<blockquote cite=”27chaos”>I tried copying the blockquote cite</blockquote>
The cite should show up indicating who the quote is from, but it doesn’t appear to actually do anything.
I love the motte and bailey concept. However, I think it’s important to avoid confusing an interlocutor retreating to a motte with one who is trying to argue that zir controversial claims *follow from* the common ground you share with zem.
1. Someone thinks zir preferred Singularity scenario is an inevitable consequence of Moore’s Law. You and ze happen to agree that Moore’s Law is likely to continue to hold, via quantum computing or whatever. Ze then *does the work* of laying out how zir Singularity scenario is plausible given the continuance of Moore’s Law. Rather than quibbling with the inferential steps, you say “That’s like something out of a sci-fi movie; it would never happen.” Then ze asks “But didn’t you say that you agree that Moore’s Law is likely to hold for the next hundred years at least?” At that point, you’re wrong to accuse zem of “retreating to the motte” of your agreement on Moore’s Law. If zir argument is wrong, it’s because one of zir inferences about Moore’s Law leading to zir Singularity scenario is wrong, not because ze is retreating to a motte.
2. You’re a Christian who believes, like Origen, in universal salvation. Your interlocutor believes in eternal hellfire; ze states that Hell is just eternal separation from God, and God honors free will by respecting that choice. You say that the pains of Hell sound a lot more coercive than that. Ze responds by asking if you agree that God is the Good. You, a Christian, agree. Your interlocutor says that “not being in horrible pain” sounds pretty Good, so “not ‘not being in horrible pain'” sounds like what total separation from the Good ought to imply. Again, this might be a silly argument, but it’s an attempt to show that the controversial claim *follows from* the uncontroversial claim, not a retreat to a motte. If the argument is silly, it’s because there’s something wrong with the inference, or with the earlier agreement about “goodness,” or something else (like that you’re both wrong in the first place to believe in God, which I suppose would be the most popular diagnosis here at SSC), rather than that there’s been a motte retreat.
TL;DR: There’s lots of ways for an argument to be wrong. The motte/bailey way is temptingly fun to diagnose, but might be less prevalent then we’re tempted to think. In particular, to say that outlandish “bailey” claim Y *follows from* bog standard “motte” claim X is just to make an argument, not to engage in motte-and-baileying.
The problem is that God is supposedly “good” but is intentionally hiding very important information. Imagine I have a magic potion that smells terribly but cures you from horrible demonic possession followed by millennia of torment. If I tell you “please drink this potion” and you say “no thanks” I am not respecting your wishes by quietly putting the potion away.
If millennia of torment is on the line I have a duty to warn you the potion saves you from his horrible fate. And if you are skeptical I should do anything I can to prove this to you. If you still refuse, despite me trying as hard as I can then maybe its ok if I not force the potion down your throat. Though I personally would, if possible, overpower you and force you to drink the potion (assuming I was 100% sure of the demon stuff). But if I let you fall into thousands of years of torment without even telling trying to prove to you the necessity of drinking the potion I am not even close to a good potion.
I am an unspeakably evil person if the penalty for not drinking is eternal torment.
Assuming arguendo your critique of the hellfire-believer is correct, I don’t think the believer’s error, as you’ve identified it, would specifically be a motte-and-bailey argument. That’s pretty much the extent of my point here, not to engage in theodicy.
(FWIW, modern Christians who attempt to engage in theodicy on this point usually guess that somehow at the moment of death, the full “very important information” is available to the person as they make that final choice; sometimes the “harrowing of Hell” is invoked. In this Catholic’s opinion, it’s the least bad of the many very bad theodictic options available, although I’m the first to concede that there’s little or no biblical or patristic basis for it.)
I am saying unless God has a very extreme libertarian bent its not a “free choice” when you are missing information of literally infinite importance.
I was not aware of the “at the moment of death the person gets full information” positions. Thanks for telling me about them.
Well, quite a few U.S. Republicans seem to think that God has quite a bent indeed for laissez faire economics…
As for the “full information” theodicy, I’ve seen a couple versions:
One is that the body veils the soul from perceiving that it has always already been suspended between Heaven and Hell, so that dying (i.e., becoming disembodied) in itself implies “getting full information,” as if the moment of death were kind of like waking up from the Matrix or something (although that analogy sounds more Gnostic and Platonic than it should if I had more time to come up with a better one).
Another, more heterodox, variant is that the harrowing of Hell involved Jesus personally offering each of the damned a choice for or against Him. (Since Hell is posited as outside time, and Christ posited as God, the whole thing could have happened over the first Easter weekend, even for people born long after 29 CE.)
I can’t think of any good online presentations of either speculation, but I suppose some googling could turn them up.
Here’s a good discussion of the notion that the “harrowing of hell” involved Christ preaching to the souls in Hades. I’m actually a little surprised to hear Irenist calling this the “more heterodox” variant, since my understanding was that this view is dominant among the Orthodox, and it’s certainly well-supported by quotations from the Fathers. Might have something to do with Irenist being a papist heretic.
The money quote is from St. Clement of Alexandria: Did not the same dispensation obtain in Hades, so that even there, all the souls, on hearing the proclamation, might either exhibit repentance, or confess that their punishment was just, because they believed not?
@Mai La Dreapta:
LOL. Mostly it just comes from my not having thought or read about it much. Thanks for the info!
The problem with Hell goes way beyond lack of information, and it almost seems like revealing its existence to people when they die would just make things worse.
Imagine you are a dissident in a cyberpunk dystopia. You are caught by the secret police of Big Brother Corporation.They have mind reading devices, so they can see what your true feelings and beliefs are, lying will not help you. They want you to genuinely be loyal to The Corporation, out of your own “free will”, and if you are not they will torture you horribly. So they show you what will happen if you don’t love Big Brother in full virtual reality detail: you will be put in constant overwhelming pain and suffering of every sort, and given the life extension treatments that the Corporate elites have been secretly holding for themselves so that even aging will not euthanize you. If your body does give out eventually, you will have hundreds of uploads made of your mind and tortured for as long as human civilization stands. They show you that this is what happens to all the people who have disappeared.
Do apologists really think that would increase the number of successful brainwashings? If anything at all it seems like it would decrease them. You can’t make someone love you by threatening to hurt them if they don’t love you.
You are correct, and many apologists do in fact agree with you. It is not an information problem; choosing to love God is the issue at hand. Torment and misery is inherent in rejecting God’s love, because He is the source of all that is good and there cannot be good apart from Him. Humans, being made for fellowship with God, cannot thrive by rejecting that fellowship anymore than a tree will thrive if you cut it from its roots.
As ever, there is a C.S. Lewis book going into more detail here: The Great Divorce.
Well, I was specifically talking about the theodicies described by Irenist (which I have actually never heard of before this).
As to your argument, I think I’ve already said in a previous debate with you that I find the idea of objective morality nonsensical. So good is whatever I say it is. So my response would basically be to tell God “Nope, you’re Evil!”.
The other decent option I’ve seen is that you can repent after death.
As we call it in Philosophy, “the principle of charity”.
If you can’t argue against the best, most rational version of something, your argument isn’t strong enough – and maybe you’re even just wrong.
(This is why I mostly can’t stand internet debates about anything; nobody seems to use the principle of charity, let alone your excellent closing suggestion of arguing explicit positions with definitions, rather than affect-full codewords.)
Without any specific scenario it’s also hard to see how we can do anything now about a singularity.
You got linked by FT Alphaville:
(Increase existential horror by 0.01)
I now live in fear that the most influential thing I will ever do in my life is posting a link to that paper on this blog!
Clearly, I need to up my game elsewhere.
“Taboo your words, then replace the symbol with the substance. If you have an actual thing you’re trying to debate, then it should be obvious when somebody’s changing the topic.”
Let’s say I am in 1930’s Germany. I don’t want the Nazis to rise to power. How do I most effectively help in that political battle? Is it by debating particular, narrow concepts, without ever explicitly connecting them to the real-life political parties, or is it by debating the real-life political parties? I think the answer is clear. The important thing ISN’T “Jews and disabled people should not be brutally persecuted.” It is, “the Nazis want to persecute Jews and disabled people, and THAT’S EVIL!” Of course this leaves us open to strawman accusations and counter- motte&bailey accusations, but that’s the price for discussing something substantive.
In the real world, the particular abstract questions aren’t what matter – the groups and people are what matter. People get things done, and they aren’t particularly married to particular abstract concepts, they are married to their values and their compatriots. If you really pin a Nazi down and ask if they support gassing Jews and all, you’re as likely to get a no as a yes, because the particulars aren’t what matter to them. What matters is, a lot of them dislike Jews, and support nationalism, and support the military, and most important of all support their companions in the party! If you manage to convince them that gassing Jews is bad, you’ve accomplished absolutely nothing, because they didn’t join the party because they really really wanted Jews gassed.
In order to deal with reality, we must attack and defend groups and individuals. That does not mean forsaking logic. It requires dealing with obfuscating tactics like those you outline above, but that’s not even a real downside, because if you flee into the narrow, particular questions all you’re doing is covering your eyes to avoid perceiving the the monsters that will still make mincemeat of your attempts to change things. Say you work exhaustively to prove that gassing Jews is, indeed, a bad idea. The world will shrug and move on without caring, because while you strove to avoid having to deal with strawman accusations, everyone who cared to read your screed either applied the strawman argument – “that’s fine, but what does it have to do with anything? Certainly it has nothing to do with Hitler” – or already agreed with you that National Socialists have a really bad Jew policy.
I wish you had made this point using something less heavy handed than the nazis and genocide.
I thought I was being polite by using the Nazis! I wanted something we can all agree is bad, as opposed to something that’s still in contention. If I used a perspective more contentious than “nazis r bad” then that distracts from the point I was making, which wasn’t about any conflict in particular.
When I read your original comment, I thought so too. But all the replies are specifically about nazis, so on communication consequentialist grounds this didn’t go so well.
*Let’s say I am in 1930’s Germany. I don’t want the Nazis to rise to power. How do I most effectively help in that political battle? Is it by debating particular, narrow concepts, without ever explicitly connecting them to the real-life political parties, or is it by debating the real-life political parties?*
Probably neither one. It’s too late at that point. The most effective thing you could do is get out.
>Probably neither one. It’s too late at that point.
Well, not if we’re talking about the really early 1930’s, pre Hitler presidency/chancellorship (though, is it possible something could have been done in between chancellor Hitler and prez hitler?). I guess I should have said “in the 1920’s-early 1930’s” in my example.
Convincing the average German of the time that the Nazis want to hurt the Jews and handicapped wouldn’t have gotten you anywhere either. Enemies of the people need to be punished, and it’s high time we ended the suffering of the handicapped by, at the very least, ceasing to make more of them.
Why do you want the return of hyper-inflation and massive unemployment, anyway?
I think it needs to be pointed out here that the Nazi murders of handicapped Germans were never popular with the German people. In fact, it met with probably more public opposition than any of Hitler’s other actions during his regime.
Hitler met strong public opposition to the “euthanasia” program, and was unable to retaliate without risking a full-scale revolt. He eventually had to cancel it (though the murders continued later, under less formal terms).
So it seems that this might indeed have been a useful “wedge issue” in the early 1930s to keep the Nazis out of power.
Read “In Favor of Niceness and Civilization.” Scott isn’t trying to fight Nazis, or whatever modern group you think needs to be debated in this manner. He is just trying to improve the argumentative style of his garden.
I think OP anonymous is right in that to directly counter something like Nazism you need to somehow attack the amorphous concept of Nazism and the Nazi movement. In order to survive into the mid 1930s the Nazi narrative must have had some way to help its members deal with adversaries calling them out for promoting mass murder.
But fighting Nazism with a new movement or concept is playing the game your opponent picked, which means you’ve probably already lost. Scott’s In Favor of Niceness and Civilization would probably argue that you defeat Nazism by getting out in front of them. At some point Cthulhu swims left past the marker that says, “No Mass Killings.” Once that idea of accepted as part of civilization it makes Nazism much more difficult.
The Nazi’s are a non-central example. Your political opponent’s are very unlikely to be as bad as the Nazis. So how you want people to treat the Nazi’s is not really relevant.
I don’t know about that! I think you’ll find that when populations are at war things to zero to Hitler quite fast. The Nazis are anomalous because of the scale and organization of their actions, but not for their viciousness. And I would argue that the scale is mostly remarkable because it’s the last time we’ve seen a war like that happen, and our capabilities have been growing consistently.
People are remarkably willing to countenance killing on a much wider scale than the Holocaust. Just get into a conversation about Russia and nuclear war. Megadeaths could be only a few political shifts away, in my opinion. Though I will say that as with the rise of the Nazis, it will take remarkably bad luck and huge blunders on the part of political incumbents to happen.
I agree that references to group identities are necessary. But I think that we can make such references in a more careful way than by tacking labels onto people at whim. If you go about establishing agreed upon standards up front, there is much less risk anyone will try to dodge your point.
Here are some examples. You can explicitly define a Nazism to mean “support for the actions of Adolf Hitler”. You can ask your debating opponent to define what they think the essence of Nazism is. You can argue that you get to quote the 20 most prominent Nazi officials and treat their ideas as representative of the whole party.
It is possible your opponent will be intentionally uncooperative with you if you attempt to do this. However, I think this is unlikely and will make them look bad if an audience is present. I also think fewer people will respond uncooperatively to this strategy than to any other strategy, so it is a net positive.
“Let’s say I am in 1930’s Germany. I don’t want the Nazis to rise to power. How do I most effectively help in that political battle? […] I think the answer is clear. The important thing ISN’T “Jews and disabled people should not be brutally persecuted.” It is, “the Nazis want to persecute Jews and disabled people, and THAT’S EVIL!””
Then you would have lost that argument, as a question of emprical fact.
They would have equivocated between different meanings of “persecuted”, and “evil”, and you would have lost; pattern-matched away as yet another communist.
>Then you would have lost that argument, as a question of emprical fact.
I would have, but I am but one man . As far as a way to throw my individual weight behind stopping the Nazis, it’s perfectly fine. Do remember that the majority of the country did not support the Nazi party. If the opposition had been stronger, they would not have come to power. People often forget that, far from being some universally revered leader, Hitler never even got a majority of votes.
Hitler got 88% in the 1934 plebiscite.
And the three consecutive parliamentary victories are nothing to sneeze at. In the third one, the Nazis received a larger proportion of the votes than Bill Clinton in 1992, despite a lot more opponents. twice as many votes as the next party.
Assuming for now that you’re talking the early 30s before the Enabling Act rendered political opposition more or less moot, this argument would be pattern-matched to “boo Nazis”, making you no more effective than the marginal non-Nazi activist. (And there were lots of those; Weimar Germany was politically tumultuous beyond anything you’re likely to have seen if you live in most of the modern West.)
My take on it is more like this: the Nazis rode to power on a narrative, a self-reinforcing memeplex. Jews and especially Communists were that narrative’s main villains (disabled people had more of a bit part), but saying it’s evil to persecute them wouldn’t substantially undermine it. It’d play into it, in fact: if you’re lucky you might have been able to sell yourself as showing noble Aryan forbearance or something, and if not it’d have branded you as a collaborator or a useful idiot, and either way complicit in their “villainy”. Instead, you’d need to have built a stronger competing narrative (difficult in the early Thirties, but much easier if you’d started a decade earlier) or to have knocked holes in the Nazi one, e.g. by successfully pinning the blame for Germany’s defeat on someone else, by linking the Nazis’ ethno-nationalism to the old-school imperial nationalism that led to the Great War, or by convincing people that German Jews were an admirable part of the volk. I just came up with those off the top of my head, though; there were probably better options.
And, of course, if you’re not dealing with the Nazis or someone equally bad, most of the time you’ll want to be pushing your own agenda, which these tactics aren’t built for.
(Ugh. Counterfactuals make tenses difficult.)
If your true concern is that a particular tribe is likely to do harm with any power it is given, make it clear that that’s the case you’re making (and be extra sure to define the tribe). It may be a messier debate than one about an abstract issue, but it’s still cleaner than the standard ambiguous-subject quagmire.
I agree with your points, but I’m not sure I see this as any kind of rebuttal to Scott’s point. (Apologies in advance if what I’m about to say has already been covered in previous replies.)
Yes, the most effective way to argue against the atrocities being committed in Nazi Germany would be to attack the Nazi party. But that’s just the thing: the Nazi party was a political party, with a concrete platform consisting of stances that were reasonably well defined. Attempts to attack Naziism (as an abstract ideology), without having agreed on exactly what defines Naziism, would probably run into motte-and-bailey issues (“Why don’t you like Naziism? You have a problem with protecting the rights of working-class citizens to make a stronger Germany?”). Evaluating the political party rather than the ideology is replacing the symbol with the substance.
Lots of people seem to like “motte and bailey doctrine” as a useful idea. Lots of people have blogs.
My proposal: “terminology-bombing”. Everyone who has a blog, and wants this idea to see widespread use, writes a novel blog post explaining their conception of “motte and bailey doctrine”. They provide novel examples where possible, perhaps from their own experiences, or in alignment with the themes of their blog. This will hopefully allow the term to gain traction in the wider blogosphere and in discourse in general.
– The term becomes more widespread
– The concept is expressed in different contexts. Someone blogging on corruption in the world of dog photography will make it salient to dog photographers
– People Googling the term will take it more seriously if it comes back with hits from multiple sources
– The term becomes less associated with its provenance
– If a blogger has gotten the wrong end of the stick, their readers can respond with “hey, I think this is a misconception”, and that blogger can rejoice in being wrong
or have endless fights in comments for all of time
– Free blogpost subject
– In this case, everyone learns a little bit about medieval warfare
– The originator of the term won’t get the fame and glory that comes with it
– If the concept isn’t coherent enough, it might devolve into a dozen tenuously-related parochial usages for the term (though if it’s incoherent enough to do this, maybe it deserves to)
– Subsequent explanations of the term might be terrible
ooh, I like “terminology bombing.” Maybe we can adopt that phrase in place of “motte and bailey”?
I don’t think that was quite what IL meant, but it would be a good term. The only problem I can see is that “motte and bailey” allows for the separate terms “motte” and “bailey”, whereas terminology-bombing wouldn’t.
What if it devolves into many concepts, of varying argumentative strength and defensibility?
Then we would be left in the awkward position of meta-motte-and-bailleys.
What is the value of spreading a nearly universally general counterargument / attack to other Internet communities? I feel like people are only considering the use of this concept by people who mostly ideologically agree with them, have mostly internalized rationality norms, and don’t rush to grab hold of any rhetorical concept that can be used as a cheap ways to attack and misrepresent others.
‘Your argument seems strong! You must be treating to a motte, and are therefore terrible!’ ‘I mentally associate you with people I dislike! Since the association exists, you are guilty of strategic equivocation!’ There is virtually nothing that can’t be criticized this way, it encourages viewing people you dislike as willful, malicious liars (hence the ‘strategic’ in ‘strategic equivocation’), and it encourages melting everyone you dislike into a single many-headed super-agent, rather than making fine distinctions. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a LessWrong-associated idea that would be more dangerous to promulgate to the Internet-at-large.
It is useful to the extent that people who appreciate it’s descriptive nature will benefit, and meaningless to the extent that it will be used as a rhetorical weapon because there are already so many fully general counter-arguments available on the Internet that the marginal harm of a new one is effectively zero.
‘There are already [MANY] fully general counter-arguments, and they do [LOTS OF] harm’ is true enough, but the exact numbers you input there make a world of difference. The right rule of thumb is: When it seems like things can’t get any worse, they can get vastly worse.
Insensitivity to quantity is possibly the largest besetting sin of humans (since it’s the sin that keeps us from noticing how large any of the other sins are). If you see any argument of the form ‘Meh, things already feel overwhelmingly [X], why waste effort keeping them from getting [X]-er’, especially when it relies on a vague affect-laden impression of how much [X] there is rather than on an actual measurement… I suggest immediately jumping up in alarm. Scrutinize the hell out of that impulse.
Example: the SJ concept of ‘tone trolling’ causes lots of harm, because it makes it much riskier in many contexts to work on improving one’s communicative strategy. But if ‘tone trolling’ didn’t exist, there would still be dozens of other memes out there causing plenty of harm, and we wouldn’t directly perceive how much better the world is for lack of ‘tone trolling’ as a term. So we’d be likely to underestimate the harm from popularizing ‘tone trolling’ (especially if it’s a cool idea we associate with a community and individuals you respect). General optimism bias is worsened quite a bit when it’s combined with our tendency to think that $10,000 raised by $100 is a smaller absolute change than $1,000 raised by $100. What feels like ‘this is a big mess of terrible stuff’ decomposes into a specific finite number of very specific habits and memes, most of them intelligible and non-inevitable, many of them enormously harmful.
I recall that a lecturer of mine at university used memorably to say of poststructuralism (the wing of postmodernism most apt to make claims like “reality is socially constructed”) that most of their claims were “trivially true or obviously false” – which seems tantamount to describing them as a motte and bailey.
This is somewhat tangential to your actual point, but my only objection is that I think that the description of a motte-and-bailey castle makes the bailey sound more productive and expansive than it really was. I’m not a medievalist, military historian, architectural historian, or anything like that, but my general impression is that the majority of a manorial lord’s actually economically productive territory was generally outside of both the motte and the bailey, in unfortified agrarian holdings.
The bailey may have had a few value-generating things like forges, bakers and the like, but it was fundamentally a military installation, still dependent economically on the civilian countryside. The motte was the final bastion, not suited as long term military base. The bailey was the long-term military base with room for horses, repair shops, etc, but not economically productive in the normal sense of the word or oriented around civilian life.
Also the term motte generally refers to the big pile of earth (which might be a natural hill (probably with its slopes accentuated) or wholly artificial) atop which the keep was built, not the keep itself.
I don’t mean to derail this topic. I just felt that so long as the metaphor is being used, the descriptions of motte-and-bailey castles should do them some justice, although I’m far from the most qualified person in that role. (Anyone know this stuff better than I do?)
yes, pretty sure the type of castle he is describing is not a Motte and Bailey, it’s just a ‘castle’ with ‘fields’. Or perhaps a manor and demense.
You should never retreat from the walls of a two-walled castle the first time hostiles show up; then you only have one wall between you and the enemy. And worse, the first man over the remaining wall will end up where the plunder is, instead of in a prepared killing ground between the walls.
As-used, the term is a better match for a ‘burh’, the type of regional stronghold established by king Alfred. Those, you were expected to retreat to with all your valuables when the Danes came. Safe behind the walls, you could wait for the Royal army to show up.
This is broadly accurate, although I’m a little hesitant to use the word “military” in this context. Medieval Europe didn’t really have militaries in the modern sense; it had armies, but they’d by and large be conscripted for the duration of a single campaign and then go back to their ordinary lives. The only full-time warriors in your average motte-and-bailey castle would have been the local lord himself, his male relatives, and perhaps a handful of retainers, and they’d serve an administrative function as much as a military one. (The church also shouldered a lot of the administrative burden.)
The peacetime uses of keeps varied. Sometimes, especially in smaller and older examples, they were dedicated defensive structures; larger keeps and later developments of the concept were more often used as residences. Later castle designs often dropped the keep, instead fortifying the bailey more heavily and adding additional lines of defense outside it.
Is there a version of the motte and bailey where someone will try to present themselves as an authority figure and then retreat back into their actual role once someone calls them out? For example, if a comedian tried to pretend to be a political commentator and then trotted out “I’m only a comedian” when people criticize him, would he be engaging in a motte and bailey fallacy or something else?
I think it depends. If ‘I’m only a comedian’ means it’s a waste of time to criticize people who aren’t treated as experts in the first place, that might be a fair response to media nitpicking entertainers while failing to fact-check authorities. On the other hand, ‘I’m only a comedian’ could be a quantitative motte-and-bailey: e.g., you might nonverbally convey ~90% confidence when you say something on The Daily Show, then when people call you out on it you nonverbally convey ~30% confidence by indicating your lack of understanding and your deference to experts. (Of course, that could also just be updating; it’s only if they flip back to talking in a 90% tone of voice that there’s a clear problem.)
You can also use comedy itself as a motte, even if you aren’t a comedian. ‘I was just kidding’ is one of the most common mottes in existence, especially if we restrict our attention to cases of individual self-deception as opposed to varied-views-within-a-group. It’s especially effective because (a) the prototypical ‘joke’ is harmless and playful, concealing the large body of non-prototypical jokes that have decidedly unplayful goals; (b) the more your joke offends or flabbergasts others, the easier it is to claim you were using deliberate hyperbole for comic effect; and (c) being perceived as humorless or thin-skinned is very low-status.
Simon: “Well, no… actually I was being ironic. So in the strictest sense, I didn’t really —”
Kaylee: “You were being mean, is what.”
This is a really useful concept, but just some obvious advice to people applying it to people while they are arguing; just because someone is arguing a less extreme version of a position that you have heard others argue for, doesn’t necessarily mean they are using motte/bailey tactics. They could just genuinely hold the less extreme view and think the more extreme position is as wrong as you do. Unless you have heard that specific person say the more extreme belief it may be best to approach it like “okay so you think [less extreme position], which I disagree with, but we can both agree that [more extreme position] is wrong right?”
I think Scott exaggerates the applicability of the motte and bailey model in head-to-head style debates. Unless your opponent blatantly changes position mid-debate (which shouldn’t take a fancy mental model pattern-match to detect), the principle of charity demands you take their expressed arguments at face value.
To me, the model is more interesting because it provides an explanation for some mental behaviors I find confusing: Q-“Why do so many people continue to hold such obviously weak beliefs?” A-In part, because they have a motte they retreat to whenever that belief is challenged. Q-“I always see [ridiculous, commonly held belief] put forward, but no one ever defends it when explicitly challenged. Where did they all go?” A-“They’re all hanging out in their motte.”
Which brings up my next point: the motte and bailey model doesn’t define and condemn a particular argumentative fallacy. Rather, it describes and illustrates a pattern of strategic argumentative engagement. It’s not about when people DO engage to argue, it’s about when they DON’T.
Well, YMMV, but I have personal experience with this in head-to-head debates, including the exact examples given, or very close, in discussions about postmodernism, religion and feminism.
I’m looking forward to see what he has to say about groups and movements, but I’ve found it’s a very useful metaphor already.
You made a Pink Floyd reference! <3
I don’t think this post spends enough time on the risks of adding ‘motte and bailey’ to your standard lexicon. (That might also hold for ‘weak man’, but terms whose function is to attack others almost always pose a greater hazard than terms whose function is to defend yourself.)
You note as a quick aside that it doesn’t make sense to accuse an individual of ‘retreating to the motte’ unless it’s been clearly established earlier in the exchange that that very individual asserted the bailey doctrine. (Else any ‘bailey’ that vaguely reminds you of a strong argument someone’s making can be used to dismiss or attack the strong arguer.) If you’re accusing a whole group of motte-and-bailey, without saying that any one person has been inconsistent, this requires the further step of establishing that (a) some group’s doctrines or level-of-virtue are directly relevant to the discussion, and (b) both the mottist and the baileyist belong to that group.
In neither the individual case nor the group case have I seen most users of ‘motte and bailey’ exhibit that level of caution and attention-to-the-topic/terms-of-the-debate; why should I expect people to start using the term responsibly in the future?
Having this on your short list of argumentative techniques is a little bit worse than having ‘red herring fallacy’, ‘slippery slope fallacy’, and ‘ad hominem fallacy’ on your short list of argumentative techniques, and it’s the same category of misstep — it’s an overly coarse-grained, easy-to-abuse shibboleth that gets perceived as an attack. LW does a great job of avoiding this ‘treating fallacy names like magic spells for winning arguments’ failure mode, in part because fallacy-shouting is seen as a rookie technique, hence low-status. But I don’t know if we’ll be similarly careful with an equivalently dangerous (or moderately worse) technique that’s high-status (because Scott).
The way I see it, part of the issue is that this “motte and bailey” concept is not really an argumentative fallacy in the way an ad hominem might be. After all, if you ‘retreat to the motte,’ you are narrowing the scope of your argument, presumably, to its strongest and most logically valid components. ‘Retreating to the motte’ entails abandoning fallacious arguments rather than employing them.
Rather than argument, the “motte and bailey” concept seems helpful in trying to understand belief. It seems likely to me that people perform the motte and bailey maneuver mentally, whenever a particularly weak belief of theirs is challenged. This may manifest in them changing their explicitly expressed arguments, but I think that self-selection and group dynamics among those few percentages of the population who actually engage in explicitly expressed argumentation probably weakens the explanatory power of the theory in that context.
Agreed. There’s a common abusive argument tactic of accusing a whole community of being dishonest or hypocritical for asserting both X and not-X, without establishing that any individual in that community actually does assert both.
Elsewhere I’ve called this the “Muhammad Wang fallacy”, on the observation that Muhammad is the most common given name in the world, and Wang (or Wong) is the most common surname, but that doesn’t mean there is a huge population of people named Muhammad Wang.
Usually, perpetrators of Muhammad Wang fallacies are not trying very hard to be intellectually honest. Usually, they are just ranting against an identity group (feminists, rationalists, libertarians, etc.) that they have decided they hate.
However, this may be besides the point, if they still reinforce each other in the political arena. Consider the originally explored example of racism. It is by the mere existence of the most and least extreme definitions of racism in the common memeplex that the word can be used as an attack against opponents of extreme anti-racist policies, even if there are few individuals who actively promote both views. Stopping this may require breaking the cultural influence of the reasonable form even if you would agree w/ it in isolation, or “the beast must also be slain,” as I’ve seen it expressed.*
*Edit: I spent some time looking up where I thought I remembered reading that phrasing and it actually wasn’t about this concept. But I think the phrase works.
I have seen this rebutted by saying “Gee, it’s almost as though there was more than one person in this [movement/site/club/group]”
Using this as an example, you can define feminism in lots of ways. But you’re bothering to argue about it because people are feminists. So find some feminists and ask yourself whether the average one defines feminism as “women are people”, “men are evil”, or something inbetween. If you want to get more sophisticated, find the average *influential* feminist, bearing in mind that a less numerous subgroup with strong opinions in some area can have more influence than a more numerous group with weak or no opinions.
This is of course subject to argument about which feminists count as influential, but at least you know what you’re arguing about,
Why not taboo group identities altogether whenever you’re talking to a member of that group? Just say noncommittal things like “I read from these 3 people who considered themselves feminists that…” if you need to reference group identities. Synonyms can do a lot of work, avoiding problematic words is sometimes annoying but not extraordinarily difficult or anything.
Also, needing such references really isn’t common anyway. There’s usually enough ideological disagreement that precise labels aren’t necessary for an argument or discussion to occur to continue. If you just jettison labels whenever possible, IMO arguments become much cleaner and straightforward. It also means I am slightly less likely to get stuck into my own biases.
If I get the impression someone has cheated and switched labels on me, I usually just call them out on it and walk away, though. I have a hard time not taking such behavior as intentional and personal. So maybe I’m not the best person to take advice from here.
So what is the real feminism we should be debating? Why would you even ask that question? What is this, some kind of dumb high school debate club? Who the heck thinks it would be a good idea to say “Here’s a vague poorly-defined concept that mind-kills everyone who touches it – quick, should you associate it with positive affect or negative affect?!”
Almost everyone! Establishing tribal alliances is ~important~.
More seriously, I’m trying to be significantly more reductionist in debates now than I used to be. It’s pretty obvious that position which is famous enough to have a widely recognized name for itself is a conversational trap waiting to happen, so if you can get an interlocutor to agree to debate a single contended point in isolation (And not something which is already highly politicized, the most mundane related disagreement you can think of) you might actually make some headway instead.
Also, another kind of famous person linked you.
Establishing tribal alliances is important, no tildes required. This is one of those cases where you have to choose between having a good life or having true beliefs.
Tribalism, like difference itself, exists in degrees, and some degrees of tribalism are barely greater than epsilon. I think that connecting with others improves lives, but thankfully that can be done with only a small amount of tribalism involved, even if doing so is difficult.
If you want something safe to link to, maybe it would even be a good idea to eliminate the preface discussion about how controversial the topics you’ve been discussing in the past are.
Alternatively, lull the reader into a false sense of security conductive to accepting the validity of the concept, and then bushwhack them w/ it in the post that includes discussion of racism and sexism thru a link in the last paragraph.
Yes, from a benevolent trolling/light side persuasion perspective, it might be better to move the discussion to the end of the post and make it more explicit.
It’d be funny, but if someone wants to find controversial anti-SJ things scott has written it’s more than easy enough, and having a clean reference is worth the small loss to the world in terms of potential lulz. Which is what he gave as a primary reason for this post, and which has not been achieved really.
I think you’re being a tad too meta-contrarian with your “singularitarian” example, or for that matter your Bayesian example, unless there’s some kind of advocacy going on in the side corners to which I have not been exposed. I am generally REALLY CAREFUL about not doing the motte-and-bailey thing, and before I had that name for it, I would call it “logical rudeness” and say to people, “I am clearly sticking my neck out so that you can chop it off”, and so on. There was that time Robin Hanson was like, “No intelligence explosion!” and I was like “Yes intelligence explosion” and Hanson was like “Well, I’m not saying your work shouldn’t be funded because there’s still a chance” and I was like “I didn’t SAY there was a tiny chance”, and if I’d had the terminology then, I would have replied, “Excuse me, that’s my bailey I’m defending, I appreciate your attempt to offer me a motte but I’m not interested in retreating to the motte.” Similarly, I’ve come down hard on anyone I’ve seen trying to argue that MIRI is still a worthwhile use of funding even if the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true, because the bailey is that it is more than a tiny chance, and (though I didn’t phrase it that way at the time) it is logically rude to try to retreat to the motte and you should stick your neck out as far as what you really believe, so as to make it easy for other people to chop your head off if appropriate. &c.
I defy anyone to come up with any case of motte-and-bailey behavior on my part, ever; and since people are so very, very prone to Making Stuff Up that I never said, I want paired quotes.
This being the case, unless you’re talking about people who are not me and who don’t work for me and who I haven’t actually heard from, I suggest that you’re being uncharitable with your depiction of rationalists and ‘singularitarians’. In fact most everyone I know who believes in the intelligence explosion these days has specifically abandoned and disclaimed the word ‘singularity’, so that’s hardly a motte. And when I talk about rationality as the art of winning, I do so in the context of saying “And modern decision theory is one guess at that, but it might be brought into question, and if so winning has to take priority” which is again not at all an actual motte-and-bailey pattern, I defy you to show this motte-and-bailey pattern anywhere actually being done.
First, these are not my examples. They’re things I’ve heard other people complain about. I have vague memories of seeing same, but I haven’t saved the links. Next time I see it, I’ll let you know.
(I certainly don’t think any of the memories were of you personally. And I think I have done the singularity one without realizing it.)
I worry that there are two degrees of this fallacy. The first one is where one person does it deliberately to deflect criticism from themselves.
The second one is where nobody does it on purpose, but an idea still ends up benefitting from it. People who want to explain rationality to outsiders say “Rationality is just systematized winning”, and people get positive feelings about rationality and agree it is something they should study. Then elsewhere in the community, a host of different techniques are called “rationality” without any reference to whether they are systematized winning or not, and these benefit from the efforts of other people to convince that “rationality” (by other definition) is useful.
I guess I think of this as a missed step somewhere caused by two different versions of a belief. Some people convince others to become singularitarians using the “difficult to predict tech” line. But then once they’re in the singularitarian community, almost all discussion of the singularity focuses on a few very specific scenarios. And then whenever the community has to defend itself to outsiders, people very reasonably focus on the easily defensible “difficult to predict tech” definition.
There’s nothing dishonest here – it’s not a fallacy from a “someone deserves blame” perspective. But it is a fallacy from a “people are being led to believe things with insufficient evidence” perspective.
Re-emphasis that I have never seen you personally do this and that I agree you go to great lengths to avoid it.
I’d say that your second case is not necessarily exclusive w/ being malicious, and may in fact be a more effective, cooperative version of the first. To the extent that we do not hold people accountable for beliefs expressed by others, is the extend to which there is an incentive for beliefs to be compartmentalized between individuals, such that someone can constantly and openly promote the bailey, while others in the same political vicinity defend the motte, and the total effect is that the cause as a whole gets to pull a motte-and-bailey w/o anyone ever contradicting themselves.
This is even trivially achievable just by the existence of people w/ different degrees of radicalism in the cause, and may be an entirely sensible reason to treat all arguments coming from a given cause as if they were from a monolithic bloc.
You have predicted one of my next posts on this subject.
(my go to example is going to be Sinn Fein/IRA, but maybe you have others)
It’s a sense I’ve had all my life about several causes, since I started discussing such things way back in middle school, including feminism, atheist when I was Christian, and then w/ Christianity after the webcomic Venus Envy of all thing proved the last straw in letting me accept that there is no god. Reading your post on the subject gave me the experience of “finding out that there is a name for that thing that always happens,” as well.
An example of something that may be related: “Some of you should do one, and others should do the other.”
“my go to example is going to be Sinn Fein/IRA”
A political party and a paramilitary working together is historically very effective. To remain democratic, a democratic state must ban political parties with paramilitary links as well as the paramilitary itself, however this can be hard to prove, especially since the two groups could be truly separate and just as effective because they have the same aims.
The problem is similar to that with “Proscribed Groups” (banned organisations) in the UK. A banned organisation can just set up under another name until it is proscribed again under the new name.
It seems a little bit non-central to use the IRA in a discussion of argumentative fallacies, because the IRA did not stick to argument. One way to deal with people who consistently hang out in the bailey is to refuse to even take them seriously, write them off as bad trolls, and only engage with the consistent motte-occupiers. But if a bad troll actually blows up a building in real life, it becomes much harder to ignore them.
A violent freedom fighter isn’t doing battle on the bailey in this analogy, he’s coming at you from a completely different angle, like infecting you with smallpox. And sure, it can be convenient to hole up in your motte while your enemy dies of smallpox, but I think that’s a qualitatively different tactic than motte-and-bailey argumentation.
> the webcomic Venus Envy of all thing proved the last straw in letting me accept that there is no god
Oh come on, it isn’t THAT bad.
My name for this has been ‘giving [political] cover to’, which turns up a bunch of Google hits (though there’s some interference with ‘political cover-up’—you have to search with the verb to filter those out). I’m slightly surprised that I haven’t seen any other commenters bring up this name; it might be UK or Commonwealth specific, which would go some way to explain it.
(my go to example is going to be Sinn Fein/IRA, but maybe you have others)
I am going to be glued to the computer screen for this one!
So, would you agree that Arthur Griffiths’ “dual monarchy” proposal would never have gotten out of the starting gate? Then again, despite coming from a historically Redmondite city, I’m much more radical in the Young Ireland vein. That being said, I do tend to agree with Daniel O’Connell’s position on physical force vis-à-vis the Young Irelanders, so basically my views can be critiqued as being a little wibbly.
Also, if you feel like giving Eoghan Harris a good kicking for his many and various U-turns since his days of being a doctrinaire Marxist-Leninist, I’d be more than happy to read along 🙂
Can you try to use rhetoric such that it’s something I can straightforwardly link to both in cases where
1. People are accusing others of the No True Scotsman fallacy.
2. People are mocking the very idea of the No True Scotsman fallacy?
I see both of these happen a lot, and both are often done in egregious but difficult to correct ways.
I’ve mostly been thinking about this is the context of feminism. It really jumped out at me with the Emma Watson / heforshe thing.
Watson’s own speech was about how society puts people in boxes based on their sex and that’s bad (motte) but the linked website was about how weak and helpless women are being oppressed (bailey).
I realize you’d probably like a less controversial example, but this one shown in how closely linked the two messages were.
Sometimes the motte-people and the bailey-people start to quarrel in public.
[moved due to bad threading]
That seems statistical-discrimination-level hard to deal with, because how do you handle an honest motte-defender? It’s not like he can stop people from hanging out in the bailey, it’s not his fault. He’s presenting an entirely reasonable story, and you’re trying to slander him by tying him to the bailey-holder.
When the person in the motte and the person in the bailey are two different people who aren’t coordinating/conspiring, I don’t see the difference between that and the situation in which people use the Weak Man fallacy. Either Weak Man isn’t a fallacy, or you can’t complain about motte/bailey spread out over multiple individually-consistent agents.
I’m not saying it wouldn’t be fair to treat all arguments as coming from the individuals who actually express them, but as I said that idea is exactly what creates the problem.
To turn it around, the fact that he does not support the bailey-holder does not diminish the fact that the mere existence of his motte is nonetheless contributing to his defense, however diligently he may try to keep him from actually taking refuge therein.
Reminds me of another article that makes this general point, A Parable On Obsolete Ideologies, by Scott.* That you cannot escape the social consequences of beliefs just because they are unobjectionable in isolation does indeed seem to be a point that Scott, SJWs, and neoreactionaries can all agree on, and it is not obvious to me that any of them are wrong except by the appropriate degree to which this should be strategically emphasized.**
*Which only in looking for it to link here do I note that it was written by our host. I wonder how many other things I’ve read by him that I don’t mentally attribute to him because I didn’t pay attention to the author at the time. Also incidentally reminds me of Why do atheists believe in religion? by Moldbug, who makes a quite parallel equivalence of religion and Nazism.
**Well, and in support of what causes. I suppose they disagree on that, as well.
Right. It’s a problem similar to statistical discrimination in that everyone is behaving reasonably on the micro-level but it creates a macro-level problem that’s hard to find someone to blame for and impossible to solve without being unreasonable towards someone.
Ah, I see what you mean now.
I think it depends on how much the group label you are criticizing denotes a political/tribal affiliation.
For instance, when an atheist says “Atheism is a lack of belief in deities” and refuses to take responsibility for whatever politically controversial thing Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or some other “New Atheist guru” may have said, you can’t honestly accuse them of motte-and-baileying. While organized Atheist movements exist, the prevalent meaning of the term refers just to the epistemic claim, not to allegiance to a group.
When a muslim claims “Islam is a religion of peace” and refuses to take responsibility for ISIL/Hamas/etc., can you accuse them of motte-and-baileying?
Well, kinda. While being a muslim is mostly defined by a set of epistemic and ethic beliefs and practices, there is undoubtedly an element of tribal allegiance that holds organized religions together, and in the case of Islam, these ties extend from mainstream moderates to radical groups like the ISIL. Moreover, the set of beliefs and practices that define a muslim is not as clear cut as those that define an atheist: A muslim who believes in Koranic inerrancy, for instance, can be probably accused of motte-and-baileying when they claim that “Islam is a religion of peace”, ignoring all the “Kill the infidels!” injunctions that the ISIL considers a central part of the Islamic doctrine.
Charitably, we should probably let the average muslim get away with “Islam is a religion of peace” since, like most theists, they probably don’t really have strong beliefs about it, and they don’t personally approve the stuff that ISIL does. However, we can demand that high-status Islamic leaders and influential figures to publicly denounce fundamentalism and renounce certain beliefs such as Koranic inerrancy.
So, what about feminism? Is a feminist who says “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people” and refuses to take responsibility for Andrea “All heterosexual sex is rape” Dworkin and the modern SJWs guilty of motte-and-baileying?
The definition of feminism is very vague. The only uncontroversial thing we can say about it is that it is a set of political positions about the role of women and the relations between genders in society. In practice, feminism is defined by mutual recognition: you are a feminist if you say you are a feminist and other feminists recognize you as a feminist.
This high level of ambiguity in the epistemic and ethical content of feminism versus the centrality of tribal allegiance places a responsability to feminists who want to come across as moderates to actively police their group. A feminist who actively debunks the phoney rape and wage gap statistics and denounces the toxic memes such as Schrödinger’s rapist, directly calling out people who make these claims, can legitimately claim that “Feminism is the radical notion that women are people”. Otherwise, I think that the motte-and-baileying accusation is warranted.
@Vv_vV — The Schrodinger’s Rapist thing is a bad example, as it contains within itself its own motte and bailey.
Surely saying, “As a woman I am cautious around unfamiliar men” is different from saying, “OMG every man is mr. rapey-rape.”
Yes, but I would say that the motte of the Schrodinger’s Rapist is so much trivially true that nobody can defend it assuming in good faith that others disagree with it.
>how do you handle an honest motte-defender?
Taboo your terms.
@vV_Vv — I’ve definitely seen conversations go down the rabbit hole on this topic. For example, once on a forum a woman tried to explain why she was very frightened when a man hurried to catch up with her in a parking garage. While doing so, he was calling out to her, “Hey wait!” (or something like that; I’m going from memory). In the story, she hurried away from him, got into her car, and locked the door. Evidently the man was offended.
After she posted the story, a number of people (mostly men, but iirc one woman) thought she was totally out of line. He’s just a dude, they said. He almost certainly meant no harm.
One of the men on the forum (who seemed a Redpill sort) ranted at her a bit. Which, fuck that guy.
It’s a PARKING GARAGE people!
Anyway, Scott likes to point out that no argument should be a super weapon. Likewise for “motte and bailey”.
The reaction of that woman and the comments on the forum could or could have not been justified, I can’t say without further details.
Keep in mind that men are also wary of strangers who may mug them, and muggers are way much more common than jump-from-the-bush rapists.
If somebody panics in a scenario where an average man or woman would say there was no significant risk of being mugged, then that is probably an overreaction.
If somebody thinks that they have a greater chance of being raped than mugged by a stranger, then they are most likely being making an epistemic error, probably due to paranoid memes.
The original Schrödinger’s Rapist article was pretty clear that it was (a) defending the motte and (b) pointing out cases where well intentioned men might not recognize the relevance of the motte.
The original Schrödinger’s Rapist article gives trivially good advice in a condescending manner, mixed with ambiguous advice. I doubt any man who read it could really act on that information. The effect, and presumably the purpose, of that article is to bring down the status of men by implying that they need to be taught not to rape or not to appear threatening.
The author ignores the fact that men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime, especially at the hands of strangers.
I thought the author was going to discuss interactions between strangers, not dates.
If you are a low-status weirdo, don’t approach me. Because this is an article about rape and totally not about bashing low-status men.
Ah, thank you. That’s totally useful and not condescending advice.
Anyway, why is there a discussion about the Schrödinger’s Rapist and not about, say, the Schrödinger’s infanticidal mother, the Schrödinger’s black thug, or the Schrödinger’s Islamic terrorist?
Imagine somebody writing an “advice” piece teaching Muslims how to behave in public without appearing like terrorists, and finishing the article with:
“The fifth and last point: Don’t fly planes into buildings. Nor should you commit these similar but less severe offenses: don’t blow up people. Don’t behead hostages. Don’t fire rockets on civilian targets. Don’t stone apostates. Don’t force women to wear a niqab. Don’t threaten with physical violence.”
I bet the SJWs would be screaming “ISLAMOPHOBIA!” at the top of their lungs, and rightly so. Yet giving this kind of “advice” to men is seen as acceptable and even morally right. How is it possible to hold such double standards in good faith?
@Vv_vV — The rates of violent crime are naturally adjusted by the fact that women are more cautious. For example, if women were as willing as men to walk alone at night, you might see those rates change. Likewise, much of that violence is going to include things such as participation in the drug trade. I suspect a large segment of that statistic includes young black men chewed up by racism and poverty, which is an indictment of our society, but a separate issue.
Yes, stranger rape is rare. But just having a strong man get close and act sexually aggressive, in an isolated place, can be quite scary. It leaves you shaken, less willing to go out into the world. Just having persistent guy get interested can really suck.
Look, it is unlikely you have ever experienced this. When our “bitch shield” doesn’t work, what next? He gets close. He smiles. We want him to go away. But we have learned if we are too bitchy, he will get angry, which does not mean he will necessarily hit us. Often he will be satisfied to humiliate us or terrorize us.
But see, he does not attack us. It does not happen, because we smile and play along. This happens all the time, day in day out. It costs us.
Oh, and sometimes women will “get back” at men, for example, if she has social power over him. So she humiliates him, even if that man has done nothing wrong.
I ask you to understand this: sex and gender are a tremendously powerful social forces, and women live different lives from men. We learn to navigate this landscape as best we can. Some of us become overly cautious, which is sad, as this represents lost opportunities for joy. Some of us become bitter, which sucks completely. But I think many of us become cautious to exactly the right degree.
I sometimes walk alone at night. If a man gets close, I hold tight my purse and quicken my step.
So do I. Well, I don’t actually carry a purse, but you got it.
Sometimes I even do racial/ethnic profiling in such situations. But then I don’t go on teh interwebz to rant about the Schrödinger’s [insert minority] mugger that dared to make me feel threatened by not keeping proper distance from the whiteness of mine.
In fact, it feels kind of unfair to do this sort of profiling (or profiling by gender, age, etc.). It is something unfortunate that I need to do for my safety, but not something to be proud of and certainly not something to raise as a flag for my public political identity.
Let me add, nothing I say precludes men from feeling similarly. For example, small-framed men, effeminate men, queer men, on and on — these men surely have reasons to be afraid of bullying and violence. Furthermore, any man is surely allowed to feel a bit afraid in a parking garage.
However, there are differences that are worth paying attention to.
Anecdote time: I have witnessed one act of overt stranger-bullying, man versus man, while riding the subway. The two men got into a fist fight, evidently because one of them made a crass comment to me.
Or so it seemed. The whole incident was weird and I do not understand it.
Most of the time folks keep to themselves, stay quiet, do their thing. Some men, large strong men, may sit spread out and take up too much space. Such men often make a lot of noise and generally act like jerks. No one confronts them.
Contrast this will how women are treated. I have personally witnessed dozens of women being harassed by men. These women were, to my eyes, clearly uncomfortable and doing the “smile and play along” thing, to which the men seemed oblivious (or perhaps they just didn’t care).
During one of these incidents, when we reached the woman’s stop, and after she got up and headed for the door, the man popped up after her and followed. Nothing in his body language suggested he was planning to get off at that stop. It was only after the woman moved that he moved.
I cannot read his mind. I cannot know for sure.
I did nothing. He was large, cocky, and aggressive. I was intimidated.
It seems that you are putting a little too much weight on physical size and strength.
I agree that physical size and apparent strength can be intimidating for rational reasons, but ultimately really bad guys are going to carry weapons, and have the bad will to actually use them.
Even if you are a gun-toter in an open carry state of your side of the pond, you probably prefer not to be involved in a shooting.
Thus when assessing the risk that any given stranger poses, the overriding factor should be “How likely it is that they are going to pull a gun or a knife on me?”. Apparent strength has some relevance, but I would consider it less important (Apparent agility “Could I outrun them?” seems more important).
Are there good answers to this “why not Schrödinger’s mugger or terrorist” thing?
@Vv_vV — Thing is, this is not just about the actual violence. It is also about the ever present possibility of violence. But even short of that, it is male entitlement, and the fact that women have been trained to play along. Men resent our “power” — but our power is pretty strange if you unpack it. Sure, it is not the case that every woman is always powerless over every man. Society is complex, and some women learn to play the game.
But it is an ugly game and the role we get to play is, in too many cases, pretty narrowly prescribed. We didn’t choose this.
I just finished Laurie Penny’s latest book. In it she writes about how, when she was younger, she kinda deliberately took on a version of the “manic pixie dreamgirl” role. It worked for her. She’s small-framed, adorable, and plucky. Men liked it. They gave her attention. Over time she found it soul crushing.
Society gives men and women roles. Men are the actor, the agent. Women are the target, the winning play. This is the narrative we all inherit. It really sucks.
And when the man fails to win his prize — us — does he accept defeat gracefully?
Sometimes. But sometimes not. Sometimes he’ll want to get back at us, humiliate us, as he feels humiliated, hurt us, as he feels hurt.
But this humiliation does not come from us, at least not always. It comes from a society that told him his value was measured according to his capacity to possess us.
Just smiling at a man can open a door, so we wear our bitch shield, our headphones. We meet no one’s gaze. This has a cost.
And, yes, a big, hyper-masculine man is scary in a particular way. A small, but bitter and angry man is scary in a different way. He too can ruin my life.
With respect, I think you’re showing a little too much willingness to generalize over men’s experiences here. I have no idea how common this is, but more than once I’ve been cornered by guys — and girls, though that’s rarer — for whom no amount of “I’m straight” or “I’m not interested” worked as a deterrent. Never in a parking garage, but it’s happened on poorly trafficked back streets before, and once some dude tried to follow me back to my hotel.
Sure, I’m going to respond to that situation differently than your average woman, for any number of reasons — socialization, size, training. But I have no reason to think I’m exceptional in terms of it happening.
I have doubts as to whether that characterization of Dworkin is accurate.
There’s no such thing as Schrödinger’s Rapist unless I’m completely wrong about crime rates — there’s one for each combination of easily-read traits, and their risks are going to be completely different. But for some reason, “women should be safe” as a slogan is associated with the left, so that’s seemingly-intentionally ignored.
That catcalling video, there were a lot of white people, but they all happened to get drowned out by sirens. Right. (Not that ‘white people’ is even a natural class here; Italians don’t pattern with Finns.) And when that news crew tried to replicate it in Auckland (~2% “Middle Easterners/Latin Americans/Africans”), well, maybe New Zealand is just more progressive, because it can’t be demographics, because the 12.6% outrank the 51%.
If I believe veronica d about people’s experience and nydwracu about crime stats, I get the possibility that the fear veronica talks about is less a response to actual crime likelihoods and more a response to something else. It’s interesting to consider… could the experienced intimidation actually be about something else, cultural narratives perhaps? If assault rates went down by a factor of ten, would anyone actually feel safer?
A factor of ten is still a ways out, but violent crime has gone down by a factor of almost two since a peak in the early 1990s and shows no signs of bottoming out. Yet ask ten random people if they feel safer now than twenty years ago and I’ll bet you’ll get more “no”s than “yes”es.
I’m not sure what to blame for this. News reporting is a popular choice, but while every major news outlet seems to have hopped on the clickbait train over the last two or three years I think the trend’s older than that, and except for the adoption of clickbait tactics I don’t think there’s been much change in the media’s approach to crime since the Nineties. A lot of it’s probably just basic nostalgia, but I don’t think that fully explains it either.
(To name an obvious example, I was left largely unsupervised for most of each day when I was growing up in the early 1990s. Despite objectively lower crime rates, that attitude might have gotten CPS called on my parents if I’d been born twenty years later.)
I want this to be called “Motte Cop; Bailey Cop”.
Maybe it will catch on.
There’s another connection. Motte-and-bailey isn’t just a strategy for convincing outsiders, its also a strategy for producing mottes in the first place. Without the larger, crude, vulgar community in the bailey, you probably wouldn’t have the cultural infrastructure for smarter thinkers to maintain the bailey. It may even be that the smarter thinkers themselves draw their own emotional sustenance from the bailey, while consciously rejecting it. C.S. Lewis has an interesting scene in one of his books where the children of reason spend their day being rational, but at night fly away to play in unreasonable precincts.
That is a really bad idea.
That reminded me of this SMBC.
I agree with Scott. In addition, I am compelled to point out that the Less Wrong community is bigger than Eliezer, and it’s even bigger than all the people who work for Eliezer.
This exchange was funny, thanks a lot. To tie this back to the topic: Yudkowsky’s bailey seems to be: I am Singularitarianism. His motte would presumably be something slightly less colossally grandiose.
“There is at least a small risk that a terrible disaster will occur” seems like the obvious motte. Also, the Pascal’s wager-like reasoning that sometimes appears in the comments section.
To some extent, this is really just a basic speaking skill everyone uses. Without specifying a broad idea, talking about smaller ideas is impossible. Broad ideas are rarely perfect, perhaps necessarily flawed, but they’re still useful for guiding people around.
I can confirm that I at least have complained about example 5 in the past. No, it is not a criticism of Yudkowsky, but rather of Less Wrong fans who are a tad too eager with praising rationality as the solution to everything.
Yes, Yudkowsky does try to be fair. If I did want to criticize him for something, it would be about his tendency to take criticism badly.
Though to be fair, Yvain: You do tend to veer a little too much the other way, being overeager to criticize your own beliefs as a kind of self-defense mechanism.
I think that Luke Muehlhauser used the motte and bailey strategy: http://lesswrong.com/lw/ksg/steelmanning_miri_critics/b8nt
Holy Crow. That’s, like, gah, WHAT?
Wasn’t one of the big points of the sequences, ‘If you can’t prove it won’t, it’s almost certain to screw you over?’
“I defy anyone to come up with any case of motte-and-bailey behavior on my part, ever;”
Cocky much? You’re good, but not perfect. Give me an incentive to help you find and correct such past errors? If you do, I’ll help you.
The incentive is that Eli is well-known and widely considered intelligent, so if you publicly smack the shit out of him, you get status points. You shouldn’t need people to explain this stuff to you.
It’s not as though I’m disallowed from trying to get multiple incentives.
I don’t care about status enough to do it just for that.
Excuse me, but with respect to usual commenting names on this blog, I’m “Eli” (eli_senensh on LW), and Eliezer goes by his full name. We’re completely different individuals, irrespective of the fact that if you ask me about AGI and intelligence explosions I might well just laugh maniacally and say you’ve only got a few decades to stop my evil plan.
That’s not how it works.
It is if we make it so. And I liked it.
Also, I propose we here refer to Eliezer as “Yuzzy Boiiii” in the future.
Also, one can argue that, assuming the first vowel is short, “Eliezer” should be abbreviated “Elli”.
“Well, I’m not saying your work shouldn’t be funded because there’s still a chance”
I’ve found that this sort of statement is a major opportunity for ambiguity, and I’ve been making an effort to avoid that sort of phrasing. I would, depending on which meaning I intend, say “The reason I’m saying that your work shouldn’t be funded is not that there’s still a chance” or “The reason I’m not saying that your work shouldn’t be funded is that there’s still a chance”.
“Similarly, I’ve come down hard on anyone I’ve seen trying to argue that MIRI is still a worthwhile use of funding even if the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true because the bailey is that it is more than a tiny chance”
I think that you are misusing the terms “motte” and “bailey”. The “motte and bailey fallacy” is a single rhetorical unit. It has three components: the motte, the bailey, and the equivocation. These three components exist only in relation to the single concept of “motte and bailey fallacy”. It makes no sense to point at a particular position and say “That’s the motte!”, and less to say “You should be presenting the bailey, which is X”. If the person isn’t already presenting both the motte and the bailey, then it’s not motte and bailey. Furthermore, you are treating the motte as the “good” part of the pair. But it’s not; the entire nature of the fallacy is that two positions, each faulty in their own way, are combined to give the appearance of a legitimate position. The motte is true but pays no rent, the bailey pays rent but is false, and the fallacy is trying to pretend that one has a true rent-paying claim. Finally, the two claims you present are on different issues. It would make more sense to compare “MIRI is still a worthwhile use of funding even if the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true” to “MIRI would not still a worthwhile use of funding if the intelligence explosion had only a tiny chance of being true” or “the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true” to “the intelligence explosion has a large chance of being true”. You are making the first seem like the motte by comparing it to the last. But compared to the second, the first is the bailey, not the motte.
I really can’t see any good reason for you to “come down hard” on anyone who legitimately believes that MIRI is still a worthwhile use of funding even if the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true. If someone does think that MIRI is still a worthwhile use of funding even if the intelligence explosion has only a tiny chance of being true, should they lie and say they don’t believe it? Should they just try to avoid letting the issue come up, and not respond if it does?
“ it is logically rude to try to retreat to the motte and you should stick your neck out as far as what you really believe “
Then why are you criticizing someone for starting at the motte? Someone who starts at the bailey can retreat to to the motte. Someone who starts at the motte can’t retreat to the motte, because they’re already there.
That isn’t grammatical. Maybe you meant to include a comma? Or maybe you meant
a mass of incandescent gasto head off all the comment now devoted to that phrase?
It’s a TMBG song, but you’re right that striking out or parenthesizing one of the phrases would make it less jarring to the unaware.
In that case, he should separate them with a slash.
I think that would deplete the humor too much.
It’s a TMBG cover, the original was on the 1959 album Space Songs.
Seems kind of related to this:
Let W = a clearly stupid government expenditure.
Let X = a clearly great thing that the government should spend money on but doesn’t.
Let Y = what the government would spend money on if it didn’t buy Z.
The government should buy Z iff Z>Y, but supporters of Z will compare it to W and opponents will compare it to X.
replace(w,z), I take it?
There’s a principle in corporate finance that budgeting and financing are separate issues, and saying “Well, we could buy X if we had more money from Y” is a fallacy. This is especially true with the US government, as it has pretty much unlimited spending powers. The idea that if we don’t buy Z, it would free up money for X is silly; if we want X, we can just buy X, and add its cost to the national debt. If we don’t buy Z, then its cost is subtracted from the national debt. It’s just one pool of money. Saying that the money we spent on X is “the same” money as what we saved from getting rid of Z is nonsense, as is saying that X didn’t cost anything, because it was paid for by not buying Z. That’s comparing “X and not Z” to “not X and Z”. But when we’re considering X, the only comparison that matters is X vs. not X, not X and not Z vs. not X and Z.
Pedantically, those are equally real, as TMBG pointed out. I mean, they’re both theories of the sun that we later discover to be wrong. The former is “mythological”, but wrong, while the latter is “scientific”, but wrong, and our preference for the latter over the former even knowing it is wrong (“merely pedantically”) is surely purely cultural, so maybe the post-modernists have a point here?
I believe the standard response here is to point out that there are degrees of wrong, and lumping them all together as just “wrong” is equivocation.
How do we measure degrees of wrong?
In the fully technical sense, I think it’s an open question. In any case, I note you went from “mythology and science are pretty much the same,” to “what is the well-defined formalization of what we mean by ‘wrong?'” when challenged. Classic motte and bailey doctrine, right there.
There’s a big difference between mythology and science. However, I’m not seeing a big difference between “mythological and wrong” and “scientific and wrong”, unless we have a way of measuring degrees of wrong.
Also, you went from my “how do we measure degrees of wrong?” to “what is the well-defined formalization of what we mean by ‘wrong?'”, which is some fallacy or other…
Well, the method of numeric error used in the link is one way. The number of foundational steps in knowledge you would have to remove and rebuild in somebody’s worldview to attain the best current model is another that comes to mind. Alternatively, note that all of this only really applies to people who work w/ the subject in a technical sense and that for almost all people the respective beliefs actually are completely equivalent in that they basically constitute a text-string for what to say if somebody asks you to describe the physical nature of the Sun, and so for this special case of medical doctors posting about philosophical castle metaphors, the post-modernists are “right” in a sense that they would probably dispute as being objectively meaningful.
So almost all people believe that the sun is a ball of very hot stuff, but don’t know what scientists call the stuff or anything more about it, is that correct?
Yes, though there are probably plenty of provisions to be made there depending on how technical you want to be about “believe” in even this case.
I’m thinking my objection is not, as I thought, to the difference between gas and plasma at all, but concerns the absoluteness of the preference of scientific theories over mythological stories. Scott wrote:
I don’t know what post-modernists actually say, but I daresay Scott has constructed a straw Sky Ox. I claim, to find a specific example, that if the ancient Norse believed that the Sun is a goddess named Sól, that’s not absolutely inferior to our own culture’s belief that the Sun is a mass of incandescent hot stuff together with the availability of more information about that hot stuff. I suspect the Norse would have been worse off if they had abandoned Sól and would have had little use for the plasma theory. We value the plasma theory of the Sun, and science in general, because at some level we believe that it’s beneficial to our society. The most we can say for the ancient Norse is that getting started with science may have been beneficial to them. And ultimately, truth is more or less what best suits our needs and desires. I’m guessing this is what the post-modernists are getting at.
The concept of truth is defined with reference to usefulness, but nonetheless people distinguish between these two concepts all the time. I agree that truth is usefulness, but it is a very specific type of usefulness and not the broad concept as a whole. This is similar to how taste is a specific kind of human sense but is not the only human sense there is.
Some of the concept of truth is overly metaphysical and doesn’t exist, in some senses it is an imaginary idea that doesn’t intersect with reality. But I’d say there is an epistemically accessible portion, and that this corresponds to predictive validity. So ideas which make more useful predictions are truer, under my understanding.
To hopefully shed some light on “what postmodernists actually say” (though not without some degree of collectivizing and essentializing): when trying to bring scientific descriptions of the world on “all fours” with creation myths, poetry, religion, astrology, etc., postmodernists generally lean heaviest on a STRONG reading of the underdetermination of theory by evidence (bailey) which they posit is a radical and devastating refutation of any sort of empirical enterprise. Their position amounts to a sort of epistemic egalitarianism attempting not to fall off a cliff into radical skepticism and/or solipsism. However, when confronted with the obviously and not-so-obviously problematic implications of taking this position, their response tends to be, you guessed it, a retreat to the “motte” that houses the WEAK version of underdetermination. Larry Laudan wrote a series of books and papers that catalogue many instances of this strategy in action.
So let’s say a postmodernist agues that the “Norse Goddess Sol” (i.e. “mythic”) is not epistemically inferior as a truth candidate to “Light-Emitting Ball Plasma” (i.e. “empirical/scientific”) when contemplating the conceptual problem “what is that bright thing in the sky, really?”. There are a few tools in the post-modernist utility belt to support this assertion, but they usually whip out strong underdetermination. Stated crudely, these assertions are scaffolded by a reading of underdetermination that amounts to: “all theories are underdetermined by evidence to some indeterminate degree and, therefore, no amount of “evidence”, empirical or otherwise, can be relied upon to definitively and eternally demonstrate any posited theory is ‘true'”. Then, whilst enjoying the accommodating environs of this particular bailey, the postmodernist feels free to make such observations that the aforemnetioned solar theories are both just “theories of the sun that we later discover to be wrong”. Any attempt to parse the relative “degrees of wrongness” between the two would of course be futile since doing so would ultimately rely on some other underdetermined theory about how to measure “wrongness”. You can see how this proceeds.
This of course is not a new observation nor is it novel to postmodernism (nor is anything really, see “Since At Least Plato…” by Mary J. Devaney). The response of the rationalist, empiricist, modernist, etc., to this is, as always, that any victory one could claim by deploying that line of argumentation is quite pyrrhic. Such a strong reading of underdetermination is self-refuting, as it is a logical contradiction. The postmodernist generally, though not justifiably, is unfazed by this and tends to deploy another favorite line of argumentation that I won’t expound upon here, but which is purported to “problematize” the law of noncontradiction (but really only addresses the law of the excluded middle, equivocates the word “paradox”, and also conflates “contraries” with “contradictions”).
The rationalist, et al, can also point out that maintaining such strong reading inexorably leads its proponent to within a hair’s breadth of radical skepticism. For example, if you hold this position you cannot posit “the Norse believed the sun was the goddess Sol”, you could only posit “the ‘Norse’ ‘believed’ the ‘sun’ was the ‘goddess’ ‘Sol’. Theories about whether or not the people with a “norse” mythology ever existed, what gods these Norse believed in, if they believed in gods, and whether they even noticed the sun, etc. ALL meet the same fate. So does every aspect of your proposition “the truth is more or less what suits our needs and desires”. As with its next door neighbor radical skepticism, this is a position that is essentially impossible to effectively refute (a centuries old observation), but it is also one from which the postmodernist could never hope to build any positive program.
The Postermodernist most-likely knows all of this, but certainly does not want to ACTUALLY be in this position. This is manifested, for example, each time a postmodernist feminist is happy to cite a statistical study confirming the mistreatment of women relative to men as authoritative when combatting some anti-feminist assertion – a position that can only tolerate weak underdetermination to be effectively held -, but then in a different setting, with a different objective, use strong underdetermination to attack the privileging of science over other “ways of knowing”.
The way I’d do it is by checking the predictive power of each belief. Does the belief that the Sun is that thing TMNG said allow us to make any predictions about it, and about the world in general ? What about that sky ox thing ? When we investigate these predictions, which belief yields more accurate ones ?
EDIT: Or what James Miller said, below.
In principle you could consider the empirical cross-entropy of your hypothesis w.r.t. the observations: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cross_entropy
This gets us halfway, but it does presuppose that those arguing are willing to break their arguments down into something computational, which is a tall order.
That said, I do like the information theoretic approaches to these things, such as formalizations of Occam’s Razor. Stuff like that is cool.
(But them, I’m that annoying sort who thinks it’s all computation all the way down.)
(Ten points to the person who can think of an interesting pun relating turtles and aleph_0.)
Technically you don’t have to assume computationalism to evaluate hypotheses in terms of their empirical cross-entropy, you just have to assume that you can evaluate the probability of any observation under your hypotheses. If you were a hyper-computable agent in principle you could do this with hyper-computable hypotheses.
In practice, you can’t precisely evaluate probabilities distributions of informal hypotheses, but it may still be helpful to think of the empirical cross-entropy in terms of “How much does this observation surpises me under hypothesis X?”
That seems really simple: By the degree to which the theory’s predictions deviate from reality. Newtonian Physics has some flaws, exposed by quantum physics, but it still got a man on the moon, so I’d feel okay saying Newtonian Physics is *mostly* right.
“The moon is actually made of cheese”, by contrast, does not seem to provide any useful predictions, so I’d feel okay saying it is wrong.
While I agree with you and I mostly dislike PoMo, you should note that there is an element of subjective value involved in such “factual” statements. It’s a bit more complicated than you’ve described.
In order to say Newton’s laws are correct, you’ve switched your criterion from “accuracy” to “usefulness”. They are useful enough to get us to the moon, but they still do not exist literally, they are in the map but not the territory.
A problem then comes when you realize that “usefulness” can refer to many different things. What is a useful prediction for me might be useless or even harmful to you, depending on how our values differ.
I think such cases are likely rare. But I can’t prove that, and anyway the fact that they exist at all is still significant enough to take note of.
“when people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.”
Or, to quote the Big Bang Theory:
“It’s a little wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable, it’s very wrong to say it’s a suspension bridge.”
Whether it’s wrong to say a tomato is a vegetable depends on which sense of the word “vegetable” you mean.
Botanically, tomatoes are fruits because they are seed-bearing fleshy structures derived from the plant’s ovaries.
Culinarily, tomatoes are vegetables because they are plant-based foods whose nutritional characteristics and flavor/texture profile fit better in the “vegetable” cluster (mostly botanical vegetables, foods derived from the stems, leaves, or roots of plants) than the “grain” cluster, the “nut” cluster, or the “fruit” cluster.
And for the purposes of US tariff law, tomatoes are vegetables.
Squashes, green beans, and pea pods are also culinary vegetables but botanical fruits.
Strawberries used to be considered the reverse (a botanical vegetable, but a culinary fruit; the “seeds” on the outside of a strawberry are the true “fruits”), but most botanists now consider them part of a relatively newly-defined category of “accessory fruit”.
In what sense is the sun NOT a giant ball of incandescent gas, and a giant nuclear furnace?
These are incomplete descriptions, but they are accurate.
As mentioned earlier in the thread, the sun is made of plasma, not gas.
Um, isn’t “incandescent gas” in that sentence just a way of saying “hydrogen”?
To be more accurate, the visible parts of the sun are incandescent gas (a hydrogen/helium mixture), and the plasma where the nuclear fusion takes place is deep in the core.
Even that isn’t quite the whole story – the sun is extremely complicated and far from being fully understood – but it’s a perfectly reasonable thing to say.
I’ve definitely seen plasma described as “a kind of gas that …”, for the record. The standard States Of Matter are pretty fuzzy descriptors.
But They Might Be Giants is a higher authority.
“Pedantically, those are equally real”
No, they aren’t. Not even close. The sun is a lot more like a ball of “incandescent gas” than it is like light glinting from an imaginary creature. To equate to the two descriptions is simply stupid.
There should be a name for it, people keep coming up with terms that don’t catch on (e.g.).
That aside, I note that Shackel’s own paper suffers from the flaw of being too impassioned for it to popularize its terms.